Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Month: April 2007

Unique Scenarios: The Xbox 360 Elite

The updated Xbox 360 Elite console is now in the wild with photos flooding the internet as eager journalists get their paws on them. Engadget performed the most interesting test, however, which was comparing the image quality with the standard version. Their conclusion was, as I had predicted, that it is nigh impossible to distinguish between 1080p over HDMI and 1080i over component connections. To Microsoft’s credit they are not targeting this new release at existing Xbox owners, but rather for new-comers who want to move straight to the high-end large-drive version. I suspect the real reason is that they are well aware that their file transfer is still crippled if you move between machines.

Buying the standalone 120GB drive will cause you no problems but because licensed downloadable content is locked to both your Xbox Live ID and your console ID, it will only work on a new console if you are logged in at the time. In an explanatory video at Major Nelson’s site, Albert insultingly describes the “handful of people who might face a unique scenario” if they are not logged in. In essence he has just discounted anyone who does not keep their console internet connected 24/7 as lesser customers. Sorry, unique customers. I suspect that behind his nonchalant attitude he knows full well he was talking rubbish and that far more than “a handful” will be affected by this but is required to peddle the company line. The video has attracted a large number of disgruntled comments. Maybe Albert has very big hands, or maybe it’s based on the fact he did not seem to consider it a problem and appeared unhurried in developing a solution. While it may not be a huge issue yet, these consoles can and do break and many will need to replace theirs (and many of those who bought at launch already have). If Microsoft’s DRM is so short-sighted that it cannot handle this obvious eventuality it places a huge question mark over the quality of their downloads service. Whether it is by a process to “unlock” licensed content or something else, this one needs to be dealt with fast.

Yod'm 3DAnd now an exam term top tip (ET³) for those who have trouble with self-control while sitting in front of your computer: the distractionless desktop. The simplest way to do this is to create a new user account and strip out everything non-work related from the desktop and start menu so that it’s just plain difficult to distract yourself. A slightly sleeker solution that still allows you to switch back to other tasks with relative ease is the multiple desktop solution. Using a program like Dexpot you can create additional virtual desktops for you machine and easily move between them. Create a new, plain workspace desktop, with a vanilla wallpaper and free of clutter. You will likely find your productivity increasing fast without web browsers, chat windows and email distracting you. Alternatively Yod’m 3D (pictured) provides a similar feature with less customisation but a pretty animation as you rotate a cube to access additional desktops.

Have any tips you’d like to share with the class? Let me know and I may compile a list of the best.

Harry Potter Ends War

While making no judgement about the quality of the final film, I openly rubbished the tired teaser trailer for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The complaint is slightly unfair since all Potter trailers are inevitable compared against the Azkaban teaser which is arguably one of the finest examples made with its atmospheric choir and languid, moody shots. Absurdly it was the trailer for the inevitable game tie-in that sparked greater interest, with impressively realistic incarnations of the film’s characters and a stunningly faithful reproduction of Hogwarts. Yet all this high definition goodness is rather irrelevant since if one were to play the new Harry Potter game, the only format worth considering is clearly the Wii version, wiimote wand poised as you cast spells. The balance has been redressed somewhat by the new full length film trailer which is more engaging, if overly reliant on pyrotechnics rather than subtlety.

Ubisoft have announced a new game in the ever-expanding Tom Clancy franchise, but this outing comes in the form of a World War 3 RTS. Little more is known beyond the title EndWar and the fact its scale is supposed to be massive, possibly even in the massively multiplayer sense. We can assume this is the new project alluded to by the viral website launched several weeks ago.

In other news Kryptonite has been discovered in a mine, though the crystalline substance disappointingly fails to glow green. No word yet on superpowers granted or neutralised.

And lastly for those who enjoy dock action on Windows, a brand new version of Stardock’s ObjectDock ought to be right up your street. Did I mention it’s free?

Keggfest 2007

Apologies for another unplanned extended absence while I relocated to Cambridge for my final term here and tried to kickstart work for the last slog before finals. While Kirsten’s posts seem to increase in frequency as a procrastination attempt the closer exams come, I imagine my own posts will be sporadic this term. However I do understand that this site is seen as a bastion of procrastinatory reading by many so I will endeavour to maintain at least semi-regular service despite exam term. Remember that even when absent I am still scouring my numerous RSS feeds for interesting news items that don’t make it to full-fledged site entries and sharing them (or as a feed’s feed if you prefer). The bottom line: if you want something to read then don’t hide away working and do something interesting.

Take Cover!Like, say, Keggfest. Now an annual institution, Keggfest harks back to the first year when I established the celebration of chocolate as a protest against the commercialisation of the religious Easter holiday. The rules are simple: each attendee must bring a Kegg, a chocolate egg bought at sale-price after Easter, though this year several people really raised the bar with full-on cakes and chewy rice krispy nests. Were there to be an overarching theme, however, this year’s would undoubtedly have been the innovative destruction of eggs with creative methods including crashing remote cars into them at high speed and launching them down corridors with an oversized catapult. The results were as tasty as they were messy.

Direct Hit!My laptop had been stuttering at the start of term and realising that I would have little time to deal with it later if things were to deteriorate, I opted for a pre-emptive reformat. I cannot stress how much easier the rebuilding procedure was with my new pre-partitioned hard drive so that after formatting and rebuilding the system partition, my data was already sitting there ready for me to use without any of the usual convoluted backing up and copying. After that experience partitioning off my data is likely to be the first thing I do with any new machine.

Does the name Project Offset mean anything to you? If so, you’ll definitely want to click on this link to the big reveal. Since footage first emerged in 2005, this stunning looking fantasy game has promised cinematic quality rendering in an FPS epic fantasy environment. In short it promises to be everything that Dark Messiah was not. The catch is that now they’re only releasing information after enough people have visited the site, with a blue progress bar edging forward in tantalisingly small steps. Good news is that already people have unlocked two gorgeous screenshots. Bad news is that repeated refreshing from the same address won’t help.

Paradise Lost @ KOKO

I haven’t spoken to Jamie from Whitgift for about 3 years but he contacted me a week ago to ask if I fancied seeing Paradise Lost this week. Apparently he remembered from our school daze that I was a fan, and seemed a likely companion to accompany him to his first metal gig. The reason was that Mike, a friend of his, happened to be the frontman of support act Serpico. A competent bunch of metalheads they produced a pretty impressive set with Mike doing a great job of winning over the crowd (never easy when you’re newly graduated opening for band who’ve developed a following over 17 years and 10 albums). Mike, incidentally, is actually an Oxford lawyer, probably not something he publicises too much in the name of credibility. However Jamie let me in on a noble little secret that would damage it far more. We also met a girl who turned out to be the cousin of Serpico’s talented 18-year-old guitarist who had a distracting tendency to wander across the stage.

Paradise Lost @ KOKOParadise Lost then emerged to play a fantastic retrospective set that covered everything since their Gothic album. The whole set was being recorded for a forthcoming DVD release which certainly made me jump at the chance to attend, having also been at the Opeth gig which spawned the superb Lamentations DVD. KOKO has a great multi-tiered structure so we took up a position higher up without feeling a world away from the stage (having been a few feet away from the band at the Mean Fiddler several years ago, I was not too disappointed). It was a strong set, sagging a little only towards the end. However this was more than made up for by two encores featuring Say Just Words and a great live rendition of Isolate. Bring on the DVD.

On a similarly music related note (no pun intended), Steve informed me about a Washington Post article chronicling the results when they took world famous virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell (he performed on the phenomenal Red Violin soundtrack) and had him busk in the metro. The results are either surprising or saddeningly predictable depending on your level of cynicism. However they don’t simply berate modern society but actually investigate the meaning behind it, comparing it to “art without a canvas”. Ultimately if beauty cannot make people recognise it, can it really be considered that beautiful? From Bell’s perspective it was just deeply unsettling to find himself being ignored.

Responsible Browsing: Firefox Add-ons to Avoid

It’s no secret that Firefox has long been my browser of choice due to the ability to customise it to suit my needs. However overdoing it on the add-ons can certainly have a detrimental effect on your browsing experience. Computer World has an unusual article on the top 10 Firefox add-ons to avoid. A follow-up to a more standard top 20, it is the negative list that certainly proves the most interesting, dealing primarily with acting as a good net citizen. Or netizen if you like that hybrid language 2.0 stuff.

FasterFoxIn particular it highlights the mixed blessings of FasterFox and AdBlock. Most users will find the former does increase their browsing speed, but many are not aware of how it does so. FasterFox pre-caches all the sites linked to on the current page. Given the number of links on the average page, this can easily mean loading dozens more pages in the background which is a needless waste of bandwidth for both you and the respective hosts. As someone who pays for bandwidth I have no problem with people regularly visiting the site but certainly object to my bandwidth being wasted. For those who insist on using this offender, there is a more responsible “Courteous” setting in the options which offers less of a speed-boost but does so without increasing server loads.

AdBlock is more of a conundrum since I both use it and feel somewhat guilty for so doing. Many sites rely on advertising to fund their own existence and if everyone were to block their ads the site would cease to exist. However no one should have to endure pop-ups or intrusive animated flash ads while surfing either. If you use AdBlock, spend a few minutes visiting all your regular sites and whitelisting them, disabling the add-on for that site. Only re-enable it if you find a site uses particularly intrusive advertising. This way you will not see ads for sites you visit only only once or twice (and where you bandwidth consumption is therefore comparatively low), though you once you find yourself making repeated visits you should enable the ads.

A final curiosity is the appearance of tweakers’ favourite Greasemonkey on both lists. Although incredibly powerful in its ability to let you customise absolutely any site you visit, the ability to install and run other people’s javascripts from within your browser is not without danger. It is a clear security issue and unless you have the time and knowledge to check scripts yourself, you should only use those from trusted sources or backed up by enough reviews to show others have used them for long periods without problems.

eBay Easter

A belated Happy Easter to you all. I hope you all gorged yourself suitably on the candied delights that allegedly celebrate Christ’s resurrection in some indiscernible form — I found the Milkybar Mr. Potato Head in my Easter egg particularly dubious. Kirsten came down for the long weekend to join in the familial festivities and when not working could usually be found on a computer somewhere, excitedly tweaking her new blog or researching her next post, and occasionally digging a pond for her Piñatas.

Having previously been exclusively a buyer, I am now dabbling in selling over eBay with decidedly mixed results. I began by selling off some old games to which I do not expect to return, comparing the profits to those I could obtain by trading them in at CeX. They offered an insultingly paltry 80p for Freelancer in-store, yet on eBay surprisingly it netted far more than Doom 3, which sold for virtually nothing. I found that console games tend to sell at more consistent prices, making it easier to gauge the likely results.

As a beginning my approach was to search for the item I was selling and use eBay’s facility to narrow the results to “completed listings” only. I would then look at the listings that had sold at the highest prices, aiming to emulate them in both content and timing (an equally important factor). The whole process was surprisingly simple, particularly as I discovered Paypal and Royal Mail offer a service through which you can pay for and print parcel postage labels. Posting is then as simple as finding a post box rather than heading into town and braving the inevitably horrific, pensioner-packed post office queues. Despite the mixed results I experienced, overall the “DIY approach” yielded a higher profit than I would have made through in-store trade-ins, even accounting for the considerable commission and fees taken by both eBay and Paypal. With listing items and even postage no longer a great inconvenience, on balance it generally seems worth the little extra time it takes.

The logical continuation would be to downsize my DVD collection as Kirsten has been hinting with references to the limited space of our future flat. However a cursory inspection revealed about ten titles with which I could comfortably part — not exactly an appreciable dent in a mass of over two hundred. On that note, if you would like me to bring any specific titles to Cambridge to alleviate the pain of exam term, now is the time to let me know (in the comments or by email) so I can pack them in advance.

Simple Pound

Simple PoundWith preparations complete I can proudly unveil Kirsten’s new blog, Simple Pound. It aims to share insights into finance and investment at a graduate level, making the most of your starting salary. This is likely to be very relevant for a lot of readers here and Kirsten decided to start this after finding a distinct lack of such information targeted at a UK audience. Aside from her course, she’ll also have first-hand advice from the professionals at Merrill Lynch once she starts working. To begin with she has set out her basic goals — in fact goals seem to be a recurring theme throughout all the posts so far. I am currently hosting the site here, but address you’ll want to bookmark is simplepound.co.uk. We’ll be looking at ways to expand the resources offered beyond the blog itself, but as a personal guide to investment early on in your career it should prove an interesting and informative read.

As if to prove correct my description of the EMI/Apple DRM announcement as a smokescreen, my dad arrived home informing me that EMI and Apple are now selling DRM-free MP3s at the same price as before. None of which is true. Reading the Metro article he had seen it is not difficult to see why he was confused. Although it did not actually state this, it certainly seemed to imply it because the journalist had simply reproduced the Apple/EMI line without actually engaging their brain. That article is by no means an anomaly with virtually every media outlet regurgitating the same press release like faithful lapdogs. When did it become okay for media journalists not to do their job? There are a few exceptions. Engadget, despite being obvious Apple fans, did critique the announcement more astutely, while The Inquirer said something about baseball bats. If this comes up in conversation please clue people up about it. Remember friends don’t let friends buy crippled music. Or Andrew Lloyd Webber.

EMI drops DRM. Sort of.

A lot of speculation had arisen regarding Steve Jobs’ announcement with EMI but the improbable sounding rumours of DRM-free music fell a little to close to April 1st to be taken seriously by many until Tuesday morning. A pleasant surprise for all, then, when they announced just that. DRM-free music in about a month’s time. Well, sort of. The first caveat is that to begin with it’s only available through iTunes. That means it will only be downloadable in AAC which is frankly useless to anyone who doesn’t own an iPod or one of the few compatible Sony players. Apple are quite deliberately not providing MP3 downloads, which again casts doubt on Jobs’ seemingly altruistic championing of “open” music.

The second issue is a split-pricing structure. DRM-free tracks are available at a higher bitrate, while the standard bitrate tracks remain fully DRM’d just as before. Naturally this provides an excuse for higher prices for the former, with the latter available because “not everybody cares about interoperability or sound quality” according to EMI CEO Eric Nicoli. Quite why those two should be entwined, however, is a mystery. It also means the unknowing are likely to purchase the cheaper option without understanding what they are giving up. So it clear they are not yet committed to a DRM-free world since it is being sold as an enhanced “feature”, not a consumer right. Worse still, it only benefits those who are happy to embrace Apple’s non-interoperable format, so it’s trading one problem for another. It is a step in the right direction, however, and we can only hope that this is the first domino toppling. Despite my scepticism about the world of online music purchasing, I have said for some time that as soon as one of the major labels releases their catalogue in DRM-free MP3 I’ll buy an album and that promise still stands. We’re getting there, but there was something of a smokescreen in yesterday’s announcement that not everyone seems to have grasped.

Kirsten and I (but really her) are currently working on a new project that I can hopefully reveal very soon, once everything is set up and running smoothly. It’s looking to be extremely informative for those tentatively stepping out into the real world in the next year or two, and is rather pretty too. Watch this space for details.

Neil Gaiman was sharing a bunch of YouTube videos in his latest post and I’ll leave you with Tyger, which was simply stunning in a beautifully mysterious way. Mesmerising enough that I feel compelled to share.

The 50yr Old Fake

I hope everyone enjoyed yesterday’s April Fool’s jest. Rest assured my feelings towards the Shuffle have not changed and, to quote Jeeves, certain specific and scarcely to be expected meteorological changes would have to occur in the infernal regions before I purchase one. As for the Macs, there’s not really any reason to be overly negative. Despite a flood of obligatory pranks and falsehoods the internet generally seemed a lot less funny than last year. Top marks go to ThinkGeek’s WiiHelm since they went the extra mile and actually made a prototype. Which sort of makes it less of a joke and more a wiiality (sorry).

Sebastian is not actually 50As promised you can see photos from Majella’s birthday do on Saturday. After yesterday’s post I ought to point out that Sebastian is not in fact 50. He was more than happy to blow out his father’s birthday candles but somewhat perplexed by their insistence upon relighting themselves. Having him deal with it seemed unsporting at best. The 50-year-old twins then cut the cake together. The whole evening was good fun with a chance to see Gerard and his family after quite a while. His work for Sun (of the Microsystems ilk, not the D-grade journalism variety) also provided an interesting brain to pick on IP issues which he discussed at length. In fact he’s been working there so long that he sports one of those hallowed single name email addresses that impresses more than any business card — mostly because he doesn’t really need one as a result.

Gerard and Majella attackMeanwhile conversation with Kirsty and her friend/Imperial medic cohort was more convivial on the topic of our newly rediscovered love for sketch show Big Train. The mood was somewhat sullied by flat-hunting advice that was not altogether inspiring, though I have few delusions as to how pleasant an experience it will be. Kirsty explained that her appreciation for Hammersmith had been gradually lowered by frequent doorstep urinations. Not by her, I hasten to add. They also reiterated the warning against Foxtons that I’ve heard from pretty much everyone. Does anyone actually like those guys?

iRepent

iPod Shuffle 2GYesterday I picked up an iPod Shuffle 2G. Just to hold it, to see. The pictures don’t really prepare you for just how small the second generation device really is and despite my best intentions I bought it. For myself. The crazy part is that I love it. I’ve realised that the lack of a screen or ability to see and select what you listen to isn’t really a drawback. Unlike hard drive players, 1GB of music is so little that there’s really no need for the hassle of navigating menus and the simplicity of this player is just stunning. In some ways it almost gives you too much control — a single play/off button would have been enough. You see the Shuffle is not so much about playing the music as experiencing it, and that journey is imbued with greater significance outside of the user’s hands. Being unprepared for the next song makes it that much more powerful as a result. As you can see I went for the blue/turquoise model. I felt the silver one was a bit dull, and while colour coordinating turquoise might be problematic given my wardrobe, at least I won’t be losing it!

The clip is also inspired. I never realised how reliant I was on pockets before, but they are constantly stuffed with junk every time I leave the house. Now I can streamline my appearance by clipping my music on the outside, and of course bragging rights are far easier when your iPod is on full display rather than hidden away in some pocketed crevice. No jacket in the summer? No problem — clip it to your shirt. Want music while lounging around the house? Easy — clip it to your boxers!

I know I’ve given Apple a hard time in the past and I may not be changing my views entirely, but this experience has definitely opened my eyes. I doubt I’ll be subscribing to AppleTV any time soon, but I am eyeing up those Mac Minis. While they might be limited in components and upgradeability, I am realising that in the modern household form is more important than function. We have become so focused on specifications and technicalities that we fail to realise we already have what we need. Technology only adds to that, and so we should only embrace to the extent that it looks stylish enough to enhance our lives beyond those basic needs. Understanding that is Apple’s triumph and now I can’t wait to see what Steve Jobs is able to accomplish with the iPhone.

EDIT: As many of you realised this was indeed an April Fool’s joke. I have not bought an iPod Shuffle, which remains one of the most moronic technological devices on the market. The entire commentary is very tongue-in-cheek except for the problematic nature of colour coordinating a wardrobe with turquoise electronics. It’s hard and I don’t recommend trying it yourselves. The photo is by Daniel Morris via Flickr.

"You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2017 Priyan Meewella

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