Friday, July 25, 2008

Bark: A great sense of timing

Summer is here - allegedly, I saw some actual sunshine yesterday - which means that in less than two hours, I will be on holiday for two blissful, stress-free weeks. So it's with an impeccable sense of timing that yesterday I should have come down with a sore throat which is now developing into a VERY sore throat and a niggling cough...

Sigh.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Bark: It's exercise, Gym...

...but not as I've known it for months. Remember how I was lamenting how going to the gym impinged on precious games-playing time? Well, it turns out that the recent renovation at my local gym (which, prior to this week, I hadn't been to in months) has come up with something almost as good. I discovered on Tuesday night, when I finally plucked up the courage to go again, that all the cardiovascular machines (bikes, treadmills, cross-trainers, etc) are hooked up to LCD TVs, meaning that you can take along a set of headphones and watch TV while you flog yourself half to death in the attempt to get fitter. I can't overstate just how cool that is, as it finally kills off any excuses that you can't go to the gym because you're going to miss House or The F-Word. In fact, it might actually be a good reason to get out to the gym, because the bloody reception is better there than in my flat...

My return to the gym was spurred by a couple of factors: Firstly, boredom. This PC games drought is the worst I can remember for years and there's only so many times you can replay games, even when you have over 250 to choose from to replay, so I was really looking to do something different with my time. Secondly, I'm getting pretty sick of being an old, flabby layabout. Last week at Kendo really brought home just how unfit I've let myself become lately, and I realised that if I want to be able to survive an hour's worth of ji-geiko without coming close to heatstroke or a heart attack, I need to do something pretty quickly about my fitness levels. Unless you've done it, I don't think you can really imagine just how stressful sparring in Kendo armour is on the body. The armour holds in all your body heat and as you exercise it just builds up and up - I don't want to think about how high my core body temperature got last week - especially with all that extra fat I have around my midriff insulating all my internal organs.

So I skipped Kendo tonight in favour of a potentially less fatal form of exercise, that being a second trip to the gym this week (this time with headphones and a large bottle of water to keep myself entertained and hydrated, respectively). After 25 minutes on the bike, 45 minutes on the treadmill, 25 minutes on the cross trainer and about half an hour doing weights, I'm absolutely knackered, but it's the *good* form of knackered. I'm definitely still running on an adrenalin and endorphin high. I don't expect to see any dramatic weight loss - not for a couple of months, anyway, assuming I can still keep up the pace of going two or three times a week. But at least the experience while I'm there is going to be a whole lot more pleasurable. Being able to watch TV really makes the time fly by, because it engages your brain on a completely different level from the physical act of exercise itself. Listening to music while you exercise is one thing, but all it leaves you to do with your eyes is concentrate on the timer, making you think "gods, I've got another 15 minutes of this... bloody hell, this is boring"... Change that to a TV screen, however, and your eyes and your ears are engaged on the program. I'm not kidding when I say at times I barely noticed I was actually exercising. Admittedly, I wasn't really pushing myself in terms of intensity level, but still, exercise where you can actually disengage your brain from the monotony of the repetitive action of cycling or pounding steps on a cross-trainer? Yes, please. I'll have more of that.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Byte: Criminal Mastermind. AND IN THE GAME!

Ah, those "and in the game!" jokes never get old...

In the absence of anything better to play on PC right now, earlier this week I decided to reinstall The Sims 2. I know what you're thinking; Why on Earth would I want to do a fool thing like that? Well, firstly because it's bloody brilliant and secondly because if I replay Jedi Academy or put more time into WoW right now I will hurl.

The Sims 2 might have a reputation amongst the so-called "hardcore" gamers as either a pointless time-sink or worse, a "girl's game", but it's actually rather sophisticated. As a game, I'd say it's almost an equivalent of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to read as a kid. You get to create your own characters and decide what you want to do with them.

My speciality is, of course, deep and tragic levels of social dysfunction.

I'm only taking the advice of Kurt Vonnegut, who when asked how to write a good short story said "be a sadist". Because Sims is a sandbox game, you are essentially creating your own story and narrative while choosing the events your Sims act out, and it is much more fun to take your virtual charges, build them up and then completely mess with and ruin their lives. Currently my virtual self is being a total rake, impregnating all the single women who cross his path, which is entirely in character for a man who's just topped out on the Criminal career path. I really like how my Sim finds being a Criminal Mastermind fun (that is, it fills up his Fun 'Need') and how being a Con Man fulfilled the Social 'Need'... I wouldn't naturally consider being a Con Man a social profession. The best thing about the Criminal career path is that the hours are short (if a bit unsociable) and the money is good. AND IN THE GAME! (Sorry, I'll stop now)

Keeping in character, my Sim stalks around dressed totally in black - boots, leather trenchcoat, the works - and is living with a hot redhead specifically created for him (that sounds very Frankenstein, but it's not like that... really) to take advantage of the Turn On/Off characteristics from the two expansion packs I have (both ill-gotten gains from reviewing - gosh, I'd forgotten about that "Nearly Naked Chef" line...); she's so comely that her surname is actually 'Hawt' and she has ambitions of marrying my Sim and having six of his children. They may need to have words about that, though she's already working on the first... They'll probably get up to five and then I'll have my Sim move in with the cute single Mom down the road, who's already spawned one of his bastard love children.

I don't understand how people can say The Sims is boring. With such depth of interaction and the potential for tangled webs of social interaction, love octagons, callous romantic betrayals and dynasty building I think the only limiting factor is your imagination. It's as much a game for misanthropes and sociopaths as it is for people who like playing Happy Families, and that's where the genius lies. Oh, and if you're a close friend of mine, be afraid. Your virtual self is going to be moving into the neighbourhood very soon... who knows what japes and scrapes you're going to get into?

Well, I do, obviously. But that would be telling...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Bark: Art In Action

The sign of a good weekend is when you're more tired first thing on a Monday than you were when you went to bed on Friday night. And judging from my current fatigue levels, this weekend was a corker.

Fleur and I spent the weekend at Waterperry House, in Oxfordshire, taking in the sights at Art In Action, a four day arts fair that's been running for about 30 years now, according to my friend Mark, who was running the Drawing and Printmaking tent this year.

I did a couple of practical classes, clay portraiture modelling on the Saturday and a sketching in the garden class on the Sunday, which were both a lot of fun. I enjoyed the clay modelling most, mainly because it was a new experience. I've not done anything with clay since Middle School, which is going back an awfully long time now. I'm going to try to find somewhere that sells huge chunks of modelling clay now, because this could be another hobby to add to the list. You can see what I made here. Another hour or two (the 90 minutes for the class fairly raced by) and I would have made it a resemble the model a bit more, but still, for a first attempt I was pleased with it.

The rest of the photos I took during the weekend may be found here, including lots of photos from around the gardens, and my favourite pieces from around the displays.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bark: Much to learn, have you...

I've just got back from my first Kendo session in a few weeks, as I've been pretty knackered lately, and since the Beginner's course finished a few weeks ago, I only really wanted to go again when I had my own set of armour. I'm glad I decided to get off my arse and go tonight, because I really had a great time, even if I did come home absolutely exhausted and covered in blue dye which leached off my gi, because I'd sweat so much.

We did most of the two hour session in armour, making me feel much better that I finally had my own set to wear, but crikey, does it get toasty in there. After half an hour in armour, things get a little claustrophobic and a smidgen too warm for comfort. After an hour and a half, especially when you've been doing ji-geiko (freeform sparring) for 45 minutes, you've lost any sense of coordination and you're struggling to remember how you move your arms and legs. It's doubly disorienting, because you've completely lost all peripheral vision, and I had the sense that I was flailing about like a badly programmed war robot. At the end of the session I was utterly wasted and I reckon I've probably lost a kilo in sweat alone. If nothing else, it's certainly great exercise.

Thankfully, I'm not the only survivor from the beginner's course - five out of the fifteen or so of us that started the course back in March are still coming regularly - so at least I wasn't alone in looking like a numpty in front of our 6th Dan sensei (and also the 7th Dan "guest" sensei who also comes to our dojo). It's quite amazing what a huge difference wearing armour makes to your technique. Suddenly things that seemed natural in the non-contact practice sessions become a dozen times harder when you've got all the gear on. It's not that it limits your mobility as such, more that because you can't see what you're doing quite as easily, your coordination goes to hell. You forget which order you have to move your hands and feet in when making a cut, and rather than making a proper cut, flexing your wrists, you're bludgeoning instead, which is not only crude and poor technique, but it's SLOW. And being slow is bad, because if you ever want to score points in a competition, you've got to be as fast as a mongoose.

It's going to be months yet before I learn how to keep a proper form when making a cut in armour, while making it fast. At the moment I'm at the two extremes: either my cuts are way too big (moving my hands back too far behind my head) or too small (that is, not following the proper motion the shinai should be making and just striking as fast as possible). Being honest, I don't think I'll ever make competition standard. Not unless I suddenly have one of those "But... it's so simple!" moments where you're struck by a ray of sunlight and everything starts making sense, anyway.

Fortunately, the other people in the club are universally brilliant for giving you tips and advice about improving your technique, while not completely getting on your case and shouting at you about it. I think a lot of it is definitely repetition and practice. There's no comparison to anything else that I've done which requires quick speed of thought to Kendo. I might be able to nail quarter-second headshots with a sniper rifle in Unreal Tournament or Team Fortress 2, and make split-second management decisions in RTS games, but that doesn't build nearly the same kind of neural pathways required for a martial art. I simply haven't practiced enough, as I can see myself that opening for cuts a more experienced practitioner would go for in the blink of an eye pass me by before I've reacted to them and made the conscious decision to go for a strike. That's the problem, I think. At the moment, it's too deliberated and awkward. I'm not making natural, unconscious decisions about what I want to do with my hands, feet or which target I want to hit. By the time I've seen that I've been given a opening for men or kote and thought, 'okay, strike men, come in to distance... cut!' the chance has already gone and my wrist is aching because I've been hit on my kote.

So yeah, the learning curve is pretty steep. But still, at least we're using bamboo swords and not ones made out of carbon steel...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bark: Who wants to be a Trillionaire?

The exchange rate between Pounds Sterling and Zimbabwe Dollars is now running at nearly ONE TO FIVE HUNDRED MILLION. Inflation is well beyond what could be classed as "hyper" at 2,200,200%, and here we are in the UK worrying about the cost of living when the inflation rate is still less than 4%... Puts things in perspective a little, no?

We should be glad that our government is only mildly incompetent and not UTTERLY incompetent. Sure, we might be feeling the pinch a little now, what with the absolutely ludicrous price of fuel, but things could be a lot worse. Still, Brits wouldn't be Brits if they couldn't have a good whinge about things that aren't actually that serious...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Byte: Filling the gap

I think I'm finally Mass Effect-ed out. The irony is that it's because there aren't enough different classes to play with. There may be six different classes, but the achievements system which unlocks powers and abilities after you use them an arbitrary number of times means that the classes begin to overlap, Soldiers can pick biotic feats, Adepts and Engineers can pick weapons feats, so combat quickly becomes a walkover. That doesn't really stop it being fun, but it would be nice to be challenged beyond the set pieces. It still gets my vote for my favourite game of the year, but I'm ready to move onto something different now.

And with there being sod all out (still) on PC at the moment, it's the Wii that I'm turning to in this hour of need. I still desperately underuse the console, despite the fact I've got well over a dozen games for it that have probably averages less than 5 hours each in terms of play time so far. I finally got around to playing a bit of Super Mario Galaxy, which is quite an experience. The wrap-around worlds really mess with your head as the floor and camera warp around, bending your sense of perspective. In that respect it's quite hard to play, but it is a lot of fun, even if I can only play it in short doses, in order to stave off a migraine as I try and wrap my brain around the skewed spatial physics of the game world.

I'm also having a lot of fun with Family Ski. You really need to use the Wii Balance Board to get the best out of it and though there aren't really that many ski runs on the mountain, it's lovely to play a game that's essentially harmless and where you don't interact with people solely by rearranging their internal organs with gunfire. The worst you can do is knock someone over into the snow if you collide with them - though even that elicited horrified gasps from my girlfriend as she watched me play it at the weekend.

Mario Kart on the Wii remains absolutely delightful. I did some four-way multiplayer at the weekend when we were having dinner with some friends. Even Fleur quite enjoyed it, despite the fact she was dead last on every race. Perhaps it was just the tracks we were playing, but I found that the AI karts were pretty evil - I managed to podium once, but otherwise we were all struggling. The analogue steering with the remote works beautifully, though - particularly when you're counter-steering into slides to really get the sparks flying. You can really pull off some monumental slides on some of the tracks (the Delfino Square remake - originally a DS track - being one of my favourites), and it's great when you can chain slides together for sheer coolness value. It's not quite so easy to dip in and out of as the DS version (thanks to a distinct lack of portability), but it's still one of the best games to satiate your gaming lust if you don't have a huge amount of time on your hands.

One game I really need to devote a lot more time to (if I can ever find any) is Okami. It's absolutely captivating. The art style is gorgeous, and the combat is unlike anything you've ever played before. The Wii control set is perfectly suited to the Celestial Brush, and there's something inherently awesome about being able to paint over the screen and change things in the game world. It's probably about as far away as you can get from a game like Mass Effect in terms of aesthetic, but it should fill the RPG-shaped hole that needs filling in my life right now...

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bark: Getting some air

I was just popping out to buy some lunch, when I heard the distinctive rumble of a turbofan engine echoing around the building. My eyeballs immediately switch into "swivel-on-stalks" mode, trying to track down the source of the noise. Seconds later, I catch a brief glimpse of The Red Arrows (all nine of them, in formation) scooting by on their way to Farnborough, no doubt flying a preparatory sortie for the Air Show, which is on next week.

I've been living and working in the Farnborough area for over eight years now, and despite having a big interest in planes (I did once harbour ambitions of joining the RAF at one point), I've never quite gotten around to going to it yet. Usually it clashes with a wedding that my girlfriend wants to drag me to, but this year, it clashes with Art In Action. So I'm going to miss it again. Still, it's not so bad - if I work in the Farnborough office next week, I can just stand in the car park at lunchtime and get a free view of the show, since they run the trade show during the week. I'm guess I'm just going to have to wait another few years. If I leave it another couple of shows, fingers crossed they'll have something a bit more interesting to show than the Airbus A380. Sure, it's an amazing piece of aeronautical engineering and all that, but it doesn't have afterburners... Give me an SU-27 Flanker, any day. Though they had an SU-34 there a couple of years ago... and boy, does that puppy make a nice noise. Flying over my work building with the afterburners on set off all the car alarms in the car park. Bloody awesome.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Byte: This is how we (re)roll

My altoholism shows no signs of abating. I recently completed my second play through of Mass Effect (note: the Liara romance is utterly dull - stick with Ashley if you play a male avatar, she's so much more fun), so I've started off a new hobby: creating alts who look like actresses. I was inspired by the wonderful man who also has a Gillian Anderson crush. Unfortunately, the face editor in Mass Effect isn't even as clever as what you'd find in something like The Sims 2, so it's quite hard to create really good likenesses, but I've done pretty well with lookalikes for Tricia Helfer, Angelina Jolie and Emmanuelle BĂ©art. Well, they're more passing resemblances than true lookalikes, because a lot of what you see in a face is actually determined by the hair, and the haircuts you can choose in Mass Effect are pretty limited, to say the least. Speaking of haircuts, it's quite amusing to play with a blonde character, since all the lighting effects make them look like they use radium shampoo...

I also rolled a Warcraft alt a couple of days ago - a Warlock this time. I had tried the class out briefly a couple of years ago (I got up to around level 15 or something before I junked the character), but now that the levelling has been speeded up and you can wipe through the first 30 levels or so relatively quickly, I fancy trying out the class again. I suppose I should be devoting the time to my Hunter and Mage alts, but they're at the stage where (for various reasons) it's quite hard to quickly level the characters, and I've always been more about the quick win than the long-term goal - the exception to this being Shareth, my Druid - though I'm probably not going to play with her again until the new expansion comes out. I got my 'lock up to level 6 in a smidge over an hour, which is pretty good going. Now I get to decide whether I want to quest in Goldshire (quickly done, but fairly dull) or whether to make the trek to the Draenei starting area (more interesting quests, but a long way to run). The good thing about being a Warlock is that you get obedient minions. The downside is that you can't choose their name, and the imp in particular has very annoying soundbites whenever you ask it to attack an enemy. Roll on the Voidwalker...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Byte: Why hasn't anyone done this yet?

I've just spent my lunch hour very productively. That is, talking with Richard about how there's bugger all out on PC worth playing at the moment (which I haven't already completed, at least; we seem to have this particular conversation every few weeks lately) and lamenting about how awful going to the gym is because exercise is so fundamentally repetitive and dull, and how the godawful music that you always have playing means that the experience is even more miserable and how if you want to listen to something that doesn't sound like it was churned out by a flatulent cow, you risk permanent hearing damage... I want to get fitter, not get fit and go deaf, thanks...

Anyway, this got me thinking. What could you do to make the gym less boring? Well, recently I got around to reading Snow Crash - a bit too self-consciously cool and knowing for my liking, frankly - but it did have one nice idea in it: the Gargoyle. Basically, a wearable computer setup. Now, with the recent trend towards micro-PCs, surely this is getting towards the realms of achievable now?

So, why not pick up an EEE PC, mount it on a Steadicam harness attached to a gym top, wire up a few extra battery packs on your shoulders (for the Gears of War I eat lions shoulderpad effect), and hey presto, you've got your own portable PC for you to play X-Com or Peggle on to your heart's content as you flog your feeble flesh on the cardio machines. So now, thanks to this wondrous invention, going to the gym wouldn't have to compromise any precious games playing time and your girlfriend would have to admit that you're not a completely lazy couch potato... Everybody's happy!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Byte: Fight of the Navigator

Today I'm mired in Brio, recoding a report navigator so that it works with the new database this particular report is being moved to. And let's just say that it's putting up some resistance... The trouble with transferring a report that's been steadily modified over the course of five or six years from one data source to another is that, inevitably, they're not going to be identical in every way. And so it is true with this particular move.

So not only do I have to alter the database query to retrieve data from the new source and recreate all the results tables and pivots with the new dataset, I then have to make all that work with the new front-end. And herein lies a rather large problem, because the new database isn't yet live, you don't have a proper set of data that you can query. And in order to make a Brio report navigator work properly, that's precisely what you need to work with. So now I've got gobbledegook appearing in listboxes that should have text strings in them, because the damn database has blank values in some rows where the old database didn't, and Brio can't convert them properly...

Oh, this is going to be fun.