Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sometimes It's OK To Steal My Games

This blog post is about the bright side of software piracy. It's about the times when not only is it OK to steal my games, but, in fact, I get something out of it. Perhaps an unusual topic for a blog post from a game developer.

I admit to being a little bit nervous about writing this. The sad truth is that, these days, it is so easy to pirate single-player PC games that most gamers only have to pay for them if they want to pay for them. And there is strong evidence (links below) to indicate that they usually don't want to pay for them. So giving people ammunition they can use to convince themselves that they shouldn't pay for my games seems perilous, especially since they are, after all, how I support my family. But I got into the blogging game to write about the reality of the game biz from the viewpoint of my shadowy little corner, and piracy is a huge part of it, so here we go.

Of Course, Piracy Is Almost Always Wrong

I think that the best way of evaluating the morality of an action is to ask, "What would happen if everyone who wanted to do it did it?" Littering and dumping toxic waste into rivers are wrong because, if everyone who wanted to do those things did them, our streets would be choked with refuse and our drinking water would be half benzene. And pirating PC games is wrong because, were it not for that minority of worthy souls who actually chip in, the industry that makes the games we love would descend into a shadow realm of tiny ad-supported Flash games and Farmville. Some people would be cool with that, but I'm looking forward to playing Starcraft 2, thanks.

And I've now set myself up for 50 comments of increasingly overwrought and implausible justifications for why pirating games is a good, noble thing to do. No. Sorry. You don't get everything you want in this world. You can get piles of cool stuff for free. Or you can be an honorable, ethical being. You don't get both.

Most of the time.

Because, when I'm being honest with myself, which happens sometimes, I have to admit that piracy is not an absolute evil. That I do get things out of it, even when I'm the one being ripped off.

Computers Exist In the Third World

Every so often, I get an e-mail in broken English from some kid in Russia or southeast Asia or India. He says how how he is playing my game in a cyber-cafe, for fun and perhaps to practice English. The disparity in the strength of the currency between our two countries makes it impossible it is for him to get the 25 or 28 hard US dollars to buy my game. (It's entirely possible in much of the world to not be dirt poor and yet to be entirely unable to scrape together a chunk of hard U.S. dollars.) The message ends with a sincere and heart-rending plea for a registration key.

Now, you're probably thinking, "Yeah, the kid is probably making it up." I doubt it. Remember, my games are easy to pirate. Anyone who wants to steal my games can grab them any time he or she wants. Maybe some of these pleas are fake, but I'm sure that most aren't.

When I get one of these message, what I want to respond is, "PIRATE MY STUPID GAME!!!" I mean, seriously, the time used drafting that e-mail would have been much more profitably spent figuring out how BitTorrent works.

But I don't say that. I delete the e-mail unanswered. Because, the truth is that these games are how I feed my family. Asking me for free keys is simply not a behavior I want to encourage.

But I really hope those kids pirated my game. And I am sure that, for every such e-mail I received, a horde of others in faraway lands pirated it on their own. Sometimes, thanks to the vagaries of the international monetary order, my games are just out of reach any other way. And, when people enjoy my work, it gives my life meaning, which bring me to ...

I Want My Life To Have Meaning

I consider myself a reasonably bright person, who works hard to make something people like. When I'm old and crumbling, I want to be able to feel that I had a successful life in which my work brought happiness to a lot of people.

I feel fully financially compensated for my time when one of my games (which usually takes a year or so to make) sells 5000 copies. However, from the game industry perspective, 5000 copies is nothing. Even the crappiest flop from a real publisher sells a ton more than that. So am I wasting my life? If I really care about the number of people I reach and the amount of happiness I bring, shouldn't I try to get a job somewhere where my work has a chance of reaching far more people?

But then I remember that for everyone who buys my game, dozens more just tried the demo. And a lot of those people will play the whole demo, have fun, decide they had enough, and move on. That counts as providing fun for people, sort of.

But, more importantly, the percentage of people who pirate PC games seems to be very high. It's possible that 90% of the copies of my games out there are pirated. There is definitely solid evidence that the piracy rate for PC games is that high, and believe me, there are a thousand ways to get my games for free. It happens a lot. And, if that figure holds, that brings the player base for each of my games to 50000. That is a number that can keep me from lying awake at night.

Of course, a lot of those people could have bought it but decided to pirate it instead. In other words, jerks. Which brings up a good question. Am I satisfied that my life's work went to make a jerk happy? Does that give me Life Value points? Is it a worthwhile thing to bring a jerk pleasure? This is generally the point where I force myself to think about something else.

But not everyone who steals a game has money. Some of them are legitimately poor. Which brings me to one final point.

The Recession Is a Thing That is Happening

These days, some people are legitimately poor. Many people, through a mix of poor fiscal choices and ill fortune, are in bad shape. Foreclosed on, or facing foreclosure. Trying to pay down a mountain of credit card debt. Unemployed for a long time. Lacking health insurance. Some people brush this growing population off, saying, "Oh, they brought it on themselves." And sometimes that is true. They made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. I make mistakes. It's just that some people are unlucky enough to be savagely punished for their mistakes.

Someone who is facing long-term unemployment and bankruptcy probably should not pay for my game. And, in that case, if stealing my game gives them a temporary reprieve from their misery (and there's a lot of misery out there right now), I'm cool with that. I'm happy to help. These are my fellow citizens, and I want to help out how I can.

Now here is what I am NOT saying. If some kid has to actually save his allowance for a few weeks to buy the game, stealing it is instead of paying is not cool. I'm not OK with that. If you can pay, you should pay. But I understand that some people can't. It's reality. As for whether someone can truly pay or not, I have to trust them to be able to tell the difference. It's probably unwise to trust so many strangers so much with my livelihood on the line. But it's not like I have a choice.

How I Will Now Single-Handedly Solve the Problem of Piracy

I just have to add one thing, and then I can hopefully go without writing about this ugly topic for a good, long time. The way the economics of the business work right now, if you want good PC games, someone has to pay for them. You can't support a project like Starcraft 2 with ads. The money just isn't there.

If you like PC games but you usually pirate them, I want you to start actually paying for one game a year. Just one. Please. You should do it because you need to do it to help something you like to continue to exist. Sure, you might find that doing the virtuous thing feels surprisingly good. But, in the end, you should do it for the reason anyone ever really does anything: Because it is in your best interests to do so.

But what game should you pay for? It's tempting to say you should support some small Indie, like me, who is just working hard to support his family. But I don't believe that. The people who made Starcraft 2 have families to. No, buy the game that you feel most deserves to be rewarded. Who gave you the most fun, or carried the industry forward, or that you felt treated you fairly.

Maybe that game is Starcraft 2. Maybe it's Avernum 6 or Aveyond or Eschalon 2 or World of Goo or one of a million tiny games. It might even be Assassin's Creed 2. Could happen.

And, before you post flaming me because Piracy-Is-Always-Good or Always-Bad, remember that all I'm trying to do is pay a little visit to reality-land. And while I do get something out of piracy, all things being equal, it's better to pay for the thing you use. Again, with PC games, you can get cool free stuff, or you can be honorable. You don't get both. Once in a while, be part of the solution.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Ugly American's Guide To Britain, Part 3.

(One more vacation journal, and then I'll go back to writing about games for a while. When I'm not making games, I love to travel foreign lands and write snarky and occasionally helpful journals about what I saw. This is the third article about my recent two-week trip through Britain. Some of the content is a little more adult that what I put on this blog. If you are below sixteen or so, you should go here. Anything offensive or misguided should be blamed on the dysfunctional American educational system.)

General Notes on Britain, Set the Third

Despite the island's reputation, we have eaten a lot of really delicious food here. That's not to say there isn't a lot of terrible food here. I'm sure there is, but that's true everywhere. I've eaten a lot of totally crap food in France and Italy.

But if you keep your eyes open and choose carefully, there is a lot of deliciousness, even in pubs. And it makes sense. Britain has excellent meat (most of it grass-fed), great fruits and vegetables, fantastic cheese, and really tasty candy bars. My advice if looking for good food? Look for a place that brags that its ingredients are "locally sourced." That means that at least its heart is in the right place.

Also, we have started each days with the legendary, much feared English Breakfasts. It's pretty much the default tourist chow at any B&B you care to name. It's an egg, a sausage link, a piece of bacon, a roasted tomato, tinned beans, toast, OJ, and the caffeine of your choice. And black pudding, if the place is awesome.

It sounds scary, but it's really not. Laid out on the plate, it is, by American standards, a pretty modest meal. Hell, I've picked less food than that out of my teeth and belly folds before I go to bed. But it's a jolt of protein and energy that's perfect for powering you through 12 hours of high-octane touristing. The one day I went without it, I was headachy and miserable by the end of the afternoon. So I am addicted.

Also, speaking of giant jolts of fat. I am very pleased to say that, after vacations being intimidated by the delicate and gazelle-like French, I have to say that the English are of a body build I am ... let's say, more familiar with. As a picked-last-for-sports tubbenheimer from back in the day, I feel very at home here.

Stop 3 - York

York is, even by British standards, old. It was a major Roman fort and local capitol. They built big walls around it. Then the Normans took it over and made the walls bigger. Then the English came along and made the walls bigger. Most of those walls are still there, albeit with big holes in them. But I met a Scot who knows a guy who knows a guy who can fix those holes for thirty quid.

When you're in York, everywhere you go, you can turn and see ancient walls and parapets and arrowslits and murder holes. So, for a Dungeons & Dragons goober like me from back in the day, being there was like a 36 hour orgasm.

York is very generously laid out for the sore-footed tourist, as just about everything an outsider would want to see is inside the city walls, in one small, easily traversed clump. There is the expected street after street of gorgeous old architecture. Wood buildings that somehow survived from the middle ages. Rows of Victorian townhouses. A working portcullis by the east gate. (Squeee!)

Visiting towns like this, it's easy to imagine that all of the British live like this, in gorgeous, architecturally interesting five story houses. They don't. Actually, a huge chunk of them live in cruddy flats, like we do, sitting on the couch, watching boobies on the lookybox (again, the British word for a "telly") and eating pie.

But then again, looking out the window of the train, I have seen countless developments of row after row of brick houses with heavy tile roofs, each of them built like a brick shithouse, if that brick shithouse was then expanded into a full house. Even their suburbs have great age-envy. Their 20th century houses haven't been around for 500 years, but they look pretty good for lasting the next 500.

Anyway. York. Like Bath, much of the fun was just walking around and gawking. Seeing a six hundred year old building slumping lazily toward the street is always amusing. But the two name-attractions for us were York Minster and the Castle Museum.

York Minster is a gothic cathedral, the largest of its kind in northern Europe. Apparently, there are people out there who get super-excited about cathedrals, but I'm not an aficionado.

York Minster was started in the 13th century and only finished 250 years later (isn't that just like contractors?), full of cool art and medieval stained glass. It's also full of history. For example, it's where Edward the First ("Longshanks" to you, because nicknames were awesome back then) convened parliament to figure out how to kill Mel Gibson before he could impregnate his daughter, or something. I don't know. All the kings and wars and sieges are starting to get a little bit tangled for me. At this point, whenever a tour guide shows me a wall or alley or something, I just say, "Did dudes get killed here?" and he's, like, "Totally!", and I nod and take a picture and we move on. There's a gorgeous shard of ruined abbey wall sticking out of the ground, from when Henry the 18th destroyed it to save Catholocism from the Huns, or something. I'm sure that's what my guide said, but I think the English breakfasts are giving me ham-hallucinations.

If you're going to England, you should know that at no point in the last thousand years has a week gone by without a civil war or beheaded queen or pope-stabbing or Celtic insurrection. Do not, under any circumstances, try to keep any of it straight. If you try to figure out the difference between Henry the Third and Richard the Twelfth and Edward the Umpty-Tumpth, you will go mad, and anyway all that intrigue was made up to sound good for the tourists. Mary, Queen of Scots actually has as much historical reality as the Loch Ness Monster. In reality, from 1000 AD to 1900 AD, Britain was ruled in constant peace and tranquility by a secret circle of elves. So, now that you know that, you can let all the stabbings and dethronings wash over you without letting them worry you too much.

Anyway. York Minster. Almost every day, they have a free Evensong service (a lot of cathedrals do this, by the way), where you can sit in the grandeur and listen to a gorgeous sung service. Now, it's officially church, so you have to be respectful and stand and sit when they tell you to and pretend to pray, but it's very cool and it'll make you feel in touch with the centuries of violent crazy people that came before you, and I highly recommend it.

Oh, and it's free. They don't charge admission for church, which kind of makes sense.

The other stop we truly enjoyed was the Castle Museum. It's in a castle, not about castles. It is a museum dedicated to displaying every detail of life in Victorian and 20th century times. There are displays about housework, and mourning, and the home front in WW2, and the sixties, and so on, complete with antiques and highly detailed recreations of rooms from the times. This sort of thing can be horrible, but the place was completely fascinating.

I also found it very helpful. Most of my fun comes from sitting around and listening to adorable accents. After listening to adults for a while, I felt that listening to small children talking in their cheery little pip pip tally-ho voices would be the living end. So I considered hanging out outside a school when it lets out, but then it occured to me that any plan that begins with "Hang out near the school when it lets out" might be ill-considered.

But the Castle Museum was full of flocks of British schoolchildren, walking in lines in their uniforms and being educated and bored. It was adorable. So that was covered.

One of the big reliefs on the trip has been that, even in very touristy cities, unless you are actually in a museum or other attraction, the vast majority of the people on the street are locals. People live here! I went to a great deal of effort and expense to go somewhere and be a foreigner. I see Americans' fat, slack-jawed faces all the time, thank you very much. When I travel, I want to see the dull, pallid faces of unappealing strangers from all around the globe.

Fun British Fact #3

The U.K. currently has a huge problem with alcoholism. This is an actual true fact. However, this does have the happy side-effect that the drunken idiots who paraded shouting past your hotel room at 3 in the morning were probably locals, not ugly Americans. So don't be ashamed!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Ugly American's Guide To Britain, Part 2.

(When I'm not writing games, I love to travel foreign lands and write snarky and occasionally helpful journals about what I saw. This is the second of five articles about my recent two-week trip through Britain. Some of the content is a little more adult that what I put on this blog. If you are below sixteen or so, you should go here. Anything offensive should be blamed on a hormonal imbalance caused by too much haggis.)

General Notes on Britain, Set the Second

People in Britain have an accent. And, by that, I mean that they have about 400 accents. While watching the telly (or, as they call it, the "Looky Box"), I saw a comedian do a bit about how everything sounds more reassuring in a Manchester accent. So there is a Manchester accent, and that means something. Societies that develop on islands can get a little bit odd.

Still, just listening to people talk is one of the funnest things about coming here. I simply can't get tired of it. My main attraction is going to a pub (which is not difficult, as every building is a pub) and listening. I also try to talk to people, but I have to be careful and not say any of my opinions about the ridiculousness of soccer or how cute it is that they have, get this, a queen. Otherwise I might say the wrong thing, and someone might hear me and be feeling all drinky-punchy, and I'll hear someone behind me shout, "Oi!" Which is British for, "Pardon me, but I am about to give your ass a truly extensive kicking."

The language on this island is an intriguing dialect of English. They have lots of funny words for things. For example, the primary currency is the "pound", but they will often refer to it as a "squid." A sample conversation might go: "Can you give me change for this squid?" "Sure, luv. Here are one guinea, three farthings, two bob, a crown, six ha'pennies, a half crown, a mega-crown, a mecha crown, and a pennywhistle." "That's not enough! There should be another farthing. You have cheated me, m'lord." "Oi!" "(Sound of face being punched.)"

Also, the British, like most of the rest of the world, love a sport called soccer. I got to watch them watch a World Cup match where their team fought Algeria to a scorching, hard-fought 0-0 tie.

I know. I know. While I'm there, I'm supposed to call it "Football." But, if you live in the U.S. and are in the U.S., calling soccer "football" is truly affected.

Also, football sounds like it should be the name of a cool, kick-ass, exciting sport. Any sport where a 0-0 outcome is not only plausible but, in fact, common isn't sweet enough to have an awesome name like Football. Soccer isn't even cool enough to be called Soccer. I think it should have a more appropriate name, like "Fancy-pants grass-prancing."

I also got to be there when Germany beat England 4-1 in what was, based on the media reaction, the worst thing to ever happen to anyone anywhere. Apparently, England scored an unquestionable goal that would have tied up the game, but it was disallowed because the referee wasn't close enough to get a good look at it and there is no goal referee and no instant replay review. Hey, just because it's the most popular sport in the world doesn't mean they should drop a few extra bucks to actually get the thing officiated properly. After a couple weeks of exposure both to the alleged entertainment of World Cup soccer and to the people who love it, I've come to the conclusion that I could like soccer, except that I don't hate myself enough.

Stop 2 - Edinburgh

Before I start, I have to send a quick message out to the Scottish people.

I can't understand a goddamn word any of you are saying.

This is not to be taken as a criticism. I love ya', baby. Don't ever change. I am instead saying it as a way of fostering greater understanding between our peoples. I would only point out that the Scottish crime thriller Sweet Sixteen, which came out in 2002, had to have subtitles, and it was entirely in English.

I may be exaggerating here slightly. Most of the time, I could kind of understand what Scottish people were saying. But there is something about that accent that just lends itself to being dialed up to 11.

But I still completely love listening to it. I could listen to Scottish people talk all day, and since all of them that I met seemed inclined to talk all day, we were a good fit. For example, when my wife and I were sitting in the park, a crazy old woman just in from her tiny village in western Scotland, sat down next to us and started telling us all of her racist terrorism conspiracy theories, I just sat, back, relaxed, and let her brogue wash over me. Sure, her thick accent made it impossible for me to tell exactly what she was saying about the Jews. (My guess? Not a fan.) But it was still lovely until she started explaining how Barack Obama was a secret Muslim terrorist. Then we lied about our urgent dinner reservations and ran off. Sorry, crazy Scottish lady. We get enough of that particular shit at home.

Also, I have pretty much fallen in love with Scottish women. Bear in mind I am only writing based on my own personal observations, but they are all completely punk and scary and thoroughly tattoed and hot and ready to cut you at a moment's notice. I'm not saying I want to be 20 and single again but, if in some horrible Twilight Zone future I was, I would save up my pennies and hop a flight to Edinburgh. Then, in a bar somewhere, I'd catch the eye of some pierced lass and we'd talk and I'd swoon and the next three days would be a blur and I'd wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a broken heart and no kidneys.

Yes, the northern half of this island is pretty scrappy. Their women all look ready to get to it and breed the next generation of Scottish warriors. And yet, Scotland's birth rate is very low. Perhaps, inspired by the arachnid, they eat the livers of those they love in moments of unguarded coital enthusiasm. The theory sounds crazy until you see these women. They're pretty awesome.

And believe me, the Scottish don't mess about. Edinburgh Castle isn't just some frou frou toy castle where nobles ponce about at each other. That's one of those ancient occasionally-razed-to-the-ground spires where the shit gets real for real. And the National Museum of Scotland is a glorious and unapologetic monument to all things Scottish. Not just Roman artifacts but plants and stuffed animals and the curling stone they used to win a gold medal but also plenty of swords and thumbscrews and The Maiden, a big alarming pre-guillotine contraption used to behead people for several productive centuries. See, if you're going to build a big shiny expensive history museum, by God it's going to be full of the remains of Pictish human sacrifice and machinery used to kill hundreds of dudes. Scotland is a serious place.

Fortunately, I passed three days without referring to anyone as English. The Scots and the English have a ... complicated relationship. I'll put it this way. One display in the National Musuem mentions that Scotland's largest immigrant group is the English. Think about that one. Look at it this way. When someone moves from California to Seattle, they're not considered an

(I might want to call them that, but that doesn't make it true.)

The guy who ran our B&B was a loud, boisterous, opinionated Scotsman straight out of central casting. We were the only people staying there, so, based on the odor in the hallway, our innkeeper divided his time evenly between looking after us and smoking joints the size of my forearm.

Scotland's primary scary local delicacy is, of course, haggis. Based on what I could tell from those I talk to, it does get eaten. Not a lot, and often with other things (chicken stuffed with haggis is a common dish). I mean, they're not dumb, and they know Pizza Hut exists, so they aren't eating it every day. But it does get eaten, and the canned haggis I saw in the supermarket proudly proclaims that it is 45% lung.

We ate at one truly superb modern fine British cuisine type restaurant, where I had Scottish venison with venison haggis. I asked our loyely young waitress what parts they use in the haggis. She looked at me like I'd just asked her what the color blue smells like. "So what is in the haggis?" "It's ... haggis." "I mean, what organs go into the haggis?" "It contains haggis." She then braced herself for me to ask what the ingredients of the salt were. I guess, when you mince all of an animal's internal organs and boil them in spices for long enough, they are transmuted into a new, indivisible base element.

(And, in case you were wondering, haggis tastes like boiled, heavily spiced meat with that unmistakable tinge of organ meat flavor. Whether you would like it depends entirely on your opinion of organ meat. But, considering that they have no shortage of McDonalds, their willingness to tolerate lung meat in any form should be taken as an inspiration to us all.)

Also, you can walk into any pub and get a shot of 16 year aged single cask whiskey that will blow your face off with its awesome for four bucks. That alone would be enough to make me completely fall in love with this city.

It's gorgeous and the food is good and the people-watching is great and the accents are gorgeous. Pretty much took dynamite to blow me out of that place. But I had to go back to England, the only place on this island where you can say anything nice about England without getting beaten up.

Fun British Fact #2

The British words for 'crisis' and 'opportunity' are the same. And that word is "cripeitunity."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Ugly American's Guide To Britain, Part 1.

(When I'm not writing games, I love to travel foreign lands and write snarky and occasionally helpful journals about what I saw. This is one of six articles about my recent two-week trip through Britain. Some of the content is a little more adult that what I put on this blog. If you are below sixteen or so, you should go here. Anything offensive should be blamed on jet lag hallucinations.)

In June, my wife and I went to the United Kingdom for a two week vacation. We did not take our two young daughters with us as we wanted to, you know, have fun.

Whenever we tell people we meet on the road that we left our two girls at home, we get a funny look, a mix of sympathy and harsh judgment. How, they wonder, could anyone leave adorable little moppets at home, when they could be here, costing lots of money and keeping us from ever focusing on anything for one minute without squealing, "We're bored!" in perfect unison. It is a mystery. But I digress.

Though we have visited many foreign lands, going to Britain is a unique pleasure for two reasons. First, my wife and I were exposed to Monty Python and Doctor Who at an impressionable age and are thus lifelong anglophiles. And, second, Britain has not, for the most part, subscribed to the irritating and pernicious affectation of speaking languages other than English.

We are writing these journals as a way of sharing our experiences, to teach the reader something about this mysterious and exotic land. And, of course, to make fun of it.

General Notes on Britain, Set the First

First off, we're going to Britain. Or the U.K. It is not a vacation in England. That is because we are also going to Scotland, and the Scots can get rather tetchy when you refer to them as English. And then they will punch you, because they are drunk.

We are traveling using the Rick Steves philosophy, as described in his Europe Through the Backdoor series. According to him, we are supposed to strive to have a "backdoor experience" when we travel, where you meet with the locals and bond with them and understand their ways. I don't know why I'm going along with this, as I do not, in fact, like people. I think it's because, try as I might, I just can't stop giggling whenever he says, "backdoor experience."

Heh. Backdoor experience.

Anyway. Britain. They drive on the left side of the road there. This scares many tourists into not renting a car, even though the really scary part of this isn't the driving. It is the walking. Already, several times, I have, in my practiced city way, reached a street, looked to the left, saw no cars, stepped into the street, and thought, "Oh. I could have just been killed." Both driving and walking are insanely dangerous. Just hide in your B&B and try to digest your pork-laden British breakfast. It's for the best.

Stop 1 - Bath

Pronounced "Bahth."

Bath was, in Roman days, a religious and leisure center, and Romans came from miles around to bathe in natural springs there. They went to take baths. Thus, Bath. A literal-minded people, the British are.

Then, in the 1700s, it became the fashionable place to be, and kings and lords, mistresses in tow, came to wear fashionable clothes and take the waters and prance and gad about. About this time, many gorgeous buildings, houses and shops and whatnot, were built. Time went on, but the buildings remain, because if you live in one of the pretty tourist-friendly buildings, you can't change anything inside or outside without official permission.

It's a gorgeous city, really lovely and fun to walk through. And Bath is determined to keep everything beautiful so that five hundred years from now, humans (or radioactive cockroaches) will be able to come here and feast their eyes (or chitonous sense-appendages) upon their beauty. It's a huge tourist destination, and, like Venice, it's lousy with tourists all the time.

The people of Bath seemed to have a real pride in their city and a desire to show it off, which I found really charming. Apart from the ruins of the Roman baths, the main tourist attraction is the free two hour walking tour, where the city gets explained and shown off by an elite cadre of local volunteers. They walk you around, explain the architecture, and get hilariously angry over some plate glass windows that got installed in the 1860s, or a few oak trees that got planted well over two centuries ago.

It's really not like the US, where a 30 year roof is considered a serious investment. Everything there, even new stuff, is built out of huge blocks of stone in the 1700s style, and made to last, like, forever. When I asked the guide about it, he got a little defensive, as if he thought the Yank was going to pick an argument about it, but I totally wasn't. All of the buildings there are held in trust by the residents, and they want the citizens of Bath centuries from now to be able to have the same lovely town/tourist destination. You may buy a house, but you're only borrowing it from posterity. It'll be here long after you're gone. If you paint your 18th century townhouse purple, you aren't just being an idiot now. You're screwing the tourist trade for centuries to come.

But I can't work my head around your town being this eternal thing. When you move in, you're just the next tenant in a long line, and you'll be there in that stone shell until you die and they scrape you out and someone else gets slotted in, and so on forever. Having grown up in a disposable world, it's a really fascinating thing to see, but a place where every single window and fence is older than my entire country is very unnerving.


Several companies offer day or half-day bus trips from Bath to nearby sights. We took one to Stonehenge, because you have to. We dutifully got the audio tour and walked around the big mossy rocks and got sunburnt and there were sheep everywhere and it was very nice.

Nobody knows why Stonehenge was built, but the audio tour helpfully gave a full selection of theories. One of them was, I swear to god, that Satan built it because Merlin asked him to. I feel that even bringing up this nonsense was a violation of the sacred trust between an audio guide and my ear. Look, I don't want to come across as Mr. 21st Century Super-Rational Know-It-All, but, while I don't know who built Stonehenge, I am reasonably confident that it wasn't Satan.

Also, the bus tour showed us many houses that still have actual thatched roofs. This is taking the history preservation thing way too far. Once the roofing material of choice for the seriously poor, thatched roofs are now insanely expensive to maintain. And yet, they do. So pillory me for having a closed mind, but I going to draw the line here at living under a shelter of black, rotting, delightfully flammable straw.

Our bus tour also went to a small village called Lacock, which is being preserved in as close to its original, charming, medieval appearance as possible. They can't have satellite dishes, but the houses all have cable, so they don't have to live like animals. It's very scenic, and lots of TV and movies get filmed there. There's a million old buildings on the isle of Britain, but very few of them ever got to be Harry Potter's house.

I should have appreciated the village more, but I was too busy giggling, in my unendingly juvenile way, over the pronunciation of the town's name. It's Lay-Cock. Heh. Anyway, the town is very pretty, and you should drive there. It's on the A350, between Ballmouth and Oralshire.

Fun Britain Fact #1

The British are completely addicted to tea, but they don't call it tea. They call it "skag." Just say, "I am really desperate for some skag," and everyone will nod knowingly.