Thursday, June 30, 2005

Bark: Duck a l'ohmygoditsfreezinguphere

This is the kind of madness that makes you feel proud to be a fellow British eccentric.

Well done, chaps.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Byte: Newbie Cruelty

I've just come off my World of Warcraft server, thanks to a maintenance reboot, and it's most amusing to read the reaction to the "Server Restart" announcement in the General chat channel. Since English isn't the first language of many of the players, some vicious-minded players try and convince the more gullible that Blizzard are wiping everyone's character stats and restarting everything from scratch...

Even after a couple of months of this happening, it's amazing how many people still fall for it.

Bark: Straight Sets

This internal travel ban has been great. Not only do I get to save a hundred quid a month on diesel costs, vastly reduce the amount of time I spend travelling to and from work, but I also get to work from home during the Wimbledon fortnight. With the wireless broadband, I can just plonk myself in the front room on the settee with my Thinkpad on my lap, with the tennis on in the background, occasionally being able to lift my head on the juicy points.

It's men's quarter final today, and I've been able to keep a lazy eye on the Federer/Gonzalez match and the Roddick/Grosjean match. Federer was just awesome today, and Roddick's playing pretty well too - if they both make the final, it should be a corker. Grosjean's given him a tough game today, but at the moment, as we go into the fifth set, it looks like there's going to be another chapter in the Chronicles Of Roddick for Wimbledon this year... oh, that was a bad pun.

In other news, I signed up recently with the DVD rental scheme on CD Wow. The Silver scheme gives you unlimited rentals (3 disks at a time) for just £14.99 a month, with postage paid both ways. If you're as much of a film buff as my girlfriend is (and I am, to a lesser extent) it's a fabulous deal, and allows you to try out those titles that you either can't find at your local Blockbusters, or wouldn't really want to spent £20 on for a title you might only want to watch the once. We've got The Wicker Man and The Godfather (Part 1) to watch at the moment, which is just as well, because there's sod all on TV this weekend. With a bit of luck, this will curtail the DVD buying for a while - we're somewhere over 130 now, and there's no more space left to put them...

It's the same with videogames, too - I'm desperately running out of storage space. It's just as well that I've got Forza on the Xbox and World of Warcraft on the PC to keep me occupied. The games have so much longevity in them, it should see me through the barren summer release schedule. I do have Soldner: Gold to review at the moment (and I did pick up the Escalation expansion pack to Joint Operations on offer at the weekend), but I think WoW is going to occupy most of my time over the next month until I go on holiday in August. Hopefully by the time I get back, something decent will have come out for me to play.

Byte: Grind

The downside of being a semi-pro games journalist is that not every game you get to review is going to be ground-breakingly good. Sometimes you have to review the average, and even the utter dreck. Last night I finished reviewing the expansion pack to Asheron's Call 2. I was lucky enough to be given a couple of relatively high level test characters to play the game with, because the prospect of grinding my way up the level tree to be in a position to review the expansion pack content would have been too hideous to contemplate.

Yet even with a mid-to-high level character, AC2 is miserable game. The game world feels just so dull and empty - a feeling only reinforced by the lack of other people to party up and play the game with. The interface is bland and clunky, and the character animation is so bad it makes your skin crawl. The jumping animation in particular is laughable. Add to this ropy textures, poor sound and substandard graphical effects for spells, and things aren't looking or sounding good - literally. The game has no atmosphere or charm, with huge vistas filled with nothing but repetitively textured wilderness, and the few lavishly designed cities there are otherwise have no character, and in some cases, no characters - barely a single NPC in sight - just a vendor or two if you're lucky.

It's got absolutely nothing to recommend it over newer MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars or City Of Heroes - not even price. It's a waste of hard drive space I literally can't wait to uninstall. My full review should be up on Pro-G in the next day or so, but if you were thinking of picking AC2: Legions up from the GAME bargain bin, just remember that there's a reason why it's there... the reason being that it's RUBBISH - dull and ugly rubbish to boot. Avoid.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Bark: SW19

Anyone familiar with London postcodes will know that's the postcode of a certain London town hosting a particularly famous tennis tournament at the moment.

We Scots don't have much to crow about when it comes to sport (rubbish Football, Rugby and Cricket teams), but by God, when we are good at something, we like to make the most of it. Even if it's being Elephant Polo World Champions.

Thankfully, our new Scottish hero plays a much more recognisable sport - at the aforementioned tournament. Andy Murray is an 18 year old from a small town in Scotland called Dunblane, a town not unfamiliar for making the news, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. So for Andy Murray (who was I believe was in the school at the time of the shootings) to turn out to be the best thing to hit British Tennis since Tim Henman is not only great for British sport in general, but great for Dunblane, too.

What surprised me was the attitude he has to playing. He seems to have an incredible amount of self-belief. The guy's a born winner (most unscottish, I have to say), it's like the thought of losing never entered his mind when he was on court. Frankly, that's staggering when you look at the opponent he beat yesterday - Radek Stepanek. 14th Seed for the tournament, 13th in the World Rankings, and Murray had only played 5 professional ATP tour matches before that one, and is 312th in the World! It was shocking (in a pleasant way, well, at least for a fellow Scot) to see Murray give him absolutely no fear, just enough respect, and simply put Stepanek away like *he* was 312th in the World. Even if Stepanek had an off-day (which he surely did), Murray just didn't allow him to play, and Stepanek never really looked like he'd have Murray in trouble. It was a dumbfounding result - beating someone 300 places above you in the World Rankings, in straight sets, and making the guy look completely ordinary.

I watched the last two sets live when I got home from work, and you can't help but be impressed. I'm no tennis expert, but just by looking at the way he plays, his movement and shot selection, the boy has real class. Murray really knows how to play the crowd as well - though that might not be such a good thing in the long term.

I don't expect him to beat Nalbandian, and give the guy credit, neither does Murray. Even so, if I were Nalbandian, I'd be a bit worried on Saturday afternoon - if this match is on Centre Court, with a partisan crowd behind him, if he gets the first set under his belt, you never know how well Murray will play. The exciting thing is that this is totally uncharted territory - a bit like when Boris Becker won his first Wimbledon title in '85 - if you want to be a champion, you've got to beat the big boys, and playing someone in the top 10 so early in your career can only be a good thing. If Murray can give Nalbandian a good run for his money, it really bodes well for the future. If he beats him, well. Suffice to say, the press will go NUTS.

Myself, I don't expect Murray's World Ranking to stay in the hundreds for very long...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bark: Cosmos-1

This caught my eye on the BBC News website. It's not the specifics about the spacecraft that interested me - the concept of a solar sail has been around for decades - it's more how they tried to get the vehicle into orbit.

At last, a worthwhile use for all those billions of dollars/rubles spent on building all those ICBMs! Though I suppose it's a little bit worrying that the missile itself failed to get beyond first stage ignition - if it can't put a spacecraft into orbit, it certainly could never have hit its target in a nuclear war. So much for the nuclear deterrent! Still, it could be an innovative way of getting rid of the world's nuclear arsenal - never mind about the warheads, just get rid of the rockets! Heaven forbid that the Russians forget to tell the Yanks that they're launching a satellite from one of their submarines, though...

Byte: Grey Area

Interesting news today about Sony trying to stamp down on so-called "Grey Imports" of the PSP.


Oh, sorry, I had a little trouble with the caps lock there...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Bark: Anticide

I've just put down enough ant powder outside my flat to kill an elephant. The little buggers have been getting in through the window frame for the last couple of days. Not a swarm, just an exploratory invasion force, but enough to cause sufficient annoyance to warrant summary genocide. The UN will be citing me for war crimes against ants any minute now.

Still, it's a nice enough day to work from home - bright, sunny, warm - and I can even leave the door open to get a bit of fresh air, and leave the tennis on in the background. The wireless is a godsend too. I can even work outside and get a bit of sun. I love mobile working...

Friday, June 17, 2005

Bark: Catering Moans

Because we're all technically adept workers here at IBM, we have a dedicated newsgroup on the IBM Hursley intranet for moaning about the canteen, called the Catering Moans forum. By chance, I was reading a thread complaining about the sausages (too oily and greasy, left swimming in their own fat, etc), when someone posted this link.

After reading about Cuitlacoche (of which I'd been blissfully unaware of until now), somehow the sausages in the canteen don't seem so bad...

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Byte: Largesse

Something very odd happened last night, when I logged in to play World Of Warcraft. I had mail. Now, I knew that I hadn't won anything at the Auction House (I usually get stuff via buyouts, provided it's not prohibitively expensive), and I'd not mailed myself anything from my other character to my Druid, so it had to be from some other source.

I made my way to a mailbox and found out that I had two pieces of mail. One was a follow up message from a low level fishing quest I'd done in Darkshore a day or two previously, and the other was from my most frequent playing companion, Fearx. He'd been playing with me on Sunday afternoon, before I went off for a jog with my girlfriend, and had seen me log out away from an inn.

Yesterday afternoon, he remembered this, and sent me a note telling me that if you log out in the wilderness instead of in an inn, you don't accumulate the "rested" state as quickly. The "rested" state allows you to gain double the experience for monster kills, and the marker on the experience bar to show it gets pushed back whenever you finish a quest. This allows you to level a lot more quickly, and catch up on other people if you've not played the game for a while. I knew this already, but had logged out in Forest Song, because I knew that I was going to pick the game back up after I'd finished flogging myself half to death on the local jogging trails (my legs still ache), and that I wasn't going to lose much "rested" state accumlation anyway. But that wasn't what was most surprising about the mail.

Fearx had sent me two gold pieces. Just because he thought I needed the money more than he did. Just like that. For no reason other than because we get on well, and because he felt like it. To the uninitiated, two gold pieces might not sound like much, but it's actually quite a substantial amount of in-game money. Two gold pieces will buy a top quality weapon for a Level 25 character in the auction house, and is equivalent to 200 silver pieces, or a staggering 20,000 copper pieces (if you convert it into the other WoW currencies). It doubled the amount of money I had (and I'd been saving up for a couple of days, too) and enabled me to send on a gold piece to my other character, who will be able to use it to get a decent weapon in the Auction House, next time they visit Ironforge.

I met Fearx online later that evening, and gave him 20 wool cloths, which he needed to produce some other items (he's a skinner/leatherworker, like my main character), which in no way is worth 2GP, but he needed them more than I did (I was saving them up for the Cloth Donation quest you can get in the major cities) and I can easily return to Darkshore and slaughter some more Thistlefur Furlbogs for an hour to get them back... plus it made me feel a little less guilty for him just giving me all that money, AND a whole load of other armour items he'd gotten questing in Gnomeregan earlier in the day.

In a similar spirit of largesse, I visited Northshire Abbey (the starting area for human characters), whacked a load of low level NPCs and gave away all the low level armour drops to characters who were just starting out. Just for the hell of it, because the stuff is largely worthless (a few copper pieces each) and you don't get experience points for killing NPCs of such a low level, when you're pushing near Level 30. It's nice to think that you're contributing positively to the atmosphere of a game, and showing new players that not everyone does things purely for selfish reasons.

Playing online can be so rewarding sometimes, in completely unexpected ways. MMO's aren't just about the game, they're about the people - it's always great to meet nice people. Fearx, I salute you.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Byte: Get stopped with MSN Messenger

You've got to admire Microsoft's canny ability to turn working products into non-working ones. I foolishly decided to upgrade from MSN Messenger 6.2 up to version 7.0, because I kept getting the annoying pop-ups about it, and a friend of mine said she preferred it to the old version.

So, I click the "update messenger here" pop-up, it installs, removes the old version, I update the firewall to let it still have access to the internet, and... it promptly refuses to sign in anymore. Great. I give it the benefit of the doubt, uninstall Messenger completely, and reinstall from scratch, removing the program from Zonelabs, and putting it back in again to make sure that it's not the firewall that's mucking up the sign-in. The result? Still broken. RUBBISH.

So I uninstall it again, and this time, it's staying uninstalled. MSN MessANGER, more like. I'm now using my Instant Messenger Hub in our company messenger tool instead, which doesn't break every time you upgrade it...

Friday, June 10, 2005

Byte: Just to label the point...

The image associated with "l33t" on Urban Dictionary, for those who didn't click on the link.



I don't know what it says, though.

Byte: Urban Dictionary

A few posts back, when I was talking about the use of language in online games, I came up with something I thought would make a good new bit of internet nomenclature. I didn't mention it in the post at the time, because I wanted to register it on Urban Dictionary and claim ownership of it first.

Urban Dictionary is great - most of the entries are just there for shits and giggles - such as NTSC-UK's, but there are occasional gems there too.

When I thought about all the people who use "l33t" speak, I thought about how it makes everyone sound the same, and how pretty much only young people use it, just because it's the fashion, I thought that it would be cool to come up with a term that signifies just how stupid talking like that is.

I think it's best to be really simple when it comes to things like this, so the term I thought of and registered was "bl33t" which not only rather subversively contains the term "l33t" it's mocking, but also is almost an onomatopoeia, because I think most people who write exclusively in l33t-speak are all mindless sheep...

I don't think the term will take off or become popular; I just wanted to record it somewhere popular for posterity. Though three thumbs up to one down so far - I can live with that. And remember that if you do see people using it, you heard it here first...

Byte: Buy Vampire: Bloodlines today!

£5.99? £5.99? When games this good are this cheap, there aren't really any excuses for not getting it. Unless you've already bought it, of course.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Bark: Perilous Pollen Predicament

Hayfever's a bitch, isn't it? I've never had it badly before this year, but in the last couple of weeks, I've really been struggling. Prickly throat, feeling sluggish in the mornings (though that's not exactly a new sensation for me) and eyes that itch so badly that you want to rip them out of their sockets. Well, not *eyes*. Just one eye: My right one. Why only my right eye should suffer like this is really rather confusing.

The left one is perfectly fine, but the right one itches, the eyelids spasm crazily like I've been injecting heroine into my eyeballs and frankly, it's as annoying as hell. It's not painful at all, just maddening. I'm pretty sure that spending hours and hours staring at video screens doesn't help matters (though recently I've been using TFT screens exclusively to reduce the amount of radiation bombarding my optic nerves) and neither does using an old pair of glasses. I desperately need an eye test and a new prescription, but I've been putting it off, as I simply can't face the thought of forking out upwards of £200 on two new pairs of glasses and an eye test.

I'm working from home today, (my team leader is working in Hursley, so there was no way I was going into Farnborough to work on my own in the drop-in centre) and my girlfriend suggests that I "leave the door open - get some air". Yeah, right. Get some more pollen, more like. Still, it's a bloody beautiful day today. If it weren't for the hayfever, I'd be tempted to work outside, which is now a real possibility, thanks to the newly installed wireless.

I ended up having to get a wireless PCMCIA card for the Thinkpad in the end, because the USB dongle I got with my router didn't work with it - my T30 is too old, and doesn't have onboard USB 2. I asked my manager to see if I could get a PC card via work (I didn't think he's appreciate a request for a new Thinkpad in the current budget climate!) and he gave me a link to our internal wireless team. Can you just request a wireless PC card? Can you hell as like. I hunt around the intranet, and find out that if you want networking kit to use at home, you have to get it from the Employee Purchase Plan. Which doesn't sell PCMCIA cards (Not off the website, anyway). Bugger this for a game of soldiers, thinks I. One quick trip back to PC World later, and I'm back at home, installing the PC card on my laptop. Bosh! In five minutes, it's up and running. I plug in my network encryption key, and I walking around the flat, Thinkpad in hand, surfing the internet! Isn't modern technology wonderful?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Bark: On yer bike!

Or not, as the case may very well be.

In an effort to shed some of the excess weight I've accrued over the last couple of years since buying a car, I put my bike back together about six weeks ago. Thanks to the weather since then, I've only managed to ride it a couple of times, and after a good four years in bits in our "garage" (an outdoor storage closet), I knew it had a few problems. This afternoon, I found out just how extensive they were.

A friend of mine at work used to be a mountain bike instructor, so I abduct him at lunch, ply him with bagels and Guinness, and get him and his tools to help try and take off the rather worn away bottom bracket, which is making the pedal cranks wobble so much you can hardly change gears. He was absolutely horrified by the fact I'd ridden about 12 miles on it at the weekend, claiming that it's far too dangerous to ride.

The first pedal crank comes off without too much of a struggle, but the second one is so corroded that it won't budge, and just strips the threads off the fittings. Not only that, it looks like the bottom bracket is starting to work itself loose, and might have damaged the frame around it. This means that I'm looking at around £60 worth of parts to replace what's too damaged to be salvageable, and if the thread in the bottom bracket is gone, I might as well buy a new bike. When you factor in the labour cost to replace all the gear that's knackered, it might be more economical to do that anyway - I don't have the tools to take out what's broken, nor to fit the new parts - so the whole thing is probably going to cost upwards of three figures at any rate.

It's not like the bike hasn't paid for itself, anyway. I bought it five years ago to save me the train fare to work (plus a 3 hour round trip, thanks to crappy connections, which I could otherwise cycle in less than an hour), and because I couldn't afford a car at the time. The bike paid back its cost in train fares in about 3 months, and I rode it about 60 miles a week for just over a year, so it's done a good 3000 miles, probably, so I can't really have any complaints if I have to buy a new one.

It's still annoying though, as I was looking forward to getting back in the saddle, too.

At least when looking for new bikes, I came across this:

It's the Rayleigh Chopper for the Playstation 2 Generation. How cool is that? I bet it steers like an oil tanker, though.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Byte: Look, Ma! No wires!

Well, it took a little longer than expected, and a call to the customer support line, but I am now wireless enabled. To my surprise, the customer support line tech was not only very courteous, but straight to the point and devastatingly helpful. Even though I called at around 9.30 in the evening, he sorted out my one remaining problem in about 5 minutes flat. For the tech heads who are interested in what the problem was - the documentation told you how to change the DNS servers on the Internet Protocol connection settings to allow your PC to talk to the router, in order to let you set it up, but what it didn't tell you was that after you set everything up, you then had to check the system log to get the DNS addresses that would allow you to connect to the internet. So, just a dodgy step in the documentation, more than anything else, and very easily solveable once you swallow your pride and call technical support.

Fleur, apparently, does not block radio signals, much to my relief. She did, however, insist that the router and USB dongle were hidden as out of sight as possible. We don't want to ruin the aesthetics of the flat, after all, do we?

So, my job tonight is to enable the network security on my new wireless network, which will probably take me all night again (hopefully not), and then I can try hooking up the Xbox to the Ethernet switch, and see what happens. Once that's all done, I'm going to install the USB dongle drivers on my laptop, so I can link that in wirelessly, too. Or, if I can find one cheap enough, I might just get a wireless PC card... this technology stuff gets compulsive after a while. Must! Have! Gadgets!

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Byte: Wireless

If there's one thing I like more than spending money, it's *saving* money. Nothing to do with my Scottish and Yorkshire heritage, I assure you. Nothing. Nothing at all.


My team leader, Charles, and I were getting accustomed to our new "office" (i.e. the drop-in centre in Farnborough) on Tuesday, thanks to the company travel ban for the rest of the quarter, and took in a tour of all the sights of the town at lunch. Naturally, since Farnborough is a dive that makes Coventry look good, it didn't take very long. A quick trip to GAME and PC World, and we were done.

One thing caught my eye in PC World; a wireless network kit. I'd been thinking about getting one for a while now, purely because trailing an RJ11 modem cable all the way across the flat every time I want to use the internet is a pain in the arse, and also because my darling girlfriend miraculously manages to accidentally yank the cable out of the modem whenever I'm in the middle of something important. For £80 they were selling a D-Link all-in-one ADSL modem, network switch and wireless router (with hardware firewall) plus a USB wireless transceiver dongle - the ideal wireless network solution for me to be able to switch between using it with either my laptop or desktop. I didn't buy it straight away, because I know most kit in PC World is usually hideously overpriced. So I went back to my desk, looked up the kit on Ebuyer, and found that, yes, I could get the very same kit for around £60, and checked the customer reviews to see that it's pretty good, though can be a little fiddly to set up.

I then went to the PC World website, and found that they were selling it for as near as makes no difference to the Ebuyer price, only that you can buy it on the website and pick it up in-store, saving yourself £20, just for looking at the website.

It's now sitting on the desk enticingly, urging me to go home early and get it set up. Hopefully, I should get it up and running without too many problems, and not find that my girlfriend can inexplicably block 2.4GHz radio waves...

Byte: MMORPG Observations

As you should all know by now, I'm a bit of a World of Warcraft addict. It's the first MMORPG I've ever really played, and it's been very interesting for me to observe how people react to each other in the chat client - how people are treated differently according to the standard of the language that they use.

I'm playing on the Zenedar server, which is primarily a UK, English-speaking server, but has plenty of European nationalities playing on it, because they don't have their own dedicated language servers yet. Just as a few examples, I've played with Dutch people, Romanians, and people from all the Nordic countries, though there's seems to be particularly large Danish and Swedish populations on the server. With this mish-mash of nationalities about, all of whom speak English to various degrees of proficiency, this can make forming effective parties pretty tricky.

There's a definite temptation when you're online in general, and playing MMORPGs in particular to use shorthand, or what's commonly called "l33t-speak" to save time and keystrokes, especially if you're in the middle of a battle or are on the move. This can generate a lot of confusion if you're all speaking the same native language - when you've got a party made up from five different nationalities, the result can be pandemonium.

What interests me is the way people perceive you differently according to how well you "speak" in the chat rooms. With Zenedar being an English server, the reaction in the general chat channel can be somewhat heated when you see Brits react to people using Dutch or Danish in the chat channel. There's usually a flurry of "OMG, u shud use english u n00bs!", or similarly stupid comments, that just make the shouters look like idiots. There's nothing in the Terms of Use agreement that prevents them from using their own language - it's just stupid Brits who can't understand what they're saying who don't like the thought of not being able to read everything in the chat log - or the possibility that someone is mocking them in language they can't understand.

Personally, I couldn't give a monkey's what language people use - it's your fault that you can't understand Danish, or Russian, or whatever, not theirs. There's nothing to stop you going onto a French or German-speaking server with a few mates and speaking to each other in English. In fact, I'd love to do that sometimes to gauge the kind of reaction you'd get. I'm quite happy to play with anyone, regardless of their standard of English, provided (and here's my personal prejudice) they attempt to use the language properly.

I've joined a Guild, The Rebels of Azeroth, run by a character called Seryth, who is in fact a Dutch guy in is very late teens - not that you'd tell from the standard of his English. When he approached me about joining his Guild (after we'd bumped into each other in the Centarion Enclave in Darnassus), we sat our characters down and had a "whispered" chat for about half an hour. We hit it off pretty instantly. His English was pretty flawless - and typed in a very similar style to mine; properly punctuated, as correctly spelt as possible, no abbreviated or shorthand words, and capital letters where there should be capital letters. I was gobsmacked when he told me he wasn't a Brit, and he was equally suprised when I'd told him how good I thought his English was. Though I shouldn't be surprised, really - most of the Dutch people I've met, the majority of whom speak English, all speak that English to a standard that would shame most UK undergraduates.

Quite a few of the foreign players I've met play the game not only just to have fun, but also to practice their English. One Danish guy I play with regularly (a Night Elf Hunter called Fearx) specifically likes playing me, because he can ask me to help correct his spelling and improve his English, and I'm happy to play with him, because he's courteous, good company, a good player and I'm more than happy to correct his spelling whenever he asks. He also likes playing with me because I tell really bad jokes, make Monty Python references at every conceivable opportunity, and use words he doesn't know that he can add to his vocabulary. I may have a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, but I will suffer foreigners gladly. In fact, I'd say more often than not that I play more with non-UK players than UK players, primarily because they're more polite, and they don't speak exclusively in abbreviations or use the /yell channel whenever they've got an item to sell or have something utterly mundane (but fascinating to them) to say.

The multinational nature of the server has almost caused a bit of a schizm in the population. As far as I've seen, the UK players tend to keep to themselves, happily bl33ting to their heart's content, whilst the rest of the players speak very correct English, or as correct as their English knowledge allows them to, and I know which group I'd rather play with. It'll be interesting to see if the foreign players continue to play in this vein - eschewing l33t speak, and using a better standard of English than the British players... It all kind of makes you weep about the attitude of the common British teenager towards foreigners and foreign languages, because almost uniformly to a one, all the idiots I've met playing on Zenedar have been Brits.