Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bark: Coping strategies

When all else fails, there's always Iggy Pop...

Bark: Getting Political

I've been keeping an eye on the American Presidential primaries with interest over the last few weeks, and yesterday saw the biggest casualties of the race so far, with Rudy Giuliani dropping out, hot on the heels of Democratic candidate John Edwards.

I'm quite glad that Giuliani has stood aside, because of all the candidates, he's the one I would have liked least as President, given that politically you could say he's a smidge to the right of that well-known Socialist, Genghis Khan... So this leaves us with just four likely candidates, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney - and the prognosis is, well... quite promising, actually.

Personally, I'd like to see Clinton get elected, not due to any sense of faux-feminism, but because I believe it would be genuinely interesting to have two Presidents in the White House. Bill's lucky he gets to retain the title of "President", because I don't think he would find the title "First Husband" or "First Gentleman" quite so edifying... Obama, too, would do well, but I'm not sure he's quite ready for it yet, and I can't see the vast majority of conservative America voting for him, either.

Which brings us neatly to the Republican candidates. I've got a lot of time and respect for John McCain. He's got experience and integrity, and even though he's been a staunch supporter of the Iraq War, at least his motives for supporting it were from a perspective of having been on the front lines himself. I have to confess that I don't know a huge amount about Mitt Romney. Assuming that his Wikipedia page hasn't been written by people on his campaign team, he seems like a reasonable enough chap.

So the short of it is, I don't think it matters who wins the election in November: given what we've had to put up with for the last eight years, it can only be an improvement...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Byte: Finally, a post about games

Readers of my last Byte will know that I've been taking advantage of the post-Christmas lull to give second chances to some of the more neglected games in my increasingly huge collection.

I completed Freedom Wings on DS last night, though that probably says more about my current levels of existential boredom than the quality of the game. Having played through the whole game, I'd still only probably give it a 6/10, though a "high" one. It's a pleasant enough diversion for a dozen hours or so, but it's got too many flaws to really warrant a replay. Still, for twenty-odd dollars, I certainly got the bang for my buck, so to speak. Next up on DS I'll be going back to play Metroid Prime: Hunters, which I enjoyed on the whole first time around, but the control method almost gave me premature arthritis after a couple of levels...

I'm still plugging away with my Horde characters on Laggerspine (it should be Daggerspine, but the server lags out worse than a well-insulated loft, so that's what most people in General Chat call it). Aeriwyn has hit the magic Level 30 barrier, and I'm making solid progress with Ushgarak, my Tauren Druid, who's up to Level 16. I've not made it nearly this far into the game with Horde characters before, so it's a pretty novel experience, if such a thing can be said for a game I've been playing for the best part of three years now. Of course, it is a little bit of a pain not having any Gold on a mature server, where practically the whole population has at least one Level 70 (and therefore the prices in the Auction House are extortionate), but there's not much I can do about it, so there's not much sense in complaining about it.

I haven't put much time into Forza lately, but I'm determined to stick with it. Though I might try and dig around the fan sites to try and find some good car setups. I don't have so much time to play these days, so I can't be bothered wasting half of it tweaking with setups when the donkey work has already been done and documented elsewhere. As House would say, work smart, not harder... I'll probably have to do some fine-tuning anyway, but getting the basics right without hours of fapping around will probably help boost the enjoyment factor.

Beyond that, I've invested in a second controller for my Wii, so I'll be trying to persuade my girlfriend to indulge me in a bit of Excite Truck split-screen, under the pretense that it's a little more intuitive than PGR2 in helping her motor skills get ready for driving lessons. No, I'm not sure that argument is going to work either... but if Fleur won't play me, I'm sure my next door neighbour Richard will.

Finally, Velociraptor Off-Road Safari is Teh Shits. If you're not down with the street slang, that means it's good, dawg.

Bark: Non-denominational-benevolent-omnipotent-entity save us all!

Gladiators is making a comeback.

The only good news is that it's going to be on Sky, so at least I won't be able to watch it...

Bark: A novel new energy source

As I was driving to work today, I was listening to a story on the radio about how the EU wants to ban patio heaters on the grounds that they're monumental wastes of energy (a good idea if you ask me - to hell with the smokers, the hot, tar-laden gases they're sucking into their lungs can keep them warm), with all the associated debate about consumer choice and carbon footprints, etc. I'm ruminating on this as I drive, until I notice the name on the back of the fuel tanker in front of me: Emo Oil. And then I start to laugh.

So, they're making oil out of emos now? Well, if it sorts out the energy crisis and cuts down on all that unnecessarily rampant teenage angst, I'm all for it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bark: Halfling Rogues

Apologies for succumbing to the evils of link-blogging lately, I will get back to posting properly soon, I promise.

This story is what's tickling my fancy today. You couldn't make this shit up. Well, you could, but people would think you were on drugs...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bark: I didn't see that one coming

Heath Ledger found dead in his New York apartment.

Cripes. What a waste.

Byte: Game of the Year 2008

Move over Spore, we have a new Game of the Year contender... Off-Road Velociraptor Safari!

Off-Road Velociraptor Safari from Matthew Wegner on Vimeo.

It's a web-game, due out in the next week or so. Yay!

Link shamelessly stolen from RPS.

Bark: An odd strategy

I've just had an email from eBay telling me to "give my wallet a break" by... spending money on eBay?

No thanks, I'd rather just not spend any money at all...

Monday, January 21, 2008

Byte: Free doesn't necessarily mean free

EA announce a new online shooter in the Battlefield series, Battlefield Heroes, a free-to-play online shooter with low minimum specs and a cartoon-look that's absolutely nothing like Team Fortress 2 at all.

Of course, by "free" they mean that the game browser interface will be ad-ridden filth and that if you want your character to look like it hasn't walked out of a cloning facility, you're going to have to make "micro-payments" to stand out from the crowd. I'd also be very surprised if they don't put in other "micro-payments" later on so you can unlock better weapons by buying them instead of unlocking them through persistence and skill, giving people with money to throw at the game an edge over those who don't, no doubt sucking all the fun out of the game. But hey, if this is the way EA what to run their business, fair play to them. Just don't expect me to play it.

But what really tickled me is the claim that Battlefield Heroes will run "on grandma's laptop". I'd like to test that claim... My grandma's been dead for fifteen years.

EA Games: powered by the souls of the dead and the damned!

Bark: Life wouldn't be interesting without at least one unmitigated disaster a week

This weekend ended up being pretty good overall, but did not exactly go entirely according to plan...

We started off well on Friday night, having a somewhat premature birthday dinner (I'm 32 next Sunday - yes, I'm OLD, blah, blah) with our neighbours, Richard and Lisa. They introduced us to a rather nice Chinese restaurant in Chobham, which does an all-you-can-eat three course (appetisers, crispy duck and then mains) menu for £16 a head. The food's pretty darned good as well - a lot better than your average Chinese buffet. We'll be going back there, methinks. Afterwards, we all came back to play a bit of Wii Sports, where I finally got Fleur to do some bowling. A 149 point game on her first go is pretty decent going - a heck of lot better than we both do in real life - so I think I might be able to persuade her to play me again. Hurrah for multiplayer!

Saturday had more changes of plan than the TV adverts IBM used to run last year with the Matthew Perry-lookalike... We'd been invited to a housewarming party one of Fleur's colleagues was throwing in Twickenham. Originally, we thought that the party was closer to the centre of town, so we had planned to take the train in and stay with our Canadian friends Chris and Tanya overnight in Stoke Newington. It turned out to be a good decision to drive instead, because not only did it work out a quicker trip, half of the train route was being replaced with bus services, and there's nothing more miserable than going on a train-replacement bus, because they're so slow and never leave on time. The party itself was pretty good - Amy cooked enough lasagne for a small army, and it was top-notch stuff. I had to restrain myself to two plates, as I was seriously tempted by a third, there was so much left over. We bailed out around eleven and drove back home - just a short 30 minute jaunt down the M3 - which again was a good decision - I didn't fancy trying to get across London on replacement bus services.

Sunday was another trip back into London, as we'd planned to meet up with a group of friends (the Canadians, my buddy Mark and our chums from Essex) for a bit of art and culture at the National Portrait Gallery in the afternoon. Things didn't start particularly well when I found out that South West Trains have decided to start charging for car parking on Sundays at Woking station (the phrase "money-grabbing bastards" may have been uttered at one point), and we had to stand up on the train, thanks to a group of three people deciding that they wanted to take up three banks of seating on a full train, rather than sit together and leave two free seats for Fleur and I (the phrase "inconsiderate wankers" may have been uttered at one point).

Then the plan truly went off the rails when we had to spend 40 minutes in Waterloo as Fleur was arranging tickets for the exchange group coming over from France to her school next month. Once that was done, we had to wait nearly 20 minutes for a bus to take us up to Chris and Tanya's place, completely screwing up my carefully planned timetable for the day. I was, at least, able to reward Chris and Tanya with a bottle of good Californian red wine for unceremoniously standing them up at short notice the previous evening (by opting to go home, rather than stay with them for overnight). To make matters even worse, Flo and Philippe were having a nightmare getting into London: the Central line east of Liverpool Street was shut, the A12 was jammed up the bum and the train lines into Essex were borked due to engineering works as well. Mark was also running late (and in the end couldn't attend) because he had chores for this year's Art In Action to do for his parents. Everything was pretty much falling apart around my ears. If this had been a game of Baldur's Gate, half the party would have been killed by kobolds by now...

So we did the only sensible thing: Chris and Tanya took us to café in Stoke Newington for a late breakfast. It was good. I had a Cumberland Sausage breakfast, with baked beans, half a plate full of fried mushrooms and a runny poached egg, that I ate by spreading it on mildly carbonised toast. Life doesn't get much better than runny egg yoke on warm toast. Bliss. Then we took the bus back down to The Strand, getting there an hour and a half behind schedule, just in time for the arrival of Flo and Philippe, who finally reached central London after an epic, three hour ordeal.

We had to skip the shopping expedition I'd planned for Foyles and Cass Art, due to the lack of time, so we went directly to the gallery; whereupon Philippe managed to sprain his arm, as he wasn't used to the rigours of sketching while standing up (it's surprising hard work, if you're not used to cradling a sketchpad and drawing upright). I still managed to show him some of my favourite pieces in the gallery and get a couple of sketches done before Flo and Philippe had to head back to Essex. Next time, we agreed, we'd go for an earlier start, and we'd do the V&A, because at least they provide you with chairs you can sit down on while you sketch. So, not exactly what you'd call an unqualified success...

Chris and I sat down for a Guinness while we waited for Fleur and Tanya to finish their shopping expedition to John Lewis on Oxford Street, and then we all headed off to the Wagamama on Leicester Square, where I treated the four of us to a meal ("What's the point of having money if you can't buy friendship?" I joked, as I paid the bill). I went for my usual yaki udon and duck gyoza, washed down with a Kirin Ichiban which went some way towards compensating for the disaster which had been our Sunday.

At least we got to sit down on the train home, and we got back in time for the South Bank Show on Tim Burton, which was quite fascinating. I love pretty much all of Tim Burton's films (especially Batman and Mars Attacks!), so I'll definitely be going to see Sweeney Todd in the next couple of weeks.

Though I guess, given what happened this weekend, I shouldn't try and arrange anything too far in advance. After all, if you don't have a plan, nothing can go wrong...

Bark: Superpants

Of all the things in this world to get worked up about, why M&S pants?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bark: They're not building them any smarter

The government would have you believe that their first priority is education, education, education and has been ever since they got elected. Standards too, are going up, of course.

So, riddle me this...

The internet is a fabulous research tool, undoubtedly, and kids should be using it to help them with their work; but there's a difference between research and cut-and-paste. I mean, leaving the chuffing advertising links in... I'm not sure what offends me more: the plagiarism or the laziness. I think kids should forget about working smarter and just work harder. Who knows, then they might actually learn something...

Bark: The Hero Label

If you're in the UK, it won't have escaped your notice that there was a wee incident down at Heathrow yesterday.

My immediate, flippant, reaction was "Whoops. That's not going to look good on his performance review at the end of the year." My second, more considered, reaction was that the pilot actually did really well to get the plane down in one piece. A complete power failure (whether it was caused by electronics or birdstrike, which seem most likely in this case - my guess would be electronics failure) in the last few seconds of final approach for landing must be every pilot's nightmare. I really want to read the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder, because I bet it'll be fascinating to see just how long the crew had before landing when the problem occurred.

Predictably, everyone's leapt to label the flight crew as "heroes", which while entirely understandable - and arguably even applicable in this case - annoys the hell out of me. "Hero" must be the second-most misapplied and overused word in the English language after "genius".

To begin with, I'm really not keen on the tendency to pigeonhole and put labels on everything, but especially so when it come to people, mainly because it denigrates the actual meaning of words. The original meaning of "hero" comes from mythology: the protagonist of a story, often imbued with special powers or divine heritage, usually characterised with exceptional ability or bravery. From this, we get the words "heroic" and "heroism" - the manifestation of these qualities appearing in everyday actions and normal people. You can do something heroic, but that in itself does not make you a "hero" - not in the traditional sense of the word, at any rate.

The pilot's first instinct and priority is obviously to try and safeguard his passengers, but despite the unquestionably high level of skill and bravery he showed in getting the plane down without it bursting into a huge ball of flame, he'd probably be the first to admit that it wasn't an entirely selfless act - his life was at stake as well - he was just fortunate enough to be in the position where he could do something about the predicament the plane was in. That doesn't belittle the achievement of having his passengers not actually think the plane was in trouble at all (some passengers have been quoted as thinking it was simply a very rough landing), it just doesn't make him a hero. The pilot did his job - did what was required of him and what he'd been trained to do in that situation, nothing more. He did it brilliantly, and should be respected for that, but I don't think the label "hero" fits. (Though I do give him mad props for being in a plane crash and then going for a curry afterwards, as if it were all in a day's work.)

A hero is someone who risks their life when it's not already at stake: when the option of doing nothing wouldn't hurt them, but when taking action could. A hero is someone who goes beyond the normal call of their duties to save or defend people incapable of saving themselves. Somewhere this nuance has been lost and diluted down to the point where a "hero" is anyone who does something remotely out of the ordinary. And I can't help thinking that this is worrying.

I understand the desire for people to look for heroes or other people to put their admiration and respect in - there are precious few enough of them already, these days - but as a society we seem to have forgotten that "exceptional" or "special" means that by definition very few people can be exceptional. If everyone were special, specialness would be normal.

What's my point? Well, basically this: if you're going to categorise or apply labels to everything, don't put cubic zirconia in boxes meant for diamonds...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bark: Selfish Capitalism

Interesting article on BBC News about how being a consumer might make you miserable.

The notion that "money can't make you happy" is easily refutable: if having money doesn't make you happy, try poverty. I can assure you it's not fun. If money's not buying you happiness, you've clearly not spending it on the right thing...

Bark: Oh, that's aggravatin'

As I suspected, the washer/dryer is borked. The technician who came around this morning, bless him, tried everything. The error codes seemed to indicate that there was a problem with the pressure valve, so he replaced that. Nope. Didn't fix it. So then he thought, maybe it's a problem with the ROM module that holds all the program information for wash times, etc. So he re-flashed it from his diagnostic laptop. Nope. Still not co-operating. So he replaced it entirely with a new module. Nope! Still borked. The last thing it could possibly be then is the program control board, but we have to order that part in; meaning another week without a washing machine. Great. At least the whole thing is still under warranty...

In the good news department, at least the car passed it's MOT without needing a whole load of work done. The rear brake pads and the pollen filter needed replacing, but that's just normal wear and tear. I do need to get the coupé to a body shop in the next month or two, though, as there's a little bit of rust bubbling up under the paint at the bottom of the driver's side door sill. Hopefully that won't cost too much to put right, and the car could do with respraying anyway - the number of scratches I've put in the paintwork over the last five years. That's where next month's disposable income is going to go, methinks.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bark: Today is going to be expensive

I'm getting the coupé serviced and MOT'd today. The car's nearly five years old, I've just clocked up 70,000 miles - something tells me that it's not going to be pretty... and if all that weren't bad enough, I've got to tax the damn thing by the end of the month as well, AND I've got the engineer coming out to look at the (possibly totally borked) washer-dryer tomorrow. Eeep.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Byte: Second chances

I woke up this morning and it was cold, dark, wet, windy and chucking it down with rain. Not surprisingly, I didn't want to get out of bed. But here I am, stranded at my desk yet again for another nine hours. Sigh.

There's been a bit of a Bark/Byte imbalance so far this year, thanks to the usual post-Christmas lull, so I guess I should talk about what I'm playing to fill in the gap until Spore comes out; which is the only game I really have any substantial enthusiasm for this year, other than the obligatory World of Warcraft expansion. Speaking of WoW, I have been playing it rather a lot since Christmas, putting levels on my Blood Elf Hunter like they're going out of fashion ("Level 25 was *soooo* last season, darlink..."), and generally having fun with the mid-level Horde quests, which I've never done before. I've got Aeriwyn up to Level 28 in a little under 40 hours, which isn't bad, considering I'm soloing (as usual). Keeping with the Blizzard theme, I also picked up Starcraft (Rednecks in SPAAAAAAAAACE!)for £3 in HMV's sale at the weekend, which has been good value so far.

I've also decided to give a couple of old games in my collection second chances. The first being Freedom Wings on the DS, which I picked up for about $20 when I went to Seattle for the Supreme Commander preview event back in September 2006. I think first time around I played it for about half an hour and then put it straight back in the box and didn't touch it for over a year. Having played it for maybe six hours now, I think I can judge it a little more fairly, though my overall conclusion would still be "rubbish". An endearing rubbish, rather than an annoying broken rubbish, however. It's a flight simulator-cum-RPG hybrid, a concept intriguing enough for me to buy the game in the first place - almost a MechWarrior with wings. Unfortunately, it looks like it, too. The graphics are appalling - like a flight simulator from 1990 - and the flight model is so twitchy you're actually better off just letting the AI fly your plane, except perhaps in some of the "boss" battles where you're going up against multiple air and ground targets when you're trying to liberate airfields. The story isn't really up to much, so it's more a game you can spend time grinding enemy planes for cash rewards, with which you can buy new weapons, performance upgrades and armour, etc. So it pushes a lot of the right RPG buttons, it's just that the game looks horrible, the script isn't particularly well translated (my, that's a common theme lately) and you spend more time sitting back watching the AI kick arse than actually interacting with the game. But it is mildly compelling and to be fair, the touch-screen functionality is implemented pretty well. A 6/10 would be generous, but it's a nice little time-waster if you've got nothing better to do. And it does have the virtue of being cheap.

The other game I'm giving a second chance right now is Forza Motorsport on the Xbrick. I've been tempted back to it thanks to a little demonstration I did with my friends Mark and Chris on New Year's Day, showing them the differences in track and car modelling for the Nurburgring between Forza and Project Gotham Racing 2. On my new TV I found it was much easier to judge how the car was handling, particularly from the bumper camera, so despite my continuing gripes with the stupidly punitive time penalty system for going off track, I'm giving it another go. It's definitely a better simulation than Gotham, but is it as much fun? The jury is still out on that one - though I will be playing it with the traction control and stability management systems turned off. Otherwise it's just not doing it properly...

I'm also mildly tempted to go back to Fable, though I can't really say why. Maybe it was Yahtzee's retrospective review that piqued my interest again.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Bark: No Country For Old Men

This weekend I went to a preview of Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film, No Country For Old Men.

In a word, enigmatic. In two words, darkly enigmatic. In three words, darkly, brilliantly enigmatic. And I'm not going to continue with that kind of analysis, because we'd be here all day...

Suffice to say, it's easily their best film since The Big Lebowski, though it's not exactly what you'd call a comedy: it's more in the style of Miller's Crossing or Blood Simple. As always, the cinematography is absolutely exquisite. The opening monologue voice-over is set to the most spectacular shots of wild Texas countryside. It has a desolate beauty that's absolutely extraordinary; you can really see why people would want to live there.

The cast is brilliant, too: with Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Woody Harrelson all giving top-notch performances. It's been ages since I'd see anything with Josh Brolin in it, but he did pretty well. Javier Bardem totally steals the movie, though - which is quite an achievement, considering that's usually Tommy Lee Jones's job. The film is somewhat violent, but in the "good" way - not flash-bang-sexy violence, or violence for the sake of being violent, but ugly, unpleasant, purposeful violence. Not all of it actually happens on camera - you just see the consequences, or it's implied. Bardem's character, Chigurh, is an absolute monster, but as Harrelson's character states, he's consistent and almost has a set of principles or a code of honour, which makes him all the more compelling, despite his total (and also rather casual) disregard for pretty much all human life...

I don't want to say too much, because it would be shame to chuck out spoilers, but the ending will probably take you by surprise, not least with its timing. It's a film that leaves as many questions unanswered as answered, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Though I'm not sure the group sitting behind us in the cinema would agree: "That was horrible." said one. But then she did ask her friends "Who will hold my hand if I get scared?" before the credits, so perhaps she wasn't ever going to like it...

It's a certain DVD purchase for me when it comes out, I think.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Byte: Work Avoidance 2008

Nice little article about work avoidance Flash gaming on Videogamer. I've only played one of these before, Nanaca Crash, which is oddly compelling; the objective being to propel a pedestrian as far as possible by smashing into them with a bicycle. My best so far is 771.88m.

Beat that, readers. (I'm sure you will.)

[Edit: Oh, it would have helped if I'd realised that you can do mid-air boosts. That's better - 2429.55m]

Bark: The comma touch

As a founding member of the Internet Grammar Nazi Party, I often put far too much thought into the usage of punctuation. Regular readers (all three of you) will already know of my irrational fondness for ellipsis... but something more fundamental that's been worrying me lately is comma usage.

I'm probably just obsessing a little too much; I am, after all, someone who corrects other peoples' spelling mistakes when I quote them back in email. It was reading this on Videogamer earlier that tipped me from idle wonder to full-on angst. One particular paragraph struck me.

But a problem has quickly arisen - turns out the present isn't really for me. Well officially it is. But you know how these things work. Like the Borg my girlfriend has quickly assimilated cuddly Mario into her teddy collective, alongside an Alien Face Hugger, a Christmas Final Fantasy Chocobo and three little dogs.

On first inspection, there are no screamingly obvious grammatical errors. Most people would read it and think it was perfectly fine. But I'm not "most people". In my mind, it's missing two commas. Not hugely important in the great scheme of things, you might think... Below is my version of the same paragraph.

But a problem has quickly arisen - turns out the present isn't really for me. Well, officially it is. But you know how these things work. Like the Borg, my girlfriend has quickly assimilated cuddly Mario into her teddy collective, alongside an Alien Face Hugger, a Christmas Final Fantasy Chocobo and three little dogs.

When you read both versions out loud, the extra two commas do affect the rhythm and impact of the text. At least in my overly-obsessive opinion. I tend to write in the same manner in which I would speak: the punctuation indicates pauses for breath or the conclusion of points, with textual tricks like all-caps denoting where I want to stress an UNDUE EMPHASIS. However, with my particular propensity for the use of very long sentences, perhaps I have developed a bad habit in overusing the comma. I'm not sure. I would read my copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves again for a refresher, but it's in France at the moment spreading the good word with my girlfriend's English-speaking friends...

It's kind of ironic that I should even obsess about language this much: I never even really enjoyed English lessons at school. Things like this, however, worry me. Language isn't something that should be simplified (except maybe in legal documents, where a little clarity would be nice - but then, how would they make all their money?). Once you start taking away the nuances and subtleties of language, you're only a few steps away from Newspeak. And I think everyone agrees that this would be doubleplusungood. Or rather, a complete fucking catastrophe for the expression and articulation of thought. I find it faintly ridiculous that the standard of English and grasp of the language in today's youth is inferior to that in Victorian times and that UK children's literacy levels are amongst the worst in the world. There's a problem with our results-obsessed government: they're so desperate to give people the impression that standards are going up, they're dumbing down tests so that "they test what children know, not what they don't know". That was the defence I heard a couple of years ago about GCSE exam results constantly getting better year on year, despite industry continuing to report that the literacy and numeracy levels in school-leavers gets continually worse and worse. Both sets of people can't be right. And I know I wouldn't trust the government as far as I could throw the Houses of Parliament...

The British used to rule the biggest commonwealth the world has known. Now they can't even speak their own language properly, because it's "too hard" and has to be simplified for people to understand it. So, actually, I think I'm just going to keep overusing punctuation, because some things you should have to work for, and I'm not going to be party to the drive to suck out all the beauty and complexity from language for the sake of morons who can't be bothered to make an effort to even master their own mother tongue.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bark: Oh yeah...

...and while I'm in a ranting mood, binmen can fuck off and die, too.

They seem to resent the fact I took the trouble to buy a black, outdoor bin, so not content with flinging the bin lid a thousand yards every time they come to pick up the rubbish, last week they decided to smash the hell out of it as well, breaking off huge chunks of plastic and rendering it otherwise pretty useless. But when they came to collect the rubbish this morning, not only couldn't they be bothered actually taking our bin bags away, they actually PUT RUBBISH THAT WASN'T EVEN OURS INTO THE BIN and (for once) carefully replaced the (now fractured and tattered) lid instead of frisbeeing it across the courtyard.

Is it really too much to expect people to do their job properly these days?

Bark: What we've got here is a failure to communicate

I ring up the "customer service" line to ask for an explanation as to why there's no sign of my engineer. It would seem it's because the telephone operator I spoke to on Saturday seemed to think that "next Thursday" meant "a week on Thursday". (i.e. the 17th of January, rather than the 10th.)


I am so annoyed right now.

Bark: Not impressed

Hold onto your butts. Rant incoming.

I'm working from home this morning, because I was expecting an engineer to look at my washer-dryer first thing today. Except, he's not deigned to turn up. I told the phone operator specifically that "earlier was better", took the 8am-10am slot and arranged to work from home while he was here. So for him not to turn up is just ridiculous - it's bad enough that a £320 appliance should go tits-up in six months, but if the engineers can't be bothered to come around and fix the problem... great "customer service", guys.

I will never buy British "white goods" ever again. Hotpoint can go fuck themselves. They're about to get a very irate phone call, demanding that they take their piece of cheap shit out of my house and I'll have a refund to go with that, thank you very much. I know that washer-dryers are inherently more unreliable than separate units, but I live in a one-bed flat. I don't have room for a separate washer and a dryer. And I expect that if I spend over three hundred quid on something, I should be able to use it for more than thirty times before it decides to stop working. "Not impressed" would be an understatement at this point.

Next time I'm buying German. Or failing that, I'm going to pick up a 20 year old washer-dryer off eBay, because at least they made electronics built to last in those days...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Bark: Ten yards a minute

That's the speed my morning started at today. I should have took it as a bad sign when I was woken up by half a dozen wailing police sirens. There was a huge accident on the main road just off the estate I live on. Obviously, I only saw the aftermath, since I was still in bed at the time the accident happened, but it looked nasty.

It looked like one car collected another as it was coming out of a T-junction, where the cross of the 'T' is a 60mph B-road, resulting in one car ending up in the trees opposite the exit of the junction and the other car looking like Godzilla had stomped on the bonnet. It's an evil little junction I try not to use, because visibility isn't great if you're trying to turn out of it. In one direction there's a hidden dip that restricts your visibility in the direction cars are travelling fastest from, and the other direction has a very sharp turn you can't see around, and cars typically come flying around there at 50-60mph, despite the fact the council put in those electronic warning signs that tell you there's a junction around the corner if you're doing more than 40mph.

I've no idea whose fault the accident was, but there was an ambulance leaving the scene and four police cars on site as I joined the road at the next junction down, so it must have been pretty serious. Not the way to start your morning, really.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Bark: Gastro-oesophageal reflux

The first Ananova special of the year: Girl, 15, eats nothing but chips for 10 years. And my parents used to think I was a fussy eater...

Bark: Chuckleworthy

I didn't have time to blog this yesterday, but this really made me laugh. I like Clarkson. Top Gear's pretty much the only thing I will actively go out of my way to watch on TV, mainly because his brand of wrongness is much in the same vein as mine, but you wouldn't catch me publishing my bank details in a national newspaper... what a silly billy.

Personally, if I'd known he'd done it, I would have set up a direct debit to give money to a charity like Friends of the Earth, or some anti-motoring charity, just for the sheer irony value.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Bark: Moving swiftly on

While I've not been having hilarious misunderstandings, japes and scrapes with the cream of UK PC games journalism (thankfully now amicably resolved offline), recently I've spent time on slightly more cultural pursuits than flapping my big mouth off on the internet: reading great books and watching interesting films.

You may notice a new name has crept onto my Favourite People list, namely that of Will Self (why did no-one tell me he had an official website?). I don't know him personally of course, (I wish!) but I've been a fan ever since he was on Shooting Stars, aeons ago now. I've got most of his novels, and I'm currently about halfway through The Book of Dave, which I'm finding absolutely brilliant. The book is slightly reminiscent of Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, in that a lot of it is written in a new dialect - Mokni - which can make the book quite challenging to read, but once you get used to it, really helps with the atmosphere. I'm not going to say too much about it here, but it's a fascinating and entertaining satire on organised religion, not to mention a passing swipe at the Public Carriage Office that has probably resulted in Will Self never being ever to take another London cab for the rest of his life... though that might be overstating things a bit. Like most of Self's books, it's very funny, thought-provoking and exquisitely written. Highly recommended, though if you've never read any of his stuff before, Great Apes would probably be a gentler starting off point and rates as one of the best books I've ever read.

A more recent discovery has been Kurt Vonnegut, and I recently finished The Sirens of Titan, which is a very different kind of book, but similarly thought-provoking. All the best sci-fi is the fiction of ideas, rather than the fiction of hard science (though there are a couple of notable exceptions to that - such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Red, Green and Blue Mars books), and Vonnegut uses the device of the chrono-synclastic infundibulum to help illustrate the illusion of free-will and how lives can be ruined for the most arbitrary of reasons. I've not read enough of Vonnegut's work to know whether it's one of his better books or not, but I enjoyed it.

I've also seen a couple of good films over the last week or so. I'd been wanting to see The Illusionist for quite a while; firstly because it looked interesting, and secondly because I like Edward Norton. It's a very good film. Well-cast, beautifully shot, nicely paced and with a very nice sting in the tail. All in all, a very clever film.

The other film I saw over the weekend is slightly harder to recommend. Not because I didn't like it (on the contrary), but because even for an Almodovar, Kika's subject matter is rather, how shall we say... challenging. It's as dark as black comedies come: murder, voyeurism, adultery, deceit, ruthless media exploitation, rape... Almodovar isn't a directory known to pull his punches. It's a testament to his skill as a writer and a filmmaker that he can make a rape scene funny. Not laugh out loud hilarious, but absurd as well as discomforting. Cognitive dissonance could have been a phrase invented for the scene. It's a film that never could have been made in Britain or Hollywood, but ultimately it's a film about the triumph of the human spirit to shrug off tragedy and adversity. It's a seriously brilliant film, and something that would never be able to leave you indifferent - you'd either love it or find it utterly repulsive. I highly recommend it, if you've got a strong enough stomach. But then I'm of the opinion that people *should* be shocked or offended every once in a while. It makes you look at yourself and challenge your ideas and preconceptions. It helps you grow. If you play it safe, never take a risk and stay cosseted and isolated from anything that might possibly offend anyone, you're never going experience the beauty of life in its full glory. And that's why life for so many people is so DULL.

Keeping with the cultural theme, there were two really good programs on TV last night. The South Bank Show was interviewing Kevin Spacey about his current tenure as artistic director at The Old Vic theatre in London, and I have to say, I don't think I've ever seen anyone as happy with their work situation. Good for you, Kevin. He could have kept on making films and obscene amounts of money on the Hollywood scene, but instead chose to do what he really wanted for himself - and I think that's great.

The other program I enjoyed last night was the Timewatch on the Omaha Beach landing. For once, it was an old-school documentary, with simple presentation, interviews and honest-to-gosh FACTS and INFORMATION. None of this tedious dramatisation I've complained about in the past. More documentaries like this, please BBC.

And finally, I just got my House Series 3 DVD boxset through the post. That's my evenings sorted out for the next month... hurrah!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Byte: Oh, bloody hell

Just as well I didn't choose to pursue that career as a civil service diplomat, because judging by the hornet's nest I appear to have stirred up today, I'd probably be on a par with Prince Philip and George W. Bush's love-child...

I do have a bad habit of getting into misunderstandings with people like this, and as usual it's more with the way I'm saying things than the actual things I'm saying... or at least I hope so. So sorry again to Alec, Tom and the RPS guys - I've probably put my points across again with all the grace and subtlety of a thirty-thousand pound fuel-air-explosive bomb, and stuck my foot so far in my mouth that my ankles are propping my lips open. My apologies, for any misunderstanding between the words forming in my head and materialising on the keyboard and screen. I talked about how things *might seem* to an observer, I never stated or wanted to infer that what I was saying was what anyone actually did. If the nuance of that got lost somewhere between my brain synapses and my ham-fists clattering the keyboard, it's entirely my fault.

So I'm going to stop talking The Witcher and other people's opinions of it, and how I find them curious, (because I think I've said quite enough on that particular subject already) and try clear a few things up as best I can by talking about something I am an expert on - me - as plainly as I can, and hopefully the only person who can possibly be offended by what I say here is me. And that hasn't happened since, well, New Year's Day, when I advocated mass genocide of all the stupid people as a method of controlling global warming to some friends I was entertaining. But I wasn't being serious about that. Mostly...

I should make ABSOLUTELY clear at this juncture that I'm no RAM Raider. I don't have utter contempt for the videogames journalism industry. I don't think all professional games writers are corrupt hacks who can't find better jobs and give out the scores they're told to by the PRs. Because that's frankly absurd, and untrue. No, every single games journalist I know personally is, without exception, grade A, straight-up, awesome. I haven't personally met a games journo I haven't liked, and I've made quite a few really good friends while doing this. If you've followed this blog for any length of time, by now you should know that I'm not in "the industry" professionally. For me, it's a part-time dalliance that I have in my spare time, and I do the vast majority of my work gratis, because I can a) afford to, and b) want to avoid the tax self-assessment horrors at all costs.

I've done both internet journalism and print journalism for a few years now (though after today, the latter probably never again), but because I'm not "scene" or "industry", I've had a certain amount of freedom to say what I like, because I don't have any vested interests in continuing to get commissions, and because it really doesn't matter one way of the other whether I work in "the industry" again or not... so maybe I say a bit too much about how it all works, or make unpopular observations when I'd be better off keeping my mouth shut.

But anyway, I'm going to try and elaborate on a few of the things I was saying earlier using examples from my own experience, because at least there I can definitively say what happened and why. And they say confession is good for the soul, so here goes....

Like any other profession or industry, games journalism exists in an imperfect world. In print especially, you don't often get the time you want or need to really review a game and this can have one or more of several undesirable effects. Sometimes you have to rush, sometimes you have to cut corners, and occasionally, you're either going to jump to a rash judgement, or make a few honest mistakes, or worst of all, get your "facts" wrong.

Writers are genetically incapable of admitting they've made a mistake. They're doubly right especially when they're wrong. It's just the way writers are wired. Without that self-belief you might as well not bother. Their opinions are the only right ones, and woe betide anyone who has the temerity to disagree. I'm probably as big an unwarranted raving egomaniac as they come. Not something I'm terribly proud of, but it's a fact. So imagine how mortified I was when a reader pointed out to me that the 150 word diatribe I made in the middle of a review lamenting how Neverwinter Nights 2 not having a key to highlight all the selectable objects in the current map area was a regressive step from the functionality of the first game could have been easily avoided if I'd paid slightly more attention during the tutorial and read that the function was indeed still there - just not bound to the tab key. At this point, all I could do was put my hand up, admit I was an idiot and rewrite that section of the review... There's nothing worse in the world than criticising something and finding that the problem is with YOU, and not the game. I wanted to find a warm, dark hole, crawl into it and die, because it was such an elementary error that undermined the whole credibility of the review. At least it was an online review so I could change it, with only the comments thread to reveal my shame. This is the kind of innocent, honest mistake that's so easy to make and that happens to any (every?) writer in this imperfect journalistic world; As I was saying earlier, it's most punishing and damaging for print writers, because they can't take it back, not without calling into question the integrity of the entire publication, and that's just never going to happen - even in a perfect world.

But for sure, even if people can't admit it (for reasons that should be obvious enough), this kind of thing happens, purely because of the pressures of publishing deadlines and PR pestering. There are reviews I look back on and cringe because I'd been rushed to a judgement and either been way too harsh or way too generous. I know that if I were to re-write the Battlefield 2142 and Star Wars: Empire At War reviews I did, I would be inclined to be a little bit more forgiving or a little more generous if I'd had more time to play the games. But as a writer, I have to stand by what I wrote, because they do express my genuine impressions and the feelings I had about the games at the time. In hindsight, that wonderful, perfect 20-20 introspection-o-vision, even if the opinions and observations could be objectively picked apart, at least they were given in good faith. Sometimes that's all you can do, and maybe you'll look back on it and regret it later, or you'll look back and say, 'yeah, I fucking nailed that one.' - but the line between the two can be a lot finer than you might think.

In many respects, because of the position I've been in, as a by-your-leave, unpaid freelancer with a 40-50 hour a week day job, I've been able to pick and choose what I've had to review and wangle longer playing times than the average freelancer and protect myself from those kinds of errors - a situation I wager a lot of games journos would kill for - but despite all that, my body of work is far from perfect or unquestionable, and I'm the first to admit it.

I'm just a big, loud, overly-opinionated, occasionally eloquent Scotsman who loves games and loves writing, and a lot of the time I can't actually believe that people would take the time to listen to what *I* say. 400 hits a month, half of which are me and the other half of which are web spiders that ping my URL for less than a second (if Google Analytics is to be believed) would seem to suggest they don't. So my unerring capacity to piss people off like this continually amazes me... but surely people should be net-savvy enough not to take absolutely everything written on the dick-waving wall of the internet at total face value by now?

Gah. This kind of thing is exactly why I quit internet forums. I'm actually quite a nice, reasonable, inoffensive guy. You just have to get past the first half dozen posts...

Byte: Starting as you mean to go on

I've just had a good old rant over at Tom F's blog. About The Witcher, and PCG/Rock Paper Shotgun's apparent mishandling of it, predictably.

Please note that I'm not trying to single out Alec as being somehow dishonest or corrupt - I'm more criticising the system and circumstances within which he had to write the review. I know from my own experience that as a freelancer you don't often get as much time to play a game as it really deserves (or as much time as you'd like), but you still have to publish or perish. If anything, the advantage of internet publishing is that at least if you make an honest mistake (and I've made several over the years) you can retract it a whole lot more easily. My point is that if you're going to leap onto a moral high horse when you're criticising a game, you better be damned sure that it has more than one leg.

Alec's been really unlucky in that he's clearly been forced to rush through as much as the game as he could to meet the deadline, and it's all too easy to pick holes in his review if you've completed the game, as I have.

My perception (and I stress it's only my perception) over the last few months is that the PCG/RPS freelancer crowd have all closed ranks to try and justify the review in the face of a fanboy backlash, and I totally understand why, but sometimes you really do have to hold your hand up and admit you made a mistake, even if it's because of circumstances out of your control. Again, it's a whole lot easier to do on an internet games review site than a print magazine, but it does harm your credibility if you don't do it. Rumour has it if you say the phrase "Force Commander" to John Walker, he'll disappear in a huff of smoke (deliberate mixed metaphor there), and that's a review dating back something like eight years. The fate of a games journalist is that people always remember your bad reviews and not your good ones, but I'm sure if Alec were to be really candid he'd say that Witcher review wouldn't rate up there alongside his best work...

Right, that should have successfully alienated the few people within Future Publishing who do still speak to me... but hey. If I don't get games to review, it doesn't make a difference to whether I can still afford to eat this month. That's the advantage of being in the position where you can just do this kind of thing for fun, I guess.