You broke my heart…

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PRTG

PRTG is a comprehensive monitoring system used by a large number of network and system admins around the globe. It features a nice API with which you can extract data, and to help get uptime data out of the system, I’ve written a handy little application which you can download here. It runs on Windows 7/8.1, Server 2008R2 and 2012R2 and requires .Net 4.0.

To set the application up, simply extract the ZIP to a folder and start the executable. The ZIP contains two example INI files that you can use to quickly configure certain UI elements:

server.ini – enter the FQDN of your PRTG server in this file, e.g. https://prtg.mydomain.net/. This URL will be pre-loaded into the PRTG Server URL on the application form.

tags.ini – enter your commonly queried-for tags here, along with a display name separated by a semi-colon, e.g. Education – Network;SLAEduNetwork. Entries in this file will be populated into the Common Searches dropdown field.

You will also need to tag any sensors you want to get information for. Tags can be manually downloaded by entering the search tag into the form, or by configuring a common search entry in the tags.ini file.

01 02 03 04

I hope the application will be useful to you, and if you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment here or post a response on the PRTG Knowledge Base article covering this application.

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DPM and disk volumes

If you make use of Microsoft DPM for disk-based backups, you may find yourself wanting to identify which data sources are protected on the logical volumes on the disks in your storage pool.

If you open the Disk Management snap-in, you’ll see something like this:

volume-list

You can open the properties for the volume from the list, to view some details about it:

volume-properties

To find out which replicas are on which volumes, log on to the SQL instance for your DPM server and open SQL Server Management Studio. Once its open, start a new query in your DPM application database and run the following query:

select ag.NetbiosName, ds.DataSourceName, vol.MountPointPath, ds.DataSourceId, vol.GuidName
from tbl_IM_DataSource as ds
join tbl_PRM_LogicalReplica as lr
on ds.DataSourceId=lr.DataSourceId
join tbl_AM_Server as ag
on ds.ServerId=ag.ServerId
join tbl_SPM_Volume as vol
on lr.PhysicalReplicaId=vol.VolumeSetID
and vol.Usage=1
order by NetbiosName

If you want to limit this to a specific volume, execute the following statement, replacing the [GUID] tag with the GUID of the volume from its properties:

select ag.NetbiosName, ds.DataSourceName, vol.MountPointPath, ds.DataSourceId, vol.GuidName
from tbl_IM_DataSource as ds
join tbl_PRM_LogicalReplica as lr
on ds.DataSourceId=lr.DataSourceId
join tbl_AM_Server as ag
on ds.ServerId=ag.ServerId
join tbl_SPM_Volume as vol
on lr.PhysicalReplicaId=vol.VolumeSetID
and vol.Usage=1 and vol.MountPointPath like '%[GUID]%'
order by NetbiosName

For example:

select ag.NetbiosName, ds.DataSourceName, vol.MountPointPath, ds.DataSourceId, vol.GuidName
from tbl_IM_DataSource as ds
join tbl_PRM_LogicalReplica as lr
on ds.DataSourceId=lr.DataSourceId
join tbl_AM_Server as ag
on ds.ServerId=ag.ServerId
join tbl_SPM_Volume as vol
on lr.PhysicalReplicaId=vol.VolumeSetID
and vol.Usage=1 and vol.MountPointPath like '%0e411c99-f6b0-4423%'
order by NetbiosName

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Darkest Dungeon

header

You remember our venerable house? Opulent and imperial…

Darkest Dungeon is an example of how early access works when done correctly. I feel like I’ve been playing the game for a lot longer than its actually been out: I purchased it as a recommendation ages ago when it was an early access title. I loved it then, and I love how the final title has developed in response to the early access feedback.

The game itself takes place in a dystopian dark fantasy village at the foot of a house you inherit from one of your ancestors. As the opening sequence explains, your ancestor tired of “conventional extravagance” and took to spending the family fortune chasing legends of things buried beneath the house. In true Lovecraftian style, however, he delved too deep and was not prepared for what he found…

As the new master of the house, your charge is to repair and upgrade the village by completing expeditions into the surrounding corrupted countryside to recover treasure and heirlooms of your house. As you do, the roster of adventurers you have will expand and increase in experience, allowing you to take on more challenging expeditions, with the ultimate aim being to rid your house of the evil which has claimed it.

The village itself comprises several locations, such as the blacksmith, church, inn and sanatorium. Each of these allows you to provide respite to your heroes, recruit new adventurers and upgrade their equipment.

Rest and respite are key in this game: your heroes will suffer psychological damage as they wander the corrupted ruins and countryside. This will increase their stress levels and high levels of stress will cause all manner of unusual reactions. For example, a character under extreme stress that takes a particularly heavy hit from an enemy may develop masochistic tendencies, resulting in them stepping in to take hits meant for other characters. They may also refuse healing from support characters, and have verbal outbursts that increase the stress of other characters.

Not all stress conditions are negative, however: sometimes a character may rally when their resolve is tested by stress, causing them to become heroic. Heroic characters will have a variety of stat boosts and have a positive effect on other characters in the party.

Party selection in this game is key, too. Before each expedition you choose which characters you want to take on the mission. Each character will have a preferred position in the party rank depending on their abilities. Healers and support characters will prefer to be at the back of the ranks, while crusaders and fighters will prefer to be at the front. This preference isn’t just arbitrary either: some abilities can’t be used if the character is at the front or back, which makes ordering your party just as much of a key strategy as working out which combination of character classes work well together.

Exploration takes the form of side-scrolling corridors which link various rooms.

map

Corridors can be empty, or can contain battles, curious items, traps, obstacles and other secrets. Rooms have similar properties, and proper provision is required to get past them. True, you can move all those rotten corpses out of the way with your bare hands, but the chances of disease and psychological damage increase if you do this.

Key to exploration is your light. Your party carries torches which help keep the darkness at bay: the higher the light level, the less powerful the monsters you’ll encounter are, but the darker things get, the better the loot you’ll find. Lower light levels also reduce your chances of spotting traps, and increases the stress on your characters, so finding a good balance is key.

Battles against monsters are turn-based, with faster characters getting to act first. Sufficiently fast characters may get multiple actions per turn.

darkest-dungeon-the-death-of-caesar

As monsters fall, the order of their ranks will change, altering abilities they can use, meaning that you’ll have shift your own tactics as the battle develops. Some monsters have abilities which can affect the order of your squad, too, meaning you’ll have to spend valuable turns repositioning your characters – assuming your characters will let you! Additionally, some monsters are so horrific, or have special abilities that directly attack the mind, increasing the stress on your party.

Things like this are why I hold this game up as early access done right. In early builds of the game, dead monsters simply vanished. Then they left behind corpses, which could restrict your front-rank’s access to attack monsters in the back ranks. Some felt that this made the game more challenging, others said it made the game too hard, particularly on higher level quests. So what did Red Hook do? They configured an option: corpses can be turned on or off if you like – this way both sets of people can play the game the way they like.

They also re-worked the way stress worked. In early builds, high stress just meant your characters were more likely to develop personality quirks and do strange things, but otherwise had little effect. Now the stress meter will fill twice: once with a hollow bar, as in the screenshot above, and again with a solid bar. When the solid bar fills, your character will have a stress-related heart seizure and will likely die. This means that managing the stress levels of your squad is key to getting anywhere in this game.

Stress can be reduced in town by drinking, gambling, praying, visiting brothels or flagellating… Some characters will develop personality quirks that mean they will only relieve stress in one way, and may become addicted to that stress relief, further pushing them into the realms of madness.

Personality quirks and diseases can be removed by visits to the sanatorium, but this itself can increase stress. More “exotic” conditions and diseases can cost a lot more and take a lot longer to cure, meaning that managing your cash flow and your hero roster is also key. Sometimes you’ll find you’ll just have to leave some heroes back in town and cure them later.

2016-01-31_00002

There will inevitably be times when quests fail: you’ll have to taste the bitterness of defeat and retreat. This will also affect the mental state of your heroes: retreat too many times and you’ll find that adventurers will develop cowardly traits, making it still harder to accomplish goals.

The way the game makes you feel invested in the party you send into the unknown is very skilfully accomplished. By means of giving the characters some power, you feel as though you want them to survive, and the atmosphere of their journey through the dungeons is further enhanced by one of the best narrator voices I have ever heard. Strike a critical hit and you’ll be told something along the lines of: “Morale surges as the enemy crumbles!” but similarly, defeat carries commentary too…

This is one of the game’s best accomplishments, even when you realise what’s going on. You are sat in your house, sending gangs of adventurers and swarthy workmen to do your dirty work for you… You have no avatar in the dungeon yourself, and you don’t lose even if all the party dies. True, its a setback to your plans, but there are always more adventure seekers ready to pit their mettle against the horrors and corruption of the pit… This makes having another go an easy thing to do, and as each dungeon is generated randomly in a Rogue-like manner, no play through will ever be exactly the same. Further adding to the differences in play-throughs that are possible is the different character classes: experimenting with how they work together can give some powerful results, but on the flip-side, not all squads will work effectively together.

You are also prevented from power-levelling your favourite heroes by sending them through lower-level quests repeatedly. Try to drag a level 3 hero into a squad on a level 1 mission and they’ll refuse to go: how can they get better if they’re not tested? Similarly, try sending a level 1 hero on level 6 quest, and they’ll chicken out, stating flat-out that such an attempt would be suicide… They’re not wrong!

2016-01-30_00001

Fortunately, defeating all the monsters isn’t necessarily a condition of completing a quest. Some will have you defeat a certain enemy, others explore a certain amount of rooms, while others require you to clear all rooms of enemies. Longer quests will require you to manage your squad’s supplies of firewood for camping and food for staving away hunger. If you don’t bring enough, stress and hunger will hamper and cripple your efforts…

The sound effects are excellent, from the insane gibbering of mad cultists to the sounds of eldritch horrors, a lot of effort has been put into making them as absorbing and as atmospheric as possible, and the same goes for the music. The sounds also subtly change as conditions alter: if your heroes are near-death, you’ll be able to hear their hearts beating; low light amplifies the sounds of monsters, and that narrator!

The graphics are slick and crisp, and the art style is reminiscent of a graphic novel. Attack and defend animations are simple two-frame snap animations, but it all fits in with the graphic novel aesthetic I mentioned earlier, and gives the game’s combat sequences a rapid-fire feel that can be missing from some squad-based, turn-based games.

The Bottom Line: All of the game’s components combine to make a game that is easy to play yet difficult and challenging in extremes in places. The depth that you’re required to think to in managing your hero roster and your town’s upgrades make this a refreshing change from a lot of Rogue-likes out there, and adds an extra layer of challenge that just makes you keep coming back for more. The simplicity of obtaining and performing quests, and of dusting yourself off in the event of a wipe and getting back into the thick of things makes this a very addictive title indeed.

You remember our venerable house? Opulent and imperial…

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Exchange and mailbox move requests

Came across an odd one today. I had a mailbox move request queued in Exchange: the mailbox was moving from one database on one server, to another database on another server. The move was local: no cross-domain migration or anything funky, just a straight-forward move to balance load across mailbox databases.

The job had been queued for 6 hours and hadn’t started processing (completion rate of 0%) but Exchange Management was showing the job as “Completing” even though it hadn’t started. Any effort to view the log of the move or remove it from the queue prompted Exchange to throw its teddy around and spit out the following error:

The attempt to deserialize the move job from the system mailbox job queue failed.

So, what causes it, and how do you get rid of it?

The problem stems from Exchange having problems reading and writing extended attributes to the user object in the Active Directory database. To clear the problem you’ll need someone with high levels of AD permissions and access to ADSI Edit as well as the AD Users and Computers snap-in. Once you have these, follow the steps below:

  1. In AD Users & Computers find the user object and make a note of the full path down to the object
  2. Open ADSI Edit and browse down to the user object
  3. Right-click the object and open the Properties window
  4. Find and clear the values for the following fields (they will be visible if you have a filter for ‘Attributes with values’):
    1. msExchMailboxMoveFlags
    2. msExchMailboxMoveSourceMDBLink
    3. msExchMailboxMoveStatus
    4. msExchMailboxMoveTargetMDBLink
  5. Apply the changes

After replication has taken place on all the domain controllers that Exchange is configured to use, the move request will have been removed on its own: it will no longer be present in Exchange Management and the the PowerShell cmdlet Get-MoveRequest will not return anything for the formerly stuck request.

So is it safe to retry the move request?

In all likelihood, yes. The problem will likely be a transitory one relating from a loss of connection between the Exchange server processing the move request and a domain controller. If the problem re-occurs on the same mailbox, it is likely that there a corruption on the mailbox or the AD user object which will require additional troubleshooting.

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IIS and large file uploads

So you have IIS installed and your nice website is up and running, just ready and waiting for users.

There’s just one problem… Whenever anyone submits a file upload they get a 404 error page… Which is a bit odd, because the pages are all there. And after a bit of testing, you spot that it only seems to happen when a file over a certain size is uploaded…

The problem is with the applicationhost.config file in %windir%\System32\inetsrv\config – it will either be missing the value maxAllowedContentLength in the <requestLimits> section. You can add or configure that section with the following command line, running as Administrator:

%windir%\system32\inetsrv\appcmd set config -section:requestFiltering -requestLimits.maxAllowedContentLength:<length in bytes>

For example:

%windir%\system32\inetsrv\appcmd set config -section:requestFiltering -requestLimits.maxAllowedContentLength:1073741824

The example above will configure the site to accept files of up to 1GB in size. After applying you’ll need to execute the iisreset command to restart your web server to pick up the new config.

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Elite Dangerous – A New Pilot’s Guide

So, as the festive period draws to a close across the galaxy, 3202 is likely to begin with a lot of new pilots looking to get the best out of their new ships, and wondering where to make a start on their career in the void. As a seasoned navigator of the void, I – CMDR Admiral Viscount Galen Shepard – have prepared the following guidance for new pilots. I hope it serves you well.

Knowing Your HUD

The Heads Up Display (HUD) is the primary interface you will use to control your ship and access its features and functions. The elements displayed on the HUD will change depending on your proximity to certain celestial bodies, stations and landing platforms and other vessels but the key components are outlined below.

Target Information Panel

The target information panel appears in the bottom-left of the HUD and shows information related to your currently selected object. For stations and other stellar objects, it will show your distance from the object, alignment of your craft related to the object and your approach speed. For vessels, information on the pilot, their combat status and any local bounty information is shown.

target-info

target-info2

Target Scan Panel

Next to the target information panel, your ship will show a scan of your selected target. For other vessels, you will see hull and shield strength, in addition to a render of the craft itself.

ship-scan-panel

station-scan-panel

The Scanner and Compass

These are two of the most vital instruments in your ship. The compass shows your orientation relative to your target: a full contact dead centre indicates the target is directly in front of you, while a hollow contact dead centre means the target is directly behind you. This can help you find your target easily when the scanner is crowded, as can happen in some resource extraction zones and navigation beacons.

compass

The scanner shows all contacts in the space local to your vessel, whether these are other vessels or stellar bodies (only in supercruise).

scanner

The triangle in the centre represents your vessel, while the “V” is the field of vision directly ahead of your cockpit. The top half of the ellipse represents everything in front of your vessel, while the bottom half is behind. The whole ellipse itself is the plane of your ship, so contacts with lines coming down are above you, and those with lines coming up are below you. Contacts are rendered on the scanner as follows, assuming you haven’t modified the factory defaults of your ship’s computer:

  • All solid contacts are NPCs
  • All hollow contacts are other human commanders
  • Square contacts have stowed weapons, triangular contacts have weapons deployed
  • A contact with a set of triangular braces around it is your currently selected target

Additionally, targets are colour-coded for your convenience:

  • Green – allied with you
  • Orange – neutral toward you
  • Red – hostile toward you
  • Purple – hostile to a member of your wing, but not directly to you
  • White – non-vessel contact; this includes things like cargo canisters and frameshift wakes

Your Status Panel

Found on the right-hand side, this shows a readout of your ship’s hull integrity, shield strength, fuel and power reserves and other immediately useful pieces of information.

your-status-panel

The graphic representing your shield strength will begin to change colour as your shields take damage. Once the shield collapses, your hull will be vulnerable. Shields will recharge over time, however if your hull is damaged you will need to visit a station to arrange for repairs.

SYS, ENG and WEP represent the three main areas of your ship which you can assign and balance power to. I will cover this in more detail later on.

Next you have salient information relating to travel: if you’re exceeding the star port speed limit (more on this later) you will be informed here. Similar warnings will appear if you’re carrying goods which are illegal in the jurisdiction you are currently in, or if you have an active bounty in your current system.

The graphic below this represents your heat signature and is tied into your thermal load (more below). The higher your heat signature the easier you are to detect on scanners from a greater range.

Below this is your fuel reserve. The small bar is reserved for running your ships systems and travel in supercruise. If this empties, it will automatically be refilled from the main reserve tank below, assuming you have enough available fuel. The reserve tank is mainly used for hyperspace jumps. If you have a jump plotted, the amount of fuel to be used will be highlighted in blue.

Finally, the three indicators at the bottom will inform you if you have anything which will prevent activation of your frameshift drive:

  • Mass Locked – your ship is currently too close to a station or stellar body to safely engage the drive. Fly clear of any massive bodies and try again
  • Landing Gear – your ship’s landing gear is currently deployed. This can be raised from the functions panel in the right-hand menu
  • Cargo Scoop – your ship’s cargo scoop is currently deployed. Again, this can be raised from the right-hand menu

Thermal Loading

You will notice that by the scanner there is a percentage gauge. This is your ship’s thermal load and represents the heat capacity of your ship’s components. A value of 100% is the total amount of heat energy that your ship can safely deal with. While your ship will operate if the heat load exceeds 100% its modules will begin to take damage from the heat stress, and you may also damage your hull. Exceed the safe thermal load of your ship by too much and your vessel will explode.

High-energy activities such as charging your frameshift drive, firing large beam weapons or boosting will increase this, as will flying close to stars. You can help to reduce the rate at which heat builds up in your ship by purchasing modules with high heat efficiency: these heat up slower and cool faster, making your vessel more effective in dealing with heat.

Getting Around

Your ship has three main methods of movement, each with their own specific purpose:

  • Sub-light thrusters: used for low-speed manoeuvrers in normal space, such as landing/docking and combat
  • Supercruise: faster-than-light travel within a star system for getting to stations and other locations
  • Hyperspace: for travelling from one star system to another

The distance your ship can travel through hyperspace is determined by the total mass of the vessel itself (including fuel and cargo) and the capability of your frameshift drive: better drives and jump further and/or use more fuel per jump to increase range. You won’t get any benefit to hyperspace range by assigning more power to your engines.

Your speed in supercruise is limited by your proximity to massive bodies: if you’re in totally empty space (I’m looking at you, Alpha Centauri…) you’ll get much more speed from your frameshift drive than if you’re near a planet or a star. Again, assigning power to your engines won’t affect your speed in supercruise.

Your sub-light thruster speed is limited again by the mass of your ship, the quality of your engines and the amount of power assigned to your engines subsystems.

Whether you’re travelling at sub-light speeds or in supercruise, there is a speed gauge to the right of the scanner. The top of this represents setting your velocity to as fast as possible, while the bottom represents a relative stop. You should note that it is impossible to come to a relative stop in supercruise: you will always be travelling at a minimum of 30km/s unless you disengage your drive.

speed-gauge

You will notice that there is a blue zone to the left of the main gauge. This represents the range of velocities at which your craft is most manoeuvrable, and this applies to FTL flight as well as sub-light. The position of the zone moves depending on the following:

  • Amount of power assigned to the engines in sub-light speeds
  • Distance from stellar objects for FTL flight

I will cover the use of this blue zone in more detail later on.

Hyperspace

If you want to get from one star to another, you’ll need to use hyperspace. A destination can be selected from the navigation panel in the left-hand menu, or you can open the galaxy map from this screen and choose one from there. Note that the galaxy map will allow you to plot a route to a star which is outside the range of a single jump for your craft – you can plot a route to any star within a 1000 lightyear radius of your current position. Also note that some systems require permits to be obtained before you can jump to or through them.

plot-route

If the star is within the range of a single jump, you can just use the first icon to select it as your target. The right-hand icon (shown red above) becomes available if your target is a planet, and shows the surface map, highlighting known settlements and ports.

The amount of jumps it will take you to reach your destination will depend on the settings you have configured in your galaxy map:

route-options

  • Economical Routes – this will plot a series of shorter jumps to conserve fuel
  • Fastest Routes – this will plot longer jumps, using more fuel but taking less time

Once plotted, the galaxy map will show your route:

route-plotted

The line showing the route connects all the star systems you will have to travel through to reach your destination. Note that where the line moves from solid to dashed (as shown above) is the system in which you are predicted to run out of fuel. You will either need a fuel scoop (more on these later) or you will need to stop at an outpost or station on the way to purchase more fuel to complete the journey.

Supercruise

Once you have arrived at your destination system, and your target station is selected, its time to make use of your FTL travel. To get to the target station as fast as possible, I recommend setting your speed to maximum. Note that the targeting reticule around the station shows some salient information:

station-target-reticule

The name of the station is shown, along with the current distance to the target in light-seconds (one light-second is 300,000Km). Below this is your projected arrival time based on the distance to the target and your current velocity. As shown above, it would take me slightly over 12 minutes to reach the station. This time decreases as your speed increases and you get nearer the station. Once your arrival time is between 6 and 10 seconds, cut your speed to around half way up the blue zone. This will ensure that you can slow down enough to reach the target: if you travel too fast, you’ll have to perform a “loop of shame” to turn around and try the approach again…

Once you are close enough to drop out of supercruise normally (within a distance of 1Mm, or 1000Km) a notification to that effect will appear above the scanner:

safe-disengage

Once this notification appears, simply deactivate your frameshift drive to drop to normal space.

Approaching the Station

How you approach the station will determine where you are when you disengage your frameshift drive. If you’re flying to a full-sized star port, you should follow the guidelines below:

  • Approach the station from the planet: the docking port always faces the planet the star port orbits. If you approach from any other angle, you will drop from supercruise out to the side of the station, or even behind it
  • Examine the rotation of the star port when you’re in normal space: all star ports rotate around their axis in an anti-clockwise manner, meaning if the station appears to be turning towards you, the docking bay will be to the right
  • Note your speed and weapons: all star ports have a no-fire zone, within which you will be warned if your weapons are deployed and fined if you discharge them. While in the “no fire” zone, you will also be warned if your speed exceeds 100m/s. While travelling faster than this won’t cause you any problems, if you hit another ship while exceeding this speed, you’ll be fined for dangerous flying
  • Be on the lookout for security: if you have an active or dormant bounty, or if you’re carrying goods which are illegal in the star port you’re trying to dock with, and you get scanned by one of the security service vessels that frequently patrol station space, you may find yourself in receipt of a “warm” welcome… A boiling warm welcome…

If you’re approaching an outpost or platform, it doesn’t matter too much how you get there, as the landing pads are all external, and are all over the installation. It is worth noting that outposts and platforms only have medium-sized landing pads, meaning you can’t land if you’re in a “large” ship like a Type-7, Type-9, Anaconda or Imperial Clipper, for example. Star ports can accommodate all manner of vessels.

Docking / Landing

Once you have arrived at your destination station or port, you will need to request docking clearance before approaching the docking bay or landing pads. Station security take a dim view of anyone not following the correct process, and you could find yourself needing a new ship very quickly if you don’t do things properly.

Firstly, you will need to be within 7.5Km of the station to request clearance. To do this, select the station from the Contacts tab on the left-hand menu and choose “Request Docking”. The station will then advise if clearance is granted, and if so, which landing pad you should use: use of the wrong pad will also result in your destruction by security.

request-docking

landing-pad

If you don’t have a docking computer, you’ll need to manually enter the docking bay (if you’re at a station), find the landing pad, orient your ship correctly, deploy landing gear and touch down on the pad. This can be a difficult set of manoeuvres for new pilots, but fortunately you can practise as much as you like on one of the tutorial simulations.

Useful Modules

The outfitting service in most star ports will allow you to install a variety of useful modules and equipment in your ship.

module-example

Not all stations offer equipment to suit all ships: modules are available if a blue + sign is shown next to the slot in question. You should equip modules according to your need: if you’re trading, you probably don’t need A rated components down the board, especially as D rated components tend to have much less mass, so will allow you to carry more cargo further.

Some modules, such as your power plant and frameshift drive are required, while others are purely optional – including shield generators! I’ll go through some useful ones below.

Collector / Prospector / Fuel Transfer / Hatch Breaker Limpit Controllers

These allow you to program drones to perform various functions:

  • Collector drones will either retrieve one cargo canister (if one is targeted) or fetch all cargo canisters within a certain radius of your ship if you don’t target anything. In either case the drone is used up
  • Prospector drones will analyse the composition of an asteroid and report back on its make-up. This is useful for miners
  • Fuel Transfer drones allow you to transfer 1 tonne of fuel to a targeted ship
  • Hatch Breaker drones will attempt to attach to a targeted ship and break open its cargo hatch, causing it to vent cargo into space. These drones are useful for pirates

Docking Computer

These take the pain out of landing manually. Once you have obtained landing clearance from a port, simply bring your craft to a relative stop and the docking computer will take over and land for you. These are more useful on larger ships than smaller ones. You will still need to be within 7.5Km to request clearance, and you will still need to request clearance manually, however.

Discovery Scanners

These allow you to chart unknown systems. They all work in the same way, and must be assigned to a fire group and charged before they can be used.

  • Basic scanners will reveal all stellar bodies within a 500Ls radius of your craft
  • Intermediate scanners will reveal all stellar bodies within a 1000Ls of your craft
  • Advanced scanners will reveal all stellar bodies within a star system

These are useful if you intend to go exploring, although they can be very expensive additions if you don’t. If you don’t have a discovery scanner of any kind, your ship will not catalogue any unknown stellar bodies you encounter and you won’t get any cartographic data to sell.

Fuel Scoops

These allow you to scoop charged particles from the atmospheres of stars and convert them into fuel for your ship. These are essential for anyone planning to do any long-range exploration, and are nice to have for other pilots. To scoop fuel, simply approach the star (taking care to stay outside the exclusion zone, a yellow circle around the star, visible if orbit lines are displayed) and the scoop will start working on its own.

fuel-scoop

If you approach within the exclusion zone, your drive will perform a safety cut-out and drop you back to normal space, damaging your vessel. You should also pay attention to your heat capacity: being this close to a star will cause your ship to heat up significantly.

The rate at which you scoop fuel will depend on your proximity (if you’re closer, you’ll scoop more) and the class if your scoop: higher classes of scoop can take in and process more fuel. The number is the Kg/s being scooped.

Weapons

Various weapons exist for your ship’s mounting points. Broadly these are kinetic or thermal. Kinetic weapons rely on projectiles, while thermal weapons are more traditional lasers. Kinetic weapons are better at damaging a ship’s hull, and produce much less heat than a thermal weapon, however they require ammunition where as thermal weapons do not. I personally favour burst lasers as my weapons of choice, as they do a reasonable amount of damage and strike a good balance between power usage, heat production and damage. If you’re running a trade ship, you may decide to forego any weapons at all in order to reduce the mass of your ship, especially seeing that most trade ships do not make good combat ships.

Most weapons are available in three mount types:

  • Fixed – these have no signature tracking and only fire directly ahead. More useful on smaller, nimbler fighter craft, they boast more damage per strike than their counterparts but require increased skill to aim correctly, especially against smaller and more distant targets. These must be manually fired by the pilot
  • Gimballed – these have limited signature tracking capability and can track targets within a certain field of view. They must be manually fired by the pilot, the same as fixed weapons
  • Turreted – these have full signature tracking capability and can track targets within 360 degrees of their position. They can be manually fired or configured to fire automatically at any hostile targets, or your current target

You will need to experiment with the load-out of your vessel to find what works for you.

Shield Boosters

These fit on a utility mount, and have quite a power draw. However, they increase the strength of your shield quite considerably. The effect of multiple boosters stacks, so having more boosters gives more of an effect. So how do they work? Each booster has a shield multiplier which varies depending on its class. The sum of these multipliers is added to your base shield strength, for example: you have a base shield strength of 400 and two boosters with multipliers of 1.2, your shield will be 140% of the base, or 560. Note that the trade-off for stronger shields is increased recharge time: shield boosters will slow the rate at which your shield regenerates.

Balancing Power

Your ship’s power is distributed between three main areas: SYS, ENG and WEP. These stand for Systems, Engines and Weapons.

ship-power

The default configuration is to have two “pips” in each area. The speed of charge depends on how many pips are assigned to that area, the amount of power your power plant produces and the capability of your power distribution module. Assigning power has the following effects:

  • SYS – increases the strength of your shield. Two pips is 100% – standard strength. Four pips is ~150%. Additionally, it allows the SYS capacitor to recharge faster, although it has no direct affect on the recharge rate of your shields
  • ENG – increases the maximum speed of your vessel, allows for increased boost speed and increases the rate at which the ENG capacitor recharges. This only affects thrusters, and has no effect on your frameshift drive or while in supercruise
  • WEP – increases the damage output of your weapons and speeds the rate at which the WEP capacitor recharges, allowing you to fire thermal weapons for longer periods.

During normal flight, having two pips in each system is perfectly fine. When entering combat, you’ll need to adjust your power to make sure that you have enough power to keep your shields online, and continue firing your weapons. The example above is from my Python: if I find myself in a situation I need to get out of, its easy to assign power to the engines and boost away while charging your frameshift drive: its better to live and fight another day.

My Asp has a different power configuration again: three pips in systems and engines. This is because it operates at long ranges and is frequently so far out of occupied space that I almost never encounter another ship, so it has no weapons in order to reduce mass. You’ll need to experiment with your load-outs and configurations to find what works for you.

Signal Sources

While flying in supercruise, your ship will highlight various signal sources it detects:

  • Unknown signal sources – this could cover anything from a wreck to a collection of cargo canisters. Security patrols and pirate traps are also common.
  • Strong signal sources – this is usually a wing of ships, sometimes friendly (or at least not hostile) sometimes not so…
  • Weak signal sources – this is usually a collection of cargo canisters or wreckage, or sometimes a single small vessel
  • Distress calls – these are frequently ships that have run out of fuel or are under attack by pirates. Expect combat if you drop into one of these…
  • Salvageable wreckage – a wrecked ship and its cargo, available to anyone wanting to take it. Sometimes the goods are worth it, sometimes not so – its all the luck of the draw

Landing

If your ship has a Planetary Approach Suite installed, you will be able to land your ship on a variety of different worlds. The system map will highlight which worlds can be landed on. Worlds with settlements will appear as shown below:

worlds-with-settlements

Worlds without any settlements will appear as shown below:

worlds-without-settlements

Again, some planets and moons require permits to be obtained before you can land on them.

To land, simply fly your ship towards the planet, noting that if you have orbit lines turned on, you will see the blue exclusion zone, inside which orbital flight will begin:

orbit-exclusion

Once you have approached close enough, a new set of instruments will appear on your HUD:

descent-info

This shows your angle of descent/ascent and your altitude. OC represents orbital cruise and is the optimum altitude for orbiting the planet. This will vary depending on the size of the body and the gravity it exerts on its local space. DRP represents the altitude at which you drop from orbital cruise to glide mode and normal flight. This is 25km above the surface, and you should be travelling at 2.5Km/s at this point or you will suffer and uncontrolled disengage of the ship’s drive, dropping you to normal space and potentially damaging your ship. If your angle of descent is too steep or too shallow, you may not fully engage glide mode, meaning you may have a long flight on standard thrusters… Once your altitude drops below 2Km, the gauge to the right changes again:

langing-gauge

You will be able to land your ship anywhere on the surface where the scanner turns blue to indicate a suitable touch-down site. Landing clearance can be obtained from surface settlements in the same manner as from space-based installations, and the same rules for speeding, landing, weapons-fire and smuggling also apply.

You should take care when landing on planets, as some have gravity so high that if your ship has a high mass and relatively weak thrusters, you may not be able to take off again.

Starting Your Career

So, what should you do first? The choice is yours: personally, I began my career by taking simple shuttle missions from the bulletin board to get enough cash to upgrade from my Sidewinder. Once I was in a Cobra MkIII the galaxy really opened up. That ship is very capable combat-wise and can carry a reasonable load of cargo too. Again, once I had enough money behind me, I purchased a Lakon Type-6 and began trading, doing odd missions where they fitted in with my objectives or they paid well. I continued trading through purchasing a Type-7 and a Type-9, purchasing a Vulture for combat and an Asp Explorer for long-range trips into the black.

If you’re after a steady income, trading is probably the best career path. Exploration requires long trips outside civilised space, once a system is fully charted, has little else to offer. Combat and bounty hunting can be profitable, but you’ll need to make sure you chose your fights carefully – pick the wrong fight and you could find yourself floating home…

Factions and Reputation

Each system has several small factions which post missions on bulletin boards on stations and locations throughout the system. As you complete missions for factions, your reputation with them will increase, and you will find that they will offer you missions with better rates of pay the more they trust you. Some missions will also increase your reputation with the galaxy’s great powers: if you’re after increasing your reputation with the Alliance, Federation or Empire, look for their symbols by missions:

mission-empire

The mission will advise of the effect it will have on your reputation: High, Medium and Low. High missions will increase your reputation by several percentage points, Low missions will only increase your reputation by a percentage point at most. The higher the rank and reputation you hold with the galaxy’s great powers, the better the missions you will be offered. Also note that the great powers of the galaxy will restrict some of their best goods to those of high rank:

imperial-cutter

You’ll also gain rank for ridding systems of undesirables (pirates and enemy factions) and trading with systems. Its hard work, but hard work pays off: if you’re dedicated to helping the great powers, recognition and reward will follow.

Trading

To start trading, have a look at the commodity market. It will tell you (in most cases) where goods are imported from, and exported to. The galaxy map will also show trade data, highlighting the types of commodity which trade between systems. For example, it will tell you that metals exports from one system to another, but not which particular metal to trade: you’ll need to discover this for yourself. There are plenty of third-party databases and tools available which will help you chart good trade routes, such as Roguey’s Trade Helper. Naturally, you’re looking for goods to buy that are below the galactic average in price, and somewhere you can sell them above the average. Its worth noting that the more you run a particular trade route, the more likely it is that you’ll come to the attention of pirates… Several “rare” trade goods also exist – these are in limited quantity and availability and increase in value significantly the further from the source you take them.

Bounty Hunting

There are plenty of pilots out there who take crime as their pay cheque. These pilots inevitably end up with a bounty on their heads. Finding these criminals and killing them is a quick way to earn some money. Nav beacons, resource extraction sites and signal sources are the best locations to find these people.

Piracy

If you decide a life of crime is for you, head to an anarchy system (no law means you can’t be guilty of anything…) find a trader and attack… If they’re smart they’ll dump their cargo to live another day. If not, you could always use a hatch breaker drone… Once they’ve dumped their goods, simply scoop it up and sell it on the black markets…

Exploration

You’ll need a ship with a fuel scoop and an advanced discovery scanner to start. A good frameshift drive is also recommended to get range. Then simply head out into the unknown and begin scanning new star systems. Once you have some data, return home and sell it. Exploration data only has value 20+ lightyears away from where it was obtained.

I believe that covers most of the basics you’ll need to get started, but if anyone has any questions or needs any help, please feel free to leave a comment here or message CMDR Galen Shepard in game, and I’ll do my best to help you if I can.

Welcome to galaxy, Commanders!

Kind regards,

CMDR Admiral Viscount Galen Shepard

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Warhammer End Times: Vermintide

Next up in my list of games that have been eating all my time is Warhammer End Times: Vermintide by Fatshark games.

2800203-trailer_warhammer_endtimesvermintide_20150205

Set in the End Times of the famed Warhammer Fantasy world. The game is a co-op first-person melee fighting game, in a similar vein to Left 4 Dead. Players take on the role of one of five heroes each of which will be identifiable to anyone familiar with the Warhammer Fantasy world: a dwarf ranger, a bright wizard, an elf waywatcher, an imperial witchhunter and an imperial guardsman. Each character has their own specific style and skills: the wizard excels at area of effect and ranged damage, while the ranger and the guardsman are melee tanks. The witchhunter and the waywatcher have a nice balance of ranged and melee skills.

Players start at the Red Moon In with a basic set of equipment. Missions are selected from a map in the Inn. The missions take place in and around the human city if Ubersreik and range in length from 10-15 minutes to 40 minutes or more. Each level can be played (initially) on three difficulty levels: easy, medium and hard. The game is hard enough on easy mode, but two additional difficulty levels are available if the level is beaten on hard difficulty.

As well as making the level more of a challenge to complete, the difficulty also affects the reward. After beating each level, you get to roll dice to determine loot, and experience is awarded to your characters. The harder the difficulty you play on, the more experience you get and the better loot is awarded. Experience is tied to your player, rather than a character, so each hero in you can play as is always at the same level. As levels increase, different perks and facilities unlock, and additional loot items are awarded. Unlocking the forge allows you to improve your magical items, melt down unwanted items to salvage components and forge new items for your characters. Each piece of equipment has distinct advantages and disadvantages, requiring that you consider what you’ll be getting into before you start. A great axe allows you to deal devastating blows and is good against armoured enemies, but not so effective against large numbers of enemies who might swarm you; an axe and shield is better for dealing swarms but struggles to damage larger and armoured enemies.

The enemies you face in the game are the Skaven. Fatshark do plan to introduce additional enemy types in forthcoming DLC, however.

There are a variety of enemy types available:

  • Clan and slave rats appear in large numbers and while they don’t do a lot of damage and go down easily they can easily overwhelm you if you don’t keep an eye on what’s happening.
  • Stormvermin are armoured and usually appear in numbers ranging from 2-6. They can be taken out instantly with a well placed head shot, but if they get close their armour makes them hard to deal with.
  • Ratling gunners are large enemies that target one hero with a ratling gun and shoot until the weapon jams or they run out of ammo.
  • Globadiers throw poison gas grenades that choke and disorient your heroes.
  • Packmasters capture a hero and drag them away from their support leaving them prone for regular enemies to attack and kill.
  • Gutter runners have excellent climbing skills and smoke grenades to hide their location. They run with alarming speed and can pin and kill a hero in seconds if not dealt with quickly.
  • Rat Ogres are huge hulking brutes that take a lot of damage before going down and can devastate a team if a proper strategy isn’t used.

The individual Skaven behave much as you would expect: individual rats are cowardly and if pressed will often try to run away or lead you back to where they have the advantage of numbers. When attacking in a swarm, however the rats will charge fearlessly in and press you, trying to separate the group or drive you into a corner where your options are limited. In addition to this, and the variation created by the difficulty settings, the game features an over-arching AI system called the Director. This helps vary the events on a level according to what’s happening: it will create ammo and healing items when you need them most (which is almost never, apparently) and hordes of slave rats whenever its bored (which is almost all the time).

I joke of course: if you’re getting badly beaten, healing items and ammo will appear in chests or in rooms; if you’re doing really well, it might conjure a swarm of clan rats or a storm vermin patrol to make you think. At its disposal are also all the special enemies: when you’re pinned in a courtyard, a rat ogre might charge you from a side-street or a ratling gunner may start shooting from the rooftops. This helps make sure that, even though the geography of the level remains the same each play through, the events you encounter won’t.

The levels themselves are very well designed and look fantastic, with some wonderful atmospheric sounds and lighting effects. As its a first person game, its easy to feel that you’re in the city of Ubersreik, witnessing its decay at the end of the world. When you’re in caves in the sewers or the Skaven tunnels, the atmosphere feels very claustrophobic and close, and as you hear the sounds of the Skaven drawing closer, you can’t help but feel a pang of fear… There are also very few clues as to where to go, meaning that you’ll need to explore to find the right path (and sometimes there are several routes to go). Exploration has its rewards, extra loot dice can be found, as can useful items like bombs, tomes and bandages. You have to be careful when wandering, however: take too long and the Director may decide that you need to be hurried along a little…

The character models themselves are superbly detailed and very well animated, and as can be seen from the character biographies, they all have a pre-existing relationship before the game starts, which leads to some interesting and funny sound bites and the game progresses.

I mentioned at the start of this article that the game is co-op. The whole campaign is multiplayer, there is no single player option. You can choose to join a pre-existing game, if one is available for the level you want to play, or you can host your own. When you start a game, the AI will control any characters that aren’t being controlled by another player, and a human player can join your game, slipping in silently and taking over from the AI player at any point. The number of human players in the game will also have an impact on how it plays: I’ve noticed that the Director is much more lenient on a team where there are AI players than it is on a team comprised wholly of human players. This does make sense, as it forces humans to cooperate (perhaps using the game’s own VOIP chat or Teamspeak) in a way that its not possible to do with AI teammates. That said, I have enjoyed playing through levels with nothing but AI companions, and having them around isn’t what you could call a disadvantage.

The game’s controls are pretty standard for PC titles, however I do feel that as we aren’t dealing with loads of key bindings as in other titles, full controller support would be good to see for this title. Partial controller support is available, so I imagine that future patch will introduce this support.

Another thing that Warhammer fans will enjoy is the amount of attention to detail that has been paid to the lore of the world. Fatshark have put plenty in there to see, hear, read and discover and its the number of these things which make the game come to life in the way that similar titles have failed to do so.

I mentioned that the graphics in the title are fantastic, and indeed they are. The game looks wonderful even on medium settings (which is as high as my GeForce GTX 970 will comfortably go), and would look even better on a rig that supported the higher settings.

I’ve sunk quite a few hours into this game since I picked it up in the Steam sale, and I’m really enjoying it. I even like playing through levels I’ve completed several times already, and I look forward to seeing what Fatshark have planned for release in their next set of DLC.

The Bottom Line: A thoroughly enjoyable co-op horde-based hack ’em up. Strange that I love this game, but hated Left 4 Dead when they’re almost the same game. Well worth picking up, even for full price, and if you can arrange a team of friends to play a night of gaming can be easily arranged with this title. The matchmaking has some issues, which have seen me spawn and die instantly in a game, and also get booted as I joined a game the host then immediately left. Hosting your own game avoids these issues though. The future plans from Fatshark also mean that even if you’ve played every mission, there’ll be more things to come! 85%

Warhammer End Times: Vermintide Intro Video
Gameplay footage of the prologue mission from PC Gamer<
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The future

The future is an interesting place. If you’re anything like me you’ll have sat and wondered what it might hold: not in the small terms of the next few years, but on a cosmic scale of millions of years. Well, I got the image below emailed to me the other day and I think its very interesting. Its a timeline of the universe from formation through to the death of the Earth in around 8 billion years time. Still a blink of an eye in cosmic terms, but a much larger scale than most people ever try to think about. All credit for the image goes to Martin Vargic at Halcyon Maps. Do pop along and take a look at his site, there’s plenty of interesting maps and infographics there to look at!universe-timeline-small

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Flooding

I’m sure no one on the right side of the pond can have missed the stories of flooding and misery that have been in the headlines for the past few weeks. Just before the main holiday season, thousands of homes and businesses have been swept away by flood waters which have left a trail of devastation in their wake. Even the armed forces have been drafted in to help with rescues, evacuations and clearing up.

All this has prompted a lot of comment about the state of the country’s flood defences and what we can do more of, or do better, to help prevent this from happening again. Even in areas where the same conversations were had only a short while ago after another flood disaster. There has also, as you might expect, been more of an effort to push the global warming/climate change agenda with “scientists” saying this is more evidence of man-made global warming.

No one seems to want to point out the fact that a lot of the problems we’re having with floods in recent times are indeed man-made problems, but nothing to do with “global warming” or “climate change” and more to do with general stupidity.

Farmers have been for some time now allowed to rip up trees and hedges on hills, compacting hill mud with heavy machinery, giving rain water a clear path to water courses that lead to and form our rivers, as George Monbiot points out:

On Friday, I travelled to the source of the Thames. Within 300 metres of the stone that marked it were ploughed fields, overhanging the catchment, left bare through the winter and compacted by heavy machinery. Muddy water sluiced down the roads. A few score miles downstream it will reappear in people’s living rooms. You can see the same thing happening across the Thames watershed: 184 miles of idiocy, perfectly calibrated to cause disaster.

All this was caused by the government appointing Richard Macdonald (a former head of the National Union of Farmers) to head a task force which would – obviously – recommend that the rules should be relaxed and the government should trust the farming industry. A PDF of his report is available here.

Further to that, we have historical evidence of developers being given the green-light to build on known flood plains, as this article from 2001 shows:

Planning applications on flood plains in Britain have been going up every year for the last five years. Over five million people are now living or working in flood risk areas in England and Wales.

Anyone with even part of a working brain knows that building houses on a flood plain is a bad idea. And have been knowingly doing for decades! It was only a matter of time before that decision bit us right in the arse. Those houses located on the flood plain were always going to flood: those houses further up or downstream would then flood because the flood plain had been built on and the water has to go somewhere… Rivers burst their banks and more properties are ruined.

The problem is still persisting even now: this article from as recently as last year (2014) highlights the fact that local authorities are still allowing applications for development on flood plains and flood-prone land:

Flooding may have shot up the political agenda but that hasn’t stopped local planning authorities driving through housing developments in areas at severe risk of flooding.

From Cornwall to London, to Cardiff, Leeds and Northumberland, local authorities across England and Wales have been ignoring the Environment Agency’s (EA) protests and waving through developments on flood-prone land.

As Britain endures another weekend of torrential rain and further flooding, figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveal that last year local councils allowed at least 87 planning developments involving 560 homes to proceed in England and Wales in areas at such high risk of flooding that the EA formally opposed them. The biggest development of this kind is the 149-home Goresbrook Village Estate in Dagenham, Essex, expected to be ready for occupation in March 2015.

And then of course there’s the regulations surrounding our rivers and waterways. When we were required to accept the European Water Framework Directive in 2000, the emphasis on the maintenance of the rivers and waterways in the country changed. No longer were we allowed to dredge and embank our rivers to ensure they had sufficient capacity to hold whatever water would flow into them: instead we were required to maintain them in as “natural” a state as possible, as this article describes:

Amid all the devastation and recrimination over the floods in Cumbria hardly anybody mentions one factor that may not be the sole cause, but certainly hasn’t helped.

That is the almost complete cessation of dredging of our rivers since we were required to accept the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) into UK law in 2000.

Yet until then, for all of recorded history, it almost went without saying that a watercourse needed to be big enough to take any water that flowed into it, otherwise it would overflow and inundate the surrounding land and houses.

Every civilisation has known that, except apparently ours. It is just common sense. City authorities and, before them, manors and towns and villages, organised themselves to make sure their watercourses were cleansed, deepened and sometimes embanked to hold whatever water they had to carry away.

Last century the obligation to dredge out the rivers was transferred to local river boards, consisting of farmers and landowners who knew the area and its characteristics, and who had statutory responsibilities to prevent or minimise flooding.

But all this changed with the creation of the Environment Agency in 1997 and when we adopted the European Water Framework Directive in 2000. No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding. Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve ‘good ecological status’ for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to ‘undisturbed natural conditions’.

‘Heavily modified waters’, which include rivers dredged or embanked to prevent flooding, cannot, by definition, ever satisfy the terms of the directive.

So, in order to comply with the obligations imposed on us by the EU we had to stop dredging and embanking and allow rivers to ‘re-connect with their floodplains’, as the currently fashionable jargon has it.

And to ensure this is done, the obligation to dredge has been shifted from the relevant statutory authority (now the Environment Agency) onto each individual landowner, at the same time making sure there are no funds for dredging. And any sand and gravel that might be removed is now classed as ‘hazardous waste’ and cannot be deposited to raise the river banks, as it used to be, but has to be carted away.

On the other hand there is an apparently inexhaustible supply of grant money available for all manner of conservation and river ‘restoration’ schemes carried out by various bodies, all of which aim to put into effect the utopian requirements of the E W F Directive to make rivers as ‘natural’ as possible.

For example, 47 rivers trusts have sprung up over the last decade, charities heavily encouraged and grant-aided by the EU, Natural England, the Environment Agency, and also by specific grants from various well-meaning bodies such as the National Lottery, water companies and county councils.

The climate is changing, they say, live with it. But the real reason they erect expensive and largely ineffective flood defences, as at Carlisle and Keswick, is because such work does not interfere with the flow of the river in its bed, so it does not infringe the EU Water Framework Directive.

Also there is EU money available for flood ‘defences’, but none for the very measure that would do some good, namely removing the huge build-up of gravel from the river bed. This is hardly mentioned, and if it is, they try to make out that it would do more harm than good.

So next time you see David Cameron and his MP acolytes swanning around Cumbria in wellingtons, high-viz jackets and hard hats, wringing their hands and promising to do whatever it takes to protect us from flooding, ask them how exactly they intend to get round the European Water Framework Directive.

Flooding

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