Friday, September 25, 2009

Bark: Saturn equinox



A composite photo of Saturn taken by the Cassini probe last month. Absolutely stunning. If there was ever a one-way scientific mission out to Saturn, I'd be first in line to sign up. I dream of being able to go out into space and see this kind of stuff with my own eyes.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Byte: One last level rush

With my inter-career holiday break now almost over, I've really been ploughing an obscene amount of hours into three games lately, in a last grasp of game time before I spend the next ten months or so being stressed and having such a big workload that I won't have time to play anything.

Inevitably, one of them has been World of Warcraft (or as Fleur likes to call it, rather charmingly, World of Bullshit), as I've been putting time into my lower-level alts, if only to get them to skill-up their professions skills. My priest still needs another six levels before she can take the next level up in Tailoring and Enchanting, but her she can now do some really useful enchants, especially for my lower level alts. I don't really enjoy playing with the character that much, since priests aren't great for soloing with, and I don't really fancy respeccing to Holy, as I don't want to spend all my time healing in instances. But I do have some incentive for levelling her waiting for me in the bank. That and I've got about 40 stacks of Netherweave Cloth stashed away, so that once I do get the 300+ Tailoring skill unlocked, I can make lots of lovely stuff for my Mage, who is about to hit level 61 and is firmly entrenched in Outland, but since I blasted through Outland with my Death Knight not too long ago, I'm going to get back to her once I've made her loads of cool cloth gear to upgrade her all the way through from 60-70.

The recent 3.2 patch lowered all the level requirements and costs of the land mounts (level 20 for the first mount, level 40 for the swift mount) and flappy mounts are now available from level 60, though the swift flappy training will still set you back 5000 gold. Though that's not so much of an issue now, as they uprated the speed of the first flappy mount from +60% to +150%, so now the first flappy mount is at least faster than the swift ground mount. But the real bonus for me was that I hadn't training my Mage for the swift ground mount, so I got it at a discount - and at some point I will get my other characters to forward her some cash to buy the first flappy mount. So all my Alliance characters have the swift ground mount now, as I pushed my lowest level Alliance alt (Corleth, my rogue) up to level 40 over a couple of nights so that I could get one for him, too. Rogues are quite fun to play, and I've got quite a few rare armour pieces lurking for him in the bank for when he (eventually) gets beyond level 50, but I'm concentrating mostly on my Paladin, Gormlaith, at the moment.

At the beginning of the summer, she was on a par (in level terms) with Aoibheann, around level 40 or so, but I've been fairly streaking through the levels with her lately, and should get up past 50 with another couple of hours' worth of play. I think it certainly helped having an epic weapon to murder mobs with, but the Paladin is a really nice class to play, since they're resilient, can heal and aren't terrible in DPS terms, either. I do need to work on her blacksmithing skill though, as she can't really make any decent armour yet.

In all this, I even managed to find the time to put another level on my oldest character, Shareth, who is still a very long way away from the level cap. I haven't really played much with my 70+ characters at all lately, since even though I really like all the design in the Northrend areas, needing 1.5 million XP per level makes progress seem rather too much on the tortuous side for my liking. I will try to get at least one character towards the level cap in time for the next expansion pack (flappy mounts in Azeroth! about bloody time!), but I am enjoying going for the quick win with my alts. It would be good if I could get them all beyond level 50, but inevitably, I think I will get bored with a couple of my alts and then neglect them for a few months. I really ought to just use my high level characters to gold farm for a while and throw some cash at my alts to buy them some nice gear and the flappy mounts (when they can use them), but I'm not sure if I can be bothered to plan that far ahead. It's amazing that after four years and goodness knows how many days of playing time I've put into the game that I still love it, but somehow, I do.

But I just wouldn't be me if it weren't for the tendency to play at least five different games at the same time. Even WoW isn't able to consume all my gaming time. I've been dabbling a little with the old Delta Force games, since they appeared on Steam a little while back (I may knock off a Replay article about Delta Force 2 and try and convince Tim Edwards to print it) and I've been enjoying their retro charms a lot, but it's on the Xbox 360 where I've been spending quite a lot of my late evenings (and early mornings!). I picked up Trials HD from Xbox Live, and it's probably the best thing out on the 360 right now. It's got quite a few different game modes compared to the PC version, and lots of new tracks, though I think on the whole, I prefer the PC version - if only because the camera is better. The console version is a bit out there, compared to the PC version, with explosives littered around all the levels (obviously, it wouldn't be fun for the console crowd if things didn't explode), and it makes some of the levels ridiculously hard (and Trials wasn't exactly easy to begin with). Though if I don't really approve of that, the challenge modes (ski jumping, bone breaking, riding in a huge cage ball, for example) are fabulous fun. I really like the target collecting mode, which essentially turns your bike and rider into a pinball, as you're catapulted around the level by huge flippers. AWESOME. If you've not picked it up yet, it's well worth the 1200 MS points.

The other game that's really been eating my time lately has been Far Cry 2. I did pick this up on PC when it came out last year, but somehow it failed to spark with me. But something inspired me to pick it up on 360, and now that I've put 25 hours or so into it, I think it's one of the best shooters I've played since Half-Life 2. I'm about 60-odd percent through the main story missions, and I'm finding it absolutely compulsive. The game's not perfect by any means, as you can't travel more than 400 metres on a road before having to blast your way through a roadblock, which does get tiresome after a while, but there's a tactical freedom that you don't get in most FPS games. I've unlocked most of the weapons and there's a great balance and variety in the way you can kit yourself out. You can go super-stealth (silenced Makarov, silenced MP5, Dart Rifle), fully automatic (Uzi, AK-47, PKM), super-sniper (IED, Dragonov, Dart Rifle, or super-explosive (M79 grenade launcher, MGL grenade launcher, mortar), though obviously, doing that is a little on the extreme side, and you're better off having a good mix of weapons. My favourite loadout is to take the Dart Rifle to pick people off silently from a distance, have the silenced MP5 (which the game oddly classifies as an assault rifle, rather than an SMG) as your main weapon after you've picked off as many people as possible and need to get in close, and have an Uzi as your weapon of last resort, since it gives you a lot of close range killing power. Another good combination is to have the Dragonov sniper rifle to spring long range ambushes (I did this rather epically on a convoy destruction mission - as the convoy was passing through a checkpoint, I sniped an oil barrel, setting the whole place on fire, allowing me to pick people off safely from distance as they fled from the flames), backed up by the M79 grenade launcher (it's the one Arnie has in Terminator 2) to blow things (particularly vehicles) to hell from medium range and have the PKM light machine gun to mop things up if they get too close to take out with the Dragonov or the grenade launcher. Fire is also a great tactical option, as you can use Molotov cocktails to literally smoke people out of buildings or long grass, and it adds an element of confusion into the combat that you can generally use to your advantage.

So even if the game lacks a little in design terms (too many roadblocks and assault trucks magically appearing 20 seconds after you get into a vehicle), the combat itself is great and very satisfying. The game does get significantly harder in the second half, as the enemies start using better weapons. I messed up a stealthy approach on one particular mission and got a very rude shock when mortar shells started raining down. That got rather frantic, as I'm not only dodging mortar fire, but also having to fight a dozen goons who now know exactly where I am and are throwing orange smoke bombs to mark my position for the mortar guy... Yipe. And you can also expect to have a hard time if you don't take at least one scoped weapon with you, as there are snipers dotted around some of the roadblocks, too. But I haven't had too many frustrating deaths (they've generally been my fault for doing idiotic things), and I also like the buddy system. It's nice that they characters aren't all white, middle-class superheroes. There's a good, diverse mix of people in there. I've got a bit of a soft spot for Nasreen, the Tajik woman merc, who's rescued me a couple of times from botched missions. And I was doing really well with Paul in the first half of the game, too - but unfortunately, I had to give him a morphine overdose after he got too badly wounded during a story mission. I got quite upset about that, as we were up to 17 on buddy 'history' score. If the game tries to kill Nasreen, I will not be pleased... I might have to shoot a zebra in the face. Hell, I may just do that anyway. It ought to be more fun than running them over in a truck.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Bark: I am not a personnel number, I AM A FREE MAN!

As I vaguely hinted at a couple of months ago, my life has taken a slight turn for the weird lately. And as my dear Hunter S. Thompson once said, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

If it appears that I've forsaken the internet in the last couple of months (as evidenced by an absolute dearth of new posts here and a very intermittent presence on MSN Messenger), well, there's a very good reason for that. I kind of have. For the last nine and a bit years, I've gotten very used to having the electric world at my fingertips for upwards of 12 hours a day, every day. This was a consequence of being sat behind an LCD monitor in my day job for 10 hours a day, and being stuck behind another LCD monitor for most of the evening, playing games, blogging or just surfing the websites I use to keep up with the events in a rapidly moving world. So, you might ask, what on Earth could tear me away from this wired, interconnected existence?

Well, rather devastatingly, a nagging sense that I wasn't doing all I could with my life. After nine years of work for a rather large multinational corporation, I found myself with a choice. I could either embrace the 80% work, 20% life culture that we laughably call a "work-life balance" and continue to be a slave to my job (albeit one with a decent salary), or I could quit my job, find another career and do something different. I made a decision a few months ago, the implications of which I'm still trying to get to grips with, even now.

To get to the bean-spilling, I left my life as a corporate worker bee behind at the beginning of July, and after the longest holiday of my entire life, in a little over a week, I go back to university. Me, a filthy student again. It's quite a bizarre notion, now that I'm on the wrong side of thirty years old. There are other details about my decision that I'm not going to go into here (for fairly obvious reasons); they're pretty much already in the public domain - so you don't need to read about them here - but that's the essence of it. Lots of people are absolutely fine with the 80%-20% work life balance you find in most large companies these days, but I found over the years that, increasingly, I'm not one of them. In fact, I consider myself lucky that not only did the people I used to work for help me make the decision more decisively than I might otherwise have done, but also helped make the whole thing a lot less financially painful than it might have been. I consider myself very lucky in this respect, and have no regrets about the time I spent with the company - it was a great place to spend my 20s and early 30s in the early part of my career, but I couldn't see myself there in another 20 years (or even 5 or 10 years), so when I saw the opportunity to move, I jumped at it like a lion pouncing on a wildebeest.

It takes someone very brave or very stupid to leave a well-paid career in the middle of the biggest recession since the 1920s, but the timing of everything was just too good to pass up the opportunity. In about a week, I start a PGCE in Secondary-level Science, with a specialism in Physics at Roehampton University. Science (and Physics in particular) has always been my first love, intellectually. I only really went into IT because it was a career a Physics graduate can get into pretty easily and get handsomely paid for doing so. Hell, the programming options in my Physics degree were my least favourite parts of the course (embarrassingly, I was a terrible programmer - there's a real irony that I was able to find someone willing to pay me to do it). What I really wanted to do was carry on with Physics, except that I spent too much time falling in love with Fleur in my second year and too much time playing Dark Forces and Duke Nukem 3D in my third year to really do myself justice academically (Again, I have no regrets - I'd do it all over again in an instant). So it's taken 12 years since I graduated, but I'm re-engaging with Science and Physics again in a major way, this time by teaching it, rather than studying or researching it.

Why become a teacher? Well, it's something I had a very long, very hard think about earlier in the year. There's an element of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em", since not only is Fleur a teacher, but so are her parents, one of her sisters, my brother and my sister-in-law... So it's not like I don't have a realistic idea of what the profession is like. And even better, I've literally got decades of experience to tap into whenever I need to ask one of them for advice. My brother has always joked with me that there are only two reasons to be a teacher: July and August. The truth is that you can't really argue with 13 weeks holiday a year. If you're going to get worked half to death in whatever profession you opt for, go for one with proper holidays. But the main reason for wanting to become a teacher is that not only are Physics specialists in real demand (only about 5% of the people applying to do a Science PGCE are Physics specialists - 80% are biologists, with the remaining 15% being chemists - so if you're a Physics specialist, you've picked quite a safe profession in the long term), but I also think the time is right for me now. It wouldn't have been if I'd gone straight into teaching after leaving university (indeed, I once swore at the time I would never go into teaching), but now I've mellowed a bit (yes, really!), got some real life experience, and the favourite part of my old job was mentoring the IT placement students on their industry placement year. To steal a gag from Mass Effect - knowledge is like herpes: if you've got it, spread it around - and I found that I really enjoyed doing the spreading. Knowledge, information, has always been my drug (well, other than alcohol), which is why I was constantly plugged into Wikipedia and read huge volumes of the Children's Encyclopedia Britannica (a set of 24, as I recall) that my parents bought for me and my brother when we were in our early teens. There's no doubt that teaching is a high-workload, high-stress, underpaid, under-appreciated career for the most part - but it's also a whole lot more existentially rewarding than shunting numbers around an Excel spreadsheet for 10 hours a day. As a teacher, you're helping shape lives and have far more of a hands-on impact on the fabric of society than any corporate job. I have to confess that I find the prospect both exciting and no small part daunting.

I will try and keep this blog up to date with my progress throughout the year, but I can't guarantee how regular updates will be, as I'm not going to be spending much time at a computer during my course and teaching placements. Wish me luck... I'm going to need it!