Tuesday, November 29, 2016

No Man's Sky Foundation update: Survival impressions

No Man's Sky has had a rather large update after months of silence. I've been playing around with it, and here's what I think so far:

1) Every single action in the game now has a lot of weight behind it, and I mean every...single...action.

The first half dozen planets I spawned on before giving up were all extreme temperature / weather conditions. If you don't craft your scope quickly and *really* look in every direction before setting out, you're going to run out of life support and die. If you don't zig zag looking for the smallest outcrop of rocks overhead in order to ward off radioactive / cold / heat effects, you're going to end up exposed and die. If you make the wrong choice in terms of the elements you pursue first, you're going to die. If you stagger your last to the one single chunk of heridium on the planet so you can take off, only to realise it's a thin outcrop laid over a regular one and you fall short by like 6 units...you're going to die, and yes this happened to me twice.

The average distance I spawned in from my ship tended to be around 14 or so minutes walking time, so factor in trips in various directions to harvest resources and you have quite the challenge. I eventually *just* managed to crack it on a radioactive hellhole, and got the ship up and running with my last sliver of life support about to keel over.

Getting that damn ship repaired, stocked up with loot and - finally - off the ground was one of the hardest and most satisfying things I've done in a game.

And then I was immediately shot down by space pirates.

2) Taking off now requires 200 units of Plutonium, which is now hard to come by. That's right - you get to take off once, and then your thruster is empty. Micromanaging where you take off / land has never been more important - the suit upgrade down below may be incredibly tempting, but there's no plutonium in sight - should you land and not find any, you're stranded and locked into a load/die/load/die loop.

Bases with landing pads are now crucial, as well as using them as anchors of operation until you can establish a base of your own.

3) Asteroid mining is now important as you're likely to run out of fuel when moving large distances between planets. Which also means you're probably going to run into a few pirates and oh god now you're dead and you've lost everything aaaargh

4) Space stations / buildings / whatever now have more alien frog things in them, which is cool.

5) I've had a brief dabble with base building in Creative mode (my main character on Survival is spending their days living in a cave eating moss off the floor and the occasional pink bug) and it seems to work well - there's a lot of categories, a lot of options and a fair amount of customisation. Seems like a mashup between Fallout 4 and Subnautica, which is fine by me. I haven't touched the Freighter stuff yet but it all looks good so far, and being able to hire alien frog things and tie upgrades to said frogs can only help.

6) The animals look a little bit less like "here's what happens when you glue ten random body parts together".

7) Minerals and resources in the game world look more distinct now, and act a *tiny* bit more like how you'd expect them to in sort-of-but-not-quite real life. Terrain generation seems to have become a touch more adventurous, too.

8) I was expecting (hoping) that the base would, at best, be a huge ship so it can go with you - no point having a game about exploration and moving forward if you immediately go and live on a dustbowl. They exceeded expectations by having both land and space bases and tying them together with teleporters so it doesn't matter what part of the Galaxy you're in. This is awesome.

And hey, if you WANT to just pitch sticks on a dustbowl, you can do that too. Don't tell us what to do, maaaaan.

All in all, I'd give this 8 lovely man beards out of 10.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Not the ending I was looking for...

I recently picked up the doctor who graphic novel humble bundle forgot to post this blog an absolute age ago, and was particularly looking forward to "The girl who loved doctor who". The short version of the story is the doctor of the comics crosses over into our universe and is mistaken for Matt Smith,  goes to a convention and spends most of his time with a ten year old called Emma.

It comes out in the wash that she's being bullied by a rather large douchecanoe, and of course we're expecting to see him get his just desserts at the end. Imagine my surprise when - spoilers - the "solution" to this problem is that Emma lures him to a nearby house and has him punch her in the face really, really hard. The idea is that the school head lives there, sees this take place and kicks him out of school.

In practice, we see a really rather shocking panel of this girl getting a right old fist in the face which is totally at odds with the whimsy of the previous 30 something pages of comic, and a headmistress telling this guy he's on the "verge" of being suspended.

The verge. So he could in theory get away with it and stuff her head down the toilet on Monday. Maybe it's just me but I think I'd have preferred to see the TARDIS land on him or something.

What is this resolution telling us? That the doctor who inspired way is to roll over and allow the antagonist to strike the first blow but it's okay really because you scored a (worthless) moral victory?

The last panel is Emma trying to smile with an "I won" expression, except that's hard to do with one eye punched in. Am I to think that if the doctor in this comic had witnessed this take place he'd be all "Yeah that was a great plan, well done?"

Of course he wouldn't.

Great story with clever ideas, but a sour ending which suggests the only way a small ten year old girl can triumph over a large and thuggish brute is to take one for the team.

No thanks.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

20 years of tinnitus

I realised today that it's 20 years since my tinnitus first kicked in. 20 years is a long time to put up with anything, and tinnitus is definitely at the higher end of the "what a pain in the arse" scale. What follows is a ramble about how much pain my arse is in. Uh, or something.

Hi, have some tinnitus. No backsies

[20 years ago title card, set to royalty free MIDI music because I'm cheap]

I was going about my business when I first noticed a slight hissing in one of my ears. I didn't listen to loud music; I didn't walk around with headphones jammed on my head. Oh, that's odd, I thought to myself and decided to ignore it as it'd be gone by tomorrow.

Except it wasn't gone, not the day after or the week, or indeed month / year / decade after it either.

The first time I really felt the burn from my newfound companion, tinnitus - some six months after it became clear that it wasn't going away but was "sort of" okay to deal with so eh whatever - was my first venture into a rave club. We're talking mid 90s here, so you're pretty much talking 50ft high bass monster speakers and glow sticks and shit. A fine time was had by all, apart from the part where I woke up the next morning and the vaguely annoying faint hiss had turned into A MASSIVE FUCKING WALL OF SCREECHING HELL WRAPPED AROUND MY HEAD IN BARBED WIRE.

Imagine 10 headphones strapped to your skull, turned up to max volume, and all of them playing the shrieks from C64 / Spectrum loading screens simultaneously. I literally (as in, literally, and not metaphorically) couldn't hear anything outside of the noise, which was slightly terrifying if I'm being honest. You could have jammed your mouth to my ear and screamed at the top of your lungs and I still wouldn't have heard it. It stayed like that for something close to 2 solid days, and I never went to a bass-filled rave again after that.

Meanwhile, the tinnitus settled into a familiar swoosh / hiss / occasional irritating beeping that sounded like someone tapping out Morse code. At any given time, I'd be stuck with 5 to 8 different noises, all at once, permanently, from morning to night. More often than not, it'd be just churning away at a low level in the background but occasionally it'd just ramp right up and stay that way for a few hours. to add to the fun, every now and again a randomly selected ear would pop and go very distant, like you'd been underwater.

So, er, yeah. Great?

Hospital fun

I ended up going to hospital and having brain scans, to be on the safe side. Tinnitus wasn't understood very well at the time, and it was suggested I might have otosclerosis. The doctors claimed that the earbones would fuse together and I'd go stone-cold deaf, yet still continue to hear the tinnitus.

I'm pretty sure you can't hear tinnitus while deaf, but as a young man that was a particularly worrying thing to have suggested to you.

They also gave me a special hearing test, and somehow I scored the absolute highest grade achievable despite having 24/7 surround sound garbage doing its best to drown everything out.

As you might expect, they didn't find a thing and it was pretty much a case of "so you're stuck with years of bullshit. Have fun!"

Downsides of Tinnitus

Well, it's not like there's any benefits but whatever. There is, of course, the obvious inability to hear things properly and a slight tendency to ask people to repeat things. outside of that, though, are the primary tinnitus screw ups:

1) My tinnitus causes peculiar reactions to sound, in that it responds and reacts to certain noises, actually distorting them and causing physical pain along the way.

High notes from a piano or violin section, loudspeaker announcements, screaming children, tinny-sounding televisions, loud engine noises and more besides all do it. Imagine a broken electric keyboard whose higher notes have a fault which causes the sound to suddenly snap and raise to the pitch of a boiling, shrieking kettle - that's sort of what it sounds like.

Of course, if you want to live the real world version of a television channel beeping out swearwords constantly then you may find this to be highly entertaining. The novelty has worn off for me, if I'm being honest.

2) Aeroplane travel is hellish - specifically take off and descent - and I'm one of those people who grope for earplugs the moment I'm seated. I may have stolen yours. I'm sorry.

3) Fatigue is a permanent risk / feature of tinnitus. Most people's response to a pile of noises rattling around their ears 24/7 is to ignore it, or at least tune it out as best they can.

This is actually quite a task.

White noise generators / radios in the background never really worked for me, so the only hill I had left to die on was "blank it out".  There is a certain way of drowning out the noise, but sadly you're always aware that you're dedicating a few % of your overall batteries, constantly, behind the scenes, while buying your food / playing your game / going to the beach / sitting in bed reading / pretty much everything else. You quickly learn to dread the horror of a "nice quiet room" because it most certainly isn't.

Eventually it slowly dripfeeds into the land of "taking its toll", in barely imperceptible ways you can't quite attribute. You get irritable, you lose your appetite, lethargy becomes a way of life and eventually you just say ah, fuck it, and open the eardrum floodgates because listening to 6 different shitty noises simultaneously is better than fighting a permanent battery drain that you'll simply never win.

Then you're stuck observing your wacky collection of unwanted audio intrusions for a few days till you're mentally ready to put them back in their box. I see if I have any new arrivals, or if the old favourites have detuned themselves from my eardrums, or if that one crazy beeping chiptune thing which I'm fairly certain is signals from an invading alien fleet has made a comeback.

I haven't resorted to giving them names, so that's a bonus.

4) The maddeningly indescribable nature of your own personal tinnitus is probably the worst part. empathy is tricky when you can never...quite....describe the sounds you can hear accurately to other people. everyone's tinnitus is different; everybody has a key set of sounds buried in the herd that aggravate them the most.

The simple frustration of never being able to accurately describe your experience to others, no matter how much effort you put in, is hugely annoying. It starts to feel like you're the village idiot telling people about your latest alien abduction along with the six anal probes, and of course it totally happened, honest.

The bulk of tinnitus cases tend to be one fairly common sound - everyone can imagine a hiss, or a whistle. but what happens when your tinnitus is plural and not singular? how do you accurately portray the hell of it? everything I can try to summon, from 8 bit computer loading screens, to freaky alien signals, falls painfully short of the reality.

People can be driven to suicide by the sheer relentlessness of it all, and "I have tinnitus and want to die" is not as uncommon a refrain as you might imagine. Here's a selection of examples of the kind of tinnitus you may end up with:

 

Mine is similar to most of those, but still not quite there.

If you're reading this and don't have it, then this is a good thing. Don't tempt fate by jamming headphones over your ears and cranking them up to the max.

Here and now

My current bugbear is what my tinnitus has currently settled into. The multiple noise racket has been replaced by one insistent, pulsating high pitched hiss. It doesn't stop, is incredibly draining to "tune out" and possesses an enormously annoying feature.

You know when you put a shell to your ear and can hear the combined pulse of the world around you, almost like blood pumping around your system?

That.

It's a non stop, pulsing hiss-train.

I'm actually having to devote time and energy to tune out what sounds like a high volume artist's rendition of the world's worst caffeine high. It even increases in volume should I turn my head to one side, immediately decreasing when I look straight ahead.

Think how many times you turn your head even slightly throughout the day. Protip: it's a lot, unless you're in a neckbrace. As you can imagine, this is not an optimal experience. If you want to sort of simulate it, rapidly wave your hand next to your ear. The sound of the air snapping past is roughly like what the hissing pitch change resembles.

So, you know - whoops?

There's a surprising amount of research around tinnitus these days, but I'm not going to link to any of it as I'm still getting a feel for what's legit and what's the equivalent of Internet purchased viagra which makes your donger turn blue and fall off. With any luck, I won't have to raise a glass to another 20 years of the biggest pain in the arse I can think of, besides an actual pain in the arse.

Number of times I've written "arse" in this blog: four.

Tinnitus: a whole load of arse.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Behold, a movie unicorn

Unlike half the twenty somethings screaming about how the new Ghostbusters movie "ruins their childhood" despite not actually being around at the time the original film was showing, I can actually lay claim to being someone who went to see it first time around. Additionally, I was a child at the time and - shocker - it was the first movie I was taken to the cinema to see.

I still have hugely fond memories of the trip to and from the cinema, the queue around the block, the weird black and white printed booklet sized "magazine" which was a small insert about the film and pages of local shop advertisements.

The actual movie, I don't remember so much - but the moment the Librarian did her thing is deeply etched into my brain and will probably never leave. Unrelated side note, but the only other film I went to see which had the same level of festival around it on a personal level was Batman 89, except stretched over an entire Summer.

Anyway, chalk me up as another kid who had all the Ghostbuster toys, made a Proton pack out of a cereal box, some string and toilet rolls before eventually upgrading to the foam pop gun. The Real Ghostbusters was great; turning it into "Slimer and Friends" (or whatever it was that they did) was not.

I was quite excited to see the new trailer, but then I saw it and...uh...well. Are those jokes the things to sell it? They're a bit flat, aren't they? It's the usual mishmash joke pot pourri of fart gags, stop the music and say random stuff jokes, and "it went in every crack..."

The international trailer was even worse, and introduced all new dumb stuff into the mix:

1) Did script writers really sit down, write the "second person stage dives, isn't caught" and scream "YES! WE HAVE COMEDY GOLD HERE"?

I mean, come on...that's been done to death and back. It's the very first go-to thing you'd have in this situation. I'd be more surprised and / or laugh if she'd been caught.

2) The closing "gag" with the boob swinging MS Paint drawing? Yeah uh no. Whatever good will they managed to dredge up with the second trailer just died a death right then and there.

It's hard to judge a film on a two minute trailer, but then that's what trailers are there for. If you're going to show me your movie trailer, then it's up to you to make it as good as it can be. For now, this doesn't look very good. But hey, that's fine - contrary to popular belief, your prized Ghostbusters DVDs won't set themselves on fire should the new film tank.

At some point, it's best to say "This isn't for me and I'm not the target audience" and move on.



Saturday, March 05, 2016

Fallout 4 Modding, Part 1: An Introduction

It's an incredible thing to strip out all the mods from Fallout 4 and have a pop at the vanilla version. The settlement stuff feels empty, deep armour customisation choices have gone out the window and those poor old Minutemen go back to being...uh...really good at hammering the same spot of wall for six hours at a time.

There's no contest as to which version of FO4 wins, and modding has never been so fun - or so complicated.

See, the settlement additions to the game has pretty much turned things into House Builder 2016 (or is it Hobo Simulator 2016? I forget) and brought with it a number of very specific modding complications.

As a result, it's easier than ever to absolutely shatter your game and saves into a thousand non-functional pieces. I've tallied up a good 600 or so hours in the wastes of Boston, and a fair chunk of that has been rolling around in a pile of the very best mods FO4 has to offer. I'm here to guide you through the perils of a fully modded up game. I'm grouping mods by theme, so there'll likely be about 3 or 4 of these posts. But first:

Modding Fallout 4: The basics

Let's get this out of the way right now: FO4 doesn't officially "support" mods yet. We're still waiting on the release of the GECK tool, which is a magical mod creation kit. Anything and everything available up to now is kinda being made Gonzo style, with a variety of tools and methods which range from "won't break anything" to "my laptop is on fire". In a lot of cases, some popular mods are abandoned and then break other newer mods. Or something is coded in a way that slowly grinds everything to a halt over time, and by then it's too late - wave goodbye to those saves.

On your own head be it, effectively. And that's before we get to the settlement "problem", handily covered in a section called...

The Settlement Problem

People love settlement building. I mean, they love the shit out of it. It's a videogame black hole, where six hours mutates into "putting a table in that corner over there".

Unfortunately, there just isn't enough of it. The default build options are extremely sparse, and vaguely terrible. No internal doorways? Mission specific power requirements that require you to place numerous large (and incredibly noisy) low power emitting generators all over the place? No half piece walls or floor bases? No windows? Ladder pieces which half the time snap the wrong way round? Shelves and units but no way to place objects on them (small items spawn in the game world before large ones, which is why all your carefully placed bottles end up in the floor or up a tree)? A World where bed sheets don't seem to exist anymore?

Ugh.

One of the first things modders did was add a metric ton of additional items into the settlement building, along with extra categories. Alongside freeing up things already in the game world, they started to build their own creations. Eventually, people noticed that items / categories started to go missing or things would get mixed up.

The reason is that Bethesda put a cap in there related to assigned keywords tied to various objects. The result is that once you go past the cap, everything goes nipples skyward. The more custom categories that get lobbed in, the more likely things will break.

The solution was to try and come up with a unified framework between totally random modders and their creations which all share the same sets of keywords to reduce the chances of hitting the cap. There's currently a framework for both walls / floors / items (settlement keywords) and clothing / crafting (AWKCR). Even while using both, you may well still go past the limit. It only takes one mod to screw everything up.

The current situation is this:

1) You have non-SK and AWKCR mods installed. These will likely put you past the limit. Sometimes the authors don't want to design their mods to use them because "when the GECK comes out, it might all change again or we might be able to remove the limit and then we have to redo from the ground up". Some just don't care. Others don't know anything about SK / AWKCR.

2) You have dedicated SK and AWKCR mods installed. These could - again - potentially all screw up once the GECK hits and we suddenly find the cap can be dodged, leading to mods being reworked or simply abandoned because its too much work to jump on the latest modding method.

3) You also have modders who offer both SK / AWKCR and *non* SK / AWKCR versions of their mods, depending on personal preference.

As a result, at any given time your mod load order could contain nothing but SK / AWKCR or a mixture of those and non SK / AWKCR mods. And then consider one mod gets updated one day and suddenly breaks another one, or you get additions to a mod you have but those additions push you past the keyword limit, so then you have to remove something, or roll back to an earlier version, but then you updated the OTHER stuff already, so now one of THOSE breaks, so you're playing whack a mole with 40 different mods - all of which may have multiple version updates and may or may not be SK / non SK depending on what you rolled a dice for initially.

My own mod list includes about 40+ at last count, and is a bastard child combination of SK / AWKCR, "plain" mods, and intentionally older versions of mods which have since had things added to them and would break the keyword limit were I to update them.

Keep in mind that all of this is to be able to place some tin cans on a wall or whatever.

Steam Workshop or Nexus?

Well, this one is easy given there are no Fallout 4 mods on Steam yet. Something to keep in mind: as mods update automatically on the Workshop, and given the insane juggling act required to keep a modded FO4 in check, automatic updates with no way to roll back will likely cause chaos. If a modder decides to pull their wall building mod from the Workshop, you'll load up your game to find half your walls and floors missing with no way to get them back.

With the Nexus, you can keep all mod versions in order and easily roll back. You also install the mods with a thing called Nexus Mod Manager, and it couldn't be easier.

One thing to note: you'll need to edit the Fallout INI file to make mods work, and sometimes it reverts back to its original state. If all your mods suddenly stop working, check the INI file and also check NMM as sometimes mods deselect themselves from the load list. When this happens, you just have to tick the boxes and off you go.

Editing the INI File

This bit is super easy. Go to Documents/mygames/fallout4

and open up the INI in Notepad. Look for the word Archive, then insert the below "bInvalidateOlderFiles=1" line and also make sure the line under THAT is exactly as written (ie if there's anything after the "=" in "sResourceDataDirsFinal", remove it):


Depending on the age of the mod you want to use, you may find them advising to use another method. Don't - that method tends to slow the game down. The above technique is the best one for now, but may change again at some point in the future.

Mod Load Order

Ah, the load order. You'll hear no end of horror stories about the load order, which is quite literally the order in which mods load themselves into the game. Depending on the way you order them, some mods won't work, or fail to load pieces in properly, or break another mod, and so on. You may read about saves becoming corrupted as a result of a borked load order; while this may happen to some people, the worst I've experienced is that a specific mod will just fail to load into the game.

YMMV but corrupted saves tend to come about as a result of a severely broken mod doing things it shouldn't be to the game code, rather than order you place them in. There are theories and suggested load orders - and even programs which can sort it for you (bonus spreadsheet link) - but there's always going to be that one mod which nobody can give you an answer for. In those cases, you just have to wing it.

Game updates: What just exploded

When the game updates, you may find mods suddenly don't work, or everything has keeled over in general depending on what you had installed. Bethesda release playable Betas of upcoming patches before releasing them into the wild, so you'll generally know if your favourite mod is going to explode well in advance. Authors tend to fix things to compensate, but you may want to play the game in offline mode for a few days before and after the patch goes live in the retail version. This would also apply as and when the DLC packs start to drop.

I guarantee some of the settlement stuff is going to explode like the Death Star.

And finally...

I can't stress this enough: make backups of saves prior to adding mods, especially when you dump them into the game in batches. If something goes bang, uninstall and roll back. Some mods may have specific steps to follow should you want to remove them from the game: FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS.

Well, there's your potted introduction to the world of Fallout 4 modding.

The next post will be about Settlement additions, and the best mods to grab. I should say that everything I'm going to recommend installing - I use. And all of the mods work with one another - no "I saw this on a website somewhere - why no, I haven't tried it and can't possibly imagine why your game is broken" here.

That's it for now. Go plant some mutfruit and I'll be back sometime soon.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Obtaining a UK visa: no, they don't "have it easy" at all



Dealing with immigration is exhausting. It's literally exhausting. I don't mean you think you feel a bit run down or whatever - your body goes into full sensory shutdown, your muscles ache, your migraines are never ending and you develop all new forms of lethargy that you didn't previously think existed.

It's just a drain, man.

UK spouse visas are in the news due to an impending tightening up, and a common opinion is "Good, they have it easy". I'm here to tell you that this couldn't be further from the truth. Below is a very condensed rundown which doesn't go into the real nitty gritty, because honestly, you'd be here all day.

Setting the scene: someone in the UK wants to end up with someone from outside the EU. Ideally, they want to live in the UK. If you're from Europe and move to the UK, your spouse can be from anywhere in the World - Brazil, Africa, America, whatever. Doesn't matter. You can come to the UK from Europe with your non-European partner and that's basically it. Job done. Okay, there's a bit more to it than "show up and live here" but it's certainly not like the below process, to the degree that people from the UK are actually doing this to avoid the boobery outlined below.

That's because if you're from the UK, and your spouse is from outside the EU - you're screwed. You'll have to run a five year gauntlet of headaches, paperwork, problems, a total ban on any form of public funds, the most ridiculous assortment of "do this / don't do that" you could imagine, questions on application forms which are almost designed to fail by virtue of asking for things which many companies and banks don't even issue anymore (hello, self printed wageslips which aren't accepted, paperless bank accounts which also aren't accepted and landlords / housing associations who don't issue letters under any circumstance).

GETTING STARTED

Should you be lucky enough to get the visa in the first place - and after applying, it can take months to get a decision - you'll find out completely out of the blue. You just receive an email saying "A decision has been reached", and then you have to sweat it out waiting to see what the result is a few days later when the parcel with your passport in arrives. They're supposed to tell you when the documents are on their way back to you, but guess what? The courier can (and did) just show up, then vanish taking the documents with them leading to more delays. You can also find some of the original documents are missing from the bundle, and after chasing them up and making appointments to collect will realise some of them are still missing.

Once you HAVE a positive decision, you then get 30 days to resolve your affairs and leave the country to head off to the UK. That's it - 30 days. Who can tie up bills, payments, apartment rents and everything else in their home country in 30 days before leaving it forever? And that's before you realise they have to pay a SUPER EXPENSIVE one way flight in 30 days or less. If you don't manage to fly to the UK within the 30 day time limit, things can get complicated - and expensive, of course.

Oh, and don't forget the part where you suddenly have to box everything up and arrange shipping. I hope you don't like sleep!

I'm not entirely sure why this absolutely insane discrimination against our own citizens exists, but here's just some of the changes over the last couple of years to the visa route in question:

1) The hardest part is obtaining the initial entry visa. This has always been the case. However, it used to be that once you'd done the hard part and forked over the cash, that was it - you could remain for 2.5 years and then apply for indefinite leave. You'd have to pay for that last part of course, but that was it.

2) That all changed. Figuring "we can make more money from it like this", now you'd have to pay for the initial 2.5 year spouse visa, and apply AGAIN for a renewal to last another 2.5 years. At the end of the 5 year stint (assuming you don't lose your mind and crack up over the possibility of doing something which invalidates the stay over those long 5 years or suddenly get caught by some retroactive nonsense, or lose your job at the EXACT moment you have to reapply and be under the £18,500 salary requirement), you THEN have to pay for the indefinite leave to remain.

In a nutshell, it's gone from 2.5 years and two payments, to 5 years made up of two separate 2.5 year visas and then the indefinite leave to remain payment.

Of course, this is all terrifyingly expensive which I'll get to later.

The run-up to applying isn't helped by the fact that the UK visa pages tend to be a circular mess of confusing links, baffling descriptions of documents required, a helpline which requires you to hand over credit card info and be billed for time spent on the call before they'll even talk to you and a set of requirements which are....astonishingly vague, for the most part.

You would THINK that the visa application form would say "Want to come here? Then provide this" and be done with it.

Nope.

What actually happens is, you get a general outline of what's expected but then it's up to you to effectively fill in the blanks. Yes, we know you need 6 months wage slips and bank statements. But proof of relationship stuff? Documentary evidence? Eh, that's all left to your discretion. You don't HAVE to spend five days of your life printing out four years worth of emails, phonecalls, SMS, VoIP chat logs, social network screenshots and printouts of photographs - but it helps.

Probably.

Other aspects like "Overcrowding" are a big deal. A horribly strained set of criteria are used to establish if your intended living space meets size and room guidelines, and although some immigration advisers will tell you that this information isn't needed, most people do it anyway just in case. Before you know it, £200+ has gone down the toilet on a four page house survey. £40 has gone out the door DHL'ing three sheets of paper overseas due to them insisting on having your most recent wage slip and bank statement AND letter from an employer being no older than 28 days at time of online application.

You know what documents don't magically tend to show up within a few days of one another, thus making the 28 day thing a source of endless headaches?

Wage slips and bank statements and letters from employers.

Meanwhile, the person overseas is blowing money on things like TB tests which have a finite amount of time ticking down before they expire and you have to go do it all over again. My favourite was the language test which cost upwards of £150 (I think), which basically amounted to walking in a room, sitting down and having a conversation. "You've passed!"

Yes, you've passed the getting fleeced test with flying honours. Well done!

ONLINE PAYMENT HEADACHES? YOU BET...

When you apply for the initial visa online, even that can be a disaster because they combined the system to take payments for the NHS surcharge (more on this below) and then the visa (originally, they were separate services and you could pay for them at different times).

You now have to pay for the NHS surcharge first when doing the visa application online, as a standalone payment, then take the number they give you and enter that when paying the visa fee immediately afterwards. If you don't have the NHS number, you can't pay for the visa.

You know what happens when you try to make an NHS surcharge payment for £600 for a service your bank has never seen you pay before? You tend to have your card blocked.

You know what tends to happen if you then try to immediately pay the £1,300 odd fee for the visa in the timeout threatening session?

You almost CERTAINLY have the payment blocked.

This leads to a merry dance of card switching, bank phoning action while trying to make sure you didn't typo any of the dozens of fields sitting in front of you.

Everywhere you look, there's an additional fee for something.

And that's before you get to the wonderfully silly NHS charge.

THE NHS SURCHARGE

See, it doesn't matter that the person coming here will be paying for their NHS via their taxes just like the rest of us. For no real reason at all, they now get double dipped and have to pay a standalone NHS fee which amounts to £600 for 2.5 years of cover.  If you don't pay the NHS fee online, you can't apply for a visa because you need the NHS number at visa application submission time.
The pricing for the NHS charge confused many immigration firms who stated it would be £500 at launch, only to discover they were out by a hundred quid.

The reason is, as far as I can tell, that the UK visa is SLIGHTLY longer than 2.5 years by like a couple of weeks. As a result of THAT, anyone paying "only" £500 would be technically not covered by the charge for those few weeks. So they round it up to £600 to cover those last few weeks. If you didn't renew or had to leave, I guess you'd have paid over the odds for services you then wouldn't be using which is a bit annoying. (Please note, this is what I assume is happening - I asked 3 different immigration firms why the fee is actually £600 instead of £500 and this was the best guess answer).

So before you tally up any figures at all, anyone who stays the full 5 years is already out of pocket by £1200 for reasons which will forever remain a mystery.

In fact, your time is generally spent in general throwing up your hands every time the word "Immigration" comes on the news and crying out WHAT ARE THEY STIFFING US FOR NOW, DAMMIT.

Case in point: at the end of the 5 years, there's an English test. Of course, you'll be paying extra for that. This was a perfectly okay way to do it, but now there's a new English test sandwiched in the middle of the stay. You'll be paying for that, too.

Everywhere you look, it's death by a thousand paper money cuts.

Everything you do, or need to do, is permanently shrouded in a veil of "Debilitating anxiety that something will go wrong and / or be rejected at application time".

EXPENSIVE RENEWALS

It can theoretically take "up to" 10 months for a renewal to take place. That's almost running up to half the length of your stay. So of course, the fear is to get it in early, despite probably not having enough documentary stuff to hand for "evidence" at this stage (ask me again sometime about the fun and games involved in getting a bank account, when you don't have a NI number, but need some other thing to get the NI number to get the bank account, but...)

Think about this. That's the best part of a year sweating buckets on something that's ridiculously important, upon which a whole pile of things hinge. But, you know, whatever. Sweat it out, and fork over a lot of cash for the privilege of doing so.

Alternatively, you can go do it same day, in person, and throw in something like a £400 odd "premium charge". Why? Because pay up or take a hike, that's why. Oh, and the cost of the visa is currently going through the roof.

"The cost of the visa will rise from £2,141 to a maximum of £3,250"

Seriously, look at that nonsense. It's expected to peak at around £2,600 odd, but by the time next year rolls around I'd be amazed if it hasn't approached insane levels of "Money please".

So.

That's what - anything "up to" £3,250 for the visa, I'm guessing that doesn't include the £600 for the NHS fee renewal, there's the inevitable £400 odd premium same day service (because nothankyou.jpeg to the 10 month wait), an expected £200 odd for a house survey, whatever health tests they may want, the language test (not sure how much this will be yet but based on prior experience let's go with £150 odd) and - most likely - £600 or so pounds for a decent immigration advisor service (which I recommend using, because holy crap).

£5,000+ for a visa? What the actual fuck.

As a final closer: non EU partners in the UK do NOT receive benefits, and are barred from "public funds" for the duration of their stay alongside having to effectively pay an NHS tax of £600 as a further barrier to entry. If you show up in the comments banging on about jumping into the dole queue / getting houses for free or getting cushy medical treatment without having to pay a penny, I will banhammer you into outer space.

For everyone else, take a ticket and join me in shaking your head and saying "What the actual fuck".

It's my current favourite phrase.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Writey Writer's Resource Page

Hello!

Today I'm giving a workshop at BSides London called The Writey Writer's Guide to Writing Writerly, and this is the temporary landing page for a shortened URL. In the near future, this will serve as a handy resource link for those who attended.

Nothing to see here (yet), but there will be very soon...