Mikhael Bulgakov on starting a new job (Moving to Holland 6)

Last summer, when we met up as I passed through Belarus on the way to England’s world cup game in Kaliningrad, my friend A.K. recommended Michael Bulgakov’s Country Doctor’s Notebook.

Bulgakov has a nice description of the doctor starting his new job:

I had been introduced to everyone in turn… I had been shown round the hospital and was left in no doubt whatever that it was generously equipped. With equal certainty I was forced to admit (inwardly, of course) that I had no idea what very many of these shiny, unsullied instruments were for. Not only had I never held them in my hands, but to tell the truth I had never even seen them. 

‘Hm.,’, I mumbled significantly, ‘must say you have an excellent set of instruments. Hm…’ 

‘Oh sir,’ Demyan Lukich remarked sweetly, ‘this is all thanks to your predecessor Leopold Leopoldovich. You see, he used to operate from dawn till dusk.’ 

I was instantly covered with cold sweat and stared glumly at the gleaming cupboards.

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house trees rushes canal bus Petten-Alkmaar 319.JPG

Emigrating Companion, Emigrating Dog and I have moved to Alkmaar, a small old city in North Holland. My new job is in Petten, twenty kilometres away, at a research site on the North Sea. We are in the dunes. There are sixties buildings, rabbits and gulls. This is the view from my office.

view from office window Petten 419.JPG

The way to work passes three types of windmills: traditional ones, early wind turbines  and more modern ones like these.

wind turbines Tesla Schiphol-Petten 319.JPG

We go along canals, passing fields and interesting buildings.

house Alkmaar 319 2.JPG

When we get near to the sea and the research site, we pass campsites.

On most days, I cycle to this bike park at the back of the railway station in Alkmaar and take the work bus from there.

the bike park I use station Alkmaar 419.JPG

Sometimes I cycle all the way. The wind’s been strong and it’s a bit further than you’d want to cycle, but I suppose that makes it that much better for me.

At lunchtime you can take a work bicycle down to a café at the beach. It seems to be open all year.

wicker chairs beach cafe beer Petten 319.JPG

I work for the European Commission as I did in Brussels, but things are different here. There are no AZERTY keyboards. People hardly swear.

History games 2 – Эволюцияи (Evolution)

game evolution 419 2.JPG

In 2012, Travelling Companion and I visited Russia. I looked for Russian games and bought two:  Смута (Time of troubles), a good game whose review will need to wait till I reach the early seventeenth century AD, and this one, Evolution.

Each player has a hand of cards. You can play a card face down (the coming into being of a new species) or face up (giving a species a characteristic, such as scavenging or burrowing). After everyone has played the cards they want, a random amount of food appears. Players take turns taking food counters – normally one at a time – to feed their species (some, with certain characteristics, need more than others). Species die out if there isn’t enough food for them. Then each player gets new cards – more if you have more species – and the next turn begins.

When the pack of cards is exhausted the player with the most species and characteristics wins.

I played a three-player game, solo. The first turn was bland. I decided that more aggressive play was needed. Due to the luck of the cards, one player then took the lead in creating carnivores. Rather than eating normal food, these eat other species. There are defences against them (large size, sacrificeable tail) – but the carnivores nevertheless found enough to eat and by the fourth turn the other two players were virtually wiped out. One player actually started again with a full hand of cards – but before they could build a defensible position their species got eaten up all over again.

This corresponds with what I have read in reviews on Boardgamegeek, that the game suffers from a runaway leader problem. In a game with this problem, once a player takes the lead, the game makes that player stronger. Even if the others combine, it is hard for them to catch the leader.

game Evolution 419.JPGThis picture shows the point when I stopped the game. It illustrates the runaway leader problem. Player I has no species left alive. Player II has one. Player III has four, of which three have the red Carnivore characteristic.

Visually, the game is nothing special. Historically:

  • Is it clear who the player is representing? – obviously not
  • Does what happens feel like a representation of what might have happened? – no. The game feels too slight to depict the ebbs and flows of species development and the slow timescale of what I imagine to be ‘real’ evolution.

There are some tactical choices in the feeding phase – which animal should I make eat? what shall I do with my carnivores? But these choices are “chessy”. They are pure calculations: there is no hidden information or chance involved. That takes you further still from the theme.

Only 1 point out of 10, I’m afraid.

Playing time: setting up 5 minutes, playing 45 minutes (up to the point when I gave up, with 40% of the pack played)

 

Game Subject Designer Blog post Score/10
Эволюцияи Evolution (animals) Dmitri Knorre History games 2 1
Primordial Soup Evolution (amoebas) Doris and Frank History games 1 3

Moving to Holland 5 – the disappearing pissoir

I’m writing this on the plane to Rwanda, where we’ll be visiting Daughter, Son-in-Law and Grandson. I may be that you’d like to hear about that. Well, cheds!, as we used to say in the playground of my primary school in Wilmslow*. I’m chock-full of reflections on the excellent-so-far move that Emigrating Companion and I have made to Alkmaar, in the Netherlands, and that’s what I’m going to be inflicting on you for quite a while yet.

One evening soon after we moved in I saw that just near our house is a three-person pissoir.

pissoir Alkmaar 319.JPG

It may turn out convenient, I thought, though slightly exposed, and in any case it is another of the special features of our new city.

Brother-in-Law came to visit and that afternoon we went on a walk. I took him to see the pissoir. It had gone.

pissoir base Alkmaar 419 luttik oudorp.JPG

Obviously this was a new subject of interest.

It turns out that the pissoir comes and goes with the time of day. It is not lifted up and away like the rubbish bins (see Moving to Holland 3). Rather, it sinks into the ground. Emigrating Companion was there one day to see it rise up from there. (Emigrating Dog barked at it.) Someone unsuspecting might be standing on the disk at the time.

 

*  Cheds = cheddar = cheese = hard cheese = hard luck, you’re not going to get what you want!

History games 1 – Primordial Soup

P4140150.JPG

In our new home in Alkmaar I’ve been unpacking boxes of books and games. I have hundreds of historical games (mostly wargames). I had the idea to play them – it’ll have to be solo, mostly – in chronological order. It is possible that this is a ridiculous idea: SpaceCorp 2025-2300AD may also be historical by the time I get to it. In any case I got started last night with Primordial Soup. This depicts amoebas drifting around in a pond, choosing useful characteristics to acquire (e.g. more control over the direction of drift), and surviving or not. I played the 3-player version, solo.

A game can be historical in a weak sense (what goes on as the game unfolds seems to be the sort of thing that might have happened) and/or a strong one (you know who you are supposed to be and in some way it feels like you are that person). I prefer games that are historical in both senses. In this game you represent a “tribe of amoebas”, which, clearly, is not an entity with the decision-making power that the game gives you. I don’t know much about evolution but I don’t think this game is historical in the weak sense, either. The “tribes” start out identical, don’t become particularly different and often lose characteristics they’ve previously acquired.

This is not the fault of “Doris and Frank”, the designers. This is not a competition in which their game sought to be entered. It is a “Eurogame” from the home of Eurogames, Germany, In Euroland, process (interesting game mechanisms, which this game has – I would play it again because there is room to play it better) matters more than substance. For Eurogames, the “theme” is the sauce, it is not the dish itself.

However unfairly, I am going to score it as a history game and give it 3 points out of 10.

Playing time– 20 minutes to set up, 3½ hours to play.

Components– well made, too jolly for me.

In the third or fourth year at secondary school in Manchester a genius who had been homeschooled in north Wales turned up. His first name was Emmanuel. He showed us a game in which you placed black and white draughts on a chessboard in some shapely starting position, and rules determined how the shape, and the relationship between the pieces and the colours, would evolve. I think this should have been a choiceless game like that and would quite happily have spent an evening with it.

P4140139.JPG(The game in its end state. The cubes – food – and the shapes with sticks – amoebas – start off evenly spread across the game board. I liked how the game mechanics caused them to clump together.)

The next four games are also about evolution. Let’s see how they go.

How a shy plumber might feel (Knausgaard and Sanghera)

energy plumbing heating Boilers R Us Beckenham 917.JPG

The first quote is from Karl Ove Knausgaard, The end, describing the press interviews he did in Oslo on the day his book A death in the family came out. I read this yesterday evening on the bus from work into Amsterdam. I passed it vaguely over until this morning, heading into Amsterdam again this time by train, I came across the second remark in Sathnam Sanghera’s column in the Times. Are writing and plumbing often compared?

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The interview with Søndagsavisen passed off pretty well. Afterwards Siss Vik met me in reception and we went up to her office and did the interview for Ordfront. For the first time that day I spoke about literature. What I said was vague and not very good, but it was about literature and that in itself felt cathartic. I imagined it was a bit like how a shy plumber might feel after having to speak all day to the media about himself and his feelings, his family and friends, when at long last, late in the afternoon, he was able to talk about pipes and washers.

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At two separate parties this week I was greeted by strangers with the same apology: “Sorry, I’ve not read your book.” And of all the strange things people say to writers, alongside “Should I have read you?” and “Have you been published?”, this is the strangest. It’s OK, there are a lot of books in the world! My own family don’t read my books! I’m not going to test you! You wouldn’t apologise to a plumber for not having appreciated their work!

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(I took the picture in Beckenham, south London, in 2017)

Goodbye Cornwall: South West Coast Path – Day 30

Chris Barnham - The View From SE13

Portwrinkle to Plymouth

34,000 steps

Sunny again.

Maybe I should be surprised, but in fact I’ve done the research, and I know that there is less rain on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall at this time of year than in July.

(Mind you, I’ve had holidays in Cornwall in July, and it’s not hard to be dryer than those.)

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Short Cuts and Roller Coasters: South West Coast Path – Day 27

Chris is right about walking in the afternoon and right about beer.

Chris Barnham - The View From SE13

Portloe to Charlestown

38,000 steps

2019-03-29 08.44.49 Leaving Portloe

I wake up acutely conscious that I have too far to go today. I’m the only guest at the Ship Inn, and Landlord Mark chats to me while I polish off his fried eggs on toast.

He helpfully tells me the first part of my walk is the hardest. When I confess that I might be tempted to cut a few corners, he mentions how hazy the morning is: maybe the view from Dodman Point won’t be worth the effort today.

2019-03-29 08.44.42When I set out, I discover that my rucksack has grown heavier in the night. How can that happen?

The morning starts cooler, with a full cover of low cloud, as Landlord Mark has observed. But a couple of steep, stepped climbs early on warm me up. There’s a stronger smell of wild garlic than yesterday.

2019-03-29 08.48.15We’re back on classic Coast Path:…

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