Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Year: 2012 (page 1 of 2)

Christmas 2012

Merry Christmas

Shochu Lounge

Following a pleasant Korean meal to catch up with Lucia, James and Dave, I was tasked with selecting a bar for us to see out the remainder of the night, and where we would meet Annabel and her not-so-new beau. Given that we were near Tottenham Court Road and to maintain the evening’s Oriental theme, I decided it was a good opportunity to try out Shochu Lounge.

The quiet basement bar is located directly under Japanese restaurant Roka and unless you are looking for Roka you are likely, as we did, first to walk straight past. Shochu Lounge is dimly lit and moody, with rather blocky decor, the bar top being carved from a large slab of wood. The bar itself and small tables on one side are available for drinkers, while the larger tables are kept for those dining (the food being supplied by Roka upstairs).

The bar’s namesake Japanese drink, a vodka-like spirit but about half as strong, is found throughout the cocktail menu both in variations on classics and in suitably contemporary options like the Final Fantasy. Given its relative weakness, the spirit’s flavour tends to vanish somewhat in cocktails, resulting in refreshing drinks when mixed with fruit juices or ginger, but somewhat bland in other drinks like my (admittedly very fresh) cucumber martini.

Although the bar was only half full on a Sunday night, service seemed rather inattentive and distant (with the bar itself often left vacant — perhaps table service was better). At least, that is, until I enquired about pure shōchū. At this our bartender came alive, producing a few small tasting bowls and explaining enthusiastically that shōchū can be made from a variety of bases but typically barley, potato or rice. He provided us with the (almost flavourless) house brand for mixing, along with some more nuanced varieties that he suggested would be drunk alone in Japan. One smelled powerfully of potato whilst lacking a distinct flavour; the other tasted like a whiskey watered down to half strength.

A pleasant experience, I don’t see shōchū becoming a fixture in my cabinet though I can see myself returning to the bar on occasion for a quiet post-dinner drink. Not nearly often enough, however, to consider purchasing one of the 4.2 litre jars which sit on a shelf with your name until you next return to drink from it. Yet at £260 they are actually a surprisingly affordable goal for those who take more of a shining to this particular spot.

The Phantom Mickey

The Phantom MickeyI had a post ready to publish, praising the “Machete Order” for viewing the Star Wars films having just tried it out (Episodes IV, V, II, III and VI — it has a host of benefits fully outlined in the link, including maintaining the reveals of Luke’s parentage and the identity of Darth Sidious, a better reveal of Luke’s sibling, removal of the irrelevant characters in Episode I while the key ones are all reintroduced in the sequel, and making sense of teenage Anakin appearing at the end of Episode VI*), only to discover that it was already redundant. Because Disney have just bought Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise for a reported $4.05 billion, and Episode VII is in production for a 2015 release.

Naturally fans went crazy, in a suitably disproportionate fashion. It is understandable, with Star Wars being so close to the hearts of millions, but it is hardly as though Lucas has been a doting caretaker over the past decade and a half. Further films were an inevitability — Star Wars is Lucas’s legacy and was always destined to outlive him — but I never expected this to occur before his death. The most likely scenario in my mind had been his heirs approving remakes of Episodes I-III (an intriguing prospect with a strong director at the helm).

Fan reaction stems largely from surprise at the buyer. Remember how Disney bought Marvel out of the blue and then drove it into the ground? Except they didn’t. Whilst people discuss the inevitable Star Wars theme park (Star Tours was clearly just the beginning), if Lucasfilm remains a relatively independent entity under Disney’s new portfolio of properties, there is plenty of space for it to grow. In a similar way to the Marvel Avengers approach, I can see definite merit in the Expanded Universe being brought to the big and small screens in a coordinated fashion (anyone feel like greenlighting a Rogue Squadron series, please?). Let’s just get a contract in front of Joss Whedon sharpish. He truly will be our master then.

And in the end, as Morgan pointed out, “the franchise already featured white knight heroes, sassy princesses, and furry side kicks”.

*Yes, purists will still argue there is no reason to acknowledge anything outside the original trilogy at all. For them there are Harmy’s “Despecialized Editions”, a painstaking fan-made HD reconstruction as close as possible to the original theatrical releases using the best quality sources available. The cover art alone makes it worth having a copy.

A Joke Too Far Cry

Last week I attended the Eurogamer Expo, for the third year running, and as always it was a blast between playing unreleased games on the show floor and the highly informative lectures by developers. Today a minor furore arose as some attacked Eurogamer’s decision to ban “booth babes” in future. The overreaction to this decision has prompted me to discuss a more unsettling experience I had this year.

The developer session for the forthcoming Far Cry 3, delivered by lead designer Jamie Kean, was an insightful exploration of the process behind creating the two island, jungle-covered world whilst providing visible landmarks to guide players and to make key locations seem like accidental discoveries. It was an intelligent look at the thought processes behind a game world that had clearly been crafted with considerable care.

It was a world away from the introduction Toby and I subsequently experienced at Far Cry 3’s booth on the show floor (which I should note was within the event’s “over 18” area). Approached by two reps while we looked at others playing, the conversation went something like this:

Rep 1: “So guys, this game is pretty dark.”
Rep 2: “Yeah, it’s dark. Have you heard about the rape?”
Rep 1: [enthusiastically] “Yes, have you been told about the rape?”
Toby: “Err… Jamie didn’t mention the rape.”
Rep 1: “Oh, that’s because Jamie’s a rapist.”
Me: “…right.”
Rep 2: [motioning towards our SLR cameras] “So are you guys press?”

Now, I have (sadly) come to expect a certain level of sexism as gaming conventions as the attendees are still predominantly male (even if the gaming audience is now almost half female). However I expected this largely to be confined to a few stands sporting the aforementioned scantily clad booth babes. The visibly uncomfortable girl draped over a poorly constructed Carmageddon car in front of the exhibition centre was hardly an attractive advertisement for the $74 billion industry. The girls with scannable QR codes printed on their hotpants certainly seemed a step too far (especially after a conversation with another developer who allegedly heard from one of the girls that the codes didn’t even scan properly).

What I certainly did not expect were uncomfortable rape jokes. There was nothing sinister about these guys: they were jovial and friendly. The “jokes” weren’t remotely funny but it is possible I am blowing this out of proportion. Yet Toby and I both felt very awkward and slightly bewildered as we left (without staying to try the game demo), moreso as this had all been delivered before they knew we were not members of the press. I want rape to be an issue the industry can tackle in a mature fashion, which it certainly cannot do whilst throwing around casual comments like this. I do recall the nudity in an early trailer for the game but I do not really know anything about the content to which they were referring. Perhaps the goal of these reps was merely shock value to make the game stand out from the dozens of others we had seen. Perhaps by me writing this piece at all they have succeeded. But frankly I feel that they seriously undermined the quality of the developer session which is otherwise how I would be discussing their game both here and in conversations with friends.

N.B. I had to run this post past Toby to ensure I was being fair. There were also plenty of great experiences at the Expo, of course, but I would rather not taint them by mentioning them in the same entry.

E3 2012

The Queen’s diamond jubilee could not have been better timed for two reasons. Firstly, it provided two days off work that lined up perfectly with the opening of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in LA, meaning I could watch all the live-streamed press conferences with friends. And secondly, the weather was rubbish so I did not even need to feel guilty about staying indoors. Rather than a continuous stream of gaming related posts this week, I thought it best to save my thoughts on the big announcements for a single post afterwards. Take a deep breath: this could be a long one.

The easiest way to tell what to expect from the Big Three (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) is by considering the drinking game rules for the conferences. This year one would drink every time:

  1. tacked-on, unnecessary use of Kinect/motion controls are announced;
  2. a celebrity clearly does not understand the game (s)he is promoting; or
  3. dubstep is heard (seriously, every other trailer?).

Rule 1 alone would have ruined the livers of those watching the Microsoft conference, although (perhaps in the wake of Skyrim) they are now pushing far subtler integration for core games, based primarily around voice rather than motion. In Splinter Cell: Blacklist, for example, the player can attract a guard’s attention by calling out to them, “hey you!” whilst it was suggested that Fifa 13 may penalise players for swearing on the pitch! The big announcement was Xbox SmartGlass, which allows smartphones and tablets to integrate with the Xbox. The most promising thing being that Microsoft is not trying to push this as a selling point for Windows Phone and Windows 8 tablets, but is supporting Android and iOS devices too. It is the smart move but not one I was sure they would make.

Sony, meanwhile, largely ignored the floundering Playstation Vita and instead focused on its strength in console exclusives. The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic follow-up to the Uncharted trilogy is looking superb, with the player character aided by the young girl he is protecting (who now looks slightly less like Ellen Page than in the initial trailer). Rather than shooting away or being entirely passive like most companion AI, she instead helps out primarily when the player needs it, buying some extra breathing room. Meanwhile Quantic Dream’s awkwardly titled Beyond: Two Souls, using the motion capture and engine from the Kara tech demo, actually does star Ellen Page. The actual gameplay is up in the air, but it looks like a fast-paced supernatural adventure with a focus on subtle, realistic human interaction.

Nintendo had a lot to prove with the Wii U following a somewhat muted response to the console announcement last year. It became clear that they are serious about trying to win back core gamers and not merely courting the casual market they found with the Wii. However, despite a reasonable display of third party support and an exclusive zombie title ZombieU, it remains unclear why we should care. Its share price dropped following the somewhat lacklustre performance, wherein the most promising announcement was Lego City: Undercover, an open world GTA-style city in which the player solves crimes, along with the usual tongue-in-cheek Lego humour.

Interestingly, between Microsoft’s SmartGlass and Sony’s Vita integration with the PS3, both now have effective “tablet” support with the potential to undermine the uniqueness of the Wii U’s control system in the future. However, this could well be a blessing for Nintendo — if developers are able to incorporate similar functionality into all three, there is a greater incentive to support the Wii U with new titles where Wii support was often overlooked because of its radically different controls.

On to the big game announcements:

Watch Dogs from Ubisoft Montreal generated the biggest buzz, having been kept totally under wraps and debuting with both a trailer and gameplay. Think Matrix-style hackers with access to a glut of personal information on everyone, operating in an open world city by way of GTA and Deus Ex. It hints at a whole network of hackers collaborating to protect one another, though it is unclear whether this represents multiple protagonists, co-op or an MMOG. Big budget new IP in a world of sequels is always a welcome surprise.

Assassin’s Creed III appeared in pretty much every press conference and is looking great, despite my apathy towards Revelations, the last title in the series. The American Revolution setting freshens things up wonderfully and, although I had concerns about the open-world approach, climbing through the trees seems to make traversal as comfortable as in cities. Also: sailing ships.

Star Wars 1313 looks like it could be the remedy for those not enthused by recent titles in the franchise (and indeed, the franchise itself of late). Set on galactic hub Corsuscant during the original trilogy era it eschews the now-ubiquitous Jedi and lightsabers in favour of a mature bounty hunter tale. And using a tweaked version of the very latest Unreal 3 engine, it looks gorgeous.

Tomb Raider is a game Crystal Dynamics have earned the right to make. After paying their dues with a series of sequels faithful to the original games, Lara is now very much theirs, so they are rebooting the character with an origins story. And it looks brutal. Enough so that it has stirred some controversy as a result of the experiences through which she is put, but that is what forges her will to survive and we root for her throughout. Tycho at Penny Arcade rightly refers to both this and The Last of Us as fundamentally disempowerment fantasies.

Dishonored is the other big new IP, offering a surprising level of creative freedom in its assassination gameplay, set in a cyberpunk world courtesy of the designer of Half-Life 2’s City 17. The player has a large arsenal of Bioshock-style powers at his disposal in order to get the job done in a variety of ways. The debut trailer was great but the recent gameplay trailer left me slightly underwhelmed so I was glad to see much more polished demos on the show floor. Really the tagline alone is enough to win me over: revenge solves everything.

Halo 4 is, at first glance, much as one might expect. However it is clear that while maintaining its core, 343 Industries are keen to strike a new direction with the franchise they inherited from Bungie. In single player that means a new world inhabited by the Prometheans, with links to the Forerunners and new weaponry. Meanwhile multiplayer Spartan Ops offers new episodic, narrative co-op missions each month.

Those are what I took away, so over to you. Anything I missed? What was your game of the show?

Origami

Origami ignores the separation between the image and the paper. The paper becomes part of the image, and is twisted and folded until it is the picture, not merely the surface on which it lies.

 – John D. Barrow, The Artful Universe

As a young boy I discovered that my slightly unusual long fingers lent themselves to two skills: playing the violin and creating intricate paper objects. My days spent folding paper began rather conventionally with numerous paper aeroplanes regularly littering the house. Over time I discovered there were increasingly intricate plane designs that could all be made from that identical single sheet of paper, and from this stemmed a fascination with the world of origami. It was something I learned alone and, at the time, libraries provided the only accessible source of new designs and I would hunt down whatever books I could (as with most things, the Internet now provides far superior learning tools with instructional videos that are much easier to follow than often perplexing diagrammatic representations), sometimes exasperating my parents slightly at the speed with which I could demolish a fresh stack of paper.

Whilst the hobby lasted a few years, it gradually faded, though it still had unexpected benefits years later. When a girl first accepted and then confusingly rebuffed my advances, I folded and left her a small white crane as a simple token to say “no hard feelings”. Unbeknownst to me, paper cranes had particular significance in her life and that small piece of paper led us into a lengthy relationship.

A few months ago I found myself in a bar, killing time and chatting to the bartender Rachel over a martini. As we spoke, my hands started fiddling idly with a flyer and absently folding. I realised that I could still produce a few designs etched into the memory of my fingers if not my mind. It reignited my interest in the art, although the reason only gradually emerged. I know that I routinely feel the need to engage in some manner of creative pursuit and typically this takes the form of photography or writing. However, there seems to be a more specific urge at times to create something. Painting always felt different as a result, due to the physical result that could be held, inspected, displayed. Crafting something from a single sheet of paper, even more so.

I recently bought a pack of traditional washi, handmade Japanese paper that is tougher than standard wood pulp paper and excellent for art forms like origami and shodo. I tend to trial new origami designs first on larger sheets of cheaper paper so I can learn how they work and make alterations, but folding with washi can actually make some intricate techniques much easier due to the way it adopts folds and resists crumpling. My first project (illustrating this post) was a small gift for two performer friends of mine, based on their stage names, Tempest Rose and Jolie Papillon: The Rose and The Butterfly.

Appreciation

It has been another year since the last in the (unexpectedly popular) series exploring the Android apps I am running and, whilst I continue to use most of those, there are a host of new entrants worth mentioning. First off on the ROM-front, I currently run AOKP (that’s the Android Open Kang Project), which includes most of the latest features from CyanogenMod 9, with Nova Launcher for my home screen. These maintain the general Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich UI, whilst providing a series of tweaks.

SwiftKey 3 (beta) has just replaced Swype on my phone — I have always been a fan on tablet — because its predictive algorithm is so good that even one-handed I have found it faster than Swype. I still think it will be a matter of preference but thanks to Joe for giving me the nudge to check out the new beta. They certainly deserve their Webby!

DoggCatcher is my podcast app of choice. It can be set automatically to download audio and video podcasts when on wifi so that your selections are ready to consume once you leave, even if you have no signal. It also supports video playback through third party players like my next selection.

DICE Player is an excellent video player available in paid or ad-supported flavours. Aside from its smooth playback of HD footage in a range of formats, including .mkv, it includes advanced features like variable speed and subtitle support.

CyanogenMod 9 Music, developed for CyanogenMod, is a limited modification of the stock ICS player but it is worth switching out for its tweaks to the notification panel controls, allowing a full set of playback controls and direct closing of the app. Meanwhile I am trying out Apollo which is being merged with CM9 for future releases, though I feel it still needs some work.

Mi File Explorer is also extracted from another ROM, this time MIUI. It’s a very pretty file explorer with all the functionality you would expect (other than root access). However, the in-development Solid Explorer may replace it, with its two-panel drag-and-drop interface (and root access).

Wunderlist is the last of the “utility” apps. It is a basic but easy to use list-making app that has just edged out Astrid as my favourite. Meanwhile, if you are in London, London Transport Live is a must-have.

Camera apps: my scepticism when it comes to phone cameras remains unaltered, but I still enjoy trying out the latest imaging apps. My favourite straight shooting choice is Camera ZOOM FX. AfterFocus is a powerful tool for creating artificial depth-of-field effects to mimic SLR-taken shots. For more substantial filters Pixlr-o-matic offers the most advanced tools, whilst Instagram trades on ease of use and social integration (I wondered upon the popular app’s Android debut whether it would get me sharing more photos on the go — the answer is not so much).

Browsers/Readers: For web browsing I have found the speed of the default ICS browser to be excellent. However my old favourite Dolphin Browser HD and Google’s own Chrome are worth considering. A leaked release of Flipboard provided a visually appealing way to flip through news and social media updates in an image-focused way (not dissimilar to the latest release of the Google+ app). However, my preferred news reader is Google Currents for its crisp, clean appearance which makes it incredibly easy to read. Although it only supports publications that have been specifically designed for it, most of my favourites are on offer. Finally, Pocket (previously Read-It-Later) lets you store and later read webpages you come across either on your phone or on a desktop browser with the respective plugin.

Musically Sociable

Today I am plugging a couple of musical selections linked predominantly by their social effect on my life. First up is a new music video from jazz singer/pianist Anthony Strong, For Once In My Life from his Delovely EP. Anthony is an old school friend of mine (as in we went to school together, not that he is old school). Anthony is the sort of person whose talent would be infuriating if he were not such a lovely, unassuming chap. He was also responsible for my initial introduction to some of London’s top burlesque performers, while he performed on that circuit. That has certainly led to a few of the more memorable nights out in the past few years. Unfortunately we seem to have reached a point where his releasing a CD or video is what reminds me that we are long overdue a drink. Therefore it is terribly important that you support him so that he can keep making great music and I can remember to catch up with him.

Next up, Amanda Palmer is again using Kickstarter to crowdsource funding but this time it is a little more ambitious: raising funds outside of a label to produce and promote her new album and an accompanying artbook, and to embark upon a worldwide tour with a new band. Any donation above a dollar nets a copy of the album, and backers have access to the first single now. This return to a patronage system (albeit a distributed one: people have donated anywhere between $1 and $10,000 each) is, she proclaims, the future of music and I am inclined to agree. I am always fascinated by the varied fans she has hidden amongst my friends, who crawl out of the woodwork whenever I mention her, whilst the crowds at her gigs are amongst the easiest to strike up a conversation and connect with if I find myself there alone — after all, at least half of them are guaranteed to be Neil Gaiman fans too. This summer she plays a sold-out London gig the day Jenna and her family arrive. Having been able to witness Jenna’s first real gig experience back in New Orleans (it was A Perfect Circle), accompanying her to her first London gig is almost as enticing a prospect.

If you happen not to care about music then, aside from the fact you have no soul, you may wish to check out the following:

Keggfest 2012

By now Keggfest, the annual post-Easter celebration of chocolatey delights, should require no introduction. This year’s Keggfest actually took place about two weeks ago but I only just got round to checking out the photos, most of which are actually other people’s handiwork as my camera drifted between hands over the course of the night. The third year running of the London-based Keggfest, it now has as many years under its belt as its Cantabrigian predecessor. In the spirit of the past year’s democratic uprisings — and because of the problems caused by last year‘s late date-change — the actual date fell to a vote, which means I cannot be held responsible (no matter what the absent Kirsten may claim). It resulted in a good turnout over the course of the evening, though no one traveled quite as far as last year when we had guests from N. Ireland and the USA.

“The Keggteorite”, my sculpture for this year was a cake-based diorama with an alien object having plummeted to Earth, cracking open and spilling its, um, buttons. Admittedly it doesn’t quite challenge this record-breaking 8000kg masterpiece (maybe we can book them next year?). Whilst the traditional wine and chocolate binge continued as normal, there was slightly less chocolatey destruction with the exception of a certain incident involving a telescopic vacuum cleaner pipe and a refrigerated Kegg. As the kids say: standard. I’m already looking forward to next year’s bash.

Meet JARVIS

“That’s nearly the size of my head,” I thought apprehensively as I extracted the large metal cube of an aftermarket CPU heatsink from its box. Looking at the assortment of metal and bolts required just to mount it, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake. But as the screws glinted under the spotlights of the living room, surrounded by a myriad of electronic parts destined to form a greater whole, I smiled. So long as it actually fitted in the case, this was going to be fun. I am left slightly concerned that for me building a PC may be less about the end result and more like a £1,000 single-use Lego kit. At which point I really ought just to buy LEGO 10179.

Some of you will recall that my primary machines (i.e. desktops and laptops) are named after fictional AIs, hence MAX (the onboard AI of the alien spacecraft in the 80s classic Flight of the Navigator) and Daedalus (the mysterious AI that chooses to assist the player in the original Deus Ex). Most readers ought to recognise the origin of my new machine, JARVIS, the name narrowly beating out rival option GERTY.

JARVIS follows my usual design philosophy for computers which means a good but not excessive graphics card to keep things cooler and quieter, coupled with as much RAM as I can get on two sticks for a reasonable price. Currently, I discovered, that means a slightly excessive 16GB. With lower power draw in mind, I have been waiting for Intel’s new Ivybridge processors so under the hood is a 3.3 GHz Core i5, paired with an MSI mainboard and factory overclocked Radeon HD 7850.

What really makes the machine fly, however, is that after experimenting with an SSD in my HTPC, I have been converted and picked up a 256GB Crucial SSD for the operating system and applications. Boot times are negligible and even Firefox launches swiftly! More substantial storage comes in the form of two convention HDDs transferred over from MAX, offering 3TB in total. The build is housed inside a sleek Antec Solo II case, an upgrade to the Sonata line which I used for MAX. It is based on the same silent computing principles, but with improved airflow and sound dampening polycarbonate panels lining the inside.

I decided this was as good a time as any to test out the Windows 8 Consumer Preview but, while I’m still wrangling the new Metro-style Start Menu replacement, I’ll save my thoughts on it for another post.

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

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