Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Bark: Mice won't play

Several things of significance have occurred during the last week.

Firstly, The Other Half has deserted me for 10 days to see The Outlaws for the Easter Holidays, whilst I'm stuck at home mired in a veritable mountain of work. With luck, she should bring me back a nice bottle of red wine by way of compensation.

Ironically, I'm having quite a good time at work lately. Really fecking busy, but rewarding at the same time. I had one of my best days in recent memory today - in (un)sunny Weybridge of all places - being the technical backup to my Project Manager in a meeting with the lead Resource Manager for Business Consulting Services in the UK and the BCS Resource Management Operations Executive. Anyone who reads Dilbert probably has visions of Executive-level meetings being a nightmarish complete waste of time, and I'm sure in some companies that's true, but a lot of the people at high level within my particular company are solid gold. In the two hours of the meeting, we all learnt a heck of a lot more about the importance of the reporting I work on, and more about how it is actually used by the end user (i.e. the Executive), enabling us to get a clearer picture of how our reporting should be designed. It wasn't anything like a typical boardroom bun-fight at all - in fact, it was very good-humoured, and the managers and executive were more than happy to listen to what the Code Monkey in the suit had to say... It wouldn't have made a good Dilbert cartoon, but it's reassuring to know that you can have meetings that aren't a complete waste of time, and that people towards the very top of your chain of command listen to and respect the thoughts of their underlings. AND I even found the time to come up with a clever little workaround that circumvents the inability of hyperlinked cells in Excel from shifting focus from one worksheet to a PivotChart sheet. It's days like this that make you feel good.

Secondly, my broadband got upgraded to 1Mbps on Saturday, which is fab, except for one small snag. It only ever seems to work after 10pm. Which is okay if I'm feeling in an insomniac mood, but not much use if I want to work from home or if I want to have a quick session on WoW or JOps while dinner's in the oven. I'm going to need to give the Pipex Support line a call, because it's not really on. I've never had a problem with the ISP before, but it's really erratic around peak times. The connection won't even stay up long enough to run Messenger - I swear I got better performance out of the Unix terminal's with 14.4kbps modems at university. 120KB per second downloads are awesome (I've been taking the time to download quite a few Sims 2 mods recently, in anticipation of the expansion pack, which I need to pick up from the Post Office on my way to work tomorrow), but not being able to game or surf the web because the guy upstairs in on the phone takes the piss just a little bit, given that it was perfect at 576kbps just last week. I almost wish I'd waited for BT to uprate the line and not paid the £15 now...

Thirdly, with my internet gaming options being somewhat curtailed by the instability of my ISP, I don't have anything to play at the moment. Actually, that's a filthy, dastardly, heinous lie. I do have things I *can* play. Dozens of them, in fact. I just don't have anything I *want* to play. I went back to The Sims 2 last week, in anticipation of the arrival of the University expansion pack from Play that I ordered about a week ago, but it's quite hard to get back into it without the added incentive of the extra content, given that I plugged about 50 hours into it last September. I've been playing some more JOps since my broadband upgrade, but it always leaves me with the feeling that something's missing. It just isn't as much fun as it should be, and it's hard to put a finger on why. The levels are well designed, the weapons are well balanced, etc, but given that the game has all the right basic ingredients, I still end up feeling that the more I play it, the less I like it. I don't know if it's the netcode that somehow can still allow you to miss a target DIRECTLY IN YOUR SIGHTS at ten paces with an M4 carbine whilst standing still with single digit pings and triple figure frame rates, or because the Assault And Secure servers are more often than not set up with 6 hour time limits, making them descend headlong into APC spawn-camping epics. The Co-op servers are more rewarding, as people genuinely go out of their way to work together (which they ironically don't do on AAS servers, despite it being a team game), but it's hard to find Co-op servers with a decent number of players on. Having been such a big fan of Novalogic's Delta Force games, I really wanted to love JOps, but games end up in frustration far too often for my liking.

With a distinct lack of motivation to game at the moment, I've been taking refuge in my ever growing DVD collection. Sunday night was a Michael Mann and Stanley Kubrick night, as I watched Heat (my favourite film other than The Empire Strikes Back), Collateral (probably my favourite Mann after Heat, despite my Tom Cruise prejudice) and Dr Strangelove - Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb in a monster seven hour session. My love for Heat is beyond mere words. The story, acting, characters and cinematography are spellbinding. I never tire of watching it, even with a running time of nearly three hours. Collateral is nearly as good, thanks to great performances by Tom Cruise (though it pains me to admit it), Jamie Foxx and Mark Ruffalo. The cinematography isn't quite up to the Dante Spinotti standards of Heat, but still has a very distinctive, almost muted feel. Watching the special features, I was intrigued to discover that the climactic scene on the train was filmed in Green Screen, so that Mann could provide appropriate backdrops of the action. It's a testament to the sophistication of CGI these days that I never would have been able to tell, had I not seen the documentary.
The SFX in Dr Strangelove doesn't quite stand up to the same scrutiny these days, but it's still a devilishly funny black comedy, and by far my favourite Kubrick. Coincidentally, I was inspired to watch it again when I stumbled upon a documentary on Peter Sellars, in which I learnt that the nuclear Vera Lynn ending was not the typical Kubrickian satire I'd originally believed, but was in fact suggested by Sellars's Goon Show cohort, the irreplaceable Spike Milligan, after Sellars and Kubrick mentioned to him that they'd had to ditch the original custard pie food fight finale. When you think of it, the absurdity and brilliance of the juxaposition is pure Milligan, so brilliant that you could be forgiven that it was Kubrick's idea, the film has so many of Kubrick's fingerprints over it. Slim Pickens (who plays the gung-ho Major Kong, the B-52 pilot) wasn't told that the film was a satire, making his straight-as-a-die performance even more poignant. The rhetoric of a "Doomsday gap" and "Mineshaft gap" is a razor-sharp indictment of the Cold War mentality, easily applicable to today's "War on Terror" - the enemies change, but the lies and paranoia remain the same. Strangelove gets better every time I see it, thanks to the barnstorming performance of George C. Scott as General "Buck" Turgidson (there's a Kubrickian character name if there ever was one), and the infinite subtlety of Sellars's three roles.

"Gentlemen! You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

Absolutely sublime. Worth a Top 5 spot in anyone's list of Favourite Films.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Byte: Of Mice and Men

Or, more accurately, Of Computer Mice and Cups of Water...

I have to give Microsoft their due. Their Operating Systems might not be the best in the world, but after knocking nearly a third of a litre of water over my Intellimouse Optical at work this morning, it's still as smooth and accurate as ever.

So, take note: in the event of terrorist attack or nuclear holocaust, for maximum safety, simply bury yourself under a pile of Microsoft PC peripherals.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Bark: Rocket Fuel

With me working so late last night, I chickened out of my commute down the M3 and decided to work from home. The advantage of working from home is that I can abuse my broadband connection all day, taking advantage of my company's fantastic mobile working infrastructure, and eat a more appetizing (and somewhat healthier) lunch than I can usually find on the baguette stall of my work canteen.

Unlike Jamie Oliver, I'm more "Jazz Chef" than "Naked Chef", because I like to improvise recipes. Here's what I did for lunch after raiding the fridge and cupboards to see what needed eating (and it was *lovely*, by the way).

Rocket Fuel:

100g low-carb pasta
A 200g packet of wild rocket
1 small tin of tuna steak, in tomato and herb dressing
1 red bird-eye chilli
1tsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper (to taste)
Emmenthal cheese shavings (to garnish)

Boil the pasta in salted water with the olive oil, until al dente, according to the instructions on the packet. Drain the pasta, leaving a little water in the pan. Add the rocket, and return to a very low heat, allowing the rocket to steam and wilt for a couple of minutes. Add the tuna steak and dressing to the pan, stirring through to coat the pasta. Add pepper to taste, and then use a sharp pair of kitchen scissors to snip in the chilli. Allow the sauce to warm through for a minute, and then serve immediately, garnishing with the Emmenthal shavings.

Eat and enjoy.

You're now ready to face another afternoon at the grindstone...

Bark: An evening well spent

It's not easy being a corporate whore. I was up until nearly 2am last night doing "Giveback", which is basically unpaid overtime my company *expects* you to do if you want to get a good performance review at the end of the year. The result was worth it, though. The extra five hours I spent last night on top of my normal working day doing development on a Weekly Utilisation report will result in a net saving of four hours per week, through the automation of the data processing - which by the end of the year will equate to about 20 man days. It's pretty satisfying to know that even though you've slogged your guts out through an evening I otherwise could have spent watching DVDs or playing WoW will give such concrete results and real, meaningful time savings for the Resource Managers - I've effectively saved the business a couple of thousand quid (not that it will go to fund a much deserved pay rise) for this year, and freed up a lot of time for the RMs that can be used on other, more important, things. I think that's worth sacrificing an evening for - especially when I've picked up a few more tidbits of programming knowledge in the meantime that will make my day-to-day development tasks easier. AND I get Brownie points my manager. Hurrah!

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Bark: TFT Heaven

With it being Annual Bonus season, I've had my Annual Hardware Splurge for this year. I have to blame my artist friend Mark, with whom I was lamenting the cost of my 36,000 mile service (in the region of £650, thanks to needing to replace my rear brake disks and pads) with on MSN yesterday morning, and telling him that I'd never be able to afford a decent TFT monitor anytime soon. I head over to eBuyer to grab the link for the Benq 12ms 17" TFT I'd been hankering after for about 6 months - to show it to him - and then I spotted the 19" LG.

With my credit card taking such of a hammering anyway, I thought, "In for a penny, in for a pound!" and snapped it up (after all, there were only 450 of them left... *coughs* )- £242.05 with Next Day delivery, which is frankly a fecking STEAL. I tested it with Far Cry and Half-Life 2 at lunch, and if anything, the image quality is better than my old 17" CRT. The refresh rate is better at 1280x1024 (75Hz as opposed to 60Hz), plus the colour contrast and brightness is great. I'll have to tweak my colour profiles a little for a few games, but I'm very impressed with the image quality. With such a quick pixel response time, there's no ghosting with the graphics at all, and there's a "Lightview" feature that allows you to automatically alter the brightness and contrast profiles according to whether you're using the screen at day or night, and also has options for whether you're using an application like Word in Windows, or if you're playing a game or watching a DVD. It's all very clever. With it being a 19" TFT screen, it almost has the viewing area of a 21" CRT screen, though sadly not the resolution of one. Still, 1280x1024 is my preferred screen resolution (I find 1600x1400 too hard to read), it's as good as you need for gaming, and it's nice to have the same resolution I'm used to on a larger screen. It'll make a big difference to DVD viewing, too.

The other, more practical, benefits are that because the screen is so thin, I can put the monitor in the middle of the desk, directly behind the keyboard tray (instead of having it perched on the leftmost end, like the CRT was) without it taking up the whole desk, which has twofold benefits. Firstly, I'm not mangling my spine with bad ergonomics, and secondly, it frees up lots more desk space so my other half can essentially take over the whole desk usefully when she wants to work there. We might actually have more fights about who gets to use the desk in the bedroom, now. But I suppose that's what I bought the Xbox for...

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Byte: X-Fire Needs You!

Xfire Needs You

X-Fire is a wonderful little program that takes all the hassle out of setting up online games, and it'd be a tragedy if it was forced out of business by a litigation happy Yahoo. Stand up for The Little Guy!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Byte: Success!

I've finally managed to get a password reset on World of Warcraft! It only took a week! Maybe I won't have to cancel my subscription after all! Hurrah!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Bark: The Life Aquatic

Been going to the cinema quite a bit recently. The last thing I saw was the pleasingly quirky The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray. Now, I'll watch anything with Bill Murray in, but I really loved this, even though I wasn't so keen on Wes Anderson's previous film, The Royal Tenenbaums. The Life Aquatic is much more outlandish, has a fabulous supporting cast and really gives Bill Murray a proper place to showcase both his understated melancholy talents, plus his more physical, outragous side.

It's especially worth seeing for the soundtrack, which is great. Make sure you listen to the Ping Island track.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Byte: Blizzard conditions

I'm getting very frustrated with Blizzard over my continuing World of Warcraft login problem. The first e-mail I sent them last Thursday got unceremoniously bounced from their mail server - presumably because they're being bombarded with messages about similar problems. It appears that over the weekend they took some of the European servers down to fix a server authentication problem. They obviously didn't do a very good job, because my account still won't log in. After I found out my first e-mail got bounced, I resent it on Saturday, only to have received no reply, to date.

I sent off another support request via the website last night, and if they can't sort this out by the end of the week, I'm contemplating cancelling my subscription.

Their excuse is apparently "we weren't expecting it to be this popular!" Okayyyy. Keep taking those tablets, mate. An online version of the most popular fantasy RTS franchise in existence, with some of the most stylised and striking graphics in an MMORPG to date, a gameplay model that cuts out the majority of the level grind AND THEY WEREN'T EXPECTING IT TO BE POPULAR????

Not good enough. And after the anti-climax of Knights of the Old Republic 2, I was really looking forward to getting stuck into this, too...

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Byte: EverPizza

An interesting story on the ever redoubtable Register. When MMORPGs and eCommerce collide...

I have to say I do like the thought of the natural progression of this idea. Say you walk into a Pizza Hut in Grand Theft Auto: Another Vaguely Recognisable But Slightly Different American City and ordered a stuffed crust pepperoni pizza, and then had a real one turn up at your door after quarter of an hour. That'd be cool.

Byte: Less "WoW", more "Ow"

Having finally finished off KOTOR 2, I wanted to devote a little more time to World Of Warcraft. So, last night I connect up the modem, start up the game and log in. As normal for an online game, it goes off and checks to see if there's been a game update. It goes away and updates the executable to version 1.2.4, and I'm quite impressed at how quickly the thing updates. Not too painful, only about five minutes.

I fire the game up again, go to log in, and... "Account name or password invalid." The very same details I successfully logged in with only a few minutes previously. Great. I go to the support page to try and reset my password, in case I've accidentally locked it out or something, but no. The password reset page won't accept my account details, saying that the secret question and contact e-mail fields are empty, when they in fact have the right things in them. And it does the same thing in both Firefox and IE.

I can only conclude that someone's stolen my account and changed everything, Blizzard have locked it out, or the whole thing is completed fucked. I send off a support e-mail, explaining what happened, and this morning, the auto-responder from Blizzard says that the message got delayed/bounced, so who knows how long it'll take to sort out.

All I want to do is play the goddamn game, dammit! Sort your life out, Blizzard! I've got a 6 month subscription I want to use!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Byte: KOTOR 2, continued

I took the opportunity to work from home today, which allowed me to spend my lunch-time killing off KOTOR 2, which I'd been steadily working my way through for the last couple of weeks.

I don't think I've ever been quite so disappointed by the ending of a game. This is because despite all the potential clearly shining in the game, despite all the things that Obsidian did right with the majority of the writing and the tweaks to the game mechanics, something clearly happened between developer and publisher that meant the tone of ending was completely and utterly at odds with the more thoughtful, even philosophical, tone of the rest of the game.

From the very first scene, it's practically spelt out that Kreia, your mentor, is Betrayer In Chief. It's right up Obsidian's alley, and to be expected for a game this dark. So, to defeat the two main Sith Lords, and then have to deal with Kreia wasn't a huge surprise. What was a surprise was just how poorly it was implemented.

The finale is absolutely laughable, and the closing cinematic is about as rewarding as half a lottery ticket. It's doubly galling, when you consider the original ending Obsidian weren't given time to do (or were ordered not to do) by Lucasarts. The final planet of Malachor V makes the Star Forge look inspired - all you have to do on Malachor is bludgeon your way through waves and waves of Sith, until you reach the centre of the Academy - only with no puzzles to solve on the way, or super-powerful inventory items to collect to ready you for the conclusion.

Then, after you defeat Kreia in an incredibly unbalanced fight (where the hell did she get those 1000 vitality points from?), she heals herself, and miraculously spawns three Mordenkaine's Flying Lightsabers to kill you. D'oh! Talk about throwing away all the credibility you've been building up throughout the game. And then, after you defeat the sabers, Kreia just keels over, and that's it. Cheers for turning up. Or, if you're so inclined, you can get her to tell the fortune of the Republic and your shipmates, and *THEN* she keels over and scurries up to the Jedi Rest Home in the sky.

It's completely incongruous to the rest of the game; it feels rushed and amateurish - as if they had to cobble it together a month before release - which they may well have done. Couple that to the considerable technical problems, and the perverse decision to deny your Jedi their lightsaber for well over a quarter of the game (at least 10, and up to 15 hours of the 40 hour total) and it all adds up to another potentially great game ruined by the money men who wanted a pre-Christmas US release on the Xbox, and wanted to leave the door open for another money-spinning sequel.

What a waste...