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The Life of P

Month: November 2010

Home Theatre System Upgrades

While the blog was on hiatus, and using some of my newly expanded disposable income post-qualification, I completed phase 3 of the home theatre system upgrade. As I prepared to write about it, it dawned on me that I hadn’t documented Phase 2 last Christmas (or rather it was a draft that never got published). So prepare for tech overload as I tackle both below. First, on an unrelated note, Thor’s rules for touring in a band (contains unsavoury rock band language) are probably an equally good model for road trips and spending prolonged periods of time with anyone really.

Phase 2 of the upgrade comprised of a complete overhaul of the sound system. It had been on the cards for a while as I was in the strange situation where my PC’s 2.1 speaker set (the stellar Logitech Z-2200) actually sounded better than the cheap surround sound system in the living room. I was fixed on KEF 2005.3 speakers, with their excellent sound, powerhouse sub and stylish egg-shaped satellites. Plus they were British so this could be considered less a lavish expenditure and more performing my patriotic duty by supporting the economy. They demand a decent receiver and eventually I settled on the Denon AVR-1610. The combination has blown me away. My neighbours have been very accommodating.

This required a universal remote to wrangle the sprawling beast into something usable. I went with the Logitech Harmony One for a combination of ergonomics and easy software: you to select the equipment you have and then list the basic activities you perform to set up the remote in about an hour, though you can easily spend several more tweaking every single button on the device, as well as its touch-screen display. I had read people joking online about universal remotes saving their marriages but I can believe it. Anna stared in horror when she saw the new setup with four remote controls sitting on the coffee table. Now she can navigate it like a pro.

Phase 3 was a longer term plan that I hadn’t expected to occur so swiftly. The system’s limiting factor was that media was stored on the PC in my room and streamed wirelessly to the Xbox. The two-fold problems were that the PC needed to be on and wirelessly streaming HD content is doable (over wireless-N at any rate) but temperamental. The solution was to move the media to a NAS drive plugged into the router, and stream it through an HTPC sitting under the TV.

The former was fairly easy to select: Netgear’s ReadyNAS Duo was easy to setup and provided two empty drive bays. I added two 2TB WD Caviar Green drives and they automatically mirror one another, which is protection my video collection had previously foregone. I definitely recommend it as a first NAS unit for the home for ease of use, but do read the instructions and do not install a drive with data already or you’ll find yourself in serious trouble when the unit tries to create its own boot partition.

After much research, I decided to build my own HTPC using a barebones Shuttle XS35GT as the base. I became enamoured with the idea of attempting to build a PC with no moving parts, the dual benefits being low power consumption and, more importantly, total silence. The Shuttle is low powered, but packs an nvidia ION 2 GPU capable of streaming HD content. No optical drive was necessary and a Corsair 40GB SSD was relatively inexpensive (size is not an issue since the NAS takes care of data storage). The SSD would also provide a test to justify the expense of a larger one as a system drive when building my next desktop (so far, I’m convinced). The new machine was named Serenity, a nod to Firefly’s silent space shots.

I have to admit, booting up a totally silent PC is actually a little eerie at first since I subconsciously use the instant whir of the fan as feedback to know it’s working. I’m still tweaking Media Center and trying out Kylo which is a web browser designed for TVs at a distance. Control-wise the Harmony works for media center usage, but I splashed out on Logitech’s Air MX mouse (it’s gyroscopic so you can operate it by waving it in their air) and the svelte diNovo Edge keyboard, which is the only keyboard I’ve ever considered putting out on display. The finishing touch was an afterthought that only dawned on me once everything else was complete. Since I now had a PC sitting next the to the TV, I could attach my old amBX kit finally to create what amounts to a mutant Ambilight Sony BRAVIA TV.

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not at uni anymore”

The evening started with a frozen joint of lamb in Brixton. It had, by means to which I was not party, migrated to a kitchen in Clapham where it was defrosted and marinated. Shortly afterwards I received a call from a perterbed Angie explaining that we were supposed to be having dinner and watching a film with her brother Ian (who was visiting from university) but the food was at her flat and they couldn’t watch a film as the projector was at Ravi’s in Brixton.

An old yet obvious solution presented itself, although the distance between our three respective rooms has grown somewhat since university: bring the lamb to mine and use my kitchen and living room to entertain instead. Anna was away for the weekend so no one would mind the intrusion.

While the lamb cooked we watched Moon (I mentioned Moon before — but not after — seeing it: it’s an excellent slice of intelligent sci-fi carried almost entirely by Sam Rockwell and the crisp simplicity of its lunar sets looks great on blu ray). As we ate, the new HTPC I built (details another time) during the blog’s downtime got its first group use. Someone suggested happy music which somehow led to a retro waltz through Ace of Base’s 90’s hits. At this point Angela apologised to Ian for the fact we’re not like hanging out with students.

“Hang on,” I interjected, “we’re watching films and listening to bizarre musical choices while eating dinner someone else cooked for everyone. This is exactly like uni.”

The HTPC got more use as we watched mashup film trailers on YouTube. Then someone mentioned a cake made by someone in Angie’s family

“I’ll find the email,” said Ravi, reaching for his phone.

“Can you bring it up on the TV?” Angie asked, “Only because it might look more impressive…”

I could. And it did. A giant, phallic cake filling the 40″ screen, with an unnecessary drop of glistening white icing at what is best described as the tip.

Now,” Ian proclaimed, “it’s exactly like uni.”

We agreed. It was after midnight and we were definitely students once more. We scanned the DVD shelf and put on Ace Venture: When Nature Calls. It was the only thing to be done.

Evidently student life isn’t really something one outgrows, even once a Contributing Member of Society. All it takes is being thrust back with the right group of people; all that changes is the toys get more expensive.

P.S. Apologies to those expecting Toto in this post. There is none.

Charity Begins Online

As I always do around this time of year, I want to encourage everyone to donate to Child’s Play, the charity that shows the gaming community at its very best. Dozens of children’s hospitals worldwide (and now two in the UK) are signed up and you can donate games and toys that will make sick kids’ time in hospital that little bit more bearable. Last year I left it too late and nothing was left on the list for Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital so I donated to the Tulane Hospital for Children in New Orleans instead. Their thoughtful thank you note means this year I guess I’ll have to give to both. I’ve gone slightly off-piste by including copies of How To Train Your Dragon rather than just games, which means the kids will probably receive theirs before I do. This probably shouldn’t make me feel quite so jealous as it does.

I tend to use this time of year to reassess my regular donations to charity too (ideally in an upward direction). For those like me whose primary charitable contributions are sadly not in time but merely redistribution of wealth (my desired self-image as a sort of Robin Hood wielding a pen rather than a bow may not be wholly accurate), picking charities carefully is important, rather than knee-jerk responses to those who spend the most on advertising.

I want to highlight GuideStar UK, an organisation of which few seem to have heard, which provides a wealth of information on about 163,000 charities throughout England and Wales, including their financials. I was a fan of Intelligent Giving, which provided easy-to-understand analysis of charities based on size, salaries, quality of reporting, etc. Sadly the site closed following a merger with consultancy/think tank New Philanthropy Capital, and they seem more focused on consultancy to assist charities with their reporting. I hope to see them reopen something similar, but if anyone can suggest others analysing/rating charities in a similar way then I’d love to hear.

The only downside I’ve found is that it makes one more interested in checking the breakdown of how the money gets used and less likely to donate on the street, meaning you are actually likely to appear less charitable. But then appearance isn’t what it’s about, right?


A combination of qualification, flat moving, delays in landline connection and database upgrade issues led to an enforced break. All of that now dealt with, I’m feeling refreshed and keen to get back into it. Let’s start with a couple of new reviews that went up in my absence: Buried and Toy Story 3. I suspect the latter may cause disagreements but, while it’s good, I simply did not enjoy it as much as I hoped when compared to the stellar How To Train Your Dragon. Expect a few more reviews soon. The rest of this post was written a while ago, but I’ll put it up anyway.

I recently headed to a talk by Ninja Theory’s Tameem Antoniades, Creative Director on Enslaved. While I already view videogame development as a legitimate creative industry, it is still nice to have external confirmation. Sitting in a crowded BAFTA theatre certainly provided that.

Tameem’s talk focused on Enslaved’s collaborative process with individuals from the film industry. Andy Serkis voices the player character, Monkey, but also co-directed the performance capture sessions. Scriptwriter Alex Garland came on board at an early stage and influenced level design choices by emphasising the need to set up encounters through the use of subtle film flourishes such as fleeting shadows. And finally veteran composer and musician Nitin Sawney was providing the soundtrack.

Enslaved’s story is based on the Chinese classic Journey to the West, though in the UK it is largely known only through the cult Monkey TV series. Though they have chosen a futuristic, sci-fi setting, Ninja Theory’s Eastern influences are clear, both in their previous game Heavenly Sword and the recently announced Devil May Cry reboot, which many were surprised to see handed over to a Western developer. The post-apocalyptic USA, inhabited by mechs that vary in size from humanoid to gargantuan, is surprisingly saturated with colour a conscious decision and a welcome change from typical incarnations.

Playing the game, my concern was that the basic combat elements in the demo would swiftly become repetitive. This is avoided through the ability to upgrade Monkey’s combat abilities. Purchasing new moves gradually over the game provides nuance and keeps things feeling fresh, but the danger is that you are not forced to do so — players may instead purchase them all early on or even eschew them entirely in favour of health or shield upgrades which would turn combat into a horrible grind.

So the action platforming gameplay is enough to keep the player engaged, with neat environmental puzzles breaking the pace well, but it is really the quality of the performances — Monkey, Trip and Pigsy — that sells it. It is the first time in while that I’ve finished a game to find myself genuinely disappointed to be unable to spend more time with its characters.

"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2023 Priyan Meewella

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