Game Project part 5: Billboards, Culling and Depth Cuing: not just a load of random words…

… though you might be forgiven for thinking that at first 😉 . Why do so many things in computing have such weird names?

In my post about trees, I mentioned that having too many trees in the scene can make the game engine run pretty slowly, because each one contains a lot of polygons and vertices. This could be a problem for me because some of the areas of my game are going to be quite big and contain quite a lot of trees, and I want the game to perform reasonably well even on quite modest computers. So in this post I’m going to talk about some of the tricks that can be used to speed up the rendering of complex 3D scenes, which I’ve been spending a lot of time lately coding up for my game engine.

Culling

The first trick is a pretty simple one: don’t waste time drawing things that aren’t going to be visible in the final scene. This might seem obvious but in fact it’s quite a common approach in simple 3D graphics applications just to throw everything onto the screen and let the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) sort out what’s visible and what isn’t. (My game engine as described in the earlier posts used this method). This still works fine because the GPU is smart enough not to try and draw anything that shouldn’t be there, but it’s inefficient because we’ve wasted time on processing objects and sending them to the GPU when we didn’t need to. It would be better if we could avoid as much of this work as possible.

This is where culling comes in. It refers to the process of removing items from the graphics pipeline as early as possible so as not to waste time on them. There are various methods of doing this, because there are various reasons why items might not be visible:

  1. They’re behind the viewer.
  2. They’re too far to the side to be visible.
  3. From the viewer’s point of view they’re completely hidden behind other objects.

The first two cases aren’t too hard to deal with. We can imagine the area of the world that’s visible to the viewer as a big sideways pyramid shape projecting out into 3D space (often called the view frustum), then we can immediately cull anything that falls completely outside of this pyramid, because it can’t be visible. The details of how this is done are quite complicated and involve projections and various different co-ordinate systems, but it’s reasonably efficient to do.

There are a couple of ways of making the clipping even more efficient:

  1. Instead of examining every vertex of an object to see if it’s in or out of the frustum, it’s common to work with the object’s bounding box instead. This is an imaginary cuboid that’s just big enough to contain all of the object’s 3D points within it. It’s much faster just to clip the 8 points of the bounding box against the frustum, and it still gives us nearly all same benefits as clipping the vertices individually.
  2. If you arrange your 3D scene in a hierarchical form (often called a scene graph), then you can cull large parts of the hierarchy with very little effort. For example, if your scene graph contains a node that represents a house, and various nodes within that that represent individual rooms, and various nodes in each room that represent the furniture, then you can start by clipping the top level “house” node against the frustum. If it’s outside, you can immediately cull all of the room nodes and furniture nodes lower down the hierarchy and not have to spend any more time dealing with them.

(The view frustum only extends a limited distance from the viewer, so it’s also common to cull things that are too far away from the viewer. However, if this distance is too short it can cause far away objects that should be visible to disappear from the scene).

The case where an object is hidden behind another object is a bit trickier to deal with, because there’s usually no easy way to tell for sure whether this is the case or not, and we don’t want to have to get into doing complicated calculations to try and work it out because the whole point of culling things in the first place was to try and avoid doing too many calculations! However, there are exceptions; indoor scenes are a bit more amenable to this sort of optimisation because (for example) if you’ve got a completely solid wall separating one room of a building from another, you know straight away that when the viewer is in the first room, nothing in the second room is ever going to be visible (and vice versa).

Depth Cuing

Sometimes, though, even when we’ve culled everything we realistically can, things still run too slowly. For example, imagine a 3D scene looking down from a hill over a big city spread out down below. There could be hundreds or even thousands of buildings and trees and other objects visible to the viewer, and we can’t just start removing them without the player noticing, but on the other hand it’s a hell of a lot of work for the computer to render them all. What can we do?

One other option is depth cuing. This involves using less detailed models for certain objects when they’re further away from the viewer. For example, I can instruct my tree generator code to use fewer vertices on the stems and trunks, and simpler shapes made up of fewer triangles for the leaves. This wouldn’t look good for trees close to the camera, because you’d notice the shapes looking less curved and more blocky, but for trees in the distance it’s not too bad.

MakeHuman can also use less detailed “proxy” meshes which would be an option for adding depth cuing to human models.

Full detail MakeHuman model (left), and with low resolution proxy mesh (right)

Ideally it’s better if we can generate the less detailed models of the objects automatically, but it’s also possible to make them manually in Blender if necessary.

Billboards

In 3D graphics terms, billboards are a bit like depth cuing taken to the extreme. In this case, instead of replacing a 3D model with a less detailed 3D model, we replace it with a flat rectangle with the object “painted” onto it via a texture – just like a billboard!

Obviously this is quite a drastic step and it only really looks acceptable for objects that are pretty far away from the camera, but the speed improvement can be dramatic. We’re going from having to render a tree model that might contain thousands of vertices and polygons to rendering a single flat surface composed of 4 points and two triangles!

In fact, older 3D games used to make extensive use of “billboard sprites” – all of the enemies and power-ups in Doom were drawn this way, as were the trees and some other things in Super Mario 64. The downsides are that they can look quite pixellated and blocky close up, and also that (unless the game creators included images of the objects from different angles) they look the same no matter what angle you view them from.

Creating texture images for every object that we might want to turn into a billboard would be a lot of work, and the resulting images would take up a lot of space as well. Fortunately, we don’t have to do this; WebGL is quite capable of creating the billboard images on-the-fly when they’re required, using a technique called render-to-texture. Basically, this means that instead of drawing a 3D scene directly onto the screen like normal, we draw it into an image stored on the GPU, and that image can then be used as a texture when drawing future scenes.

That little pixellated tree was my very first attempt at a billboard sprite!

This is an incredibly useful technique. As well as making billboards, it can also be used for implementing things like display screens and mirrors in games, and some 3D systems use it extensively for doing multiple rendering passes so that they can do clever stuff with lights and shading. I’d never used it myself before, but once I’d coded it up for generating the billboards, I was pleased that it seemed to work pretty well.

Up close, it’s pretty obvious which tree is the 3D model and which is the billboard…

… but from a bit of a distance the billboard looks a lot more convincing

One potential problem with both depth cuing and billboards is known as “pop in”. This is the effect you sometimes see when you’re walking forwards in a game and you see a sudden visible “jump” in the scenery coming towards you, because you’ve now got close enough to it that the billboard (or less accurate model) being used for speed has been replaced by the proper 3D model. It’s difficult to get rid of “pop in” altogether, because no matter how good the billboard is, it’s never going to look exactly the same as the original model, even from quite a distance; but we can minimise it by using as good a substitute as possible and by only using it for objects a long way from the viewer.

Phew! That was pretty long and quite technical this time, but I’m really pleased to have got all of this stuff into the game engine and working. (It’s swelled the engine code up to a much larger 3,751 lines, but it’ll be worth it). I’ve tried to make it all as general as possible – there’s a mechanism in the code now for any object in the game world to say to the engine, “Hey, you can replace me with a 256×256 pixel billboard once I’m 20 metres away from the camera!” or “Here’s a less detailed model you can use once I’m 10 metres away!”, so it should be useful for speeding up all sorts of things in the future. Hopefully next time I should be back doing something a bit more fun… I haven’t quite decided what yet, but it’ll probably involve adding more elements to the game world, so stay tuned for that.

But why now?

You might reasonably ask why I chose to do all this optimisation work so early on in the project. After all, there were plenty of more interesting (to most people anyway!) things I could have been working on instead, like adding streets and buildings to my town. Also, the general advice given to programmers is not to get caught up in optimising code too early, because it complicates the code and because you might end up wasting your time if it turns out it would have run fast enough anyway. I had three main reasons for disregarding this advice:

  1. I already knew from similar projects I’d done recently that I was going to need these optimisations or the engine would be nowhere near fast enough.
  2. I also expected that the billboarding was going to be (along with the skeletal animation) one of the trickiest things to code, so I wanted to get them both out of the way as early as possible, because if it turned out that they were beyond my coding ability or beyond what JavaScript could realistically cope with, I’d rather find that out now than when I’ve spent months perfecting the rest of the game only to find out I can’t actually finish it.
  3. In my experience it’s usually easier to build fast code from the start than it is to try and “retrofit” speed to slow code later on. Some optimisations require a certain code architecture to work properly, and it’s not ideal if you find you’ve already written 10,000 lines of code using a completely different architecture.

Anyway, I’m happy. It’s all working now and the coding difficulty should hopefully be mostly downhill from this point onwards.

 

Game Project part 4: Vegetation… that’s what you need

Oops. I didn’t mean to leave it quite so long after part 3 before posting this. I have been doing quite a lot on the game, it’s just either been dull (but necessary) rearranging of the code that I’m not going to bother writing about, or it’s been other coding stuff that I’ll discuss in part 5 (my coding has got a bit out of sync with my posts on here).

Having now got the basics of human models and animation working using WebGL, for the next several posts I’ll be shifting my attention back to creating the game world, and building the tools I need to give the characters a more interesting environment to explore. Starting, in this post, with trees!

As luck would have it, I already had a very useful chunk of tree-related code that I wrote for the Botanic Gardens Station model I made a couple of years ago, and I was able to integrate that code mostly unchanged into my new game engine, allowing me to place trees into the game world. But although the main core of the tree generation code was already there, I wanted to add three major things for this game:

  1. A nice tree editor. I always intended to make one for the Botanics project, but in the end I only used one type of tree for that model, so I did it by just editing numbers in the code until I got it to look vaguely like I wanted it to. For the game I want a more powerful way of editing tree types.
  2. An easy way of placing trees into the game world. I want the ability to place individual trees at specific points, but I also want to be able to generate areas of woodland without having to manually specify the exact location of every single tree. I already had something like this for the Botanics model which I could adapt.
  3. A way to keep the game running fast even with lots of trees in the world. The tree models contain quite a lot of polygons and on less powerful systems (like the Macbook Air that I’m using for much of the game development) things can easily slow down to a crawl when there are lots of trees visible. I need to speed up the code so that it can cope better with this.

Altogether that added up to quite a lot of work, so much so that I’m going to split off the third item into a separate blog post about optimisation and just concentrate on 1 and 2 here.

No. 1: The Larch. The Larch *

I wrote most of the tree editor on the train down to London. All the people standing in the aisles who would have been on the previous train if it hadn’t been cancelled made it a bit hard to concentrate, but luckily this code didn’t require too much thought – it was mostly a case of adding edit controls to a web page and writing code to move values to and from them. The resulting editor isn’t particularly advanced or pretty, but it works and will be far better than trying to create tree types by editing numbers in the code like I was before.

It’s a bit like a very primitive MakeHuman for trees, in the sense that it lets you edit tree models by tweaking meaningful(ish) parameters like the lengths of the branches, the density of the leaves and the overall shape rather than having to worry about the individual vertices and faces like you would in traditional 3D editing. Once I’m done editing each tree, I can copy the text below the tree graphic and paste it into my JavaScript code to include that tree type in the game.

Placing trees using Blender

One downside to generating geometry such as trees within my code is that it means I can’t easily use a 3D editor like Blender to put them in the scene – if I was to model a tree using Blender and put it in my scene and export it, I’d have a full 3D mesh, which isn’t what I want, because I want to generate the meshes for the trees within my JavaScript code instead.

However, I still want to use Blender to build the game scenes. I’m already using it for my terrain, and it has lots of amazing editing tools that will be handy for future parts of the game. I could just leave the trees out of the Blender scenes and put them in some other way (either by building some editing tool of my own or just by tweaking the co-ordinates manually), but that would be more work, and I’d have to remember that there were going to be trees in certain places when editing the other stuff in Blender, so it’s not ideal.

“That’s not a cube, it’s a tree”. “Oh. I see you’ve played Cubey-Treey before!”

Instead I’m just putting placeholder objects in the Blender scene (I’m using cubes but they could be anything), and giving them names that make it obvious they’re meant to be trees, and also include their types. Then I’ve extended the terrain converter program that I wrote way back in post 1 to recognise the placeholders and spit out a list of their positions and types in a form that I can easily incorporate into the game code. That way I can move the trees around and change their types from within Blender like I wanted, but I still get the advantages that come with generating the tree models within my game engine.

But what about whole areas of woodland? As I said earlier on, I didn’t want to have to tediously place every tree manually for those. Once again I’m using the idea of a “placeholder” object in the Blender scene. This time it’s merely a base that trees will later sprout from. The code I wrote for the Botanic Gardens Station model can automatically place trees on this base according to some parameters. I can tell it what types of tree I want in this woodland, how densely they cover the ground, how close they’re allowed to be to each other, etc. and it will generate a woodland for me with very little effort on my part!

My terrain model in Blender. That yellow rectangle is an area that I’m marking out to become a woodland.

Of course, there’s always a risk that I won’t like what it comes up with. If so, I can change a “seed” number and it will place the trees differently, though still obeying the same constraints as before.

Back in the game engine, my character can now go for a walk in the woods.

So now the game has a slightly more interesting landscape! There are still many more elements to be added of course, but my next task is going to be to speed it up. It’s already slowing my laptops down noticeably when I add a woodland to the scene (though my nice big Linux desktop PC with proper graphics card doesn’t even break a sweat), so that needs to be addressed before I go too much further.

* may not actually be a larch

Game Project part 3: An animated discussion

… well, a blog post about animation, at least 😉 .

Last time I left my preliminary game characters to move around the preliminary game world with their legs gliding across the ground and their arms sticking out like scarecrows’. My task since then has been to get them animated properly.

There’s a few different ways of handling animation in 3D. At the most basic level, if you want to make a character model appear to walk, you need to show the model with its arms and legs in different positions each frame to give the illusion of motion. So one method would be to just make a separate 3D model for each animation frame and show them in quick succession, one after another.

This is a pretty simple approach, but it has its drawbacks. Firstly, you’re going to have to make a lot of models! If you want a walking animation that runs at 30fps and is 2 seconds long, you need to edit and export 60 separate models, one for each frame. That’s a lot of work, and if you then want to make a walking animation for a second character, you need to do it all over again. Secondly, a lot of models means a lot of data, and in the case of a web-based game like mine a lot of data is bad news because it’s all got to be transferred over the internet whenever someone plays the game.

These drawbacks can be overcome by using skeletal animation instead. In this case you assign a skeleton (a hierarchy of straight line “bones”) to your character model, as well as a “skin” that describes how the character mesh deforms when the skeleton moves. Then you can create animations simply by determining the shape of the skeleton for each frame, and the model itself will automatically contort itself into the right shape. This means that you don’t need to store a complete new copy of the mesh for each frame, only the angles of each bone, which is a much smaller amount of data. Even better, as long as all your human models share the same skeleton structure, you can apply the same animations to all of them.

A skeleton “walking” in Blender:

Despite the big advantages of skeletal animation, I hadn’t been planning to use it at first for this game, because it requires some slightly complicated calculations that JavaScript isn’t ideally suited to. But once I’d thought about it a bit I realised that realistically I would have to use it to keep the amount of data involved (and the amount of manual effort to create the animations) manageable, so I coded it up. It wasn’t as bad as I feared and the core code to deform a mesh based on a skeleton only came to about 100 lines of JavaScript in the end.

Even small bugs in the animation code can cause effects that surrealist artists would have loved

You can make animations using Blender’s “Pose Mode” and animation timeline, then save them to BVH (BioVision Hierarchy) files. I wrote (yup, you’ve guessed it) yet another converter tool to convert these into binary files for the game engine, as well as extending my previous Collada converter to include the skeleton and skin information from MakeHuman. MakeHuman has various built-in skeletons that you can add to your human. I use the CMU skeleton, partly because at 31 bones it’s the simplest one on offer, and partly because it works with some nice ready made animations that I’ll talk about in a bit.

Here’s a simple animation of a character’s head turning that I made in Blender. It probably won’t win me any awards, but it served its purpose of reminding me how to create animations:

I didn’t, however, make that “walking skeleton” animation that I showed earlier. It came from a great animation resource, the Carnegie Mellon University Motion Capture Database. This contains a huge library of animations captured by filming real people with ping pong balls* attached to them performing various actions, and they’re free to use for any purpose. I will probably use some of these in the game, though they probably won’t have all the animations I need and I’ll still have to make some myself, so I’m a bit worried that the CMU ones will show up mine as being pretty rubbish! Still, we’ll get to that later.

Here’s one of my game characters walking with an animation from the CMU database:

With the animation in place it suddenly starts to look much more like an actual game, though admittedly a pretty dull one at this point!

Next I think I’ll turn my attention to re-organising the code a bit so that it can better manage all the assets required for an actual game – not the most glamourous of tasks but it needs to be done and will be well worth it. Then I’ll probably switch back to working on the game world and add something more interesting than a bare landscape for the characters to explore! Hopefully talk to you again soon.

(In case anyone’s interested, the current JavaScript game code runs to 1,558 lines).

* may not actually be ping pong balls

Game Project part 2: I guess this is character building

Last time I worked out a method of editing terrain using Blender, exporting it and then rendering it using JavaScript and WebGL. This time we’re going to add something a bit more interesting: namely a character!

Now, the characters in my game are going to be humans, and modelling 3D humans is not an easy thing to do unless you’re a pretty experienced 3D artist (which I’m not). Fortunately for me and others like me, there’s a great little free program called MakeHuman that does most of the difficult bits for you! In fact, I would go so far as to say that I probably wouldn’t be building this game at all if it wasn’t for MakeHuman, because I’d be worried about my character models looking so depressingly awful that they’d ruin the whole thing.

Making a male character in MakeHuman

MakeHuman is (to me, at least) one of those tools that’s so amazing that it’s almost difficult to believe it really exists. Basically, you start it up and you’re confronted with a 3D human model and a bunch of different controls (mostly sliders) that you can use to change various properties of the human. The sliders on the initial screen control very important properties that affect the shape of the entire human: here you can control gender (a continuum between male and female rather than a binary choice), age (from 1 to 90 years), height, weight, race (as a mix of African, Asian and Caucasian) and a handful of other things. But if you drill down into the other tabs, there are sliders to change just about every detail you can imagine (for example, there are 6 sliders just in the “Nose size” category, and there are also “Nose size detail” and “Nose features” categories!). The quality of the generated models is very good indeed.

As well as giving you a huge amount of control over the shape of your human model, MakeHuman also provides a wealth of other useful features. On the “Materials” tab you can assign skin and eye textures to the model, and there’s also a “Pose/Animate” tab that controls the character’s pose and allows you to add a skeleton for skeletal animation (more on that in a future post). And unless you’re exclusively making naked, hairless characters (not that there’d be anything wrong with that 😉 ), you’ll definitely want to visit the “Geometries” tab to add some hair and clothes to your model. If MakeHuman has a weakness it’s probably that the selection of hair, clothes and other accessories included is a bit barren, but you can make your own using Blender or download ones other people have made from the MakeHuman Community site, which has a much better selection.

Making a female character in MakeHuman

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I rather like MakeHuman! I’m only really scratching the surface of it here as this is supposed to be a blog about my game rather than about MakeHuman, but there’s plenty more information on the MakeHuman Community website and elsewhere online if you’re interested.

The licensing of MakeHuman is set up so that as long as you use an unmodified official build of the software and export using the built-in exporters, the resulting model is under the Creative Commons Zero licence, allowing you to do anything you want with it, even incorporate it into a commercial product. In order to get my character models out of MakeHuman and into my JavaScript game engine, I decided to use a similar approach to that used for the terrain last time: export to a standard file format and then write a converter program to convert to a compact binary format for the engine.

MakeHuman supports the same OBJ format that I used for exporting the terrain from Blender, but I didn’t use it this time; it doesn’t support all the features of MakeHuman and although this limitation wouldn’t be a problem right now, it will become a problem in the near future. Instead I used Collada, a complex XML-based format that captures a lot more information than OBJ does. Loading Collada files is a lot more involved than loading OBJ, but luckily I already had some C++ code from a previous project that was capable of extracting everything I needed. I modified this to write out the important data (at this point just the basic 3D mesh for the human body as well as accessories like the hair and clothes) to a binary file that I could load into my engine.

I also had to make quite a lot of changes to the engine at this point. When I wrote my last blog post, all it could do was display a single terrain mesh with a single texture mapped onto it. I rewrote the code to include a scene graph system, allowing multiple models to be placed in the 3D world in a hierarchical fashion, and also to support multiple textures. Then I wrote a loader for the models I converted from MakeHuman and added my human to the scene.

Male character in the game world

(The meshes exported from MakeHuman contain a lot of faces and are very detailed, in fact probably too detailed for my purposes. Fortunately it gives you the option of using a a less detailed but more rough looking “proxy” mesh in the place of the detailed mesh, so that’s what I’m doing for my characters, so that file sizes stay small and rendering isn’t too slow. However, the clothes and hair meshes are still very detailed so I suspect I will end up making my own so as not to bog the game down with too many polygons to deal with, as well as to make them look just how I want).

At this point (once I’d ironed out the inevitable bugs) I had a character in my game world, but all it could do was stand there. I wanted some movement, so I added code allowing me to move the human across the terrain using the keyboard, keeping the model at ground level at all times. I also added a very basic “floating camera” that would follow along behind the character. All of this (the models, the physics, the camera) is very preliminary and will need a lot of improvement in the future, but right now it’s quite cool to see the humans and the terrain working together in the game engine like this.

Female character in the game world

“But”, you might say, “Why are their arms sticking out like scarecrows’?”. If I’d been arsed to make a video rather than just post still screenshots, you would probably also comment on the fact that they’re sliding along the ground without their legs moving at all. Fear not! My very next step will be to add some animation to the characters. I was originally planning to have that done for this post but once I realised how much work it would be I decided to split it off, so stay tuned for that.

 

Game Project part 1: Do you think it’s going terrain today?

Last time I talked about the new game project I’m planning to start. I was feeling quite enthusiastic about it and I had a bit of time while I was away in the caravan, so I decided it was time to actually start doing stuff on it!

I won’t say too much about the actual concept of the game yet, and in fact it might still change a bit before it’s finished, but it’s going to be set in a 3D town that you can wander round. So one of the first things to do will be to get the bare bones of a game engine running that can display the 3D world using WebGL, and also get an editing pipeline working so that I can create and edit the environment.

For most of the 3D editing I’m planning to use Blender. It’s free, it’s very powerful, it has a great community, it runs on almost everything and I already know how to use it, so what’s not to like? At some point I might want a more customised editing experience, maybe either writing a plugin or two for Blender or adding an editing mode to the game engine itself, but for the moment vanilla Blender will do.

The first element of the environment that I’m going to focus on is the actual ground, since it’s (literally) the foundation on which everything else will be built. I could model the ground as a standard 3D mesh, but it would be more efficient to treat it as a special case: it’s basically a single plane but with variations in height and texture across it, so we can store it as a 2D array of height values, plus another 2D array of material indices. My plan for the ground was as follows:

  • Add the ground as a “grid” object in Blender, and model the height variations using Blender’s extensive array of modelling tools
  • Export the geometry in OBJ format (a nice simple format for doing further conversions on)
  • Write a converter program in C++ to convert the OBJ file into a compact binary format containing the height values for each point and the material values for each square
  • Create a single texture image containing tiled textures for all the materials used
  • Write JavaScript code to parse the binary file and actually display the terrain!

(We could load and parse the OBJ file directly in JavaScript, but this would be significantly larger, and size matters when working in a browser environment, because every data file has to be downloaded over the internet when running the game).

Editing terrain in Blender

The terrain work went reasonably smoothly once I got started. Editing the heights as a Blender grid worked well, with the proportional editing tool being very useful. Writing the C++ converter tool didn’t take too long, and the binary terrain files it creates are about 10 times smaller than the original OBJ files exported from Blender, so it’s well worth doing the conversion.

Terrain rendered in WebGL

Writing a WebGL renderer for the terrain was a bit more involved. The main problem I ran into was an unexpected one: I could see dark lines appearing along the edges of the terrain “tiles” when they should have joined up with each other seamlessly. I eventually traced this to my decision to store all of the textures for the ground in a single image. This works fine for the most part, but I hadn’t foreseen that it would cause problems with the filtering used by WebGL to make the textures look smoother at different scales. This causes a slight blurring effect and when you have multiple textures side-by-side in a single image, it causes their edges to “bleed” into each other slightly.

I solved this by putting 4 copies of each texture into the image, in a 2×2 layout, and mapping the centre section onto the terrain, so that the blurred edges are never used. This reduces the amount of texture data that can be stored in a single image, but it’s still better than storing each texture in a separate image and having to waste time switching between them when rendering.

Now that it’s done I’m reasonably happy with how it looks. I was a bit worried that the height differences might distort the textures too much, but they actually don’t seem to. I do plan to add some additional texture images for variety, and it should also look a lot better once some of the other elements of the scene (buildings, roads, vegetation, etc.) are in place.

Another shot of the rendered terrain

The WebGL renderer is still in its very early stages; right now all it can do is render a single 3D terrain object with a plain sky blue background, illuminated by a single directional light source, and allow me to move the camera around for testing. Obviously it’ll need a lot of other stuff added to enable it to show everything else required for the game, as well as to make things look a bit nicer and run a bit faster – but we’ll get onto that next time.

(Incidentally, the texture images are all from textures.com, a great resource for anyone doing anything 3D related. You can get loads of textures of all sorts from there and they’re free to use for most purposes).

New game project

I’ve decided it’s time to start a new game project. I haven’t done one (well, not a proper one) in a few years but things now seem to be nudging me back in that direction.

A screenshot from the first full game I created. Yes, it’s a fan-made Dizzy game for the Spectrum.

Since the Union Canal Unlocked project finished a year or so ago, I’ve been working on a 3D project in my spare time, but I’ve become frustrated that it’s not really going anywhere, at least not very fast. I had very ambitious goals for it and maybe I’m just starting to realise how long it would realistically take for me to achieve them. I may go back to it at some point, but right now I’m getting tired of pouring time and effort into code that may not actually produce any interesting output for several months or even years.

At the same time, a few things have happened that reminded me how much I used to enjoy making games. I read through an old diary from the time when I was making my first one (well, the first one I actually finished), back in 1994, which seems impossibly long ago now. It brought back the feeling of achievement and progress I used to get from making another screen or another graphic. I’ve also recently played through a game that a friend made a few years ago, and another friend started studying game design just a few weeks ago. It feels like the right time to go back to it.

My second game, also for the Spectrum. This was going to have a ridiculously ambitious 56 levels but I only got around to making 6

Of course, it’s going to be challenging to find the time, especially with our new arrival in the household! But in a way that just makes me more determined to use my scarce time more effectively, on something that I’ll actually find rewarding, rather than trying to force myself to work on something I’ve lost interest in.  Even if I only manage to do a little bit each week, I’ll get there eventually.

I have a rough plan for the new game, which will no doubt get refined and altered a lot once I get started on it. It’s going to be my first 3D game (except for a little joke one I made late last year), something I’ve shied away from in the past mainly due to the additional complexity of 3D asset creation, but after actually completing some 3D models in the last few years, I feel a bit more confident that I can do it, and I think it will fit my concept better.

My third game, this time a historical Scottish game for DOS PCs. I only finished one level of this one

I’ve decided to write it to run in a browser, using JavaScript and WebGL. This will have its pros and cons. On the plus side, it’s technology I already have quite a bit of experience of; the game will automatically work on pretty much every platform without much extra effort on my part; people won’t have to install it before playing it; and not using a ready-made game engine will give me freedom to do everything exactly the way I want (plus I find tinkering with the low level parts of the code quite fun!). On the minus side it likely won’t run as fast as it would have as a “native” app, though I don’t see this being a huge problem in practice as what I have in mind shouldn’t be too demanding; and building the engine from scratch will take quite a lot of work.

To begin with I’m just going to target computers rather than tablets and phones. The control system I have in mind will work with keyboards and mice but not so well with touchscreens. At some point later on I might add a touch control scheme since most of the rest of the code should work fine on touch devices.

“Return of the Etirites”, probably the best game I ever made. It’s basically a rip-off of Mystic Quest on the Gameboy

I’m intending to write a series of posts on here to chronicle my progress. Of course, it’s always a bit dangerous to commit to something like this publicly, but that’s part of my reason for wanting to do it… I hope it will encourage me to actually do some stuff and not just think about it! And it will give me something nice and constructive to write blog posts about, instead of Brexit 😉 . It might take me a while to get the first post up, because as anyone who’s used WebGL (or done any OpenGL coding without using the fixed pipeline) knows, it takes quite a lot of code to even display anything at all. But once the basics are done it should be possible to build on it incrementally and progress a bit more rapidly.

Wish me luck!

 

Brexit gets even more insane

The developing Brexit process has reached the point now where it’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m increasingly frightened for the future of the country I live in, it would be a great thing to settle down and watch with a big bowl of popcorn.

I honestly never thought I would see such monumental, terrifying incompetence from a British government. Sure, I haven’t been the biggest fan of any of the Westminster administrations of the last few decades, I didn’t vote for any of them and I’ve disagreed with all of them on plenty of things, but up until a couple of years ago I would have grudgingly admitted that they’d kept the country functioning and reasonably stable.

Not anymore, it would seem. A few months ago when I inflicted my last Brexit blog post on the world, I still believed (as I said in that post) that a catastrophic “no deal” Brexit probably wouldn’t happen; that sanity would prevail in the end and some sort of deal would be done, even if it was just the bare minimum to prevent disruption on a huge scale. But my hopes of that happening have been fading ever since, and it’s getting hard to see how the “no deal” scenario can be avoided now.

On the face of it it seems unbelievable that a mainstream political party could be so irresponsible – just imagine how the tabloids would react if a Labour or SNP government were pressing ahead with a policy that had a significant chance of causing food and medicine shortages! But Theresa May seems determined not to negotiate in any meaningful way with the EU. Last week, after a bruising humiliation in Salzburg, she announced that it was either going to be her Chequers deal or no deal. And since the EU had already rejected Chequers, and neither side appears willing to give any ground at all, that can only mean no deal.

What’s most striking to me is how unnecessary this all is. Even if you take the view that the referendum result is sacred and can’t under any circumstances be challenged (which I don’t personally agree with, primarily due to the lying and overspending by the Leave side), there was no need for things to become such a mess. The only reason we’ve ended up here is because before the negotiations even got going, Theresa May set out a number of completely unnecessary “red lines” that effectively ruled out any of the deals the EU might have been willing to offer us, and has refused to compromise an inch on them since. She then proceeded to trigger Article 50, starting the clock counting down before even getting internal agreement on what sort of deal we should be trying for, and wasted a large chunk of the very limited negotiating time by calling an unnecessary general election (which of course backfired spectacularly when she lost her majority).

A lot of people are blaming the EU for not giving us what we want, but that’s not a view I have any sympathy with. Firstly, they’re not throwing us out, we chose to leave – Britain ultimately set this chain of events in motion itself. Secondly, it was widely predicted before the vote that the EU would hold all the cards in the negotiation and wouldn’t compromise on its “four freedoms”, so anyone whose post-Brexit plans relied on the EU rolling over and giving us everything we wanted was pretty stupid. Thirdly, the people who are now moaning about the EU being inflexible and “punishing” us are by and large the same people who would have hit the roof if the EU had bent the rules for a non-member (let’s say Turkey, for example) while we were still a member, so I find it hard to take anything they say seriously.

And fourthly, I don’t actually think the EU have behaved badly towards us under the circumstances. Despite all the antagonism from certain British politicians, they’ve offered a choice of future relationships that they would accept, giving us at least as good terms as any other “third country” enjoys. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

It’s been depressing, but at the same time strangely impressive, to see that every time someone has tried to offer a possible escape route from the impending disaster, our politicians quickly swoop in to block off that possibility and make sure there truly is no way out. It’s not even confined to the Tories: for example, John McDonnell recently stipulated that any “People’s Vote” on the Brexit deal should not include an option to remain in the EU, thus completely nullifying any point of holding such a vote in the first place.

It’s easy just to blame the “extremists” on both sides of the house for all this, but I’ve also been less than impressed by how the supposed “moderates” have conducted themselves lately. We’re constantly told that most MPs supported Remain and most of them want what’s best for the country… but where are they, and what are they doing to try to stop the no deal disaster? It seems as if, like much of the media, they are terrified of criticising Brexit in case they alienate people who voted Leave. But by not speaking out in stronger terms, they’re lending a sort of legitimacy to the process – people might reasonably think, “Well, if the majority of MPs are going along with this, and if the BBC portrays it as being just as legitimate as any other option, it can’t be that bad, can it? Those Remainers must just be scaremongering”.

Maybe most of all, though, I wonder what the hell the drivers of Brexit are hoping to get out of this at the end. I just can’t see a scenario where it ends well for them. If “no deal” does happen, and if it’s even half as bad as most of the warnings say it’s going to be, their careers are surely finished. Maybe they’re relying on being able to blame it all on the EU, but I’m not convinced that will work – for a while polls have been showing that most people already think the government is doing a bad job of handling Brexit, and that percentage is only going to increase if the country gets plunged into chaos at the end of March. Governments tend to get blamed for the bad stuff that happens on their watch even when it isn’t really their fault (e.g. New Labour and the 2008 financial crisis), and in this case it undeniably IS their fault.

Or maybe they don’t care about their own popularity. One theory is that they just want out of the EU so that they can implement their dream of a Britain closely aligned with the USA, with regulations slashed and the NHS sold off to American healthcare providers. I wouldn’t put it past them, but I’m still not convinced it’s going to work – unless they plan to let things get so bad that they actually suspend democracy, there’s going to be an election at some point, and the party that brought on the chaos will surely be annihilated. Will they have enough time to get their plan past the point of no return before that happens? Would they even have enough support in the current parliament for it? Who knows.

Another theory is that no-one has a clue what to do because no-one (including the leading Leave campaigners) ever expected Leave to win, so they’re just making it up as they go along right now. After the shambles of the last few weeks, this seems by far the most likely explanation.

My take on “Codes of Conduct” for software projects

The news that the Linux kernel development project has adopted a new code of conduct has prompted a lot of comment. As someone who’s been a software developer for all my working life and who’s written about vaguely related stuff before, I thought I would stick my oar in as well, at least to address what I think are some widespread misconceptions.

First off, I’ll say a bit about myself and my own experience. I’ve been a software professional for 16 years. During that time I seem to have impressed a lot of the people I’ve worked with. I have more than once “rescued” projects that were previously thought to be doomed and turned them into success stories. Collaborators who have worked with me in the past have frequently requested to work with me specifically when they approach my organisation for further consultancy. Last year I was promoted to a fairly senior technical position, and also last year I did my first paid freelance project, receiving glowing praise from the client for the way I handled it.

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m normally a pretty modest person and believe me, talking about myself in those terms doesn’t come easily. I’m saying it because it’s going to be relevant to what I say next.

I’m also, by pretty much any definition, a snowflake. (That’s the term these days, isn’t it?). I don’t like confrontation and I tend to avoid it as much as I can. I find it hurtful being on the receiving end of harsh words or blunt criticism and I also tend to avoid situations where this is likely to happen. When it does happen I find I need to retreat and lick my wounds for a while before I feel ready to face the world again.

I didn’t choose to be this way, and if I’d been given the choice I wouldn’t have chosen it, because to be honest it’s pretty damned inconvenient. But it’s the way I am, the way I’ve always been for as long as I can remember. (Again, this may not seem relevant yet, but trust me, I’m bringing it up for a reason).

It’s maybe not surprising, then, that I’m broadly supportive of any initiative that tries to make software development a friendlier place. I don’t follow Linux kernel development closely enough to have a strong opinion on it, but some open source communities certainly have acquired reputations for being quite harsh and unpleasant working environments. This probably is a factor in my choosing not to contribute to them – although I have contributed a bit to open source in the past, these days if I want to code for fun I prefer to just tinker with my own solo projects and avoid all that potential drama and discomfort.

Not everyone agrees, of course, and sites like Slashdot are awash with comments about how this is a disaster, how it’s going to destroy software quality, and how it’s the beginning of the end of Linux now that the Social Justice Warriors have started to take over. I’m not going to attempt to address every point made, but I would like to pick up on a few common themes that jumped out at me from reading people’s reactions.

Fear of harsh criticism makes people deliver

The main justification put forward for keeping the status quo seems to be that people will up their game and produce better code if they’re afraid of being flamed or ridiculed. I don’t believe this works in practice, at least not for everyone.

I remember years ago when I was learning to drive, my first instructor started acting increasingly like a bully. When I made mistakes (as everyone does when they’re learning something new), he would shout at me, swear at me and taunt me by bringing up mistakes I’d made weeks before. But far from spurring me on to improve my driving, this just wound me up and made me stressed and flustered, causing me to make even more mistakes, in turn causing him to throw more abuse my way, and so on. It got so bad that I started to dread my driving lessons and when I was out in the car with him I lost all confidence and became terrified of making even the tiniest mistake.

After a few weeks I got fed up with this so I phoned the driving school and told them I wanted a different instructor, someone who would build up my confidence rather than destroy it. They assigned me to a great instructor, an experienced and patient older man who I got on very well with, and the contrast was dramatic. My driving improved straight away and I started to actually look forward to my lessons. Within a few weeks I was ready to take my test, which I passed on the first attempt. I always remember this experience when I hear someone express the opinion that abuse will make people perform better.

Of course, everyone responds differently to these situations. I knew someone who said he was glad his driving instructor shouted at him because, after all, it was potentially a life-or-death situation and this would help him to take it seriously. So I’m not saying everyone’s experience will be the same as mine, just pointing out that not everyone responds positively under that sort of pressure.

Furthermore, someone who goes to pieces in the face of abuse might still be perfectly capable in other circumstances. I was able to drive just fine once I got away from that first instructor, and since then I’ve driven all over the country, driven minibuses and towed caravans without incident.

People will use the code of conduct to blow grievances out of all proportion and seek attention

Personally, as someone who hates conflict and hates being the centre of attention, I can’t imagine anything I’d be less likely to do than go out of my way to draw attention and publicity to myself. If anything I think I’d more likely be far too reticent about seeking help if someone was violating a code of conduct, and I imagine it would be the same for most of the people who would actually benefit the most from the code.

That’s not to say everyone would be the same, of course. There might well be a vocal minority who would act in this way, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to improve things for people who genuinely do need it. In any case, whether a given behaviour really constitutes gratuitous “attention seeking” or whether it’s out of proportion is very much a subjective judgement.

Emotionally fragile people have nothing to offer anyway

I hope my description above of my own working life has shown that we do have something to offer. I think this belief is due to confusion between “people who are good at software development” and “people who are good at being loud and obnoxious”. If you create a working environment so toxic that 70% of people can’t cope with it and leave, that doesn’t mean you’ve retained the 30% best developers, it means you’ve retained the 30% of people best equipped to thrive in an abusive environment. I see no reason to think there’s going to be much correlation there.

I think a similar argument can be made about the contentious “safe spaces” I’ve written about before. Many of their opponents argue that it’s healthier to be exposed to a diverse range of different points of view rather than living in a bubble. I completely agree, but I disagree about how best to achieve that. A complete free-for-all isn’t necessarily a reliable way to foster open debate – you can easily end up with a situation where the loudest, most abrasive people come to dominate and everyone else is reluctant to express a contrary opinion for fear of being abused and ridiculed. If you genuinely want (and I’m not convinced many of the detractors actually do want this) to hear as wide range a of opinions as possible, you need an environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves.

Maybe if there were unlimited good software developers in the world you could make a case for only working with the emotionally hardy ones and avoiding the possible difficulties of dealing with us “snowflakes”. But there aren’t. In most places developers are highly in demand, so it makes no sense to dismiss people who might actually be able to make a valuable contribution.

It’s not up to us to accommodate your emotional frailties, it’s up to you to get over them

Of all the views expressed in these discussions, I think this is the one that irks me the most. It implies that anyone who reacts badly to harsh words and insults could easily “get over it” if they chose to do so, and that just doesn’t tally with my experience at all.

I’ve spent many decades trying to “get over” the problems I’ve had. I’ve spent a five figure sum of money on therapy. I’ve read more self help books than I care to remember and filled notebooks cover-to-cover with the exercises from them. I’ve forced myself into numerous situations that terrified me in the hope that they would be good for me. I’ve practised mindfulness, attended support groups, taken medication, taken up exercise, talked things over with friends and family, spent long hours in painful introspection. You name it, I’ve probably tried it.

And you know what? I’m a lot better than I was. At the start of the process I could barely even hold a conversation with someone unless I knew them well, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to hold down a job. Now I function reasonably well most days, I do pretty well at work and I have a decent social life as well. But despite all this progress, I’m still pretty emotionally sensitive, and I still don’t cope well with insults and intimidation. Maybe I’ll get even better in the future (I certainly hope to and intend to), but I suspect I will always find that kind of situation unpleasant enough to want to avoid it when possible, even if I no longer find it as debilitating as I once did.

So it makes me pretty angry when people who don’t even know me assume that, because I still get upset more easily than most, I obviously just haven’t tried hard enough. It’s noticable that these people almost never mention how you should “get over it”. Some of them seem to just assume that if you keep putting yourself in the situation that upsets you then you’ll eventually adjust and be OK with it, but this has never worked particularly well for me – as with the driving lessons example I gave above, it typically just leads to me feeling more stressed and harassed.

Basically, I think this one is an example of the just-world fallacy. It’s uncomfortable to realise that some people might struggle with certain situations through no fault of their own and that there might not be any easy solution open to them. It raises all kinds of awkward questions about whether we should be making adjustments to help them and so on, not to mention the fear of “maybe this could happen to me too some day”. It’s much neater to pretend that those people must have done something to deserve their problems, or at the very least that they must be “choosing” to forego a perfectly good solution.

Whilst I do have a tiny bit of sympathy for some of the objections to the way things are going (I wouldn’t personally relish software development becoming yet another field where social skills and confidence are valued over actual technical ability, for example), overall I find it really hard to take most of the objectors seriously. They moan and whinge about what a disaster it would be to have to treat others with basic civility, then go on to accuse the other side of being over-sensitive and blowing things out of proportion. They heap disdain on people for having problems they never asked for and almost certainly don’t want, but fail to put forward any useful suggestions on how to deal with those problems.

My Bucket List

I’ve been going through a rough patch again lately and I feel like I could easily end up losing sight of what’s important, as well as forgetting the progress I’ve already made. So, inspired by seeing a friend’s bucket list on Facebook, I decided to make one of my own.

I’ve included a lot of stuff that I have already achieved, but that’s deliberate, to remind me of how good the last few years have actually been and what I can do if I put my mind to it. Conversely the stuff that’s not yet ticked off is a little sparse right now, but I’m sure more stuff will come to mind to flesh it out with now that I’ve got this list.

So, without further ado, on with the things! They’re not in any particular order, I couldn’t be bothered sorting them by importance or anything, and in any case my idea of their relative importance probably changes with my mood. I also haven’t set myself an end date of a particular significant birthday like some people do; my next “significant” birthday is uncomfortably close already and so wouldn’t give me much time to make progress.

First the ones I’ve already achieved:

Get marrieddone 05/2016

Buy housedone 05/2014
Take part in Beltane – done 04/2014, and every year since

All painted and costumed up and ready to go for my first time as a Torchbearer

Release a smartphone app – done 2014
Learn 3D modelling – done 2016
Learn to code in JavaScript – done 2015
See my favourite bands live – done 06/2016
Do a paid freelance project – done 2017
Create a blog – done 09/2011
Get promoted at work – done 07/2017
Go on all the big rides at Alton Towers – done 09/2015

I know it’s blurred, but that gives you a better impression of what it actually looks like.

Go hostelling around Europedone 2012-2017
Go skinny dipping – done 08/2014
Run 5kmdone 09/2015
Run 10km – done 09/2016
Explore Scotland Street Tunnel – done 07/2014
Old toilet blocks in Scotland Street Tunnel

Explore Botanic Gardens Station – done 11/2014
Explore East Fortune Hospital – done 08/2013
DSC_3600

Explore Barnton Quarry bunker – done 02/2005 and 06/2014
Visit a disused tube station – done 12/2016
Learn to play the complete Moonlight Sonata – done 1997
Learn to play Chopin’s “Black Keys” Etude – done 2013
Learn to play Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu – done 2013
Learn to play Bach’s Fugue no. 20 – done 2013
Learn to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue – done 2015
Visit Croatia – done 05/2013
Visit Tropical Islands Resort – done 07/2017
Handle a large house spider – done 11/2016

Now the ones still to come:

Have a child – due 09/2018!
Climb the main hills of the Pentlands
Visit Italy
Go to a ghost hunting night
Play a pipe organ
Learn to speak German
Finish writing my 3D software
Make some 3D environments with my software
Get weight down to 80kg (and keep it there)
Learn Chilly Gonzales “Solo Piano II”
Write a book

Should keep me busy for a while 🙂 .

Brexit: two wasted years

In a couple of weeks time we head off on our biennial midsummer trip to Sweden. That means it’s nearly two years since the last one, which also means it must be nearly two years since the Brexit vote, since I vividly remember flying out there the morning after the referendum. To avoid getting too depressed about the way things are going I’ve tried to avoid thinking about it too much this year, but that has mostly been a total failure, so I’m going to share the pain by ranting about it here instead.

To begin with I was (as you can probably tell from my earlier writing on the subject) disappointed that Leave won, and I thought we would be worse off outside the EU, but I actually wasn’t expecting it to be a total disaster. I thought that the government would just get on with the painstaking process of negotiating an agreement with the rest of Europe, compromising where necessary, and at the end of it day-to-day life would stay much the same for most people in the UK, just with a slightly poorer economy and maybe more annoyances for those who wanted to live and work abroad.

How wrong I was. Nearly two years on, I’m now seriously worried that it is shaping up to be a total, life-destroying disaster after all.

Earlier this week, a leaked report suggested that the UK would start to run out of food, medicine and fuel within days of a “no deal” Brexit. Predictably this has been dismissed as scaremongering, but it’s worth pointing out two facts about it: firstly, it originated from within the government, not from the EU or from some pro-Remain think tank; and secondly, this wasn’t even the worst of the possible scenarios they studied, it was the middle one of the three!

Brexiters in general seem unconcerned by this. It’s unthinkable that food shortages could ever happen in a modern western democracy, they say. And they’re absolutely right. It is (or at least was until now) unthinkable, but the point they’re missing is that it’s not unthinkable because of some innate law of the universe that guarantees a ready supply of all life’s essentials for rich countries no matter what happens. It’s unthinkable because a huge amount of effort has gone into building mind-bogglingly complicated legal frameworks and agreements that allow these things to flow as freely as possible, frameworks that now work so well that most of us barely ever stop to think about where the necessities we rely on actually come from. In Britain’s case many of those frameworks are now deeply integrated with the EU, and whether you like that or not, that is where we are right now. And the Brexiters have voted to tear those frameworks apart without, apparently, having any idea what to replace them with.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying (as some people do) that Brexit is inherently impossible, or that every possible version of it would be utterly catastrophic. There are two ways Britain could have left the EU without destroying itself in the process. The first would have been to seek a Norway-type deal, still fairly closely integrated with the EU without actually being a full member. This would have its disadvantages in that we would have to follow a lot of EU rules without having much say over them, but it would have been by far the least disruptive option and would have avoided scenarios like the ones the leaked report warns of.

The second option would have been to make a more complete withdrawal from the EU’s institutions, but to do it gradually enough that there was time for the UK to develop its own alternatives (for example, to build the necessary customs infrastructure and associated legal frameworks). Most experts (yeah, yeah, I know they’re not popular in Brexit Britain) seem to think it would take at least 5 years, if not considerably longer, to do this in a way that would allow a smooth transition to life outside the EU.

Unfortunately, the government has repeatedly ruled out the first option due to its various “red lines” (on trade deals, freedom of movement, ECJ jurisdiction, you name it), and we don’t have the 5+ years it would take to implement the second option properly. We have 9 months. Because as soon as the government triggered Article 50 in March last year, they started the clock counting down to March 2019, at which time we’ll be out, deal or no deal.

This two year period would have been far too short to make all the preparations required for the clean break with the EU that the government claims to want even if they hadn’t already pissed away more than half of it fighting like rats in a sack and achieving the square root of bugger all (which they now have). In my view it was criminally irresponsible of them to trigger Article 50 without first at least laying the groundwork for the extra agencies and institutions that a UK outside the EU was inevitably going to need, and even more so to trigger it without even having a coherent and realistic plan for what to do next.

It’s difficult now to see any way out of the corner they’ve boxed themselves into. If we end up leaving the EU without a deal there will be chaos, that much is obvious. Even if we negotiated a free trade deal similar to Canada’s, for example, we’ll still be screwed come March next year, because 9 months is just nowhere near enough time to replace all of the EU institutions we’d be leaving with new UK versions. It simply can’t be done. It seems increasingly obvious that the only way to avoid disaster now is to negotiate to stay in the single market and customs union, either temporarily or permanently, but the government still refuses (publicly at least) to recognise this.

It makes me wonder what on earth they are trying to achieve and what they think is going to happen. Are they just genuinely shambollic and incompetent, lurching from one crisis to the next, knowing on some level that they’re doomed but forever too distracted grappling with this week’s immediate problems to fully acknowledge it? Are they so deluded that they really think the rest of the EU is going to cave in and give them everything they want, despite all evidence to the contrary, not even bothering to prepare for the possibility that they might not get it? Or do they think that the chaotic aftermath of a no-deal Brexit will enable them to get away with policies that no-one would ordinarily vote for, privatising the NHS and slashing the welfare state and human rights protections to the bone, relying on the people rallying round to uncomplainingly make sacrifices in a time of national crisis?

Or is the whole thing just a bluff? Are they going to bring the country right to the very brink, close enough that no-one can fail to see what a terrible idea Brexit really is, so that when they cancel it at the last minute most people will quietly breathe a sigh of relief rather than getting angry about the referendum result not being respected?

Much as I would love that last explanation to be true, I think the truth is more likely some mixture of the first three. If so, I think the strategy of using Brexit to enable extreme right wing policies is a very risky one. Whatever the reason, if we end up having (entirely avoidable) food and medicine shortages on the Tories’ watch, they’re surely finished. Their reputation for being the responsible, prudent, safe option (not that it was ever deserved to begin with of course) would be in tatters and whoever stood against them in the next election would probably win a landslide victory.

They may think that a compliant press and frequent rousing calls for the country to patriotically unite behind them would help them weather that storm, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Brexit isn’t some unavoidable natural disaster or an attack from outside, it’s completely self-inflicted and unnecessary. I can’t see many Remainers in 2019 thinking “Well, I didn’t want Brexit in the first place, but now that the Tories have made a monumental, unprecedented balls-up of the whole thing and brought my country to its knees, I’d better throw my support behind them”. I can tell you right now, I certainly won’t be.

Oh well. It’s an interesting time to be following politics, that’s for sure. And despite the doom-and-gloom tone of most of this piece, I still don’t actually think a chaotic “no deal” exit is the most likely outcome. It’s certainly a real possibility, but my money would be on a humiliating climb-down to a messy last-minute compromise, when it finally dawns on the Tories what a “cliff edge” Brexit would really mean for the country and, more to the point, for their own careers. I hope I’m right.