Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Spider Man

I, for one, do consider the average Aussie to have been mistreated, and cruelly so, through the local culture’s lack of exposure to the culinary delights of humus and its variants. However, on their side, Aussies do have some tricks of their own that can partially make up for the trauma [very partially!].
In other words, who could have thought that adding ice cream to a fizzy drink could cause such delight?
I’m talking about a drink known locally as a “spider” (I was told Brits refer to it as a “float”). The concept is simple: put a ball of ice cream in a glass and add a carbonated drink. The mixture will create a layer of foam of varying thickness depending on the drink: cream soda seems to work better than the rest, and diet drinks do not perform as well (but they do perform).
Regardless of the foam and its thickness, the mere combination of ice cream and a nice drink works wonders. I’m hooked; so much so that Sunday I had three spiders, one with each main meal.
And as always when it comes to food I’m unable to hold myself from, I do not want to stop and think of the implications spiders hold for my weight.

Monday, 29 July 2013

R-Wards 7


My reviews blog is celebrating its 7th birthday today. You are all invited to take part and read the summary of the year that was, where I hand the much coveted R-Wards to the best of last year. Just click here and you will be on your way.
Oh, it's a BYOC affair (Bring Your Own Cake).


Image: BioWare

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Playing PC games from the sofa


This morning Good Game Spawn Point answered this household's critical question on how to play PC games from the comfort of our sofa and through our lovely TV. You can watch their explanation here (fast forward to 6:24); sadly there is no embeddable version yet, although Good Game are quite good at posting their stuff to YouTube about a month after the program airs.
Thank you, Good Game; and thank you Bajo & Hex!


Image copyright: Good Game Spawn Point, ABC

Friday, 26 July 2013

Magic Gathers

As reported here, I got myself Magic: The Gathering cards at the weekend’s PAX Aus. Actually, I bought a couple of packs, blue and red (selected as per my son & I’s favorite colors), and received a bonus supplementary red pack for participating in a short training game session. After that session I thought I saw some potential with this game.
At home I put the cards away where I put my toys (read: expensive gadgets). At my son’s request I took them out and left them where my son leaves his favorite toys (read: the living room’s coffee table).
The other night, slumbering in the post dinner, pre son’s bath doldrums, I opened the extension pack I used for my only Magic: The Gathering session thus far. I looked at the cards, I carefully read the instructions, and I answered some questions from my son.
Then I felt it. The same feeling I had as an eighth grader, when my parents took my then LA based cousin and I to visit Jerusalem. Walking through the city streets we hit upon a shop displaying an item I’ve heard about before but never had the chance to sight before: A red box covered with a drawing of a fiery dragon. The basic set of Dungeons & Dragons.
I managed to convince my parents to get it for me. To be honest, I don’t think I left them much choice. It was quite expensive by then’s standards, yet its cost was negligible in comparison to the money I continued to pour into Dungeons & Dragons during my high school years. Most of those old rule books, including that very first one, have been thrown away by my parents over time; I can’t blame them too much there, having left them behind when I left Israel (but then again, you have to be mad to throw away books, don't you?).
Why did I leave my Dungeons & Dragons behind? Simple: because although I read them all thoroughly, I hardly played them. There simply wasn’t enough interest in my group of friends, plus – and probably more importantly – we (and particularly I) were pretty bad at it. As in, we didn’t role play much; we were focused on dice throwing and beating the numbers required to kill the next monster so we could get the next level up. Again, I was the chief culprit in this game.
Beneath all this nonsense, however, lay a strong spark of the type that always ignited my imagination. I could see that spark lighting up a proper flame each time I stumbled upon a good swords & sorcery fantasy book, like The Palace Job. Now, with Magic: The Gathering I could feel it again. And I can feel how the same old story is going to repeat itself: I can clearly see how I’m going to pour money into cards and into the iPad game, only to hardly play the game at all.
History will repeat itself to the letter. Between the lack of interested gaming partners and my overall severe lack of spare time, my Magic: The Gathering cards are doomed to collect dust. Yet I will argue the benefit they bring, that sparking of my imagination, that way of sending my thoughts that a particular path, is worth the admission price.
I will further elaborate on that point. Throughout high school I would be blamed for wasting my money on D&D stuff (or, as my mother would call it, "The Game"). Later in my life I would be blamed for buying CDs, and even later laserdiscs. Indeed, on the face of it, I did pour a lot of money down The Game's drain; but was it a waste? With the aid of the perspective of a couple of decades I can confidently argue it wasn't. Those D&D books were amongst my first ever English adult reading material I grappled with. It was hard, damn hard, but I made it because I was interested. And now? Now I read and write in English for my living. Not to mention blogging in English.
D&D can take a lot of credit there. It wasn't a waste of money, just like the music and movies that followed weren't. It was one of those things that made me what I am now, because I - like most people - learn best through play. Hopefully, I could trigger similar processes in my son.


Image copyright: Wizards of the Coast 


27/7/13 Update: 

I stand corrected. I just found that original D&D set my parents bought me on my book shelf. Apparently, I brought it over from Israel back in 2011.
I would like to apologize before my mother.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Reasons for leaving Israel for Australia, Episode 42

I took the risk and I am regretless. Now I can live a life I chose, instead of one based on pleasing my ancestors.
The above quote is from the book Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson. The statement is made by an alien explaining to the human hero why it journeyed all the way to earth knowing it would never see its parents again.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Pigs Can Fly


A question to my fellow travellers. When you stay at a certain place, how do you compare between that place and other places you’ve stayed at before?
It sounds simple, but an objective comparison is not easily achieved. There are lots of factors to take into account, like price, value for money, location, room size, Internet connectivity, sleep quality, amenities, and a whole lot more.
Allow me, therefore, to propose a much simpler evaluation method. And it goes like this.
In my opinion, the quality of the breakfast experience seems to have significant impact on the memories of perceived quality I have left after visiting a place. It also seems a good indicator for everything else. As in, if the breakfast is good, so is the hotel; if it's bad, the stay is not as nice. Breakfast matters.
Now, let me ask you this: how does one rate a breakfast?
Oh, I can hear you coming back with a multitude of answers. But I’ll stop you before exhaustion takes you over. Think about it: what is the most important part of a good traveller’s breakfast? What is the one single thing that can make an otherwise average to good breakfast awesome?
I will spell my answer for you: B-A-C-O-N.
That’s it. Bacon. No need to bother describing the rest of the breakfast; no need to tell me what the hotel is like and how near it is to the attractions. Just tell me one thing: how good is its bacon?

I was thinking of this Bacon Meter while galloping and refilling my plate with more bacon at Sydney’s Sheraton on the Park hotel the other week. Smoked and crispy, its bacon was done just right, albeit not as good as Canberra’s Crowne Plaza. The latter goes one step further to offer elastic pink bacon for the non believers and proper crispy bacon to those that know and like their bacon. Still, the Sheraton does marginally better than the Swissotel Stamford at Singapore: while theirs is definitely smoked, it is not as crispy.
Then we have the disappointing hotels, those that cannot produce bacon for the life of them. My number one disappointment proved to be the Swissotel Sydney, where I simply avoided the bacon altogether; and as you should be able to tell by now, when the bacon is this bad then the rest of the stay has its issues. Then there are the average hotels, like Rydges, who offer what I describe as a “compromised meh experiences”: their bacon is, indeed, meh.
So there you go. Trip Advisor? No thanks. Just give me a good, reliable, bacon rating.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Notes from PAX Aus


PAX Aus was in town! The previously USA only, but now Australia (Melbourne?) too, all-about-gaming event was here. We had no intention of missing it! Thus yesterday my son, his Cyclops Teddy and I dressed up in our N7 attire and buckled up to make our way to attend PAX' last day. The only day I could get a ticket for by the time we made our minds up to go.
And then we had to unbuckle ourselves and go back home because our N7 car had a flat. This time around I couldn’t be bothered and called RACV for “rescue”. That turned out to be a wise decision as we were on our way within half an hour (next weekend, though, I will have a $210 + balancing costs appointment with the tyre shop).
Following is an account of the rest of the day that was.

I will start with my major highlight, because this highlight provides much needed background.
My highlight of the day was meeting up with four of the BioWare people behind the Mass Effect series: Lead editor Karin Weekes, husband and lead writer Patrick Weekes (also an author by his own rights), producer Cameron Lee and community coordinator Chris Priestly. The signatures of all four are on the above PAX program. Me, I will not deny it is the former two I was interested in the most because it is their art that makes the games as good as they are.
The main thing here was to meet some of the people that caused some major changes in the lifestyle of my entire family over the course of the past year and half. We were always gamers, to one extent or another; but through Mass Effect 3 captivating my nights, then my wife, then my days, then my son our gamesmanship has received a certificate of approval. The interest in the game was unsurpassed: its characters became household names, and as mentioned here before the whole family sat together for five hours for the game’s culmination.
This unprecedented interest triggered a domino effect. Gaming was on our daily agenda, as opposed to something I do after everybody else goes to sleep. My son took to iPad gaming, then grew interested in Skylanders, moved on to discover our previously dust gathering Wii for playing Skylanders with, and then discovered the Mario games we all but forgotten about. Today we have a Wii U we all play with, and we have a PS3 that’s devoted to Mass Effect but does the occasional job on the side (e.g., Journey). We’re all heavily into iOS games, and we even started looking into PC gaming. Note the use of "we".
It all started with Mass Effect. I recall saying there is no Shepard without Vakarian; well, there would have been no PAX for my son and I without Mass Effect.

Let me say the following about this past weekend’s PAX Aus: I have never taken part in an event of such a massive scale that was so well organized. Once inside everything went well, usually exceptionally. From parking (a reasonable $10) to the clean and well maintained toilets, the organization was impeccable.
The people were, too. I’m not talking about the hordes of cosplayers, many of which were scantily dressed young human females braving the cold. From the people running the event (the ones I spoke with were all volunteers) to the attendees themselves, everybody was nice. Everybody respected one another. Everyone was always nice to one another. I approached the event with some fear, worrying how I will cope with my son; turned out I had nothing to worry about. If anything, my son’s young age guaranteed us preferential treatment and extra understanding wherever we went. How shall I put it? I expected the football crowds I remember from my childhood but I got nice, friendly and often caring people instead. Should we attribute it to the lack of alcohol on board?
The two disappointments I did encounter were the result of external issues. We chose to use our car instead of public transport because the Sunday timetable plus the need to switch trains (or trams) meant it would take us hours to get there and back again. We proved ourselves right when we saw how packed the tram was upon arriving to the Showgrounds (to quote my son, “it was as full as a million potatoes”).
The other issue I had was with us being blocked from the PC gaming area in its entirety. Why? Because the area featured unrated games, and thus my son’s soul was to be put in danger were he to step in. That’s 21st century Australia for you: the country decides what’s good for you or not; you are too dumb, but the country knows better. Well, for the benefit of greater Australia and its glorious rating system I will mention that I had no issues taking my son in between violent console video gaming sessions. We both had a ball, and I’m sure he will grow up to be a mass murderer like his father before him.
Complaints aside, we all enjoyed the event a lot. Even Cyclops Teddy, which proved popular with Karin Weekes. I came in in the morning wondering how many hours my son will last; I left in the evening having to drag him away as PAX closed.

So, what’s in PAX anyway?
To cut things rough, the event is split in three. One area is the exhibition area, where manufacturers & Co display their wares. Next, there are areas devoted to panels where you basically go to hear people talk. On my particular day none were worth the agony of dealing with a bored child; that said, I would have loved to attend the BioWare and the Good Game sessions. The last area is the play area, where people come to play games. And by “games” I mean video games (console and PC), board games (proper ones, not Monopoly or Scrabble; I’m talking Katan and Small World grade here), and card games (again, proper card games, like Magic the Gathering; not poker and other casino grade stuff). It may surprise you to know we spent most of the day in the latter section.
At this stage I will go back to praising the organization: PAX was sold out, yet we were never crushed by hordes. We were able to access anything we wanted to through queues that this queue phobic person could easily handle. I hear that some of the panels were of exception, with both BioWare's and Good Games proving too popular and full to capacity 90 minutes before the show. Next time, Gadget, use bigger venues. Next time.
I quickly realized that all hopes of doing the things I wanted to do should be dispensed with. Instead, we would both have much more fun if my son was allowed to do what he wanted to do and I focused on the essentials. Thus when the tweet from BioWare announcing their signing event came up (through the event's all encompassing wifi) my son had no dramas with leaving his post to join my pilgrimage.
Thus we spent our time playing a bit, wandering around, and mostly watching other people playing all sorts of things. Mostly console games, but not only console games. Let me entertain you with personal points of interest…
  • Indie gaming: The iPad games coming from small developers I had a go at were all charming. Both my son & I enjoyed Tasty Fish (iOS universal) and Crabitron (iPad). Then again, how could a game where you play a crab go wrong?
  • Retro gaming: A special section was dedicated for old consoles and PCs. I spotted a Commodore 64, an Amiga, an Amstrad, an old Atari console (but not my first, the 6200), and Super Mario 3. My son was quite excited about what seemed to him as simple games, but he was quickly disappointed by their unforgiving nature when he took them on. Me? I enjoyed the blast from the past.
  • Nintendo: Amongst others Nintendo let us play their new Pikmin 3 game (released in a week’s time) and the new Mario 3D World (a Christmas release). Both were great: I can see myself playing the Mario game and having great fun, especially on multiplayer, just like Super Mario is fun on the Wii U today. As for Pikmin, the mechanics of it make it an ideal game for the child in the house. We will wait for the Good Game assessment (mostly because our bank account is in the red), but I cannot foresee a scenario where we do not buy this game.
  • Magic the Gathering: I managed to convince my son to give this card game a go. We bought a pack and got a volunteer instructor to teach us and take us through a demo game. I’m sure she let me win, but my son was all excited about the card gaming prowess I was putting on display… Regardless, between the pictures and the simple mechanics, there is a future for this game at our household. As well as a future for me forking out on cards and the iPad game. That’s $10 I’ll be spending once I get my iPad Mini; now, Apple, can you get a move on and release a retina Mini so I could buy it?

So yeah, we had great fun, doing this and getting that. I did notice some absenties, though. Most notable in the field of not being there was Skylanders, especially with Swap Force on the horizon; then again perhaps Activision mistook PAX to be an old man’s war. Silly them.
I was also short on the celebrity count. Good Game’s Bajo & Hex did not attend the Sunday, which left me with Clare Costigan  as the only Australian celebrity I managed to identify. She was very nice, though, posing for everyone with a camera. It's not every day a nerd like me gets a professional model to pose for him.
Indeed, as I said, everyone was very nice all the time, which meant it was a pity not to bump into anyone I know (as in, a friend). On that note, friends who want to try their hands at cards are welcome to try a game over Skype.
I realize I will be criticized for taking a young child an event such as PAX, with computer violence in the background and all. I realize I will be criticized for letting my son play too many video games and games in general when “he should focus on his studies”. Yet I argue that not only did he enjoy PAX, and not only does he enjoy playing; I argue the best learning he will ever get will come from playing. In this world where kids are driven everywhere and are not allowed to go outside on their own, video games are their only refuge. My son prospers playing them, and I will do my best to help him along - mostly by reminding him of his worldly responsibilities.
Here's to next year's PAX at Melbourne!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Summer Kisses Winter Tears

P1000298

One of this winter’s core themes has been the following: generally, I’m feeling fine; once I get into the office I feel bad. It is important to note this has nothing to do with work itself, as I find myself perfectly happy when I get to work from home; it’s just the office environment that does it to me. This winter.
Thus far I managed to dig up the following ideas in order to explain this phenomenon:
  1. Environmental causes: There is something in the air conditioning that stuffs me up. Or could it be the neon lighting?
  2. Psychological causes: The combination of wearing uniform (otherwise known as “business clothing”) plus the sight of an office work to unscrew too many nuts in my head.
  3. I’m getting older.
What do you think? Did you find yourself stuck in similar themes?

On a totally different note, this winter’s other core theme has been its rather mild nature. Thus far, at least. As in, we had cold, we even have rain from time to time, but we’re past the middle of July and we are yet to have the weeks upon weeks of miserable, sunless, weather that hit Melbourne on an annual basis.
I was talking to my mother, expressing my worries concerning these visible effects of global warming. “Oh, so now you are trying to fix the world?”, my mother replied her nasty, accusing tone.
There is just no pleasing some.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Celebrity Bumping

Noah Taylor & The Sloppy Boys @ Phoenix Public Bar Brunswick 7.12.11

A couple of months ago I was walking down the streets of Melbourne on my way home. Yes, I can assure you, I did just that! Only that on this particular occasion I realized the person walking towards me is non other than actor Noah Taylor (you may remember him from Shine, or more recently from Game of Thrones). He was tall, skinny and smoking. And he was a celebrity.
Our looks crossed each other and it was obvious he acknowledged my gazing.
We went past one another and that was it. A question remained in my head, though: Noah Taylor is a fine actor, but what would have happened if it wasn’t Taylor that I bumped into? What would have happened if I was to randomly bump into a celebrity I care about? The specific name that came into my mind was Yvonne Strahovski: it is not entirely impossible for me to bump into her on the streets of Melbourne, you know. I don’t know (or care) how American she now is, but she is an Aussie; and obviously she worked in Melbourne before (Killer Elite was shot here relatively recently).
This remote possibility triggered thought experiments in my mind. What is, exactly, the correct protocol for engaging a celebrity I care about during a random meeting? Obviously, they wouldn’t care about me in the least; obviously, anything I do would be an intrusion on whatever it is they are doing. Yet, on my side of things, the opportunity to exchange a word or even take a photo with the celebrity is priceless. Plus, being that the celebrity’s entire status hangs on the shoulders of people like yours truly regarding them as celebrities in the first place, one can surely argue that to one extent or another they are in debt to us minions?
So, what is the right thing? Having thought about it on my way home that day I arrived at the conclusion that if I was to walk down the street and bump into an otherwise unoccupied Richard Dawkins I would not be violating the Geneva Convention by dropping a word of admiration. And if that word receives a favorable reply, but only if, I should not feel as if I murdered a puppy were I to ask for a minor favor. Say, a photo.

All this came into my brain’s agenda today because this weekend I expect to be bumping into celebrities I care about at Melbourne’s PAX Aus. Armed with my son, I am looking forward to bumping with the likes of Patrick Weekes (lead writer for this game I heard about called Mass Effect, and author of this book I quite liked) and wife Karin Weekes (lead editor). Or perhaps Bajo and Hex from ABC’s Good Game?
The premises are different. At a gaming convention these celebrities are much more fair game: one of the core purposes of these events is to allow mingling. On the other hand, when I’m person 10,000 to ask Bajo a silly question, should I expect him to take kindly to the matter?
I will therefore try and handle myself according to the previously mentioned rules of celebrity engagement. I will, however, try and utilize the five year old by my side to create more charming terms of engagement.


Image by debra, Creative Commons license

Monday, 15 July 2013

I Died in Rome

Mind you, I didn't just die; I died a millionaire. Doubt me? Then read the following letter!

I died in Rome

For the record, I received this letter at home a couple of weeks ago.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Rising Demand

Gigabit

If I choose to look at it from a historical perspective, our use of the Internet tells a lot about how we grew to depend on it. Me, I still recall those ancient days of dial up, when my monthly Internet usage was less than 4MB.
The story should be familiar: those 4MB grew to hundreds of megs, than to a gig (wow!), then to a few gigs, then many gigs... And this week I had to open my wallet $10 wider a month in order to accommodate for our rising consumption of Internet bandwidth, now in the hundreds of gigs a month.
You may well argue this story is less about me and my rising Internet consumption and more the story of the poor infrastructure available to Aussies wishing to communicate with the world, as mirrored through the stupidly excessive rates we pay down here for our mobile phones (first calls, and now data) as well as Internet access. When I hear of Americans and their taking for granted of unlimited Internet access facilities I can only sigh in despair.
That sad story aside, I have identified three main reasons for the current rise in Internet consumption:
  1. Our entertainment, as in music and video, is turning more and more to be Internet based. The latest development is our son's discovery of ABC's iView as well as his ability to watch gaming videos on YouTube for hours upon hours. When you consider their high definition nature, you can understand how watching them is the equivalent of leaving the tap running on full.
  2. Gaming means plenty of downloading. The PC games I mentioned in my previous post are all heavy downloads; Star Wars the Old Republic alone is a 20GB download just to get started.
  3. System updates: the need to keep all my computing infrastructure, with all its multiple environments, secure and up to date consumes a lot of bandwidth. This type of behind the scenes consumption manifests itself in all sorts of different ways: when I take a photo on my iPhone, it gets uploaded to iCloud and then automatically downloaded to both my iPad and my Mac; all this consumes bandwidth one is generally unaware of (other than the rather mysterious network slowdowns taking place while this process runs).
The next step? Paying the ultimate price for unlimited Internet consumption. I suspect that era would dawn upon us when video services such as Netflix are finally made available to us trodden Aussies.


Image by Ben Stanfield, Creative Commons license

Forgotten Realms

My gaming world seems to have gone mental lately through the collision of multiple trends:
  1. First there is the rise of the household's new gamer, my son. His world is now divided between his Nintendo characters, Skylanders, and "his" iPad with its endless supply of games and videos to consume. Since my son occupies most of my time at home, so does his gaming.
  2. Me, I'm trying to get rid of most of my PS3 games because my PlayStation is not a PlayStation anymore, it is a Mass Effect station. There is no point in holding on to other games because, one by one, I sample them only to realize I prefer to play the real thing instead. It got to a level where there is a brick wall between non Mass Effect games and my PS3.
  3. All the reservations I have concerning the upcoming new generation of consoles is leading me to look for better alternatives. The glaringly obvious is the world of PC gaming.
Thus I am finding myself exploring this world I haven't visited for long while, the world of PC gaming. Thus far I tried my hands with several games:
  1. World of Tanks: My PAX Australia ticket came with a bonus offer for this game so I thought I'd give it a shot. It's quite nice but its highly competitive player vs player collisions made a couple of things glaringly obvious: first, I am totally useless with keyboard+mouse controls. And second, my Windows laptop, purchased three years ago solely for its attractive price, is no gaming machine.
  2. FTL: An interesting game I got through the Humble Bundle for Windows, Linux and Mac in a DRM free package for $2.50. Steam is currently selling it for the same price through its current sale. That said, I haven't actually given the game a proper go yet...
  3. Star Wars the Old Republic: Acknowledged as an MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) failure of a game, I tried it on for size because I could play it for free and because it was made by Bioware. As in the makers of Mass Effect Bioware.
  4. Company of Heroes: Good Game recently mentioned this 2007 game in their review of its sequel. I got this RTS (Real Time Strategy) title, a genre I used to like in my former PC gaming days, through the Steam sale for $7. Thus far it seems as if my son and I could spend a lot of time with this title. Being an old title, it also seems to work fairly well on my incapable PC!
  5. Dota 2: The latest MMO from Valve seems a promising free to play Dungeons & Dragons like adventure.
  6. Neverwinter: Talking about Dungeons & Dragons MMOs, this is the real thing - and it looks damn good, even on my PC.
The point of this story is that it seems as if I'm on to a whole new complicated world of gaming. The last three titles in particular seem as if they will easily consume the next few months of my life; from there the road to further incursions on my wallet, for better hardware, is firmly paved.
More importantly, I am reminded of where the attraction in PC gaming is: through the availability of a keyboard and a mouse, and the lack of limitations imposed by console provider servers, games can be much more complicated. It appears as if MMOs are taking full advantage of this power to create an attractive gaming experience, and experience I am now looking forward to exploit.


Image rights: Neverwinter

Friday, 12 July 2013

20th Century Schizoid Men & Women

SMS

Lots of us seem to still be stuck in the 20th century. No, I’m not talking about those still using a mirror to check on themselves in this age where everyone carries a front facing camera on their phone; I’m talking much, much worse.
I’m talking about people who, in this day and age, still send SMS messages to one another. I can see where the need comes from: often one wants to push across a message to another person without breaking into full conversation but while having fair confidence the message will be read shortly. Virtues aside, you already know this thing about SMS: per character, it’s the most expensive method conjured for sending your characters away. Not to mention its inherent limitation, being a text service.
All the while services such as Twitter, Whatsapp, Viber, Skype or Google Hangouts – to name but a few – are not only free, more or less, but are also far superior. As in, you can hold chats, send photos, send videos, or – wait for it – even embark on a video call if you feel like it. Or a video conference call. As in, all of these are services that allow your conversation to flow one way or another, whichever way you see fit, and the cost? Nil.
Yet people still send SMSs. Or, heavens forbid, make phone calls.

Note I did not mention privacy throughout. By now we know that all of the above mentioned forms of communication are tappable or are actively being tapped by the NSA (Skype being a favorite example); we know Australia takes an active part in this tapping; and we also know information collected by the NSA is shared with “friendly” governments around the world.
If you value your privacy, as you should, then you will need to look for it elsewhere. Here would be a good place to start. However, do note that at the moment the services that can provide private communications are significantly lacking user friendliness when compared with mainstream services. Also note their true level of privacy is debatable, given their reliance on passwords and people’s general inability to securely maintain passwords that make the grade.


Image by Erik_Schlange, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 7 July 2013

GILFs


When times are tough it is good to think positive. In my case, thinking positive tends to involve gadgets. Following are some gadgets I've been having in my sights, Gadgets I'd Like to Fork my money on (when/if I had the money, that is). In other words, GILFs.

1. Sony RX100:
As recently mentioned, my iPhone 5 is now serving as my main camera. Its main advantages are its immediacy (the fastest to draw, the fastest to process), it always being there, and it being socially acceptable in places proper cameras aren't (for example, armed security people with minimal wit are found not to care for mobile phone cameras yet care too much for SLRs). However, one thing the iPhone's camera cannot be blamed to have is quality, at least when compared with any proper camera.
So, how could I bridge the gap? One potential answer is through a pocket camera, especially one able to compete - and under some conditions beat - my current SLR. That camera is the Sony RX100, the [big] pocket camera with a large sensor for its size. Sony has now released a Mark II version with better low light performance to sell along the original model, but alas: price is still a thorny issue. My plan is to still rely on my SLR for the demanding stuff and use the Sony for the rest of my planned photography assignments.
Alas, there are plans and there is reality. While the original can be bought for $600 on eBay, the II will probably require $750.

2. Sennheiser Momentum:
I really should write a proper review for these headphones, but for now allow me to say this: I consider the Sennheiser Momentum to be the best headphones ever. Sure, there are better sounding headphones around. But under real life listening conditions the Momentums are the best.
It's quite simple, really. Better sounding headphones are designed to be used with a headphone amp; the Momentum are happy with a mobile phone driving their flat and undemanding impedance curve. Better headphones tend to be of an open design because of that design's potential for low distortion, but the Momentums manage to provide excellent performance in a public (read: background noise) friendly closed design.
Their only problem? Price. I tried to get them through a Hong Kong/Australian online shop for $332 but found myself entangled in deceit. Two months later I'm still dealing with that. Although I got most of my money back, since I have been burnt with such gray imports before I'll be looking for someone I can trust instead. Apple is such a company, and they sell the Momentums for $400.

3. iPad Mini.

4. Gaming PC:
I severely doubt ever getting to the point of buying one, but I am trying to get a grip of what's going in the field of gaming PCs.
The first question is whether to go with a desktop solution or a laptop. Desktops have the potential to be much more powerful and are definitely cheaper, but they lack portability. Given I don't see the attraction of playing by my desk, it appears portability wins.
So, which is the gaming laptop should I go with? The usual suspects make stuff that is suitable for gaming, but there are specialists like Clevo with its Horize and Metabox brands (mainly sold in Australia by LogicalBlueOne and Affordable Laptops). But then there's the drool inducing gaming ultrabook from Razer, the Apple of the gaming laptop world.
But the cost... A good gaming laptop comes north of $1500, and that figure is way beyond anything I could remotely justify while still residing firmly in Console Land.


Image by Ariel Zambelich/Wired, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Happy 4th of July!

This is what 237 years of freedom evolution get you:



Image rights: MCT

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

It's Not Me, It's Him

Wii U Miis

Up until Easter we haven't used our Nintendo Wii for more than a year. And then everything changed.
During Easter I found Kmart had the first Skylanders game on sale, but with a caveat: the sale price only applied for the Wii. Given we already had a Wii and we didn't know what to do with it I figured "what the hell" and bought it, even though previously I had it in mind to get this game that my son coveted so badly for our very much alive PS3. The rest, as they say, is history: The Wii became my son's favorite toy, far surpassing the PS3, and all my son's other toys are now gathering dust; between "his" iPad and his Wii, nothing else matters.
The Skylanders fad seems to have came and went. By now we are stuck with dozens of characters my son doesn't care much for anymore (although in my eyes they are pretty cool, especially the giants). Once on the Wii, his attention turned to Nintendo's most famous characters: he is now firmly in Mario land. Standard definition? Poor graphics? He couldn't care less.
Can't blame him, really. These games are ever so delightful, and obviously so appealing to the innocent child that he is. I should have see it coming! The only unknown in this equation, though, is how long will this craze last. History says: not that long. Definitly not long enough to justify further expense.
Yet further expense is where I went: the Wii that has rarely been touched for more than a year has now been stashed away, soon to be sold on eBay, in favor of its younger sibling - the Wii U. Not the best console ever, and currently featuring a very limited games catalog, the Wii U does have one important card up its sleeve: it is the current ticket for getting new Mario games. Oh, and it's also high definition. But more to the point, from my point of view there is no better way to get my son into gaming than this. The Wii U's games are tailored for his age, an age where he can hardly even read; there is no need to ensure he doesn't go astray on a PC; and the games themselves are of the fairly innocent nature that no one can claim to contaminate his mind. If anything, they're an open ticket to set his imagination loose with.
So there we go: we have a new games console at home, but it's not mine. Oh, and if you're after a relatively unused Wii (sans controllers; these are fully compatible with the Wii U, so we're keeping them), let me know. $40 + postage, a special price just for you.

Image: a family portrait made out of Wii U Miis.