As Christmas Day wears on, one eventually arrives at the veritable minefield of family games. Being no longer a resident I neatly sidestepped the problematic issue of game selection, but this still left the perplexing challenge of the games themselves. I can never quite remember the prescribed etiquette: does one reflect on Christmas as a time of charity and let others win, or does one use this family occasion as a rare opportunity to put them in their respective places? There is also my mother’s scarily competitive streak to be considered, should one wish the building to remain standing. To cheat is to take one’s life into one’s own hands.
In the circumstances I ended up winning all of them, though in my defence one was a word game and another was Scene It?, full of film and pop culture trivia. I do feel somewhat guilty for ruining Jehan’s perfect record of victory in the latter and promised not to rub it in too much, at which I suppose I’ve rather failed by broadcasting it across the web. If people feel like brushing up on their trivia, I may pick up the Xbox version of the game for visitors. If not, there’s always next year…
The more I hear about I Am Legend, the more its position on my radar has shifted from casual indifference to really ought to see. At first I wrote it off as merely a Will Smith vehicle (I like him, and roles like this generally highlight a range which we do not credit him with, but mediocre choices like I, Robot mean I rarely get excited) but the background, the existence of the novel and atmospheric trailers have all played a part in winning me over. That my dad wishes to see it too means that we’ll be seeing it tomorrow. It will be refreshing to see a big budget Hollywood film for which I have no expectations, following a year of generally disappointing results.
Meanwhile with the writers’ strike continuing in the States, next year’s film fare looks decidedly uncertain. Looking through trailers reveals a throng of underwhelming, largely derivative offerings. The standout is undoubtedly (and unsurprisingly) Wall•E, Pixar’s next effort which looks better suited to my taste than their last few releases. Also intriguing are Tim Burton’s vision of the macabre musical Sweeney Todd (again right up my alley), though Johnny Depp’s seemingly understated performance may not gel well with the extravagance of a musical. Finally, a sequel to Harold & Kumar, a film people are always surprised to find I love, looks like a worth comedic contender if only because it promises “it’s gonna be exactly like Eurotrip only it’s not gonna suck.”
Those who read via feeds won’t have noticed, but the sidebar navigation has undergone some major changes over the last week. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s new and what’s gone. Tagging replaced the old category system about two months ago, so the transition is complete now with the removal of the category listing and the introduction of a “tag cloud” which represents the most common tags by a larger font size. There is also a new Tag Cloud page which displays a cloud with all the tags use on this site. Bear in mind that older posts probably won’t be retrospectively tagged beyond the ones used to test the system. Remember that the Archives still provide a convenient way to browse and find old posts.
Also gone is the Event Calendar which has been dormant for quite a while. Away from university it has become less useful since people and events are now far more spread out. In its place is now a large feed icon which should make subscribing much easier. I still recommend reading posts via the site itself, but the feed is a perfect way to see when new posts are added.
Rounding out the Christmas party week was Irina and Andy’s drinks party on Saturday evening. With mocks this week I almost missed it, but fortunately she convinced me to pop in for a few hours. I had not previously met any of the other guests, mostly ex-Cambridge students as well as Andy’s sister. Rivalry swiftly ensued as the Wii was fired up, the battleground being the pretty awful Carnival: Funfair Games. A ramshackle collection of 25 fairly ugly mini-games, it’s a momentary diversion before swiftly moving to tedious and infuriating. It was described by Eurogamer as the sort of game you would only pay when “you’d rather eat soap than play one more round of Wii Sports baseball”. It highlights the chief issue plaguing the Wii: while the console may be selling well with no signs of slowing, Nintendo’s lack of any form of quality control when it comes to third party releases means most of the games border on unplayable. The games made by Nintendo themselves are uniformly excellent, but brave the rest at your peril.
Accompanying wines and a special bottle of vodka Irina brought with her from the Ukraine was an impressive spread of doughnuts. It seems that inadvertently my innocuous housewarming gift of a box of Krispy Kremes a few months ago sparked something of an addiction once I informed them there was one in Paddington station. I seem to be alarmingly proficient at inducing such addictions, having also hooked Jenna on Lindt white chocolate truffles, for which I feel particularly guilty as importing Swiss chocolates to the States is even more exorbitant than here. Woe betide anyone I accidentally introduce to heroin…
This relaxation was needed after Meredith’s funeral on Friday. It is not something on which I wish to dwell, though it was certainly cathartic that we were finally able to say our farewells as she was laid to rest. Being able to share this traumatic time with friends who knew her helped a great deal although it stirred some guilt that many of us have not stayed in touch as well as we ought. This jarring experience will hopefully force us to make a greater effort. The service was wonderful with excellent music selections including Mez’s fav With or Without You and closing with Sigur Ros’ incredibly soothing Hoppipolla. The tributes from her siblings were truly inspiring, showing real strength as they delivered heartfelt but upbeat messages. The only mar on the day was the inevitable, but nonetheless intrusive, press presence. Circling like vultures outside the church, I am not sure what they expected to see — it was a funeral, people were upset — but it was not exactly what mourners needed to be faced with as they left.
Posting stopped as I have been rather busy over the last couple of weeks. This may initially have had something to do with the release of Mass Effect and not very much to do with forthcoming mock exams, while last week I found myself doing the Christmas Party circuit. This included Bird & Bird’s at Dust Bar, the BPP crowd at Boardwalk in Soho, and a very Cambridge Christmas dinner in — well, you can probably guess.
In reverse chronological order, the BPP do comprised our “group” for classroom teaching. It’s a diverse but really fun bunch when we do all get together. I found the Boardwalk left a little to be desired with excessively loud music that made any form of communication difficult, particularly with such a large number spread over a long, thin table. The food was reasonable, but the highlight was undoubtedly the company and the exchange of Secret Santa presents. Lauren had decided to make this hideously difficult by imposing a £2 limit, a restriction that required much creativity. The best of the evening was a bright red, fur-trimmed Christmas cowboy hat given to Gordon, which fitted alarmingly well with his chequered shirt. The hat then proceeded to do the rounds. Lauren’s efforts in arranging the night were much appreciated, although unfortunately I could not stay later as some of the others partied into the early hours.
On Tuesday I headed up to the Bird & Bird event for future trainees with Rachel and Tor. I only realised just how quickly the last year and a half has flown by on seeing Chelsea, whom I had last seen during our vacation scheme in the summer of my second year at Cambridge. It was great to catch up again, as well as meeting several new and future trainees. I was also able to meet my trainee “buddy” (less intimidating than “mentor”, admittedly, but perhaps too casual a word since we had not managed to get in touch yet!). It is strange that what felt so far away when I accepted the job offer now feels just around the corner. I imagine there was careful (self?) selection of partners allowed to attend, since those there did not affect the mood (or banter) of the groups to which they were chatting. Dust is a great venue with wandering staff serving impressive nibbles in quantities more than enough to fill us all. Now we just need to make sure the 2008 intake arrange something ourselves to catch up before next summer.
Finally, the weekend before last I was up in Cambridge for a wonderful Christmas dinner mostly cooked by Angie, with several dishes provided by others. The journey took forever, though bizarrely it was getting across London that took the longest due to work on the central line. Arriving late, I had a plate thrust into my hand and headed upstairs to meet everyone and share stories about the couple of months since I’d seen them at the housewarming party. The food was great, accompanied by Sparkie’s home brew (sweetly palletable since he had added additional sugar in order to ferment it to a more alcoholic strength). Several shots of vodka with the medics later, I ended up walking back to theirs for the night since space at Victoria Road was pretty tight. This meant I was able to see TomTom the next morning who had missed the festivities. Much tea and Gears of War later, it was sadly time to head home. My camera, however, was more than full. As I gradually improve with the new camera, photos actually look good full size, so these should be added to the Gallery soon.
I hope the Americans among you had a wonderful day yesterday celebrating the mass genocide of the indigenous people or whatever it is one does on Thanksgiving. With Bioware’s new opus Mass Effect intent on drawing all my time, I had been hoping that Assassin’s Creed from Ubisoft Montreal would turn out to be terrible so I would not have to buy it. It looked like a collection of excellent ideas that could not possibly brought together to form a coherent whole. Unfortunately this was not to be. While Halo may grab the mainstream press for its sheer financial clout, this is one of those few experiences that instills gamers with a desire to talk to everyone about it, whether they are into games or not.
The player takes on the role of Altair, an assassin in the Holy Land during the crusades, uncovering a conspiracy while taking out those profiting from the corruption surrounding the war. It is telling of the modern climate that the opening credits state that the developers come from a variety of backgrounds and faiths, given the obvious allusions to a Muslim-Christian war throughout. Altair is essentially a non-religious lone wolf, stalking through cities with an animalistic gait. The mood of the piece is best encapsulated in this trailer featuring UNKLE’s Lonely Soul.
The medieval world is brought to life in stunning detail with huge cities (Acre, Dasmascus and Jerusalem are all recreated) bustling with people going about their lives. Its best feature is the free running and climbing ability which lets Altair scale virtually any building, ascending high towers to survey the city below. The swordplay is simple but nuanced, adding new layers over time and feels surprisingly authentic for the time. Generally think Hitman meets Prince of Persia.
Reviewers are somewhat split with the complaint that too much of the experience is repetitious with bland identical gameplay in every city for the lightweight “investigation” before each major assassination. Gabe at Penny Arcade highlights that this is partly a symptom of the reviewers’ mentality, playing the game as a job so hurtling through to finish. Assassin’s Creed is very much the sort of game that requires a slower approach to soak in the atmosphere. While gazing at the ornate architectural detail of a Jerusalem temple I felt like a foreign businessman wishing I had more time for tourism. And then I remembered this was a game and I could do what I liked. While collecting randomly located flags seems a little tired, some of the best fun to be had is while climbing up and exploring the cities from the rooftops.
The chief criticism remains valid, however, that the developers have essentially created an incredible sandbox but forgotten to give the player quite enough toys with which to play. I am sure the space opera of Mass Effect will draw me away from Assassin’s Creed as soon as it arrives, but this is a game I will be happy to return to with such a beautiful historic world and a compelling conspiracy unfolding.
Second Life is a virtual world that falls well outside the “game” descriptor. It is better viewed as a platform for communication and expression, very much symbolising the virtues of the web itself. With a working economy, some have taken things further and the virtual real estate market has proved highly lucrative. I created a Second Life for myself a few years ago but was not particularly impressed by my first foray. Control felt clunky and unresponsive and the whole experience was plagued by lag rendering it almost unusable. When Neil Gaiman mentioned that an interview promoting Beowulf would be his first time in Second Life, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to give it another go. The whole idea is rather fitting, after all, for a film that seeks to take the concept of digital actors to a whole a new level.
So last Thursday I hopped back in, quickly spruced up my avatar and found my way to the Hollywood Bowl where on Saturday the interview would be broadcast live (from the private Beowulf Island before a few VIP guests). Today I was able to experience one of the truest attempts at fusion of the real and virtual: a virtual interview of a real writer and director (Roger Avery) discussing their real film, broadcast to a virtual auditorium of virtual avatars being controlled real people. Confused yet? While fun, this was very much a novelty. Far from seamless, this was very much inferior to the alternative of a direct webcast interview which would have offered much better video quality without continuous drops. On the other hand, had that been the case, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to watch it.
Second Life definitely feels more impressive now than on my last visit, but there are clearly still a lot of issues to be resolved. It is perhaps unfair to judge it since the client does not yet officially support Vista, and some bugs (including crashing to the desktop on occasion) may be due to this incompatibility. Moving to a virtual art gallery, for example, the sluggishness and low visual quality seems markedly inferior to a web gallery, yet the ability to have a “live” musician playing at the event does add a certain charm. I certainly won’t become a regular user at the moment, but I have a feeling I will be frequently popping in for short trips to check things out.
I have previously praised NOD32 as an antivirus solution. However I have always been hesitant to recommend it generally because its modular design resulted in a convoluted, complex interface. With today’s new release that has all changed. Its new intuitive menu design means now everyone can experience one of the favourites of the tech savvy crowd for its low resource usage but strong protection.
One of the other nice things about their sales model is that once you purchase a subscription, not only does it give you access to virus definition updates (and these are incredibly fresh, with new updates often more than once a day) it also lets you upgrade the software itself to any new releases for free. I was happy to dump the Norton bohemoth over a year ago and with NOD32 going from strength to strength I’m certainly not looking back.
By now you have probably come across the story of the British student murdered in Italy. You may not know that Meredith was a friend of mine from back home in Croydon, and her death has left me shocked. How this could happen to such a sweet, cheerful girl is utterly beyond comprehension, but I sincerely hope she is at peace and my thoughts and prayers are with her family. I also hope that those who may have known her are not finding out through reading this — it is far from the ideal medium — but do feel free to leave your own thoughts and memories.
I met Mez through friends at Old Palace school and she was part of the crowd we regularly hung out and partied with. She was incredibly relaxed and easy to talk to, but above all I remember her cheerfulness. She struck me as an incredibly upbeat person, and I always picture her smiling. Her smile was infectious and she never failed to improve the mood of everyone around her. We were not closely in touch while she was at uni, but she seemed in her prime: bright, beautiful and very much loved as evidenced by the litany of posts in tribute on her Facebook page*. For her life to be tragically cut short in such a senseless act is utterly devastating to all who knew her. We are struggling to come to terms with what has happened to our friend. I feel so lucky to have known her.
* I have chosen not to link to her profile since I have been informed that journalists have been contacting people through Facebook trying to get information. Meredith’s family have requested people do not speak to journalists as they would like privacy to grieve.
It suddenly dawned on me that, after plugging Stardust repeatedly over the last year, I haven’t actually raved about it here since seeing it. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this and go and book tickets. It’s one of those magical films that ought to serve all genders, ages and tastes equally.
The reason I have been following it closely is, of course, that the story was penned by Neil Gaiman. Like the book it remains anapologetically (modern) fairy tale, though Matthew Vaughn’s direction grounds the visuals in realism, with superb subtle flourishes such as the way Claire Danes’ Yvaine seems to glow and wane according to her mood. Indeed Vaughn’s involvement is what originally filled me with hope for the project, since selecting the director of Layer Cake, such a drastically different film, meant he must love the source material and the studio felt he was perfect for it so would presumably leave him alone.
The cast is sublime. Claire Danes is wonderful in her portrayal of the star, while casting a newcomer, Charlie Cox, as Tristran was vital in many ways to allow his character to naturally emerge and bloom during the story. The names alone in the supporting cast are phenomenal, but chief among them are a deliciously evil Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert de Niro’s Captain Shakespeare. Although loosely based on the pirate captain from the book, Neil Gaiman said it best, “I know I didn’t write a pirate captain performing a can-can in drag”. So departures from the original story are very evident, but in every case they work well in translating the story to the big screen so even purists would be hard pressed to complain.
So this isn’t supposed to be a review as such, just me urging everyone to go and see the film because you really will enjoy it. Like Pixar fare, there really is something for everyone, though this wasn’t written primarily for children (Gaiman wrote the original as a fairy tale for adults, though the film is very much a PG). I fear that much of the advertising is designed to appeal more to girls (to the tune of a new Take That song, no less — though worryingly I actually quite like it) or else will fall into the weird grey area where no one thinks it is really their sort of movie. I promise it is, just give it a go.