Sleep Tight

Human beings spend, on average, approximately one third of their lives asleep; eight hours a night, every night, for the entire seventy-odd year duration of our lives. We have created inventions and devised entire living spaces dedicated to our pursuit of this activity, which makes it all the more strange how relatively little we understand about it.

The actual mechanisms surrounding sleep are actually quite well documented; ‘everyone knows’ that there are two types of sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, characterised by one’s eyes moving around rapidly beneath closed lids whilst the rest of one’s muscles remain paralysed, and non-REM (or NREM) sleep. Less people know that NREM sleep is also typically subdivided into three separate types of its own; N1, in which the body is semi-awake and able of moving around, N2, in which one’s brain activity begins to change and it becomes harder to wake up the subject concerned, and N3, in which the body becomes even less responsive. In most people, sleep follows a fixed cycle of N1, then N2, then N3, N2 again and finally a short period of REM sleep before either awakening or the cycle starting again.

Of all these stages, it is REM sleep that provides the most interesting question. Contrary to popular belief, REM sleep is not the only period in which dreams occur (experiments in which sleepers are interrupted during different stages of their sleep cycle reveal that dreams can occur at pretty much any time), but dreams occurring during REM sleep are more common and the most memorable afterwards. It is also during this period in which a subject’s brain activity, at least in humans, most closely resembles that when the subject is awake, but a subject in REM sleep is also hardest to wake up and the least responsive to outside stimulus. It is for this reason that REM sleep is also someone known as ‘paradoxical sleep’.

However, the main reason REM sleep is so interesting is because it is thought to be the only sort of sleep that ‘matters’. To explain; some people nowadays are, apparently, terribly worried by how much time they spend asleep that could be more productively spent watching cat videos on YouTube, so have endeavoured to find alternative sleep patterns that minimise the amount of time they need to spend dead to the world. Most of these involve taking short naps at regular intervals throughout the day, adding up to about two hours sleep time total. An example is the ‘ultraman’ sleep schedule, which involves sleeping for 20 minutes at a time every four hours. When people are first adapting to this technique, it absolutely ruins them; their body is barely getting past the N1 stage before its preset cycle is broken, and they spend their days in a perpetual fuzz of sleep-deprived madness. However, after a week or so, their body learns to adapt to the change, and they find that their ‘power naps’ are perfectly sufficient to survive their sleep needs. When these successful adapters are monitored during one of these naps, it turns out that all of their 20 minute snooze is REM sleep, rather than the 20-25% normally expected. That they are able to function on this two hours of REM just as well as others are on their eight hours of ‘normal’ sleep, which comes out to around 2 hours REM, 6 hours NREM, suggests that it is the 2 hours of REM that causes us to feel rested, and as such is the only ‘important’ aspect of sleep.

This theory would probably be more understood and widely respected were it understood precisely what sleep is for. Whilst sleep deprivation is known to increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease and to adversely affect the brain, skeletal muscles and immune system, indicating its importance, nobody is quite sure precisely how or why any of it happens. Stanford researcher William Dement, who has spent over 50 years studying sleep and is the man who discovered the different stages of sleep, once said that “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.” Some theories suggest that sleep’s restorative properties stem from the way different chemicals and hormones are secreted during different sleep stages due to differential brain activity, but these arguments generally don’t explain the apparent importance of REM sleep despite it being so neurologically similar to wakefulness. Some suggest that sleep is an energy saving tactic, highlighting the effect that it has on the metabolism of a sleeping subject. However, whilst the body’s resting metabolic rate does decrease whilst sleeping, it only does so by between 5 and 10 percent, which is not evolutionarily sufficient justification on its own for spending eight hours a day incredibly vulnerable to attack. Not only that, but animals who hibernate (a fundamentally different process than sleeping), frequently wake up and go to sleep almost immediately, indicating that sleep fulfils an entirely different function (or set of functions) not satisfied by hibernation alone. Others highlight evidence supporting the idea that REM sleep is crucial to brain development in infants (most of a baby’s sleep time is spent in a REM state), but this doesn’t adequately explain why adults need lots of REM too. Yet another set of adherents point out the connection between sleep and memory, which may also be linked to why our brain reacts so badly to sleep deprivation, but offer no explicit link between the two or the way sleep affects our body physically. The true answer, if ever it is found, will probably lie somewhere in between all of these theories.

The key conclusion that can be taken from this post is, therefore, that sleep is weird. And that’s before we’ve even touched on the weirdest part of sleep: dreams, which I wouldn’t touch here with a ten foot pole. Some things just plain don’t want to be explained, and any field in which Inception isn’t a wholly ridiculous concept is most certainly one of them.

Advertisements

Churchill in Wartime

After the disasters of his earlier political career I described in my last post, by 1939 Winston Churchill had once again managed to rise to prominence within the Conservative party and had gathered some considerable support behind his cause of opposition to the government’s appeasement policy. When Britain was finally dragged into war in September of that year, he found himself once again on the front foot of Westminster politics.

Churchill, as the only person mentally prepared for war, was immediately made First Lord of the Admiralty again, and it was only thanks to Neville Chamberlain’s suddenly horrendous reputation attracting blame like a magnet that prevented him getting the blame for a series of naval disasters. After Germany had successfully invaded Norway and Denmark without a hitch*, despite some fantastically idiotic speeches from Chamberlain concerning Germany’s lack of military strength, Chamberlain was forced out of power and the process of trying to hash together a coalition government began.

[*For some reason, Britain took this as a cue to invade Iceland. Why is something of a mystery.]

Chamberlain’s main ally in pursuing appeasement had been Lord Halifax, and he wanted him to head up the wartime government. The only other major candidate for the job was Churchill, who had built up a sizeable base of support within parliament, and all knew that Halifax’s government would only be able to function with Churchill’s support. Churchill, Halifax, Chamberlain and David Margesson, the Conservative chief whip, met on 10 May 1940 and Chamberlain asked Churchill the pivotal question: would he be willing to serve in a government under Halifax? This put Churchill in a dilemma: saying yes would put the government in the hands of an ineffective, pro-appeasement leader, whilst saying no would split the government down the middle and wreak mayhem at a time when strength and unity were of critical importance. Unsure of what to do, he said nothing. Time ticked by. For two full minutes the silence endured unbroken, the other men present equally unsure what they were supposed to do. Finally, Lord Halifax spoke up, whether for purely political reasons or simply our of sheer embarassment, to make possibly the most important statement in the last century of British history: he suggested that it would be difficult for a member of the House of Lords*, such as himself, to govern effectively as opposed to a member of the House of Commons, effectively ruling himself out of the job. At Chamberlain’s recommendation following that meeting, King George VI asked Churchill to be prime minister, and he duly accepted. That pregnant silence would prove to be among the most important two minutes in history.

[*The practice of an elected Prime Minister always coming from the House of Commons is a modern phenomenon not enshrined in law; since she ostensibly chooses who becomes PM, the Queen could in theory just tell a random member of the House of Lords that he was now head of government. That she doesn’t is partly good manners, but mostly because to do so would probably end the British monarchy in under 5 years]

At the time, there were many who thought that, what with Gallipoli and his long history of political failures, the coming of Churchill to power represented the final nail in Britain’s coffin. Unpopular among the MPs and Lord’s alike, the 65 year-old Churchill looked to have all the cards stacked against him. However, Churchill’s drive, energy, superlative public speaking ability and vehement opposition to appeasing the Germans single-handedly changed the face of the war, hardening the opinion of public and parliament alike against the idea of an armistice. In wartime, Churchill was in his element; a natural warmonger whose aggressive tactics were so often disastrous in peacetime, now his pugnacious determination, confidence, and conviction to continue the fight no matter what united the country behind him. It was he who not only organised but inspired the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, in which thousands of small civilian vessels mobilised to take part in Operation Dynamo, evacuating trapped British and French soldiers from the port of Dunkirk in the face of heavy German fire and aerial attack, he whose many inspiring wartime speeches have gone down in history, he who inspired Londoners and RAF pilots alike to survive the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, ensuring the country remained safe from the threat of German invasion. OK, so the ‘heroic’ events of Dunkirk overlooked the fact that it had been a humiliating retreat and the army had left all their weapons behind, but that wasn’t the point; the British were inspired and weren’t going to stop fighting.

One of the most morally ambiguous yet telling events about the spirit of defiance Churchill inspired within Britain came in July 1940; the French Navy was holed up in Algeria, with the British attempting to negotiate a joining of the two fleets. The negotiations went badly and the French refused to join the British fleet- and in response the British opened fire on their allies in order to prevent their ships falling into enemy hands. 1300 lives were lost. In just about any other situation, this would have been an utterly insane act that would only have caused the Allied war effort to collapse amid bitter argument and infighting, but then, with France all but completely overrun by German forces, it was nothing more or less than a simple statement of British intent. Britain were prepared to do whatever it took to fight off the Germans, and the sheer ruthlessness of this act is said to have convinced the USA that Britain had the stomach to continue fighting no matter what. Is this a moment to be proud of? No; it was a shameless slaughter and a fiasco in more ways than one. Did it make its point? Absolutely.

Some expected Churchill to win a landslide in the first post-war elections, but ’twas not to be; even the massive wave of public goodwill towards him was not enough to overcome the public desire for social change as Clement Attlee became the first ever labour Prime Minister in 1945. To be honest, it’s probably a good thing; Attlee’s government gave us the NHS and finally started to dismantle the badly-run, expensive remnants of the British Empire, whilst Churchill’s second term as PM (1951-55) was largely undistinguished save for some more post-Imperial restlessness. Not that it matters; useless though he may have been in peacetime, in war Churchill was every bit the national hero he is nowadays made out to be. Churchill’s great legacy is not just one of not having grown up speaking German, but in many ways he redefined what it meant to be British. Churchill inspired a return to the ‘stiff upper lip’ British stereotype that we are nowadays all so proud of: a living tribute to the idea to standing up and keeping going in the face of adversity. In many ways, what Winston Churchill stood for can be best summarised by simply reciting possibly the most famous of all his many great speeches:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

Winston

Throughout Britain’s long and chequered history, it has acquired a great deal of heroes, names that have rumbled down the ages. The likes of Boudicca, Alfred the Great and Queen Elizabeth I have (rightly or otherwise) cemented their place in the folklore and culture of our little island- but one stands head and shoulders above all of them. To the eyes of the general public, he is a hero unlike any that our country has produced before or since; he has been voted numerous times as the greatest ever Briton and his name looks set to still be revered centuries from now. I am talking, of course, about Sir Winston Churchill.

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born to an aristocratic family in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (the name comes from his ancestor John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and his famous victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704) and, as was fairly customary among his class of people at the time, became an officer in the British Army. After serving in Cuba, India, Sudan and South Africa, he turned his attention to politics and became the MP for Oldham in the 1900 general election. It was not a successful tenure, ending four years later when he switched from the Conservative to Liberal parties, but during his time in office a successful speaking tour of the USA not only brought in some much-needed cash (by both Parliamentary and aristocratic standards, Churchill was not a rich man) and demonstrated his superlative ability as a charismatic, powerful orator and public speaker. In 1906 he stood for Parliament again, won the seat, and within two years was promoted to the cabinet of Herbert Asquith. Most of this period of his career, in which he did some of his most significant work in the domestic sphere of government, was spent in the shadow of the political giant of the day, David Lloyd George (who would later go on to redefine the relationship between the state and its people and lead Britain through the second half of WWI), and Churchill’s reputation wouldn’t really start to get going until the onset of the First World War.

Following his somewhat bizarre decision to turn up in Belgium and offer to personally take command of the battle currently raging between the British and German forces, Churchill went back to Britain and actually started doing his job as First Lord of the Admiralty, a job he had acquired in 1911. However, he was forced out of the job within a year after masterminding the ill thought-out and generally disastrous Gallipoli landings. The idea was that, if the British could make a breakthrough in the Balkans, they might be able to force Germany to fight on a third front (even though they had no spare men with which to do so) or else get supplies through to their Russian Allies in the east (even though they had no spare supplies to send). To this end, a group of mostly Australian & New Zealander soldiers (ANZACS) were ordered to land at and attack Gallipoli in Turkey, in the middle of the Mediterranean summer, without any landing craft or maps, and with the entire Turkish army aware they were coming thanks to the small clue of a week’s incessant shelling of the coastline. Utterly exposed and with nowhere to run, the Allies never made it beyond ‘Cape Helles’ in eight months of fighting, and finally retreated at the expense of over 40,000 lives and the Eric Bogle song ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.

Churchill’s career was at a nadir; the Conservatives hated him for joining the Liberals, the Gallipoli campaign had caused the public to lose all faith in the Liberal party and the last ever Liberal government was dissolved in 1916 (Lloyd George, a Liberal, headed up a coalition government until the end of the war, but much of his support came from Conservatives and the Liberal party fell to pieces around him after it). It didn’t get much better after the war; Churchill was a vehement warmonger, advocating military intervention in Russia (against the Bolsheviks, which in turn lead to a great deal of resentment between the two nations thereafter) and Iraq whilst the rest of the world had decided that, after the bloodiest and most destructive war in western history, the last thing they needed was another one. He soon lost his seat in Parliament, returned to the Conservatives in 1925 with his tail between his legs, became Chancellor, ruined the country’s economy in a disastrous attempt to return to the gold standard, suggested that striking miners be machine gunned during the ’26 general strike, made several impassioned speeches praising Italian dictator Bennito Mussolini, was dropped from the cabinet and spent the early 1930s vehemently arguing against Indian independence, saying “Gandhi-ism… will have to be grappled with and crushed”. Yes, that was Mahatma Gandhi he was talking about.

From about 1915 to 1935, therefore, the career of Winston Churchill was little more than a long string of failures and statements that, were they made today, would probably get you lynched by a rampaging mob of cardiganed liberals; in the early 1930s he (as well as standing up to Gandhi) was a supporter of General Franco, the Japanese invasion of China (in which some of the worst atrocities in the history of warfare were committed) and even (in 1935) Adolf Hitler, despite disapproving of his methods. Churchill was an impassioned opponent of socialism wherever he saw it, and went to outrageous extremes when fighting against it; if he had died then and there, history would have only remembered him as a raving, possibly fascist and almost certainly racist nutter whose only significant political contribution was Gallipoli. Which makes what happened next all the more amazing.

Europe in the 1930s was still gripped with fear at the prospect of another war, and as Germany under Hitler’s rule began to rearm and expand (totally counter to the conditions made in the Treaty of Versailles) most European nations were happy to stick to a policy of appeasement- which basically amounted to letting Germany do whatever they wanted in the desperate pursuit of not having to fight them. Churchill was one of the few ministers opposed to this policy, arguing from as early as 1935 that something had to be done to prevent German rearmament whilst being consistently ignored as the aforementioned raving nutter. However, the issue grew steadily in importance as his dire warnings as to the effects of German rearmament started to come true; the Third Reich first occupied the demilitarised Rhineland zone, then took control of Austria, and then the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After this latest bit of military action, Neville Chamberlain went to meet with Hitler, returning with the famous bit of paper in which Hitler had promised that he had no further territorial ambitions in Europe. Six months later, the rest of Czechoslovakia came under German control and British rearmament started in earnest. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939,  Britain was finally dragged into war. It would prove to be Winston Churchill’s finest hour…

Rugby Videogaming for Dummies

In my last post, I highlighted some of the problems facing the developers of rugby videogames, and the flaws in the current best efforts the industry has to offer. However, I personally reckon that the problems presented in attempting to replicate one of the most complex games on earth can be overcome; but that it may require a quite drastic change in the way these games are designed.

(For the purposes of this, I will stick simply to gameplay features; stuff like team licensing, graphics and the number of game modes available are all important quality factors in a rugby game, but can hardly be accounted for by any development team)

Probably the most similar sport to rugby currently in existence (excluding league… or union depending on your perspective) is American Football, which has the good fortune of having its own massive gaming franchise built around it. As such, I reckon that, despite the sizeable differences between the two sports, a quick look at the Madden game series would be a good place to start.

American Football is a highly structured game, and Madden (from my albeit very limited experience of playing it) reflects this well: before each play, the attacking player selects which move he wants to perform (from a very long list) and is then tasked with executing it properly (timing the pass and so on). This principle was also adopted to an extent in the 2005 game Pro Rugby Manager 2 (not a bad game, but graphics are appalling and large sections of gameplay horribly designed), which allowed you to preselect which move you wanted to perform before scrumss and lineouts. The fact that only about three of these presets ever worked is, of course, just a cursory detail.

Modern rugby, and many of its greatest tries, are dependent on such preset moves, and the tactic of allowing them to be selected from scrums and lineouts is, I think, a good one. Crucially, to retain the element of skill and to allow players to mix things up a bit in response to defensive frailties, only running lines should be pre-programmed, with the player choosing when and where to pass (or, indeed, kick). I personally think that the situation could be even further improved by allowing players to design their own moves, but this would be difficult to do on a console so probably wouldn’t be worth programming.

However, not all moves come from scrums and lineouts, and Rugby 08‘s idea of having a smaller subset of simpler moves to deploy in general play is worth reviving, I feel. Like that system, I feel four is the optimum number to be available in general play would be four, allowing console players to easily select them with the left analogue stick or D-pad. Two differences must, however, be stressed compared to Rugby 08‘s system; firstly, the players whilst running presets should not be constrained to jogging at two miles an hour in order to ensure speed differences don’t cause the move to break down (a frankly unsubtle solution to the problem that could be largely mitigated by allowing players to choose when they pass), and secondly, I think that a few even more basic moves should also be usable in loose play, rather than just after rucks. Simple stuff, like loops or scissors moves, the kind of stuff players could legitimately drop into play given enough space, just to give them the extra edge.

Next up, onto a few niggly details. The kicking system from Rugby 08 (which basically boils down to releasing the ‘kick bar’ at just the right time to ensure it bisects the upright) is just about perfect for place kicks and drop goals, although it could do with some method by which kicks are made more difficult to aim the harder they are hit. For kicks in general play, I like Rugby Challenge‘s system of slowing down time to allow proper aiming of kicks, not to mention most of their system of running rugby; a straight adaptation of that when playing ‘manually’ would be perfect. At the rucks, however, their heavy bind/quick bind system is, frankly, a bit stupid, not to mention the way that RC’s system prevents a team from playing the ball until it has definitively been ‘won’, preventing them from getting quick ball. Rugby 08‘s system is preferable; here, the team with the ball is presumed to have won it and are free to play it unless the opposing team get men there quickly enough. The only changes I would make to this system would be the introduction of a ‘grey area’ where the ball has been ‘half won’ from the opposition and neither side are prepared to play it, and for players to be able to cheat (and be penalised) of their own accord rather than requiring player input.

Trying to accurately replicate set pieces in rugby is, if anything, even more tricky than with general play. Lineouts would, I feel, be best replicated using much the same system as described for general play; preselecting how pods and players should move before letting the player manually perform the jump and throw. Again, flaws in both aspects should, I feel, be automated and mistakes dependent on a player’s lineout skill rather than getting the player to manually aim as in Rugby Challenge‘s frustrating throwing-in system. At scrums, things get more complicated, and although the simplest solution would be to just have teams simply push or dig in at the player’s discretion (as in Rugby 08), I reckon a better, more skill-centric approach would be to have two rhythm mini-games running simultaneously. To explain in more simple jargon, this would involve, on a keyboard by way of example, one hand pressing the up, down, left and right arrow keys in time with a series of symbols appearing on the screen, whilst the other hand does the same thing with the WASD keys, each set of keys representing the forward battle on each side of the scrum. A separate button press would tell the scrum half/no. 8 to take control of the ball; again, slowing down time here would allow for a suitably fast decision-making process. The more symbols are hit correctly in the rhythm sequence, the more control the prop is able to exert over his opponent; the amount the opposing scrum is pushed back as a result of this should not be arbitrary, but instead dependent on the relative strength and scrummaging skill of the second and back row players. And should also not be utterly ridiculous; on Rugby Challenge, a dominant scrum is often able to send opposing players flying back twenty metres or so, which simply never happens. Ever

Advocating the introduction of spurious rhythm mini-games is rarely something that will make you popular in gaming circles, and a lot of the ‘borrowed’ features I have advocated including in my hypothetical game could probably not be brought in verbatim for licensing reasons. But hey, I’m just some guy being hopeful; it may never happen, but if it ever did…

The Rugby Challenge

I frequently feel like apologising on this blog for my all too frequent excursions into the worlds of my two main leisure activities; rugby and videogames. Today, however, inspired by the recent release of Rugby Challenge 2, I’m going to combine the two, highlighting the problems oh-so-frequently encountered when designing a rugby game.

Rugby is not a sport that can be said to have made a grand splash in the gaming world; unlike the likes of football and basketball which get big-budget EA Sports releases every year, EA’s only attempt at a rugby game in the last 5 years was a half-hearted and lazily designed attempt to cash in on the 2011 World Cup. It’s even worse for rugby league fans, who I believe have only had two games ever made concerning their sport. The reason for this is depressingly simple; money. FIFA sells because football is massively popular across pretty much the entire globe, resulting in a massive market and the popularity of American Football sells copies of Madden by the bucketload in the wealthy USA. Rugby, however, has no such market ready and waiting for it; worldwide, around 4.5 million people are registered rugby players, and a rather optimistic guess could put the number of fans of the sport at perhaps 15 million. Of those, there is a fairly broad spread of ages between 7 and 70; yet the majority of gamers fit into the 14-25ish age bracket. And not all of those are going to end up buying a rugby game anyway.

Put simply, a rugby game has nowhere near the potential market of many other sports, so whilst FIFA 2013 was able to sell more than 3.3 million units in its first week, Sidhe’s 2011 game Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge sold just 430,000 units lifetime across PS3 and Xbox 360 combined. Admittedly it was competing against the RWC 2011 game (which sold roughly the same, and probably to the same people), but even in a year when rugby’s profile was at its highest, such comparatively meagre sales represent a big problem when game development and the acquisition of team licenses are so massively expensive.

However, there’s very little that can be done about this until more people get interested in rugby/videogames respectively, so I’m now going to focus on the content games themselves, which presents a whole host of other issues. The two major figures in terms of representing rugby in the virtual world are EA Sports’ Rugby 08 (which, despite being 5 years old and barely different from the two previous EA incarnations, still has its adherents) and the previously mentioned Rugby Challenge. Having owned and played both (although not yet Rugby Challenge 2, hence why it doesn’t feature here), I feel confident in saying that, whilst both are pretty good in their own way, both have sizeable flaws; Rugby 08 is full of little cheats (such as a way of automatically winning every kickoff) that make the game far too easy once you are sufficiently experienced, the players have no personality or realism about their movements, its knowledge of the laws is dodgy in places, the difficulty settings are blunt as hell, the preset attacking moves are rubbish, lineouts are oversimplified, manually attacking produces highly unrealistic gameplay, the defensive moves it bangs on about in the promo material make no difference whatsoever, players frequently run through one another’s falling bodies and for some reason the player has to manually select when he or she wants to cheat (which, given how unrealistically good the ref is, is a totally dumb idea). Rugby Challenge is, to my mind, a superior game, but it is no less flawed; in their efforts to make the game more free-flowing, the developers have almost completely done away with any semblance of structure as every move degenerates into one long spree of offloads, with no preset moves to help offset this issue. To frustratingly contrast with this, the rucking system guarantees a constant stream of annoyingly slow ball, lineouts and scrums are dysfunctional and just plain unrealistic respectively, the goal kicking is dumb, the player ratings unrealistic (particularly for northern hemisphere players), you can’t take quick throw-ins and the commentary is nowhere near as good as in Rugby 08. And, just to compound the annoyance, neither has a realistic career mode, which severely damages replay value (an issue thankfully dealt with in this year’s Rugby Challenge 2)

Phew. Right, rant over, now to actually address the causes.

Aside from most studios being unwilling or unable to invest large amounts of money in developing a rugby game due to the limited market size, the main issue facing any rugby game concerns the nature of the game itself. Rugby is a game of a myriad of different battlegrounds and ways of playing the game, with players having to function both as a team player and as an individual both on and off the ball. This makes controlling it from the perspective of the guy with the ball, as all previous games have done, inherently difficult and unrealistic; in rugby, it is just as important if not more so who runs the dummy lines and provides a threat to the defence as the person who ends up with the try. This practice of each player’s individual work adding up to a concerted team effort is incredibly difficult to program, and to simulate it properly would require an incredibly sophisticated AI system beyond anything seen in any other sporting game. And that’s just considering the work done by the backs; accurately simulating forward play would be a nigh-on impossible task, so complex is the technique and decision-making that, in a real game, is responsible for the rucking and scrummaging victories that can turn a match. The other issue is the level of control that should be allowed to the player; a more complex, detailed game would be more realistic, but would seriously risk either swamping the player with decisions and information as they tried to control fifteen players at once, killing the immersion, or automating everything and taking the player out of the equation too much, so that their individual skill level ceased to matter. Finding a suitable middle ground between the Scylla and Charybdis of these two extremes would be a difficult, dangerous task for any game developer.

Still, despite all these problems and more, I personally think that it is far from impossible to make a great game that (relatively) accurately portrays modern rugby. And to find out exactly how I’d go about designing such a game, you can read my next post, in which I will tell you all about it…*

*That sounded way creepier than intended. Sorry

One final note; due to developments in my personal life, posts are now only going to come twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. This may change again in the future.

The Value of Transparency

Once you start looking for it, it can be quite staggering to realise just how much of our modern world is, quite literally, built on glass. The stuff is manufactured in vast quantities, coating our windows, lights, screens, skyscrapers and countless other uses. Some argue that it is even responsible for the entire development of the world, particularly in the west, as we know it; it’s almost a wonder we take it for granted so.

Technically, out commonplace use of the word ‘glass’ rather oversimplifies the term; glasses are in fact a family of materials that all exhibit the same amorphous structure and behaviour under heating whilst not actually all being made from the same stuff. The member of this family that we are most familiar with and will commonly refer to as simply ‘glass’ is soda-lime glass, made predominantly from silica dioxide with a few other additives to make it easier to produce. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me tell the story from the beginning.

Like all the best human inventions, glass was probably discovered by accident. Archaeological evidence suggests glassworking was probably an Egyptian invention in around the third millennia BC, Egypt (or somewhere nearby) being just about the only place on earth at the time where the three key ingredients needed for glass production occured naturally and in the same place: silica dioxide (aka sand), sodium carbonate (aka soda, frequently found as a mineral or from plant ashes) and a relatively civilised group of people capable of building a massive great fire. When Egyptian metalworkers got sand and soda in their furnaces by accident, when removed they discovered the two had fused to form a hard, semi-transparent, almost alien substance; the first time glass had been produced anywhere on earth.

This type of glass was far from perfect; for one thing, adding soda has the unfortunate side-effect of making silica glass water-soluble, and for another they couldn’t yet work out how to make the glass clear. Then there were the problems that came with trying to actually make anything from the stuff. The only glass forming technique at the time was called core forming, a moderately effective but rather labour-intensive process illustrated well in this video. Whilst good for small, decorative pieces, it became exponentially more difficult to produce an item by this method the larger it needed to be, not to mention the fact that it couldn’t produce flat sheets of glass for use as windows or whatever.

Still, onwards and upwards and all that, and developments were soon being made in the field of glass technology. Experimentation with various additives soon yielded the discovery that adding lime (calcium oxide) plus a little aluminium and magnesium oxide made soda glass insoluble, and thus modern soda-lime glass was discovered. In the first century BC, an even more significant development came along with the discovery of glass blowing as a production method. Glass blowing was infinitely more flexible than core forming, opening up an entirely new avenue for glass as a material, but crucially it allowed glass products to be produced faster and thus be cheaper than pottery equivalents . By this time, the Eastern Mediterranean coast where these discoveries took place was part of the Roman Empire, and the Romans took to glass like a dieter to chocolate; glass containers and drinking vessels spread across the Empire from the glassworks of Alexandria, and that was before they discovered manganese dioxide could produce clear glass and that it was suddenly suitable for architectural work.

Exactly why glass took off on quite such a massive scale in Europe yet remained little more than a crude afterthought in the east and China (the other great superpower of the age) is somewhat unclear. Pottery remained the material of choice throughout the far east, and they got very skilled at making it too; there’s a reason we in the west today call exceptionally fine, high-quality pottery ‘china’. I’ve only heard one explanation for why this should be so, and it centres around alcohol.

Both the Chinese and Roman empires loved wine, but did so in different ways. To the Chinese, alcohol was a deeply spiritual thing, and played an important role in their religious procedures. This attitude was not unheard of in the west (the Egyptians, for example, believed the god Osiris invented beer, and both Greeks and Romans worshipped a god of wine), but the Roman Empire thought of wine in a secular as well as religious sense; in an age where water was often unsafe to drink, wine became the drink of choice for high society in all situations. One of the key features of wine to the Roman’s was its appearance, hence why the introduction of clear vessels allowing them to admire this colour was so attractive to them. By contrast, the Chinese day-to-day drink of choice was tea. whose appearance was of far less importance than the ability of its container to dissipate heat (as fine china is very good at). The introduction of clear drinking vessels would, therefore, have met with only a limited market in the east, and hence it never really took off. I’m not entirely sure that this argument holds up under scrutiny, but it’s quite a nice idea.

Whatever the reason, the result was unequivocal; only in Europe was glassmaking technology used and advanced over the years. Stained glass was one major discovery, and crown glass (a method for producing large, flat sheets) another. However, the crucial developments would be made in the early 14th century, not long after the Republic of Venice (already a centre for glassmaking) ordered all its glassmakers to move out to the island of Murano to reduce the risk of fire (which does seem ever so slightly strange for a city founded, quite literally, on water).  On Murano, the local quartz pebbles offered glassmakers silica of hitherto unprecedented purity which, combined with exclusive access to a source of soda ash, allowed for the production of exceptionally high-quality glassware. The Murano glassmakers became masters of the art, producing glass products of astounding quality, and from here onwards the technological revolution of glass could begin. The Venetians worked out how to make lenses, in turn allowing for the discovery of the telescope (forming the basis of the work of both Copernicus and Galileo) and spectacles (extending the working lifespan of scribes and monks across the western world). The widespread introduction of windows (as opposed to fabric-covered holes in the wall) to many houses, particularly in the big cities, dramatically improved the health of their occupants by both keeping the house warmer and helping keep out disease. Perhaps most crucially, the production of high-quality glass vessels was not only to revolutionise biology, and in turn medicine, as a discipline, but to almost single-handedly create the modern science of chemistry, itself the foundation stone upon which most of modern physics is based. These discoveries would all, given enough time and quite a lot of social upheaval, pave the way for the massive technological advancements that would characterise the western world in the centuries to come, and which would finally allow the west to take over from the Chinese and Arabs and become the world’s leading technological superpowers.* Nowadays, of course, glass has been taken even further, being widely used as a building material (its strength-to-weight ratio far exceeds that of concrete, particularly when it is made to ‘building grade’ standard), in televisions, and fibre optic cables (which may yet revolutionise our communications infrastructure).

Glass is, of course, not the only thing to have catalysed the technological breakthroughs that were to come; similar arguments have been made regarding gunpowder and the great social and political changes that were to grip Europe between roughly 1500 and 1750. History is never something that one can place a single cause on (the Big Bang excepted), but glass was undoubtedly significant in the western world’s rise to prominence during the second half of the last millennia, and the Venetians probably deserve a lot more credit than they get for creating our modern world.

*It is probably worth mentioning that China is nowadays the world’s largest producer of glass.

Alternative Sports Star Fantasy XV

Being as I am a massive rugby nerd, one of the pages I follow on Facebook goes by the name of ‘Rugby Banter Page’. In the last few months, they have also set up a website, on which they recently posted this rugby fantasy XV made up of stars of other sports. And Dan Carter. Sitting with a couple of mates watching the Leicester-Worcester match the other day, this team came up in conversation and all thought that, although good, there was enough potential in the world of sport to rival even this star-studded line-up. One thing lead to another, and in the space of a few minutes we had our own, rival squad ready to face down the opposition. And then I thought ‘hey, I have a blog, so I might as well share’.*

Front Row: 1. Wanderlei Silva, 2. Chad le Clos, 3. Magnus ver Magnusson
In the props, we’ve gone big and nasty. Silva is a record-holding Brazilian MMA fighter, and although some might claim what he does isn’t really sport, I would invite them to say so to his face after hearing of his nickname ‘the Axe Murderer’ and watching this. Despite this wanton aggression, he is known as being a consummate sportsman once a fight is over, so should fit into rugby’s post-match drinking culture perfectly. Together with four time world’s strongest man Magnussen (who, whilst retired and without quite the pedigree of RBP’s chosen strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski, gets a place in the team by virtue of his name alone), they form possibly the hardest and most imposing front row unit imagineable. In between them is South African swimmer le Clos, included for two reasons beyond the natural rugby-playing ability imbued in every native South African. Firstly, being a double Olympic gold medal winner in butterfly is sure to give him ‘overarm throw muscles’ capable of throwing a lineout ball to the far side of the pitch, and secondly his dad will give someone entertaining for the TV people to interview.

Second Row: 4. Nikolai Valuev, 5. LeBron James
We felt that RBP’s second row combo of heavyweight boxer as enforcer with overly-tall basketballer for lineout time was a good one, but personally reckon that better candidates are available than their chosen pair if we consider rugby-applicable skill. In place of Wladimir Klitschko we have former heavyweight champion Valuev; whilst not as successful a boxer as Klitschko, Valuev played basketball and water polo as a child which should give him good handling ability, and at seven foot tall he offers a serious lineout option as well (even if lifting him could prove a challenge even for Magnussen). To combat the sheer height of Tao Ming in the lineout, we’ve gone for the shorter but infinitely more skilful LeBron James- frequently considered the best basketballer in the world, what he lacks (relatively speaking) in height he will more than make up for in agility.

Back row: 6. Ian Bell, 7. Lewis Smith, 8. Ashton Eaton
With RBP selecting big hitter Gayle at 6, we thought Bell would be a perfect, utterly fearless opposite number as a player who, when fielding, is frequently asked to get solid lumps of wood and leather smashed at his head from three metres away- and then catch the thing. Not to mention the fact that he likes to give the ball a smash now and again too. At openside, gymnast Smith has, we feel, potential to become a real star; with superb upper body strength and posture, long arms for rangy tackling and a cheeky bit of cheating at ruck time, and all the agility needed to challenge in the air as a third lineout option or ball-stealer, he might even be able to show off some fancy footwork after winning last year’s series of Strictly Come Dancing. Finally, Ashton Eaton is the world decathlon record holder and current Olympic champion, with incredible speed, strength, power and all-round skill that belies his slight physique and gives him all the skill-set and more for an attacking, combative No.8. He’s called ‘the world’s greatest athlete’ for a reason.

Half Backs: 9. Ronnie O’Sullivan, 10. Andres Iniesta
Whilst O’Sullivan’s mouth has frequently got him into trouble in snooker circles, being gobby is a prerequisite for every good scrum-half, and when you throw in his hand-eye coordination, characteristic flair and speed of thought (he still holds the record for the world’s fastest 147 break) we have a seriously promising half-back on our hands. Since RBP already bagsied Lionel Messi, we went for his Barcelona team-mate and World Cup winner Iniesta at fly-half. With superlative kicking ability, attacking flair and not inconsiderable turn of pace, the man voted UEFA player of the season last year should be a natural fit at 10.

Centres: 12. Ramy Ashour, 13. Johan Blake
Few of you may have heard of Ramy Ashour; neither had I until my brother introduced me to him. The Egyptian is currently world squash champion and current holder of just about any major squash title you care to mention, and if his being a champion of one of the most technically difficult of all sports didn’t already alert you to his superb reactions, dexterity and speed over a short distance and dexterity then this might, not to mention revealing his near-supernatural levels of all-around perception and the sheer deftness of his hand motion. In all, his skill would form the perfect foil to sprinter Blake’s sheer speed and power, which would make more than a few defenders wonder if another Tuilagi brother had been let in.

Back Three: 11. Lawrence Okoye, 14. Sam Tomkins, 15. Jonty Rhodes
Some would argue that choosing Okoye is cheating a bit; although the former Olympic discus thrower now plays American Football in the NFL, he played on the wing (yes really, wing) for Whitgift, the noted rugby school. Still, he’s not technically a rugby player now, so I think he counts- plus, he would put the fear of God into any opposition winger. At fullback we have another cricketer and another retiree; Rhodes was a South African international until 2003, who gets in our team for having the safest pair of hands in the world. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
Finally, on the right wing, comes our permitted one actual rugby player, although rather than fishing in my preferred code of union (George North was a serious consideration) I chose instead to go for league player (for the moment at least) Tomkins. I could justify his selection by talking about his creativity, versatility (he would be able to slot in at either half back position should the need arise) or sheer pace, but one statistic does all the talking for me: 149 games for Wigan, 144 tries. End of discussion

*Our rules: All contestants must be male (despite some argument, we eventually agreed to maintain rugby’s single-sex rules), none may have been picked by the Rugby Banter Page’s team, retired players are acceptable, one should attempt to choose from as wide a variety of sports as possible and the resulting team must on no account be taken seriously.