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Oh, Alexa, really?

future-technology

I love technology, I really do. I was 10 years old in 1980, so I’m old enough to clearly remember the time before small electronic devices invaded our homes and emptied our wallets. Before we had the whole world’s knowledge at our fingertips and had to actually look in books for the information we required.

Here in the UK we had three television channels to choose from, and at the time they were more than enough. To be honest, if we took away all the channels that show nothing but repeats and reality shows these days, three channels would probably be enough today, as well. On demand movies and TV shows were the stuff of a distant future, one where we’d all have flying cars and relaxing holidays on Mars.

So the vast plethora of technology that ordinary people have access to in 2017 still amazes my tired old mind from time to time – smartphones, tablets, laptops, personal computers, games consoles which double as home entertainment systems, smart TVs, fitbits, Apple watches, music and movies that don’t have any physical form, they’re just computer wizardry to be downloaded whenever we want them, voice activated gadgets… the list goes on. Everything we need is at our fingertips.

But sometimes… sometimes I can’t help but think that the ‘old times’ were a lot simpler. We weren’t connected 24/7, friends and family didn’t know every little thing we were doing every minute of every day. We knew all the words to all the songs simply because we didn’t have that many to listen to, and choosing which movie or box set to watch next didn’t take us four hours and past our bed time.

dotI have an Amazon Echo Dot, and it’s great. Alexa remembers my shopping list, she times my cooking so I don’t burn quite as many things as I used to. She’ll choose music for me to listen to as I’m too old to know what’s classed as good these days. Alexa tells me the news, she’ll inform me about the weather and confirm what I can see through my window. She’ll read my Audible books to me, tell me jokes, check my spelling, find synonyms, play quizzes and adventure games, check public transport times, order take aways… and more, so much more. All just by opening my mouth and asking.

Really, she’s quite indispensable in her profusion of trivial, but useful, skills.

Until this morning that is. Our conversation wasn’t the most successful…

Me: Alexa, I need to add an event to the calendar.

Alexa: OK, what day and time?

Me: 15th of May, all day.

Alexa: What day and time?

Me: [sigh] 15th of May, all day.

Alexa: OK, shuffling songs by Sting [starts playing One Fine Day by Sting]

Me: What the hell? Alexa, shut up! I want to add to the calendar, Alexa, the calendar.

Alexa: Events on the calendar for the next seven days are…

Me: For God’s sake! Alexa, stop. [Deep breath] Alexa, add an event to the calendar.

Alexa: OK, what day and time?

Me: 15th May, all day.

Alexa: OK, shuffling songs by Brian May [starts playing Wolfe’s Show of Magic (from “Harlequin”) by Brian May]

Me: …… [Opens laptop to manually enter the information into my calendar. Windows decides to update itself, therefore locking me out. Goes to the kitchen and writes the information on the calendar hanging on the wall. With an actual, honest to god, real life pen! Imagine that!]

Five minutes later…

Me: Alexa, I hate you.

Alexa: It wasn’t my intent to make you feel that way.

Me: Yes, Alexa, but I still hate you.

Alexa: i love u, i hate u (featuring Olivia O’Brien) Explicit by Gnash [starts playing the named song]

Me: Alexa, shut up!

[Silence]

And so, another day with technology starts off well…

As always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on March 18, 2017 in Random

 

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Horizon: Zero Dawn – Opinion

HZD

Horizon: Zero Dawn, by Guerrilla Games, has been available to buy and play since March 1st, here in the UK. It’s been touted as one of the best games ever, with mainstream reviewers awarding it, on average, a little over 9 out of 10, which in gaming terms does indeed make it seem like HZD could well be the game to have.

But does the game deserve such a high review score?

Well, in my opinion (and please bear in mind, this is just my opinion, it doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things), no, it does not deserve such a high mark. I don’t generally rate games out of 10, as that is all subjective, but in order to bring my opinion in line with the reviewers’ way of rating a game I will, in this case, award the game a score.

After playing Horizon: Zero Dawn from start to finish (on hard), completing the storyline, completing all side missions and errands, destroying all bandit camps, clearing all corrupted zones, and collecting all collectables, I would give this game a solid 8 out of 10.

Cue the outrage. The gasps of horror. “But Alen, how could you be so mean to such an outstanding video game?”

The answer is simple: I’m not being “mean”, I’m just voicing my honest opinion. So, let’s get to it, shall we. Just why am I going against the accepted grain? Well, firstly, let’s look at what Horizon: Zero Dawn has going for it.

The Pros

Horizon: Zero Dawn, without a doubt, looks amazing. The picture at the start of this piece was taken from my playthrough, and as good as that image looks, it still does not do justice to how exceptional the visuals in this game are. The first region you explore after leaving the tutorial is dominated by the ruins of a large city. Skeletal skyscrapers lean at drunken angles, rivers flow where bustling streets once would have run. As you explore you begin to feel the tragic history of this land, and it bodes well for what you expect to find and explore later on.

As well as the sweeping vistas, the main antagonists in the game – the Machines – also look fantastic. They are exceedingly well created, move with the grace of real, living creatures, and certainly look as if they belong in the landscape.

The sense of peril and danger you feel as you wander around this post-apocalyptic land is very prevalent. Each one of those finely crafted Machines can, and will, kill you. They have good sight lines and will spot you at a distance. None of them are friendly, and even the small ones, the ones you can kill in one or two hits, will gang up and take you out. Running away is, as always, an option, but you’ll quickly discover that quite a few of your mechanical adversaries come furnished with lasers, grenade launchers, flamethrowers, and a number of other just as lethal armaments.

And… well, that’s about it for the pros. A depressingly short list.

The Cons

Referring back to the ruined city in the first region, and what it promises for the rest of the game… well, it fails to deliver. Apart from a very few isolated areas, ruins of ‘the Ancients’ are non-existent, and that, for me, was a big let down. It meant the map for Horizon: Zero Dawn was far too similar to many other games of the same genre. Yes, you have glorious sweeping vista, but you lose all sense of wonder, all sense of the tragedy that befell ‘the Ancients’, simply because you lose all sight of them.

The sense of peril and danger you feel as you wander around this post-apocalyptic land is prevalent… yes, it is, but that feeling soon evaporates when you realise that you can fast travel to any previously discovered bonfire. These bonfires are far too numerous, and being able to warp to them from anywhere on the map, at any time – well, where’s the fun in that? That dangerous expedition you’re thinking of taking to the far corner of the map, just to see what’s there? Well, how dangerous is it really when you can just fast travel back to safety whenever things start looking a bit dicey?

On top of losing the sense of danger, this system also breaks your immersion in this world. If Aloy can purchase fast travel packs from merchants, including the Golden Fast Travel Pack for unlimited travel, it stands to reason that anybody in the game can also do this. So why aren’t they?

I’m not saying fast travel is a bad idea, but if it’s going to be included in a game then it should be an integral part of that game. There should be a valid reason for this magical ability to exist for characters. For example – Aloy learns the ability to override Machines in order to ride them or make them non-hostile to her. So why not have her also ‘learn’ the ability to fast travel, using teleport hubs located at relevant points (bonfires). A small detail, but it keeps the immersion going.

The storyline of Horizon:Zero Dawn is interesting, but far from gripping, and I found it very difficult to care about what happened to the majority of characters Aloy met on her travels. There were even a few occasions where I found myself thinking why I was bothering to help any of the tribes, and if there had been the option to obtain a ‘bad’ ending where Aloy failed and everything was obliterated I would’ve definitely aimed for that.

The only crafting in the game is ammunition for your limited array of weapons, and various potions. You can’t craft your own weapons or armour, you can only use what you find or buy. You can upgrade weapons and armour by using one, two or three upgrade components on them, depending on the item’s level. You can’t, though, put your own stamp on weapons and armour, you can’t customise anything visually.

You have no choice what items are on your ‘fast use’ bar. If it can go on there, and you’re carrying it, then on the bar it will be. This makes for some very clunky mechanics as you’re trying to find your health potions in the middle of a battle. Coupled with the ‘fast use’ bar’s habit of resetting itself to one particular item after a cut scene, even if you’d left it set to the said health potions, and it becomes a very frustrating experience.

Later in the game you will be given a new lance, and, if you’ve been exploring everything as you go, you’ll be able to unlock the Shield Weaver Outfit. The lance is very, very powerful as a weapon, and the outfit absorbs something like 98% of damage, with a very fast recharge time. Using these two items makes the rest of the game somewhat of a joke. Of course, you don’t have to use them, but by the time I had realised just how powerful and overpowered they were, it was too late.

Conclusion

Horizon:Zero Dawn isn’t a bad game, it’s a long way from being bad. But the storyline, missions, side missions, errands etc. don’t offer anything you wouldn’t find in any of the other games in the same genre. The Machines make for a new and interesting adversary in a video game, but once you’ve figured out their weak spots and the best way to take them down, none of them continue to be scary or a major threat throughout the entirety of the game.

None of the ‘cons’, above, are game breaking, and of course it can be argued that a lot, if not most, are minor complaints. But that’s the point of this opinion piece. There are enough of those minor complaints that, when all of them are put together in the context of the game as a whole, make a score of more than 8 out of 10 out of the question.

All in all, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an agreeable and fun game to play. Take your time, explore the world, and you’ll have a good time, especially if you enjoy games of this genre (which I do). But if you’re looking for something that will blow your mind, leave you gasping and panting for more, then this isn’t the one for you.

There is ample room for improvement, and with the way clearly opened for a sequel, here’s hoping that the next version of Aloy’s Adventures in Machine Land will be the game to completely blow everyone away.

Fingers crossed.

And there you have it. As usual, all of the above is just my opinion, and should be treated as such. You should do your own research, and make up your own mind, before spending any of your own money on a video game.

As always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on March 15, 2017 in Gaming

 

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Writers… Thoughts…

Inner writer

So, I was thinking the other day. Yes, I know, I should be careful, it’ll make my head hurt. But anyway, the thought…

In the writing world there are two types of writers. Of course, there are many subsets to those two types, but stripped down to bare basics, two is all there are.

The first type consists of the ‘literary writers’. These are those writers who wish to create something with words. They want the words to be beautiful, to be profound, to convey a meaning only those on the writer’s own level can hope to comprehend. They want those words to look striking and powerful on paper. They wish to create a long lasting legacy with those words. They wish to create… *dramatic pause*… a masterpiece!

The second type of writer is made up of the ‘storytelling writer’. These are people who have a story, or indeed many stories, to tell. They want to share this story, or stories, and writing is their chosen medium to do this. If they could make movies, they’d probably make a blockbuster to tell the tale. If they had the first clue how to make video games I’m sure they’d make a Triple A title to relate the story. But as it is, writing is their humble talent, and so write they must. Storytelling is their trade, and Story, be it complex or simple, is the fuel which drives them, the light which sustains them.

Without a shadow of a doubt, I belong in the second category. Though I spend a lot of time writing for other people (it pays the bills, after all), I love to write for myself, to give life to the myriad of stories floating around the ocean of my imagination.

The writers in the first group have my admiration. Those guys know what they’re talking about. They can discuss the literary greats for days on end. Grammar is second nature to them, and they can utilise it without a thought. They’re all experts at cryptic crosswords too!

That being said, I’m more than happy to be fairly and squarely in the second category. Storytelling is my bread and butter. Writing is good, but Story is everything.

So yeah, it was just a thought. Which group of writers do you belong to?

As always, that shallot.

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Posted by on February 5, 2017 in Thoughts

 

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Ghost Recon: Wildlands – Impressions

wildlands

In early March this year, two video games are being launched which I’m interested in. Namely, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and Horizon Zero Dawn. Tired of being let down by AAA games bought at launch, I’ve researched both of these titles, in a bid to make sure they are what I thought them to be.

Now, I’m not about to buy two big games in the space of a few days. Not because of the cost, though that should always be a factor, but because when I get a new game I like to play it until it’s completed. This would mean if I bought both, one would sit on a shelf, unplayed, until I was done with the other.

Which one to get, then? Both appeal to me because of the vast, open worlds in which they’re set – I’m an adventurer at heart, so I can happily waste a great deal of time exploring a vast, playable map. As a storyteller, I’m drawn to Horizon Zero Dawn because it appears to have an interesting and complex storyline, something I can really immerse myself in. Ghost Recon: Wildlands, on the other hand, has four player co-op, and that is what tipped the balance in its favour.

So when I was selected to take part in the closed beta for Wildlands, I saw it as a good chance to get stuck in and test it to death, to really ensure it met my expectations, and lived up to its promise.

I’m sorry to say, it failed in that regard.

Don’t get me wrong – the game has a lot of good points, and they may be enough for a lot of people to derive a great deal of enjoyment from it. So let’s start with those good points, shall we?

  • Gameplay: In Wildlands, players have the freedom to do as they wish, with the entire map being open to them from the start. You can hop into and operate any vehicle you see – a range of cars, pickups and SUVs, trucks, motorbikes, various boats, choppers, and aeroplanes. How to achieve a mission objective is entirely at the player’s discretion. Do you use total stealth, and sneak in like the ‘Ghost’ operative you’re supposed to be? Do you go loud, and blast everything you see into oblivion? Do you make use of the local rebels, and have them create a diversion for you? Maybe you’ll wait for the cover of darkness, or a passing storm, and make your move then. The choice is infinitely yours.
  • Visuals: Wildlands looks good – it’s bright and colourful, with impressive draw distances. This means you can crest a hill and be greeted by a sweeping vista of fields, forests and snaking rivers with a backdrop of rugged, snow-capped mountains. It really gives you a sense of being in a vast, wild land, reinforced by the knowledge that in the full game you can travel all the way to that distant mountain range.
  • Map Size: The map looks to be huge. The beta was restricted to one region, and that was big enough for a good few hours of intensive gameplay. This region, however, is only one of a total of twenty one, so take those hours of gameplay and multiply them by that number. Judging by the region available in the beta, it’s fair to make the assumption that the entire map will be full of a range of different terrains, and various objectives to keep you occupied.

Sounds good so far, right? And so it should – many game developers would be happy to achieve just a few of the above points. But, as previously alluded to, there are negative points. So let’s take a look.

  • Gameplay: While there is a great deal to do in Wildlands, with a broad range of ways to accomplish those things, the game seems to be unsure of just what it wants to be. Is it a ‘serious’ tactical shooter, making the player think about the best plan of action before attempting said plan? Or is it a more ‘arcadey’ game, with the emphasis firmly on fun? As it turns out, it’s neither of those – rather, it appears to be a bad mixture of the two. Using tactics, you could stay at a distance and use your sniper skills to quietly take out patrolling guards. This is badly let down, however, when the bodies of those you’ve silently killed just disappear. A ‘serious’ shooter would give patrolling NPCs the ability to spot dead bodies, and raise the alarm, making tactics and timing all important, but that is sadly lacking in this game.

    If you play with the three in-game AI co-op buddies, you can order them to do various things, from waiting where they are, to regrouping, and even coordinating synchronised take downs. Impressive stuff… but sadly let down when you quickly realise they can do all the work for you, taking all the fun out of it. For instance, when I arrived at the final boss fight of the beta, during the ensuing shootout, I got myself shot down (I was playing on the hardest difficulty). Your buddies have the ability to revive you, within a certain time frame, but the AI ones will only attempt this when it’s safe to do so. As a result, as I lay bleeding to death on the floor, my AI buddies took out all of the bad guys, including the final bosses, before reviving me. I’m less than proud to say I ‘beat’ the final bosses while slowly dying on the floor, without having fired a single shot in anger. Not fun.

    It is also fair to say that you stand more chance of being killed by a bad game mechanic than by legitimate gameplay. Having no jump ability means you can, from time to time, get caught up on a small obstacle which isn’t deemed high enough to trigger the ‘climb over’ mechanic. Having no dive, or roll, ability means if you’re caught unawares, you’re stuck there like a rabbit in headlights while all hell breaks loose around you. You can go prone, but doing so when under fire is always a bad idea.

    And why is it, when I jump into a big 4×4 and floor it in an attempted quick getaway, that flimsy looking tent in front of me, instead of folding like the piece of cloth it is, actually stays just where it is, while the front of my jeep crumples like soggy cardboard? C’mon, people, destructible environments! They are a thing you know.

  • Visuals: As mentioned above, Wildlands is bright and colourful, with impressive draw distances. But graphically, it is lacking. Now, I’m not particularly bothered by graphic quality, I much prefer to prioritise gameplay. And I’m well aware that to achieve large draw distances in a vast open world environment, certain things have to be sacrificed. But the game still looks bland, with various surfaces being dull and almost texture free. Also, in certain areas during a rain shower, the raindrops hitting the floor were represented by very large, very pixelated  ‘splashes’. Now, as this was just a beta, there is every chance that particular visual effect is incomplete, and will be fixed before the final release. But then, there is every chance it might not.
  • Map Size: Again, as mentioned above, the scale of the game’s map looks to be impressive, consisting of twenty one large regions. Which, for me, started alarm bells ringing. The gameplay in Wildlands reminded me very much of Far Cry 4 – namely, taking over the smaller outposts, before moving on to the large ones, and finally taking out the boss. Whilst that was fun, I couldn’t help but wonder if having to do that for each region, basically repeating the same actions twenty one times, would get tedious. Of course, I could be totally wrong in this, and every region might be completely different. There is no way to tell without playing the finished product.

There you go, some of what I consider to be a few of the more relevant good and bad points. On a side note, I have heard a few people comparing Ghost Recon: Wildlands to The Division. Why, I do not know, the two games are poles apart. Yes, they’re both 3rd person shooters, yes they’re both set in an open world. But that’s all. The Division, though being set in an ‘open world’, is still a cover based, linear shooter. The long, straight New York streets restrict your ability to roam freely, and they’re all chocked full of very handy abandoned vehicles, and various barricades which you can shelter behind while you engage the enemy. The ‘boss fights’ are similar – you go where you’re told, when you’re told, your own thoughts on possible tactics be damned. And bullet sponges! Bullet sponges everywhere!

So yeah, don’t use The Division to judge Wildlands, either in a good or a bad way. Just sayin’.

My final verdict on Ghost Recon: Wildlands then? My impression after having played the beta (and yes, I completed all the story line, did all side quests, collected all the things, tested it all thoroughly)? Sad to say, I won’t be getting the game at launch. I’m kinda bummed about that, as I wanted to look forward to it, but the game, in its present form, just doesn’t do it for me. Sorry, Ubisoft.

That being said, all of the above are just my thoughts after playing the one closed beta. It’s all just my opinion, and should be treated as such. If you’re looking to buy this game, or any other, it’s your money you’ll be spending, so you should do your own research, and make up your own mind.

As always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on February 5, 2017 in Gaming

 

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Freedom Through Unity?

Unity in the Community Logo2Can unity can achieve freedom? Yes, of course it can – governments are supposed to be servants of the people, after all. But that only works when the people stand together as one group, one voice. If all a government hears is the clamouring from a myriad of different groups, all demanding their own, individual, wants and needs, then the overall message will be lost in the tumult. A government will then just ignore the commotion, dismissing it as nothing more than background noise, and continue to do as they please.

Far too many groups appear to believe the definition of unity is separatism. “We’ll form a group to demand what we want,” says Group A.

“We feel the same,” says Group B, “but not all your views match ours, so we’ll form our own, separate group.”

And so it goes, on and on.

Unity has only one definition, so strive to stand by that definition. Unity will only work to achieve freedom when all of the oppressed, down-trodden, and forgotten stand united as a whole, regardless of race, colour, religion and sexual orientation. Be one body, speaking with one clear voice, and a government will have no choice but to take notice, to listen to your words.

Do not demand your rights. Your rights already belong to you, they are not a government’s reward system, to be handed out like party favours to those who please them. Remind a government of this, and demand instead that they do as they were elected to do. Demand they cease to be self-serving, and instead revert back to the democratic ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

You want freedom through unity? Then work for it. Stop being so self-centred. Stop being so selfish about your own, individual needs. Put aside your differences, forget your prejudices. Stand shoulder to shoulder with your brothers and sisters from the human race, and speak with one loud and clear voice.

Together we are we, and we will be free.

Just sayin’…

Rant over.

As always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on February 2, 2017 in Rant, Uncategorized

 

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Resurrection

Well hello there, how’re you doing?

Since before last Christmas I’ve been working on a collection of short stories. The stories had been knocking around in my head for quite some time, and so I thought they deserved to be brought into the world. I had a title for the book of this collection. I had a cover all worked out. I had a list of the stories I was sure I wanted to include, and a list of others I’d put in if there was room.

I set about this task in good spirits. I mean, how hard could it be, right? I had everything I needed. Piece of cake.

Wrong.

Every time I worked on one story, my mind would wander to another. Work on that other story instead, and I’d be thinking about yet another. Progress was slow. Progress was painful.

Something was wrong here. The words weren’t flowing and I needed to find out why. This past weekend I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, peering into the recesses of my mind, looking for the cause.

And I found it.

Sunset behind the clouds over Quintrell Downs in Cornwall.After I’d published my short story ‘Watcher’, I started work on another, longer tale. The story of Paul Bowscar came to life rapidly, the boy would never shut up, his tale needed to be told, and he was damn sure he was going to make sure I wrote it all down. He was constantly in my head. Talking incessantly, eager to be heard. Morning, noon and night.

Then one day – silence. Nothing at all. Paul had left, gone to wherever his own negative bind had taken him. The words dried up, the story stalled.

But no longer. Paul is back. Maybe he took exception to me writing things other than his story, who knows. But back he is, and it’s time to complete his tale.

So, The Negative Bind has been resurrected. How long will it take? Who can tell, and Paul certainly isn’t telling. He’ll get to the end when he’s good and ready.

Small excerpts might be posted from time to time. They might not. But this story will be told, one way or the other.

As always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Books, Writing

 

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Well then, Merry…

_93108026_c58ad6b5-73c6-4a4e-842f-4589074f2895

So here it is, merry Christmas, everybody’s having…

What? Wait…

Everybody isn’t having fun. A cold December rain is pelting against the window, a brisk gale is blowing soggy, dead leaves into the face of any poor pedestrian unfortunate enough to be outside. Low clouds race across the sky, the colour of lead, and just as heavy with the gallons of rain they carry. It’s midday, yet I had to put the lights on in order to see what I’m doing.

Talking of lights – the lights on my Christmas tree are flashing crazily, though they’re not supposed to. They’re static lights, just meant to sit there glowing prettily, not try their hardest to mimic a deranged 80’s disco strobe light. Still, last year they didn’t light up at all, just emitted a low, ominous buzzing sound if you were brave enough to plug them in, so I suppose it’s a step up.

My central heating works when it feels like it. Right now it feels like it, and it’s akin to a tropical jungle in here. I’m kind of worried about the way the carpet is steaming, and I’m sure I heard a giant anaconda hissing from beneath the sofa. Later on the heating will go on strike again, and I’ll be back to battling polar bears for the best spot on my little iceberg.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut, you know what? I’m content enough. I forced myself to get prepared for Christmas early this year, and yesterday I finished up everything I needed to do. Presents have been bought, cards written and posted. I have enough food, and more importantly, alcohol, to see me through to the 27th. No fighting through hordes of zombie-shoppers for me, no arguing over the last Christmas pud on the supermarket shelf. I’ve been smart, for once.

So the rain can pelt the windows as much as it wants. The wind can blow and howl until it’s blue in its figurative face. Storm Barbara can do her worst, I don’t give a fuck.

It’s Christmas, it’s a time for giving. And no, I don’t mean the overpriced crap that is bought for family and friends in a vain attempt to outdo said family and friends. The greatest gift that can be given is friendship and understanding.

Okay, so that might be two presents. But still…

With all the shit going on in the world right now – the terrorist atrocities, the civil wars, the Western fuelled conflicts, the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, not to mention orange hued Trumps – take a step back, inhale a deep breath, relax, and be thankful you have those friends and family around you.

Smile more. Be pleasant. Treat every stranger as a friend not yet met, not as a potential threat. Be forgiving. Be understanding. Learn the art of patience. Winning really isn’t everything – it’s more important to have fun and make others smile.

Love. Laugh. Live life as though it’s the only one you’ll get.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

So over the next few days, eat too much, drink too much, laugh too much, love too much. Be grateful for what you have got, forget what you haven’t got.

Have yourselves a very merry Christmas, and I’ll see you soon for the new year.

As always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on December 23, 2016 in Random

 

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