Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Year: 2008 (page 1 of 6)

Christmas 2008

Merry Christmas from P-2006

Christmas has very much snuck up on me this year, largely since it’s the first time I have been working right up until Christmas Eve. I have no complaints though, and a couple of boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts successfully lightened the mood in the office. Because of the way the weekends have fallen, taking time off between Christmas and New Year barely uses up any holiday this year, so I am left with a surplus to use up realistically some time in January of February. The current plan is to take two weeks off and just sleep, watch films and generally indulge without ulterior motive. I am, however, open to suggestions.

I spent last weekend on a very brief trip to Ireland with several uni friends, masterminded by Irina who had bought Andy tickets to see Coldplay at the new O2 venue in Dublin. It actually felt like a rather studenty trip between the hostel accomodation (Barnacles — cheap, clean, secure but with no curfew) and the decidedly alcoholic bent to our sightseeing. By which I mean both the Guinness brewery and the Jameson distillery. The former was prettier with plenty of marginally related photo opportunities, despite the fact I have scant interest in the drink itself. Jameson offered a more informative guided tour followed by a tasting that compared Scotch whisky with Irish whiskey and American Bourbon. Despite being offered a place, I relinquished it to Sparkie which only made sense given that we were also celebrating his birthday. I also seem to have ended up with a couple of hundred photos so expect more once I’ve managed to get them sorted out, which may take some time.

And finally as a sort of Christmas present, here’s some unashamedly geeky free music by Jonathan Coulton. He’s an interesting chap whom I initially came across when his Code Monkey song did the rounds online, and more recently in Portal’s closing credits which he composed. His blend of folk and rock styles lead to interesting results but he really showed off his versatility in the Thing-A-Week project in which he, uh, released a new song every week, free to download under the Creative Commons licence. I recently stumbled across this trove. The breadth of his work covers topics as varied as the Mandelbrot set, the problems with being an evil villain in love, Olympic Curling, a sort of dumped stalker’s anthem, a very odd apology with monkeys, the zombie apocalypse, DNA and of course a folk cover of Baby Got Back. Obviously. Because why wouldn’t you.

And on that note, have a very Merry Christmas!

Left 4 Dead and Amazon mp3

I ended up miles away with no idea where I was, covered in vomit.

-Adam describing either a Boomer attack or his average Friday night

Left 4 Dead

Adam has spent a while trying to convince me to pick up Left 4 Dead, Valve’s apocalyptic zombie survival shooter. It’s less that I needed cajoling about the quality of the game — it is Valve after all — but rather that with four-player co-op as its backbone, I wanted to be assured there would be people with whom to play. Once Sparkie started pestering me as well, I swiftly realised there was nothing to worry about and jumped in. The game succeeds through its tempo, a mad rush of zombies is always followed by suitably edgy respite with staccato moments as the super-infected appear. These zombie specials each have their strengths, but it was the Witch (having read many review references with scant detail leaving me irrationally terrified) that I was anxious to meet. And what an introduction I had: spotting her in the boiler room, three simultaneously launched molotov cocktails and a hurtling fiery zombie later, I was left with a huge grin on my face. Particularly knowing next time will be completely different since the zombies do not spawn in pre-set locations but are rather controlled by the game’s AI director. Survival horror games are not normally my cup of tea, but this is something else.

Continuing my plugs for DRM-free music download stores, Amazon mp3 has finally launched in the UK. Hopefully this brand, coupled with bargain £3 albums from major artists, will finally draw the masses away from iTunes. Like 7digital they offer a small, tidy application to manage downloads. Interesting to note is that although the tracks are nominally encoded at 256kbps, a cursory glance at my downloads shows this is in fact VBR. At last. For those interested in what I bought, it was a perfect chance to pick up the debut album from LA rockers The Dreaming without an inflated import price tag. I’m a big fan of front man Christopher Hall who was the vocalist for Stabbing Westward.

And a few interesting recent finds:

Picking a PMP

Cowon O2I have finally made a decision as to the new portable media player and I have to admit this has been the hardest gadget buying decision I have had to make. Arguably the reason is that in this instance there simply isn’t a device that meets my exact requirements, despite the fact price isn’t really an issue in a device I will be using every single day. The eventual winner was the Cowon O2. Several readers here will likely feel I’ve made the wrong decision, so I’d like to explain the reasoning behind this. As a warning this is unsurprisingly a fairly techie post but may still be worth reading for anyone considering picking up a player in the near future since I have actually tried out every player I mention.

Having already discounted the iPod, the new O2’s rivals were Cowon’s own Q5W and A3, along with the Archos 5. Selfridges on Oxford Street is the place to go for hands on with Cowon players (the only physical store I have seen stock them) while the Archos players can be found in various locations including Currys and Tottenham Court Road stores. While the A3 undoubtedly has the finest screen by a wide margin, its controls leave much to be desired. Ultimately though, it was its large size that prove decisive — this is a portable device after all. The Q5W and Archos 5 have many advantages in terms of a higher res screen, wifi internet, and overall nicer build and finish with a metal housing rather than the O2’s sturdy but less pleasing plastic. A few minutes with the Q5W swiftly proves what a wasted opportunity it was, unforgivably sluggish (perhaps due the fact it runs on top of Windows) and with complex and unintuitive navigation system, coupled with awful battery life.

Archos 5So the front runners were the Archos 5 and Cowon O2 and choosing between them was nigh impossible (indeed I switched sides repeatedly). I realised that wifi internet is still of limited use to me and that my next phone is likely to support it anyway, so it ought not to be a consideration. Both had equally responsive interfaces, the O2’s being prettier but still inexplicably failing to organise music by ID3 tags. The O2 loads faster from flash memory and touts better battery life, but this limits its storage to just 32GB (plus an SDHC expansion slot for another 16GB+) while the Archos hard drives range up to a massive 250GB (I was looking at the 120GB model). This really left video quality vs audio quality as the final decision. Cowon’s legendary audio quality is still unrivalled, and the O2 is no exception. Yet the O2’s significantly lower resolution (480×272 vs 800×480) was a lot to give up, even though it’s smaller 4.3″ screen made it harder to notice and does offer impressively vibrant colours.

The bottom line is that if my ears hadn’t grown so used to the full, meaty sound of a Cowon player over the last few years, I probably would have gone with the Archos for its sharper video and additional features. But having had a Cowon, it’s really hard to give up and music remains as important to me as video in terms of media while travelling. Shrinking from a 40″ TV to a portable screen I am unlikely ever to be happy with the necessary loss of detail so perhaps it is less significant.

For those interested in price comparison, the 60GB Archos 5 is approximately the same price as the 32 GB Cowon O2 at around £250, but expect to spend another £55 on extending codec supprt and a dock for faster charging. The smaller 16GB O2 is around £210, while larger Archos players scale up to £340. As usual Advanced MP3 Players tends to offer the best prices.

PMPs have improved in great strides over the past few years and the healthy competition means the next generation may bring my theoretical perfect device. The truth is that the O2 is very nearly there if they could only upgrade the screen and arrive in this decade with ID3 support. With excellent audiovisual quality and a wide range of supported codecs I don’t need anything else in a media player so the extra options are nice asides but ultimately mere distractions.

Xbox Interface Overhaul

New Xbox InterfaceI’ll discuss the weekend’s wonderful trip up to Cambridge once I get hold of some photos from the panto (I didn’t take my camera up with me). In the meantime I have a few thoughts on Microsoft’s new interface for the Xbox 360, which went live last Wednesday. I am not buying into their NXE moniker. “Experience” is somewhat overstating the product — it’s an interface not a skydiving holiday. It is the first time a console has undergone such a radical overhaul, though it is a logical step for a software giant like Microsoft. With so much strong content being released it would be wrong to say this update breathed new life into the three-year-old console but it was certainly welcome – the old blade interface was already arguably better than its competitors but as the games library grew, finding items online became a chore, scrolling through a list of hundreds of titles.

The other big change it brought was the introduction of avatars, undoubtedly inspired by the Wii’s Miis but a natural evolution with far more detail, taking advantage of the console’s superior processing power. Interestingly the facial customisation is arguably shallower in that one can select parts in various shapes and colours but there is no ability to alter positioning on the face. This is presumably to facilitate more detailed facial animation on the dashboard and in games.

However a large part of customisation is in clothing, which proves far more than just novelty outfits (although in future games may unlock new themed outfits) or exaggerated stereotypes. A behind-the-scenes video showed artists at Rare sketching concepts with fashion magazines as reference, which frankly seemed a bit excessive. The result, however, is that one recognises friends as much from their avatar’s fashion as their appearance – indeed my sister’s is most instantly recognisable from her choice of jumper. That I had not expected.



Live at the Apollo

Apparently the US financial crisis is now so bad that Americans have given up on racism.

-Russell Howard on the American presidential election

Finding myself unexpectedly free on Tuesday evening, Rav came through with an extra ticket to Live at the Apollo, stand up comedy being filmed in a hurried attempt to fill the void left by Jonathan Ross’ suspension. Needless to say the Ross/Sachs debacle was referenced several times, usually followed by the words “there’s no way this is making the cut!”

The performers were Sean Lock, Jason Manford, Russell Howard and Jo Brand (they were filming two episodes back-to-back given the tight timeframe) — excellent value considering the tickets were free! Sean is like every family’s amiable joking uncle. There’s an occasional harder edge to his comedy and his likable meandering belies a sharp wit. Jason Manford’s set felt tighter if not actually funnier. He seems like exactly the sort of bloke you’d like to hang out with and have a beer except that apparently he doesn’t drink.

I always find Jo Brand disappointingly inconsistent. There are some very funny moments when she does stand-up but they are hidden between large amounts of filler. Her self-deprecating fat/feminist humour works well in short bursts on panel shows but wears thin at length.

The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Russell Howard. I have always been a fan despite the occasional tendancy of his overenthusiastic delivery to get in the way of his jokes. Impressively, he easily maintains that infectuous energy throughout and it rarely derailed him. Perhaps most interesting, given the deliberate childishness of his delivery, is that he now has a point — Russell has a clear message underlying it all as he rails against those in British society who relish in their own needless anger, entirely oblivious to the realities outside their comfortable world. A child can be funny in a meaningless way, but a child with a point might actually convince people to change.

If like me your strongest memory of Minority Report is the futuristic gesture controlled computer system, and you’ve spent the past several years waiting for it to appear, you need to see Oblong’s g-speak. The first half of the demonstration video will blow you away, while the latter seems there largely to pad it out.

Child’s Play 2008

Child\'s PlayIt’s that time of year again, but with a little twist. Every year I try to promote Child’s Play, the charity set up by Gabe and Tycho over at Penny Arcade which, since 2003, has raised over $2 million for sick kids in hospitals. That’s a pretty staggering way for gamers to show the positive side of this industry, in spite of the continually negative media coverage. This year I’m stoked because I can actually afford to contribute properly myself.

For those who don’t know the deal, here’s how it works. The charity has connections with various children’s hospitals around the world (in the UK it’s Alder Hey), so you pick one and can then view an Amazon wishlist showing the products the hospital would like to obtain. Choose an item and pay, the hospital receives it and a host of children’s lives are immeasurably improved as they await daunting surgeries and treatments. With each successive year donations have increased but in the current economic climate Gabe is expecting donations to drop below last year’s total. I’d love it if you could help prove him wrong.

Now that the news has had sufficient time to spread, I can safely offer huge congratulations to Andy and Irina on their engagement. Their cocktail party last weekend became a much bigger celebration following Andy’s proposal on Friday. Unfortunately I didn’t get to take any romantic snaps of the couple (or the ring) so I guess you’ll have to imagine it instead.

And finally you may have heard that the Home Office recently caught up with the times and announced the establishment of new cybercrime police unit with specialist training to handle online fraud in particular. Unfortunately they have been given the rather unimaginative title of Police Central e-crime Unit (or PCeU which looks rather like a sneeze). I strongly suggest that, with Tom Clancy having sold the rights to use of his own name to Ubisoft*, the Met proceed to acquire a license and rebrand the unit Tom Clancy’s Net Force. How else can they be taken seriously?

* Yes, that is quite likely restricted to videogames since his book publisher will presumably continue to flood the market with books not actually written by him.

Gearing Democratic Solace

There are various ways one might approach the US election results: a victory for the Democrats, African Americans or simply common sense. Others will slyly ponder that perhaps Americans have at last proven they can be trusted to elect their own leader. There is little doubt that the result fulfilled the desires of the silent majority, by which I mean the rest of world (inexplicably illegible to vote on some technicality), made clear by the flood of supportive global congratulations.

While people are not wrong to characterise Obama’s victory speech as sounding “historic”, McCain’s concession speech was also notably magnanimous and one can’t help but wonder whether, had he campaigned in that manner throughout, the finish might have been somewhat tighter. The fact Obama is “untested” remains the chief concern amongst many Republicans, but then this is a job for which there is no real test. For that matter, in what way exactly was Bush tested before he landed the role? Unless pretzel choking featured substantively, I’m fairly sure he would have failed. Obama’s campaign attracted some excellent minds and the people with which he now chooses to surround himself will greatly impact his effectiveness moving forward.

Quantum of SolaceLast night I headed out with Ben and Anna from law school to see Quantum of Solace for a second time, taking the bold move of actually remaining awake throughout on this occasion. While Ravi’s suggestion of an opening night screening last Friday had been conceptually good, the practicalities of end-of-the-week exhaustion and an 11:30pm start, possibly exacerbated by the beer in my hand, led to a somewhat inevitable conclusion. As it turns out, I didn’t miss much in the additional half hour and my original views were pretty much spot on. This way, however, I can proffer my review without risk of reproach. I can say with certainty: Quantum of Solace is definitely a film I have seen.

Gears of War 2The flood of gaming titles continues with the much anticipated sequel to Gears of War. While already impressed with its improved graphics (less, though still some, texture pop but particularly more open areas and a brighter palette with actual colours!) and continuing cinematic flair, I want to take a moment to praise the design of the limited edition box. You heard me. Metal cases are becoming commonplace for collectors releases and they do look and feel great. However the oversize tins required to stuff in extras like artbooks end up unwieldy and seem slightly tacky. To get around this, The Gears 2 discs come in a slim metal case the size of an ordinary game, which is then packed with a book inside a larger card case and slipcover. It’s an elegant solution that I’d like to see other releases follow.

Forward Planning

Now that things have settled down, in both work and life, I should be in position to resume writing here more frequently. It probably won’t be regular because I’m still never quite sure when things of note are actually going to happen, but they do seem to. Which is nice.

Let The Issues Be The IssueThis post was actually written before the American elections finished so I will only touch on Obama’s victory briefly (at least until I can digest the results fully). While his platform of change became popular enough to secure the White House, actually effecting that change will still be an uphill struggle, particularly in the current economic climate where massive financial bailouts have left America’s national debt even more monstrous than previously. The rest of the world, however, is breathing a collective sigh of relief —arguably less that Obama is in and more that Bush(‘s cronies) is out and Palin wasn’t allowed anywhere near! I also particularly liked ad agency Grey NYC’s recent campaign inverting the races of the two candidates, urging voters to vote on issues rather than race. Londonders will likely have seen it on the cover of yesterday’s Metro. The posters quickly became collectors’ items.

Fallout 3Currently I am preparing for the glut of high quality videogame titles heading this way. Although the numbers are roughly the same it seems significantly more daunting when combined with a job. Gabe and Tycho’s Operation Myriad is not far off. Better make those holidays count, I guess. I’m currently exploring the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. in Fallout 3 and the feeling of isolation they have captured is fantastic, travelling between small communities.  Rather than just being quest hubs, there is a real sense that these isolated pockets are just people trying to get by.

Mirror\'s EdgeI am also very pleased to announce that the demo for free running game Mirror’s Edge has placed it firmly at the top of the pre-orders list. I already loved the clinical art style of the metropolis and the videos they have released, but with jump puzzles generally being the bane of any first-person game, devoting an entire experience to exactly that would require a seriously impressive control system. Fortunately, that’s exactly what they have delivered with a surprisingly intuitive system for vertical interaction with the environment. The momentum you build up as you run is also key, particularly if you want to land on something soft after ziplining between buildings, since your momentum is conserved as you drop. The bottom line is that it can make you look and feel as cool as Assassin’s Creed, but without taking all control away from the player like that game’s one-button mechanic. I’m really impressed by this new EA, turned from churning out sports games, sequels and movie tie-ins to producing some really impressive and innovative new IPs.

7digital Somewhat Quells My Financial Rage

My reaction to today’s financial “rescue” announcement was unimpressed to say the least. Livid would not be inaccurate. Fortunately I shall not dwell on it in this post because it would inevitably devolve into a barely coherent rant. The short version of my view is this: although we will not see the results for a week, Brown has probably succeeded in restoring some confidence in this colossal banking disaster, for which he is in no small part responsible due to the ill-conceived regulatory reforms enacted in his previous role. However the upshot is that, while the bankers may breathe a sigh of relief, I would strongly recommend that no one in this country falls ill in the next two to five years. In fact, public services generally ought to be forgotten. Better yet, we’ll probably get to pay extra for the privilege too. In fact I can certainly see why this move was apparently so politically uncontroversial. It’s genius.

Instead I want to talk about something I ought have mentioned several weeks ago, given that I praised PlayDigital‘s okay offering at launch. Online music store 7digital pulled off a major coup recently, becoming the the first UK store to sign DRM-free deals with every major record label. That’s a massive range of music at competitive prices, all available in mp3 format without any of that horrible copy protection malarky. Why should you care? Well, because you will always be able to listen to this music in the future, and you’ll be free to choose whatever software and music player you like to listen to it. Quality is impressive, with everything I have looked at being encoded 256-320kbps CBR. VBR would be welcome, of course, but it’s a minor gripe. The bottom line is this: if you are still buying locked-in music from iTunes at this point, you’re a moron. Switch now.

Amazon have been offering a similar service in the States for some time and the UK launch is due soon, which will hopefully awaken a wider audience.

So Close, Apple

Cowon Q5WMy Cowon U2 mp3 player has served me excellently over the past several years and, while it still works perfectly, I have been looking to upgrade. This is partly due to its paltry 1GB of storage, and partly because the inclusion of both video playback and wifi web surfing on new high-end portable media players is very enticing. For the past year I have been eyeing up Cowon’s feature-packed Q5W. However it is not without its drawbacks: running Windows CE5 allows for office documents to be read, but also means the whole touch screen interface is somewhat sluggish; battery life is on the low side because of the hard drive; and the web browser is still a bit clunky.

iPod TouchAs a result I found myself seriously considering the iPod Touch (the first Apple device I have openly praised), particularly once the 2nd gen model wisely added an external volume control. My chief concern has always been the iTunes lock-in because I detest the bloated resource hog. A quick trial of the latest version did nothing to change my mind but, particularly after experiencing just how fast and responsive the Touch’s interface is, I was still torn. All that remained was to compare the sound quality, which meant loading my old player with a few of Apple’s sample songs and taking to an Apple store. Disappointingly, the iPod came nowhere near the 4-year-old Cowon. Its limited sound options essentially consisted of a volume control and a bunch of preset equalisers with a scarcely noticeable effect, all leaving the music sounding flat and lifeless with compression. In the end it turned out the choice was an easy one. Having come so close to winning me over, this really just serves to cement Apple’s recent devices and wonderful shiny gadgets that fail spectacularly at their chief function — the iPhone as a phone that can’t make calls or text, and the iPod Touch as a music player that can’t play music.

Let’s hope the promising looking Archos 5 does better…

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

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2017 Priyan Meewella

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