Friday, March 23, 2007

Bark: Wine, Whale and Song

What's the secret of making good wine? Fossilised whale, apparently.

Bark: [AFK]Iain

Apologies for being rather quieter than usual, but the office was invaded by the RAF and the MOD for the last couple of days, so I had to be on my best behaviour and not blog during work time. It's going to be another quiet period here for the next week as well, as I'm flying up to the Moray Firth for a site visit to RAF Kinloss.

Assuming the weather is going to be okay, I'm going to take my camera and take a few photos of the firth, since I'm staying in Findhorn pretty much right on the coast. I'm also quite looking to the food, since it's a good region for fresh seafood, and the chef at the place I'm staying at is reputedly one of the best in the area. If they serve scallops, I'll be happy.

Naturally, with Findhorn not exactly being London, I'm not going to have too much to do in the evenings, but as long as I have my laptop and my copy of Baldur's Gate, I'm sure I can keep myself gainfully occupied. It's a shame that I wasn't able to arrange to stay up there for the weekend, as it would have been nice to get across to Stornoway to see my brother, since I'm going to be at roughly the same latitude. Maybe next time.

I've got a promising weekend lined up, so I guess I should tell you about it now since I won't be able to blog about it next week. I've got my friend Mark coming over to help me with my drawing technique, though I'm sure we'll squeeze in a little gaming around the edges as well.
On Sunday, we're off to the National Portrait Gallery to have a look around, and I'll be trying to reproduce a few portraits that use different styles. I don't expect to be wholly successful, but it's all good practice.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Byte: Up, up and away!

Up, up and away!

I promised you a screenie of my lovely new Ebon Gryphon, and here it is.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Byte: Windows Media Player is rubbish

Since I changed roles at work, I do all my development now on a secure network, so my laptop has been relegated from the status of doing actual work to that of a glorified MP3 player.

I have over 100 CDs ripped to my hard drive, giving me something like 84 hours worth of music to listen to, so theoretically, I could go through two whole working weeks without ever listening to the same track twice. Unfortunately, when you give Windows Media Player more than a dozen or so tracks to play (say in your "All Music" view, the "Shuffle" routine goes completely to hell. It picks about half a dozen albums and plays the same two songs off each album every time. And that's "shuffle", apparently.

Suggest me a decent open-source freeware media player that isn't ridden with privacy-snooping malware, please readers...

Bark: -.. .. --.. ... --- ...

Before you ask, it's Morse Code. Look it up.

The downside of living in a one bedroomed flat is that there's a chronic lack of storage space. So this weekend I planned on putting up some extra shelving space in the bedroom to store some books on, given that my girlfriend and I have about three million of them (only a slight exaggeration - we've probably accounted for at least a couple of square kilometres of deforestation in the Amazon we have so many books). Off we pop to Sainsburys to pick up some "floating" shelves (i.e. really thick shelves where the wall fittings are actually self contained within the shelf itself - they look like very thick planks), and I crack out the spirit level, a ruler, pencil, screwdriver and an electric drill.

Within about five minutes I've marked out and drilled the six holes for the bracket and I stick in the rawl plugs. I start to screw the bracket onto the wall and it all goes horribly wrong. After a couple of turns of the screw, I notice that the screw isn't going into the wall anymore. It's just twisting the rawl plug, which is chewing great big lumps out of the wall. It's a good job that I don't live in an earthquake zone, because the plasterboard the walls are made from is of such poor quality that they'd dissolve into dust.

I try it again, using smaller, expanding rawl plugs, but when I try and screw the bracket on, the plugs twist and chew up the wall again. The bracket is barely even able to support its own weight, let alone the shelf and the couple of dozen books I'd intended to put on it. I try it a third, final time, using the original rawl plugs, but using smaller holes in the wall, hoping that it'll be third time lucky, but no - if anything it's worse. So now I have eighteen holes in the wall, a carpet covered in plaster dust and £60's worth of shelving units that I can't put up because the walls are so crap. My flat was probably sold for something in the region of £30,000 when it was built about 15 years ago, so that tells you something about the quality of construction; yet if I were to sell it now I could probably get something in the region of £150,000 for it. That's value for money, kids!

Somewhat understandably, I am very, very annoyed and a little frustrated to have spent £60 on shelving I can't even mount on the walls. Then Fleur has a brainwave as I'm polyfillering the holes and repainting the wall: she takes out a couple of stacks of my archived PC games mags from one of the cupboards and puts them on the floor by the wall behind the futon to use them as props for the shelves, forming a shelf-cum-headboard between the bed and the wall. So not only have we liberated space from our bookcase, but we also gained a headboard and freed up an entire shelf in the living room cupboard.

So in the end, not a complete disaster, though we still have a couple of the shelves spare, until I can figure out how to rig them up on a frame to attach them to pair we have propped up on the floor. I sense a trip to B&Q coming on...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Byte: Je ding

Je ding

After twenty-two days, twenty-three hours, Shareth finally reaches the level cap. It's hard to describe the feeling of what hitting level 70 was like. A mix of horror and pride, mainly. Horror in that how could I possibly justify spending 550 hours of my life playing a single game (and that doesn't even account for the several scores of hours I've put into my other avatars), but pride in that I genuinely feel like I've accomplished something. Immediately after that screenshot was taken, I dashed across the keep to purchase my flying mount (screenshots to come). I plumped for the Ebon Gryphon, basically because I think it's the prettiest of the three. I did debate whether it was really worth the 100g, since the initial flying mounts are only as fast as a Druid's flight form, but since I have a Riding Crop to give me an extra 10% mount speed, I splurged out. Especially since I knew that the Rare Jewelcrafting recipe I'd found earlier in the evening would pay for it. Besides, having a flying mount is as much about having one as a status symbol as anything else. Not having to fork out 10 silver per leg on the flight routes in Outland is simply a bonus.

Raising the 5200 gold it will take to buy and train to ride a swift gryphon, however, will take *quite* some time. But there's no rush... it's going to be interesting to see how my attitude to playing the game changes now that I'm not chasing the level cap anymore. This is a new experience for me - as I never did hit the old level cap at level 60 (58 was as close as I ever got, literally an hour or two before they raised it to 70) - so I'm approaching this new phase of the game with as much trepidation and excitement as all those long-time level 60s approached Outland in the middle of January. It seemed like such a distant prospect two years ago that I always wondered what I would do when I reached the top of the WoW level tree. Now I'm going to actually find out...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Byte: 69.5

Having *not* played at the weekend (thanks to the rugby on Saturday and a trip to London on Sunday), I spent a couple of hours last night back in Outland. This time I spent the evening doing some questing in the utterly spellbinding Netherstorm.


I did a few quests for the Ethereals of The Consortium, who inhabit these marvellous eco-domes (that's Stormspire in the background), and pushed myself up a quarter of a level in three hours, leaving me with just under half a level to go. After having almost made myself bankrupt buying "blue" Rare armour items in the Auction House, I also made over 70 gold, putting me (briefly) back into three figures. I say briefly, because I reinvested a dozen gold in a Gift of the Wild III spellbook, which I will need when I hit level 70. I should easily get back into three figures by the time I reach the level cap, meaning that I will be able to immediately buy my flying mount, since the Druid's Flight Form gives you the requisite 225 riding skill, meaning that I don't have to fork out a thousand gold for the riding training - just the 100 gold on the mount itself. I could quest in Shadowmoon Valley to increase my reputation with the dwarves in Wildhammer Stronghold to get a discount, but you get gold so quickly in Outland a piddling 10g is neither here nor there, really.

If I continue to accrue XP at my current rate, I should hit the level cap within the next week - I reckon another six hours' play should do it, assuming I solo most of it. After that, I have to decide whether I want to get "attuned" to do the top level raids, or do some PvP instead. I've never been heavily into the PvP side of things, so it might be nice to try, but I think I'd rather do some raiding with my guild. I guess I'll just have to see which option is more reasonable to do when I've only got short snatches of a couple of hours to play in. My secondary skills also still need a lot of work - so I'll have to devote a couple of evenings to raising those as well. I'm maxed out in both Skinning and First Aid, but my Fishing skill is a paltry 156 and my Cooking is only at 236, so that's quite a bit of time I need to devote to those. My leatherworking skill is even more problematic - now that I've passed 350, each point is a struggle. The only optimal (i.e. gives a point per item made) leatherworking recipe is the Riding Crop, and the materials you have to get for that are a real pain - especially as you need to know a friendly Alchemist with the Primal Might transmute. I'm going to have to grind Fel Scales in Hellfire Peninsula and stick to making Mail armour items that still appear as yellow on my leatherworking list for the time being. Fingers crossed that will get me up to a level where I can make some of the recipes that you can buy from the faction quartermasters in Outland.

It's one of the nice things about WoW - even when you're at the top of the level tree, there's still so much to do. It's going to be keeping me busy for a long time to come, definitely...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Bark: My sentiments exactly

Not that I condone piracy, but this annoys me too. It's arguably fair enough on rental disks, but I don't want to sit through that rubbish every time I want to watch a DVD I've bought and paid all the appropriate royalties on.

Via Boing Boing.

Byte: Armoured, sharpened and raring to go!

I'm quite impressed with the new Armory on the World of Warcraft website. As you can see on there now, I stayed up rather late last night to kill off a fifth of a level and ding to level 69. Now just 778,000 experience points separate me from the level cap, which is quite a scary prospect, actually. I also spent some more money in the auction house last night, buying a nice set of Blue (Rare quality) shoulders and a new Blue Cloak. I only have a couple of Green items left in my main set of Feralling equipment (which you can see on the character sheet there), which is nice. I desperately need some new wrist armour, which is next on my wish list. I'll have so peruse Thottbot to see where the best Rare leather wrist armours drop. Once I hit 70 I won't have much of an excuse to solo anymore, so I will start playing more socially, doing raids and more instances, hopefully picking up some Epics along the way. That said, though, I really need to work on my Cenarion Expedition reputation, because there's a rather awesome Epic staff for Feral Druids once you get up to Exhalted (or is it Revered? Can never remember which one is higher). The Staff of Beasts I got from the Ring of Blood quest chain in Nagrand is lovely, but as always with this kind of game, there's always one better...

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bark: I say we take off, nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

Errrm... keep taking those tablets.

Byte: Dual powered

I picked up FEAR for a tenner yesterday in GAME to give my new games rig a workout, and was not impressed when, like Oblivion, it decided that it didn't want to work because a DirectX driver was "not a valid Windows image". Reinstalling DirectX didn't help matters either, so I thought about uninstalling DirectX completely and installing it from scratch. And then I found out that you can essentially only do that if you completely reinstall the operating system, because Windows is a steaming heap of shite, as once you've installed DirectX, you can't get rid of it. Ever. So in a last ditch effort to avoid wiping my hard drive within the first week of having it, I deleted the offending .dll file manually and reinstalled DirectX yet again. Whereupon it decided that it would deign to work after all...

Oblivion, in all honesty, doesn't look very much better than it did with my old rig - barring the fact that I can increase all the draw distances to the maximum; so Imps aren't just popping out from nowhere now - I actually stand a fighting chance of being able to bow-snipe enemies before they see me. I've gone for a sneaky-snipey custom class again, so I'll probably last until about Level 5 like last time, when the game decides it's going to make you effectively less powerful than you were at the start of the game, by throwing hugely tough enemies at you, that you can't snipe anymore.

I'm slightly more impressed by FEAR. With the Full Screen Anti-Aliasing and the Anisotropic filtering maxed out, it does look very good (on a par with Half-Life 2 at any rate, if not better) and the slow-mo effects are pretty gorgeous. But there is a wee problem. I don't know why there's been such a fashion in FPS games recently to have most of the levels pitch black. Yeah, fantastic engine and all, but why can't I see anything? And the head-lamp torch mechanic is stupid: it lasts about thirty seconds, and takes less than five to recharge. So why make it run out in the first place? Haven't these people heard of Duracell? The weapons (so far) are also a little samey - nothing I haven't seen before - the setting is bland as hell and there's precious little enemy variety. And similarly to Project Zero 2, I've found the "horror" aspect more surreal than scary. The bit at the end of the second mission where Alma throws you through a window in a great ball of fire is pretty cool, but not really scary. It's still pretty early days, but there's nothing in there (in terms of shock value) that had me jumping out of my chair - unlike Ravenholme in Half-Life 2, for example. It's all too well telegraphed. So overall, good, but no cigar. A borderline 7-8 out of 10 from me.

Speaking of Half-Life 2, I really must reinstall it. Not that it will look any better than before - I could max it out easily on my old rig - I just miss playing it. Plus I still have to finish replaying Episode One with the commentary on. Dog! Heel!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Byte: Fools and their money, part II

The new PC arrived yesterday, and I had the dubious pleasure last night of setting everything up again - reinstalling WoW, Burning Crusade, Steam, putting on all the internet security before hooking back up to my wireless network and all that jazz. Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the machine - though I did have a few teething troubles last night - three blue screens of death within the first couple of hours, though I put that down to me trying to do seventeen different things at once with the machine - downloading 250MB worth of WoW patches, plus downloading DEFCON and Race from Steam and fiddling about with the SLI settings - all at once.

I haven't been able to give the machine a real chance to stretch its muscles yet - Oblivion whinged about a DirectX dll file and refused to install properly, even after I patched it and took the file directly off the install disk and put it in the right directory; though given that I, somewhat heretically, think that the game's terribly overrated and a big fat waste of space anyway, I'm not too bothered. I had similar trouble with my old favourite, Jedi Academy. Maybe the game's just too old, as I couldn't get a frame rate out of it. I'll have to get a copy of Win98 off eBay and run it under a Virtual Machine or something, unless it's just something silly like a driver problem. Vampire: Bloodlines did look pretty good when I had a very brief run with it, but I need to dig out the latest patch before I get too far back into that. I'm tempted to hit Game today and find something that will give the SLI a good workout. Supreme Commander is a possibility, but I'm not mad on RTS, and despite having quite liked it when I previewed it in Seattle last year, I don't think I'd play it enough to want to spend £30 on it.

I allegedly have a review copy of Armed Assault coming in the post, and it will be interesting to see just how high I can push the draw distances on that. Operation Flashpoint at the maximum settings was capable of bringing my old Athlon 64 3500+ to its knees, so I doubt that even with my new rig I'll be able to max out Armed Assault. Though that might have just as much to do with the quality of the coding, as well just how advanced the graphics engine is. I'm getting quite excited about the prospect of Crysis at the end of the month, and Unreal Tournament 3 is now a much more mouth-watering prospect - though we do have to wait a little longer for that one.

WoW looks predictably stunning - I spent about an hour last night flying around Netherstorm in my newly acquired Flight Form (I hit level 68 on Monday night), and the design in there is absolutely incredible. It dwarfs the grandeur of the other areas. I will post screenshots on Flickr at some point, because even if you have no interest in playing the game, you have to see Netherstorm - it's absolutely amazing, especially when you can push the draw distances, textures and the anti-aliasing right up to the maximum. (though admittedly, you don't need to have a rig as good as my new one to do that - the game is quite forgiving from technical perspective)

I did have an amusing moment last night - I flew into a cliff face in Hellfire on my way to Netherstorm when chatting to a friend, and some uppity little level 60 Undead Mage must have thought I was AFK and had a go. So I finished typing my sentence, dive-bombed him, popped a health potion to heal me back up to full and Feral Charged him in Dire Bear form. After seeing me bash three-quarters of the way down his health bar in under three seconds, he Frost Nova'd me and scarpered on his mount for the nearest town, which unfortunately was a little too close for me to risk following him into the middle of it. Which was probably the most sensible thing he could have done really. But the sneak and coward should have taken the smacketh down that was due to him for trying to get an AFK. (AFK, in PvP parlance standing for "A Free Kill", rather than "Away From Keyboard") Next time he's toast.