Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Month: March 2008 (page 1 of 2)

Spring Cleaning: WordPress 2.5

First a small addendum to my last post about the launch of the new gaming blog, “The cheese was innocent!”, is that you can now access it via links from either the Links or Gaming pages. No need to search for that post every time you want to find the site!

With the release of WordPress 2.5 (the underlying platform for the main three sections of P-2006) it was time for some spring cleaning, bringing everything up to date and fixing a few kinks. As this is all under the hood stuff, little should be noticeable but a few new options are now available for me to use. First of all I recoded the sidebars to support “widgets” which are a more convenient way of adding features. In the short term it meant removing the tag cloud from the sidebar (but the full version is still available in the Tag Cloud page). Otherwise the process was fairly smooth, but let me know if you experience anything strange.

Others have discussed the changes in detail if you are interested or thinking about switching to WordPress. The big new change, however, is in how pictures are treated, with a mini gallery system now built into WordPress. With this you will now find that many of the photos alongside posts are thumbnails linking to larger versions, rather than forcing you to squint if you use a high resolution monitor! In the past I often avoided photos where too much detail was lost in shrinking them, whereas now I will not have to worry quite so much.

The first use of this feature is give you a quick tour of the flat since I realise I never put up a decent set of photos despite requests. I quickly snapped these with Kirsten’s camera shortly before we left for Germany so that she could show her family:

“The cheese was innocent!”

One of the problems with maintaining a blog like this for so long is the diversity of the readership it picks up. This necessitates a careful selection of subject matter that remains interesting to enough people without watering it down so much as to make it bland. Gaming is obviously a major hobby of mine, but I am aware it is one that is one shared by less than half of my core readership. As such I tend to avoid serious in-depth game discussion on a regular basis, preferring to throw in the odd snippets where particularly relevant.

The cheese was innocent!This has led me to trial a new experiment, involving the blogging feature of GameSpot, where I have been a paying subscriber for several years. I have started a separate blog there entitled “The cheese was innocent!” (fans of the new episodic Sam & Max games should get the reference) which is solely focused on gaming. That is not to say gaming will disappear from this blog. In fact the plan is that if you continue only to read P-2006 you should not notice any difference at all. However innocent cheese enables me to write additional posts of a purely game-related nature without worrying about alienating readers. Meanwhile here I will just point out particularly important posts like my discussion of The Byron Report.

For those using feed readers it’s even easier since you can subscribe to the feeds of both blogs and read them side by side. You’ll find the new feed conveniently listed on P-2006’s Feeds page.

Finally since I’ve found my camera has been lying docile more than I would like, to stir a little creativity I’m producing a series of small images so you’ll start find unrelated illustrations at the bottom of many posts. I’m not sure quite how long it will last but I hope you enjoy them while they do.

bonsai

Service Pack Avoidance

Following the furore surrounding the release of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, I gave it a very wide berth for about half a year before eventually installing it. Those issues largely surrounded the introduction of Windows Firewall (turned on by default in SP2) and in hindsight I came to respect the developers’ view which can be summed up as “enabling the firewall is inevitably going to break some things, so let’s make sure we break everything at once and then it’s done.” By the time I installed SP2 the process was pretty seamless and updates to my firewall software (still Norton back then) provided a quick solution to immediately switch off Windows Firewall and continue as before.

A cursory glance over the contents of the first Service Pack for Windows Vista shows nothing major at all for those who have kept their systems up-to-date. Since it largely deals with under-the-hood speed and stability issues I figured it would be safe enough to install at Windows Update’s suggestion, particularly since a public beta test had already occurred. Apparently I was wrong. After two attempts to install it, I’ve given up and will instead leave it well alone until either I hear the widespread issues have been resolved or it is actually forced upon us by Windows Update. What was my experience? One attempted installation caused a blue screen, failing halfway through. The second installation ran fine, taking about 40 minutes and reaching 100% in each of the 3 stages. After which, inexplicably, a message appeared stating “Service pack not installed” and rolled back again, which took it about half an hour. No error messages, nothing to explain why or even what on earth it was doing in those 3 stages if that didn’t constitute a full installation. The internet is now flooded with similar experiences, with one suggestion being that it may be caused the by the (very common) Realtek integrated audio chipset. I need to by a sound card to install an OS service pack!? The short version is really the common sense approach I should have followed: avoid Vista SP1 for as long as possible until all the kinks get sorted out.

UPDATE: Microsoft’s official advice is now to leave SP1 until mid-April, though Windows Update is still suggesting it.

Ender’s Game

Those of you who throw the occasional glance at my twitters will know that the reason for my silence is that I have been in Germany for the last week, celebrating Easter with Kirsten’s family. Limited net access via dial-up meant no site updates. There was fairly little to report really. I probably needed the quieter change of pace after the events of the last few weeks and Kirsten’s little sister, Nele, is adorable to play with. You’ll find some pictures at the bottom of this post.

Ender's GameI finally sank my teeth into Ender’s Game, a science fiction novel from the mid-80’s which has long been popular in the States but made less of an impact here, Asimov still taking the role that Orson Scott Card seems to hold on the other side of the Atlantic. The driving force was that Jane bought me a copy of the book a while back and I picked it up while at my parents’ house and realised I had not yet read it. Starting on the way to Germany I devoured the entire thing in a couple of days. Although the story is compelling with humanity isolating and training young children as future commanders in a desperate war against an alien threat, its moral implications (in particular the depersonalisation of warfare) form the real core, explored through the character of the innocent child-come-warmaster Ender. Towards the end the story

Arguably the most interesting part is the introduction added by the author six years after the book was first in print. He discusses how it grew out of the central concept of battle room (a zero gravity wargaming arena in the style of laserquest, required to force pupils to think and strategise in three dimensions rather than the usual two of ground warfare), but even the epic story of the conflict between mankind and the alien “buggers” could only come alive when told through the eyes of a compelling individual like Ender Wiggin. He parallels this with the epic sci-fi history of Asimov’s Foundation, which comes alive only through the careful and uncannily accurate calculations of psychohistorian Hari Seldon.

He also discusses controversy which surprisingly emerged not so much from the content of the book, but rather the apparent disconnect many found with its child protagonists. These are the most intellectual six children the world could find to train, so their thinking is very adult. While their manner of speech may not seem entirely realistic, he argues the thought processes are and this is at odds with society’s depersonalisation of the child. He goes so far as to describe them as a self-perpetuating underclass, suggesting those who were most aggravated by the book were those who rely upon this very situation (such as child counsellors). Meanwhile the book has gained a massive youth following amongst intellectual loners (I mean this as a purely descriptive term, to be an intellectual when young virtually guarantees a sense of loneliness) who are able to empathise with the way these children are used.

It is easy to pick examples of how we underestimate and sometimes write off the abilities of children, even in the smallest of things. I recall playing with a very young boy who had been given a new toy, consisting of a foam missile launched from a tube via a rudimentary foot powered air pump. As we played I explained how it worked with the air being forced through the tube to launch it. Another adult in the room smiled pleasantly at me, commenting that he was far too young to understand. Imagine her surprise as ten minutes of playing later, the boy explained its workings to someone else. Equally this is why Nele so adores me when I visit Germany. It is probably not so much me as the fact I treat her fully as a person in her own right, despite the limitation of our language barrier. This must be unusual for her in a world where she is generally surrounded by busy adults.

A final note for Ender fans is that game developer Chair are currently making an Ender’s Game title for Xbox Live Arcade, apparently focused around the battle room concept. The idea is certainly an intriguing one and the potential scope for 3D zero-gravity wargames is fantastic (given their previous game Undertow, one imagines third person action or strategy is more likely than an FPS) but equally the potential for an unsatisfying waste of the IP must weigh heavily on the developers and fans alike.

Photos from Easter in Germany

I Dream of DeskScapes

One of the few minor perks gifted to users of the rather overpriced “Ultimate” flavour of Vista was that of animated wallpapers called “dreams”. Although not an entirely novel concept, it was impressive in its low use of system resources since it made use of the fact the OS now has direct access to the computer’s graphics card. Now this is available to all Vista users* through Stardock’s DeskScapes. This is no cheap knock-off or mimicry either — Stardock are the people who developed the .DREAM format in the first place. Presumably their exclusivity period to Vista Ultimate has now expired.

DeskScapesDeskScapes is a fairly small application that integrates fully so that you can pick animated wallpapers through the usual wallpaper selection interface. The model appears to be that the free version will only allow specific bundled dreams while the paid version (around $20) will support scores of fantastic user-created downloads. The current preview release contains just 3, only one of which is worth using but it alone sells the concept with a beautiful sunset scene — imagine those blades of grass billowing gently in the breeze with the light playing realistically off the surface. Presumably the final version due later this month will include several more. The standalone price is low but I imagine most won’t be willing to pay for such a focused application. However it will also form part of the Object Desktop package that allows complete customisation of virtually every element of the Windows interface.

Speaking of Stardock, one of their developers wrote an interesting article in response to the recent discussion about the state of PC gaming and the effect of piracy. Many major developers and publishers decry piracy as being the chief architect of the downfall of PC game development but Stardock, who deliberately distribute games without any form of DRM, argue otherwise, showing strong sales despite the ease with which the game could be copied. The suggestion is that if you treat your paying customers well, they will reward you. The pirates, meanwhile, should simply be ignored in all business decisions as falling outside the market.

* There appear to be limitations under Vista Basic since it cannot run Aero.

The Other Boleyn Girl

Here’s the post I’d written before the weekend. I don’t feel much like writing at the moment so it’s just presented as it was:

The Other Boleyn GirlKirsten raved about The Other Boleyn Girl when she read the book, so on noticing a film adaptation in production I grabbed a trailer and took a look. Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson certainly make a film easy to sit through, so I had no complaints. Thus we found ourselves in the Odeon, Leicester Square, on the day it opened. The cinemas was only around half full, although it was a late afternoon screening and I would expect the evening showing to be packed. I will write a full review but the short version is that I struggle to really recommend it. I have not read the book so my view is not influenced by that, though I have a fairly thorough knowledge of the Tudor monarchs and particularly Henry VIII. This means of course that, like most, the story is not particularly fresh — we all know what must happen to Anne, even if we are not aware of her sister.

While visually arresting with unusually vibrant vivid colours for film set in this period (enhanced by the fact it was a digital projection), it lacked any emotional resonance until the end. With the story so well known it falls to the characters to hold the audience’s attention. Unfortunately most are flat and one-dimensional with little real development. Johansson as Mary Boleyn is intentionally dully meek and despite Portman’s charm as Anne, we never really feel for her either. The changes in the sister’s tumultuous relationship appear as jarring swings rather than gradual shifts making much seem forced. This all sounds overly negative which is unfair since the film did hold my attention and provided an interesting distraction. Nonetheless it provides little new insight and is swiftly forgettable, unfortunate since the book is, by all accounts, rather good.

I thought the American TSA had gone too far when they broke open the locks, ruining my luggage, a couple of years ago and left a friendly note explaining that they took no responsibility for any damage caused. But endangering a child’s life by contaminating medical equipment is just ridiculous. Are they to continue unchecked until they actually do kill someone?

Annaledchumy Selvadurai, 1916-2008

I had written a post about The Other Boleyn Girl which will have to wait because yesterday afternoon my grandmother passed away. At 91 she has been frail for several years so it was not unexpected, but it still happened very suddenly. On Friday evening she was taken into hospital with an infection. The following morning I was told she had fluid in her lungs and her heart was weakening so rushed home. Although weak she was still alert and knew that so many of her family were there with her. It was comforting to see that, while her breathing was laboured, she was in no pain. The hospital staff at Mayday were fantastic, particularly the overnight team who were very accommodating, allowing my parents to visit in the early hours and talk with her. There was no drama to her death at all — her breathing simply slowed and eventually ceased. It was a peaceful end, one she had feared she would not have.

AmmamaSome of you will know that my grandmother, “Ammama” as I called her, actually lived with me for most of my life. It was shortly before I left for university that she moved into a home, once it had become too dangerous for her to be left alone (her sight had completely gone and at times she would forget whether she was upstairs or downstairs). It was a difficult decision but the change of pace actually seemed to do her good for a while, grounding her mind which had been wandering. It took some time to get used to coming back to an empty house.

Born in the tumultuous north of Sri Lanka, she came to England with her children, a move which allowed me to enjoy the privileges associated with being born and raised here (indeed I owe that move my very existence since it was at university here where my parents met). Her husband died while my mother was still young so I never knew him. Her sight had faded and her hearing was worsening from the earliest memories I have of her, but it never prevented us from communicating. We invented various games based largely around her remaining sense of touch, and generally my patience with her meant I was able to mediate when my mother became frustrated (it was, of course, much easier for me since I didn’t need to take care of her the rest of the time). When home from school I would watch television with the sound turned up so that she could follow some of it. When she had her sight she had liked to watch detective dramas, particularly Colombo, so would ask me to tell her what was happening. She was cheerful, especially around her grandchildren whom she loved dearly, but increasingly in the last few years of her life she felt there was no quality left to it. She was certainly ready to die no matter how unprepared for it we may have been, so it seems almost selfish to feel so keenly upset.

That’s The Ticket

Those paying attention to American politics will have seen Hilary Clinton’s resurgence in the Democratic primaries. Narrow but crucial victories in Ohio and Texas mean not only that she will remain in the running, but also that the Democrats will remain strongly divided for some time to come, perhaps even going into the election itself which could have serious consequences. By contrast John McCain has the Republican side sewn up. Which naturally leads one to wonder how dissent might be sown amongst the Republicans. What possible alternatives tickets would draw such strong support so as to divide the party. Two immediately obvious choices emerge:

Palpetine/Vader '08

Sauron/Saruman '08

With WMDs like the Death Star on your side one presumes everyone else’s become less of a concern. And could there be any greater political tool than the lie of Sauron? But if Hilary has shown us anything it is that a woman in the White House is finally in sight. And with that in mind my vote goes to:

Darla/Drusilla '08

Google have finally released an application to synchronise Outlook with Google Calendar, though I cannot fathom why it has taken them so long to produce something with such rudimentary functionality. Yahoo! has offered this for years. However Google Calendar is much nicer application than Yahoo!’s outdated offering. The issue I have with all of these synchronisation tools (including Microsoft’s own calendar sharing with Office Live) is that none properly support the colour-coded categorisation of events, an Outlook feature on which I rely. Blue for lectures, red for classes, green for social, is a system that I’ve used ever since I started uni and it allows me to assess the week ahead with just a cursory glance. Losing that colour may seem insignificant, but it poses a serious usability drawback. Has anyone come across a solution for web-based calendars that synchronises with Outlook and maintains categories and colour?

Free Words ‘n’ Tunes: American Gods and Ghosts

Harper Collins: Browse Inside American GodsI mentioned the idea a while back but never mentioned that the chosen Neil Gaiman book, American Gods, is now available for free though publisher Harper Collins. For those unfamiliar with Neil’s work it’s a fantastic piece of fiction that follows Shadow’s journey across America meeting the old gods brought over to the this melting pot country and then forgotten. It’s slightly heavy but the fact it reached the top of the New York Times’ best seller list is testament to its popularity. If you haven’t read it I thoroughly recommend it.

Nearly as free at the negligable price of £1 is Neil’s new children’s book Odd and the Frost Giants. The story was written for World Book Day where children can trade £1 book vouchers for various titles written by authors who wish to promote reading without making a profit. Of course there is nothing to prevent the rest of us from enjoying this generosity and his children’s fiction tends to be a light, fun read. I’m sure there are several children you can “buy it for”

Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IVOn the theme of free media is Trent Reznor’s release model for the music he’s produced collaborating with a wide range of artists in the latest Nine Inch Nails album. Titled Ghosts I-IV, it is available in no fewer than 5 different packages through his website. Following in the steps of Radiohead there is a completely free offering allowing anyone to download 9 tracks. For the ridiculously low price of $5 one can purchase the full 36-track collection to download. Equally cheap is the $10 2CD release (providing the digipack is as stylish as one expects from NIN) and it also offers immediate access to digital downloads. More expensive is the $75 package with a fabric slipcase and a DVD and blu-ray disc as well as the standard CD album and an art book. Finally the insane signed $300 ultimate package has already sold out (a testament to the fanaticism of the hardcore Nine Inch Nails crowd). Trent has already shown his willingness to embrace new forms of media in releasing and promoting his music but this presents an ideal model for music releases, fully empowering the consumer to choose how they wish to enjoy the product. Naturally it is bigger artists with an established fanbase who can afford to take risks like this, but if he can show it turns a real profit, hopefully we can expect to see more offerings in this style as the music industry struggles to find a new working model.

Ghosts I-IV

A voyeuristic eXperience

While I have certainly not abandoned PC gaming, it is true that my focus has shifted to the Xbox 360. I will opt for the console iteration of most multiplatform titles (The Orange Box being a notable exception) not for achievement points, though this is an understandable draw for many, but simply because relaxing on the sofa while playing has become my preferred option. Also, until I buy a new monitor, games look far better on the 1080p Bravia even with the additional distance. A nice hi-res widescreen monitor might actually make a big difference to my gaming choice. Nevertheless the PC remains the breeding ground of quirky and indie titles since the platform is open, free of the cost of licensing and certification that plagues small console developers. I’ve recently acquired a few demos for smaller titles and in particular I wanted to discuss eXperiment 112 (or simply The Experiment depending on your region).

eXperiment 112The story’s protagonist, Lea Nichols, awakes inside a ship that has been used for some kind of biological research, with little memory of what has happened. Not exactly the most original premise, you’ll be forgiven for interjecting. However the player has no direct control over her at all. Instead the player is inside a security booth and must guide her and help her survive using only the functions of the security terminal. This means we see her through rotating security cameras as she moves through the complex, we can open doors, use infra red or thermal vision, and interact with devices remotely. There is a decidedly voyeuristic tone to the proceedings,even once Lea knows we are watching. There is a strange intimacy in being able to see everything she does without actually being present. Direct communication is limited, mostly one way as she can speak to us, and using a camera to nod a response is a bizarre feeling.

Last night the whole family, including partners, went to Vrisaki in North London to gorge ourselves on a massive Greek-Cypriot meze meal. This was a belated celebration of my dad’s 50th birthday and Vrisaki is something of a family tradition for especially gluttonous occasions. It could be argued that several of the multitude of appetisers are merely fillers and it is advisable to tread carefully, opting only for the better ones to save room for the meatier dishes at the end. This is a restaurant that has benefited greatly from the smoking ban, since its cramped design easily filled unbearably with smoke, particularly since it is attached to (and one must enter through) a somewhat shabby kebab shop.

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

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