Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Saving Throw

Toilets are most definitely an under appreciated part of our lives. Think of how much time we spend inside one; how much of it is quality time, probably the only true quiet time many of us truly have for ourselves; and also pay notice to the fact that adequately running toilets are probably responsible for saving many lives, if not allowing modern day congested city living to take place in the first place.

Which is why I thought it proper to indulge you on a little toilet story of mine.
Several weeks ago I was doing what people do at the office toilet. Upon finishing my business I got up, and... for reasons still eluding me, my iPhone shot out of my pants pocket as I rose up. It flew above the cubicle door, and landed with a big bang on the hard tile floor somewhere on the other side.
I figured that was it for my phone, at least for its screen. Seeing no reason to hurry, I organised myself properly, left the cubicle as if nothing had happened, and went to see what was left of my phone.
And... nothing. Not a broken screen, not even a scratch was there to tell that my phone had just crashed on stones from more than two meters up high. Everything was in working order, thank you very much.
Somewhere out there I must have rolled a 20.

Sure, luck had a lot to do with my phone still working. But it wasn't only luck at work here.
First, the iPhone 5 has been known since its release to be a pretty robust phone, probably the most robust smartphone out there. That was one of the major reasons I picked it in particular: during the expected service life of 3 years in my pockets, I tend to drop my phone about twice a year. It is therefore necessary to buy a phone that would withstand those crashes. Alas, none of the phones coming since the iPhone 5 (including the similar looking 5S) are as robust, and I suspect the trend towards phablets will only make things worse.
Second, my phone wears a subtle cover designed to ensure its screen does not suffer the direct impact of a fall. It certainly seems as if that el-cheapo cover I got off eBay works.
My point? Being lucky is nice and all, but taking measures to ensure luck goes in your favour never hurts. Do not rely on rolling twenties the whole of your life.

Image by Scott Arg, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Top Crabs #8

My reviews blog is celebrating its eighth birthday, and as per each of its birthdays it summarises the year that passed by discussing the best that year had to offer. Have a read of it here.

This is also a good time to stop and think where I want my online adventures to go from here. There is less reason for me than ever to continue my current regime of reviewing. For various reasons mentioned in this year's summary, I am watching fewer movies and reading fewer books. As it stands, the main drive is in the extra understanding I gain of the works through the analysis I am required to do for the purpose of writing my reviews. That extra depth is not to be trifled with, especially not when done in the context of what could pass a 1,000 published reviews within the next year.
Then there is the question of where I want to position myself through my online presence. As far as both hits and professional interest lie, that is the land of gadgets, "how to" technology guides, and various discussions on topics at the suburbia of technology. Matters of online privacy fall firmly into that realm.
Yes, I would like to go down that path. I think I can come up with quality material on a weekly basis. However, I also think I will not be able to go down that path without some time in hand, time that will probably only come at the cost of my current employment.
We shall see where the wind is blowing. For now, as I am about to embark on some professional training, I expect my blogging to pay a price.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Reasons to Not Be Cheerful, Part 3

The world seems intent on destroying any kind of good mood lately. Reasons include:

  1. The situation in Israel, where both sides seem intent on winning top awards for committing crimes against humanity. Extra credit goes to the Israeli leadership that led its people into this very avoidable war.
  2. Flight MH17, which shows that as unlikely as it is to get knocked off the sky, you never know when and where your turn will come up. Regardless, here's another sign for humanity's rather hopeless state of affairs.
  3. My employment / unemployment situation, which currently has my employer notifying us whether we still have a job or not on a daily basis (!).
  4. Everybody getting sick around me. As I type, both my wife and my son are sick.
  5. Melbourne winter. I hate this time of year; for some reason, even though there are plenty of worse winters to be had, Melbourne's are ever so bleak.
I think the correct answer is (6): All of the above.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Good Games

I don't think too highly of "best of" polls, but to give credit where credit is due, Good Game's currently ongoing voting for best 100 video games ever did get me thinking. I know very clearly which game is my all time favourite, but what about all the rest? How does one rank them when even the poorest of today's games looks so much better than the very best from a couple of decades back?
In parallel, I got into an email discussion with an old school friend regarding our favourite games from our rather lacklustre choice of an eighties personal computer, a Dragon 32. Say what you say about the Dragon, and I have a lot to say in its praise - it was responsible for teaching me more about computers than anything else before or after - but a good gaming platform it wasn't.
Which is when it occurred to me: any comparison between video games is only worthwhile if it is done in the context of the period the games were released at. So, with all due respect to Good Game (and there is plenty of it), allow me to introduce you to my pick of best video games ever per platform. If anything, this list will demonstrate my personal development in video gaming, which probably mirrors that of a lot of people my age.
Without further ado, let us start on this chronological trip.
  1. Atari 2600: Space Invaders
    OK, Space Invaders was probably not my favourite Atari game. But it was my first Atari game, and for a long while it was my only Atari game other than Combat (which came bundled with the console but which was a 2 player only title). Which meant that I had a lot of love and devotion poured into that game. I challenge anyone to better my personal score record of more than 69,000 points!
    Other notable titles on the Atari include Missile Command and Defender.
  2. Dragon 32: None
    There were plenty of good games to be had that era, but the Dragon 32 had none of them. Commodore 64 owners might have had a computer with very poor programming BASIC on their hands, but they also had all the good games.
  3. IBM XT: The Ancient Art of War
    Barbarians - forward, archers - attack! And always try to give your force the strategic advantage, such as attacking from superior height. Art of War was my first experience at a proper tactical game where your army fights in real time against the computer's. The world would have been a much better place if I could still play Art of War on my iPad.
  4. IBM XT: Gunship
    Hard to believe, but there was a time when being a helicopter gunship pilot was my dream. MicroProse's brought me closest to that dream, and I think I can safely boast being a top pilot - I won all the medals, not to mention World War 3. I recall my friend informing me that it is probably safe to say I was the best Gunship pilot in Israel.
  5. IBM XT: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2
    In this day and age when I don't have time to breathe it is hard to imagine I would once spend hours and hours at the cockpit of a propellor plane, but that is exactly what I did. Armed with paper maps, I would set the scene for bad weather and fly completely blind - instruments only - from New York to Boston.
  6. Arcades: Outrun, Star Wars
    Unlike some of my friends, I was never particularly good with the games that dominated the local arcades; nor did I have the money to become good in them. I did, however, profess to liking them a lot: I would spend lots of hours watching others play. But when I could afford it, I would enjoy my brief stint in one of the compartment size arcades, the ones that have you sit inside. Whether it was driving my red Ferrari in Outrun or blowing a Death Star in a vector graphics rendition of Star Wars, I was left with plenty of fine memories to cherish.
  7. 386 PC: F15 Strike Eagle 3
    As you can see, I am an unfulfilled pilot. This time around I used this MicroProse title to win the Gulf War and even have a go at uniting Korea.
  8. 386 PC: Dune 2
    Probably the first proper real time strategy game. How many hours did I spend trying to conquer Arrakis?
  9. 386 PC: Mortal Kombat
    No, Mortal Kombat was never a true favourite of mine. But it did lead to many catch phrases I still use today (like "Johnny Cage wins!" or "Finish him!" whenever my son messes about with his food).
    More importantly, it was the craziest multiplayer experience available at the time. With both players sharing the same keyboard, and with the keyboard unable to recognise more than 5 simultaneous key strikes, this was a case of who presses first wins (no matter what you pressed). Distilled entertainment.
  10. Pentium PC: FIFA 99
    More than a football game, this title packs a lot of historical importance for me. Starting with the fact I bought myself a PC just so I can play this game.
  11. Sega Dreamcast: NFL 2K
    Between the quality of the graphics and the audio commentary, this game was a technological breakthrough for the time. It even made me enjoy American football.
  12. Xbox: Halo
    There were first person shooters before Halo, but clearly everything coming after Halo was heavily shaped to match Halo. And for very good reasons. Most notably, Halo was so good that my wife & I played it in co-op the whole way through over a couple of intense weeks, an experience we still cherish.
  13. Nintendo Wii: Mario Kart
    There are lots of good games out there, but hardly any can compete with the sheer addictive fun of Mario Kart. Fun that is still ongoing with Mario Kart 8 on the Nintendo Wii U.
  14. Sony PS3: Mass Effect 3
    Clearly my favourite game of all time. Between the multitude of well developed characters, the ability to control my character and destiny (including the ability to play a female), and the greatest story ever told, this one is still dominating my mind and my video gaming more than two years later. The cooperative online multiplayer mode is a winner in that department, too.

24/7/14 update:
For what it's worth, here are the family's votes with Good Game-

  • Yours truly: Space Invaders, Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3.
  • The boss: Little Big Planet, Lemmings, Mario Kart 8.
  • Son: Mario Kart 8, Skylanders Swap Force, Wipeout.

Image copyrights: BioWare
The image is of Liara, my favourite character from my favourite video game, comes from a soon to be released character statue. If you wish to buy me a nice present I'm guaranteed to like, look no further than this.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Drug of Choice

Israel may be declaring war on Hamas for the n+1 time, Malaysian Airlines planes may be dropping out of the sky like flies, but as far as I am concerned there have been two trends in my personal life this year. The first is the ongoing trend around the digitisation of my life, which is constantly being discussed on my blogs; the second, and the subject of this post, is my growing affection to coffee.
Allow me to rephrase: I have become a proper coffee snob, with [almost] everything that comes along with it.
I am addicted.

The escalation process that got me started off rather humbly. Retrospectively, I would point at the introduction of the cheap Aldi coffee machine as my addiction’s starting point. Aldi’s did not deliver good coffee, at least not by my current standards, but it made decent coffee easily available at home.
The next stage, reported here, was the socialisation of coffee at work. It’s not as if I did not socialise over a cuppa before; the catch is that a dam has been breached once this socialisation turned into a regular, daily habit. That has happened for two main reasons: first, I developed a couple of proper friendships, implying I actively sought out the socialisation. And second, we have identified an excellent coffee place, which sent us socialising at the same venue on a regular basis.
The last stage, the straw that broke the camel’s back, came with the introduction of a good coffee machine at home. No longer satisfied with the Aldi’s performance, we got ourselves a proper replacement. Utilising beans carefully selected by yours truly and acquired at “my” regular coffee place, that coffee machine of ours delivers a mean latte – way better than almost everything that passes for coffee at your average coffee serving outlet. Which includes most coffee shops.
An elitist/snob has been created. This snob manifests himself in various ways. First, he would not accept any odd coffee; picky is his middle name. Second, he openly violates previously taken vows not to consume more than one coffee a day. He takes his second one weaker, but he would still take it. And third, he gets a headache when going through a day without coffee (though he would add that this headache is nothing he cannot withstand). But if these are not signs enough for you to accept my addiction, then this surely is: when I wake up in the morning, it’s the coffee I yearn for the most; and the first thing I want after drowning my coffee is yet another cup of coffee.

Now for the key question: is my addiction good or bad?
While any addiction has at least some negativity about it, if only due to the dependency it involves, I do not consider this addiction of mine to be worth fussing about. At least for now, it is not at a stage that even remotely requires medical intervention. Besides, rumour has it one or two cups of coffee a day can have their benefits (I will need to see more before I will believe that, though).
The social aspect of the coffee drinking is therefore taking most of the focus. Although coffee at home does not have the same social factor, it is nice to be able to confidently invite people over for a coffee. More to the point, the value of coffee as the pivot around which social interaction happens, whether at home or at the coffee shop, is quite high. And by now I have become a trend setter at work, introducing new acquaintances to the magic of well done coffee.
I would say that as an outsider to Australian culture, coffee is turning into my alcohol. Aussie culture tends to revolve around alcohol, a drug which I generally dislike. This tends to leave me at the fringes and makes social interaction hard to achieve. However, coffee is something I can take, something I love taking, and something almost everybody else around me loves taking, too. It may not have the same stature as alcohol in Aussie culture, but whatever it has is good enough for me. Or rather, it is as good a break as I can get when it comes to me being a social animal Down Under.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Running in the Family

For most of my life, I did not feel as if I had significant physical resemblance to my father. He was always way bigger than me to help such impressions.
Only at the last time I saw him, about a year ago, could I boast to weigh more than him. And on these roughly equal terms I could see how similar we were in shape and stature. It was only after his death that the resemblance genuinely hit me.
I took my father’s collection of driving licences he had collected over the years with me home as something to remember my father with. He had quite a collection of them, licensed as he was to drive almost everything with a motor that one can think of. The main thing I noticed with this collection is how my father's facial expression, as ascertained over the crap quality passport photos features on the cards, is so similar to my own. Even better, it was interesting to see how certain features I have developed over the years match certain features he had developed over the years, too. I can report with much sadness that I seem much older than my father did back when he was my age, but that's another matter; those driver licence photos do allow me a glimpse at what's ahead for me in the future.

My resemblance to my father is not limited to looks alone.
One of the most annoying things about my father’s recent death is that he had left the scene without seeming to have many opportunities to actually enjoy life. He kept his job and was working everyday well into his eighties till a year and a half prior to his death, when his health could not afford it anymore. I was hoping that at least at this period of his life he could have some genuine fun, but that did not happen; instead he spent his last year in hospitals.
It was always obvious my father always was, in most aspects of life, cool, calculated, and quite frugal; it wasn’t in his nature to go for a bit of a splash. That used to annoy me: why can't he enjoy himself by spending some money to make life easier or nicer?
I recall my brother and I frequently exchanging views on how this frugality could spell the end of my father, and in some respects there is evidence that it did. It appears as if once one gets old enough, it is really hard to change one's habits even if one knows there is no more reason for these habits.
However, as far as my father was concerned, our concerns did not matter much; over the years he seems to have established his own pleasure generating mechanisms, and these did not include the normal capitalist society things that come with opening one’s wallet wide. All he needed was a radio or a TV with the news on. Sports? Even better.
The odd thing about this way of life is that as much as I like to criticise my father’s approach, I seem to be well on my way to developing into some sort of a replica. Sure, I don’t know what a radio is anymore and I hardly ever watch live TV, but it does not take much effort to note that I am totally dependent on my Internet connection. Even on holidays, take away my RSS feed at your own peril. Clearly, I’m just like my father before me, even if his comfort came from Reshet Bet while mine comes from Ars Technica.
The obvious question that comes to my mind is the point of it all. What do I gain by being connected to the latest news of my area of interest? What did my father gain? Sure, there is some long lasting wisdom to be had from keeping abreast with developments; over time I became quite the expert on certain matters. Yet I think the obvious answer is that through this habit of ours, both my father and I felt/feel connected with the world – even if we are/were generally unable to do much in the way of making this world a better place.
I guess that feeling of connectivity is important to us social animals, although each of us has our way of achieving it. I take after my father.

Monday, 14 July 2014

World United

Yes, I would have preferred my team Holland to win the World Cup, but it’s not like I’m complaining. The team playing the best football won, and the fact that football was quite attractive only adds points in their favour. Second choice out of 32 isn’t too bad, isn’t it?
More importantly, characters such as Philipp Lahm and Joachim Löw deserve this trophy. Especially the latter, who proved Germany can get the results it is famous for getting in a very entertaining manner. There simply cannot be any comparison with the boring Franz Beckenbauer led team Germany presented back in 1990.

It goes without saying, but as great as football is, it is just a game; and a rather silly one at that. Is there something wrong with that? Not at all! Just look at this tiny little international incident this game had caused.
Alix Wilton Regan, the British actress who donated her voice to Mass Effect’s Traynor and to the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Inquisitor, did the natural thing and tweeted her delight to Germany scoring; I answered, and she than favoured my reply:
As I said, this is nothing. It’s completely meaningless. Or is it?
Think about it: an incident taking place in Brazil involving the nations of Argentina and Germany was discussed by a Brit whose night was starting and an Aussie whose new day was dawning. In real time.
Don’t tell me there are no wonders left in this world.

P.S. I'll leave you with this video from Alix:

P.P.S. It’s two years now to the Euro and the next bout of sleepless football nights. Guess that’s a price one has to pay when one chooses to leave at the world’s backside. On the positive side, it got me off my football addiction; I hardly ever watch games anymore.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

P.S. on the PS4

So yeah, I got a PS4 the other week.
Why now? Because:
  1. Especially after E3, it became clear the previous generation of consoles is no longer on developers' agendas. It's pretty much all about the new gen, even if up to now there have been no real killer games; and amongst this new gen's crop, the PS4 stands out as the one to get. Definitely after Microsoft released a unit that's focused on the prevention of gamers sharing games, the surveillance of gamers in their living rooms, and on mastering the entire TV watching experience that I no longer have and am not interested in.
  2. The new generation of consoles are not that expensive. Back when I bought the PS3 it cost me almost twice as much. (The Xbone is particularly cheap; clearly, people are not too keen.)
  3. I could get it at 20% discount through this one day special.
At this stage I only have one game for the PS4, Resogun (a modern day interpretation of Defender, one of my favourite Atari 2600 games). I am therefor far from qualified to pass judgement on the console, but I will say what many others have said before me: while the transition from the PS2 / original Xbox generation to the PS3 / Xbox 360 was quite dramatic, mostly through the introduction of high definition, this latest leap is much more subdued. Sure, I can see how Resogun features flashier graphics than my PS3 games, but I wasn't exactly knocked off my sofa with delight. Hopefully, we'll get better bang for our buck with time. I'm firmly looking at you, Grand Theft Auto 5 and Dragon Age: Inquisition!
One area where it seems I will definitely get less bang for my buck is home theater. At the time, we chose the PS3 over the Xbox 360 because it was a Blu-ray player; with time, through its DLNA support and other features, the PS3 became the center for our home entertainment much more than it did the center of our video gaming. The PS4, however, takes all of that away; you cannot play your own music or watch your own videos, at least not at this stage. Until Sony lets us do so through a firmware update, PS4 users are limited to watching material purchased/rented from Sony through the facilities provided on the PS4 (as well as access some other services like SBS on Demand or Foxtel, may its soul rot in hell; oddly, there is no ABC iView support). Am I holding my breath for Sony to support extended video playing? No, not really.
So where does that leave me? It leaves me in a world where the PS4 will grow to become my main video games console, but also a world in which my PS3 will still feature strongly. There are still plenty of good games for me to explore on the PS3 (anyone mention Mass Effect?), and its home theater capabilities have definitely not been rendered irrelevant by the PS4.
Well, at least the PS4 is half the size of the PS3, so as not to take up too much space next to the most successful and long lasting games console I have ever had.

Image by Jon Fingas, Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence