Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Music and other things

Saw a story on BBC News earlier that reminded me that for all the angels in this world, there's some absolute scumbags who try to drag the better people down. The story was on Little Boots, who's gotten fed up at rumours going around about her being a bit bigger than all those Stick Insect people the media seem to like.

One of the cruellest things to say about a person is to comment about their weight, for most people it's an incredibly sensitive subject. Someone who used to work on the same project as me saw me for the first time in a few years (big site, we bump into people like that). The only thing he could think of to say was "Cor Pete, you've put weight on". My weight's actually been stable for the past few years and the fella who said that found out what I thought of it due to me then refusing to talk to him (if that's all his conversation was going to amount to, heh heh heh sorry not interested).

Saying someone is fat is one of the most hurtful things to say to someone, hence why it seems to be the insult of choice when someone is trying to compete with a person far more talented and/or pretty than they are. It causes all sorts of problems, including pushing people into health issues like bulimia. It's usually an insult that comes from very small minded people and tends to be the limit of their creativity.

Hey ! That's enough about bullies, this post is supposed to be in appreciation of one of the prettier and most talented young ladies to hit the music biz for a few years :

Little Boots !

If you haven't heard anything by Little Boots so far, check out this one which was on Later with Jools Holland a while ago. It's the track Remedy from Hands, hopefully the first of many albums.

What isn't apparent from that video is the reaction from another singer on that show, Lisa Hannigan. Ms Hannigan sang "I don't Know" before Little Boots took her turn and did rather well. However, the Remedy performance appeared to blow her away, the two tracks from later on weren't nearly so accomplished, she actually looked shaken by the sheer class of the competition.

And that's the impression you get when you watch Little Boots play, you start by being enchanted by the little Pop Pixie but then you get drawn in by the quality of the music being played. There's those big eyes which catch the soul, making the ears listen in rapture to that perfect voice. She did it again on Friday night's Children in Need, following and showing up a rather tired performance by Alison Moyet. Big shame it was the last one of the night, coming on at almost 2am. Glad I stayed up for it :-)

There's only one Little Boots album so far, Hands. It starts with New In Town (Jools Holland again) and then storms through another 14 tracks. Hopefully there will be many more :-) I'll be keeping an eye out for news on Little Boots Facebook fan area.

It's distinctive high class music from someone who really can sing. You see so many pretend Wannabe people out there (have I commented on how much Emma Bunton butchered Edie Brickell's What I Am ?) I sat through (and fastforwarded/muted) a lot of Children in Need the other night, you listen for a bit to the latest Music Factory Special stick insect with mic and then you go "meh", NEXT! Not so with the Little Booted wonder.

She's gorgeous, has those "Make Me A Happy Slave" eyes, writes great songs and tops it off with a wonderful voice.


Right - time to get back to ignoring recorded Fringe episodes while being incredibly tempted to run that Remedy video ... just ... one ... more ... time ...

PS Fat v skinny - I prefer looking at people who look healthy rather than skeletal ... Everyone's body has a preferred shape, mine just happens to be slightly bigger than average :-) Trick is to be comfortable with who you are, big or small. That way leads to more confidence than any number of diet fads or pills. And that confidence is the true path to inner beauty.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

New Game Appreciation - Dragon Age

I've done a few posts before about games I've been particularly impressed with, however those have tended to be on old classics. Time for a look at a pretty new one today :-)

As my interest in the online games has waned, I've taken a look at something new from Bioware, a developer that's always produced outstanding role playing games : Dragon Age Origins. It's an old story being retold again, you're a hero who has to save the day against the incoming horde of nasty beings who want to destroy everything.

The early parts tell the origins of your character, I've done two of these so far. The first I did had a human noble who's father is betrayed, the second has a city elf who is carried off by some nasty piece of work noble people with rather nefarious intentions ... The origin stories introduce your character to the world and they get you used to the engine which runs the game. It's obviously inspired by other games, after all Bioware have had a huge amount of experience doing these games. However, it's easy to play and it allows for much faster, simpler combat action than would be possible in a D&D based Computer RPG.

There's four more Origins stories in there as well, will have to try them out in future plays. I went for the City Elf one today to restart my first run through before it got a bit too deep ... Think I went for a really tough start in my first run by going for the toughest area a bit early.

Saving the world is an excellent cause ... but unless there's some fun to be had it gets boring pretty quickly. I've bought more than my fair share of role playing games over the years, some grab me while others get put away and ignored. That fun aspect is what separates the ones that last from the ones that gather dust.

What elevates Dragon Age ?

One area that Bioware have always excelled in is character interaction. If you've read any of David & Leigh Eddings books, you'll have an idea of what I mean here. People who follow you around and help out that actually have real character. What grabbed me first with Dragon Age was how the characters Morrigan and Alistair don't get along. You'll have your party running through a town or country on the way to the next thing to thump and they'll then break out into a bit of banter. With Morrigan and Alistair, they like to bicker and some of the dialogue is laugh out loud hilarious.

Other companions include Leliana the bard, Shale the stone golem (inspired by HK-47), your faithful hound (really!) and a few more too (trying to avoid spoilers). Even your faithful hound gets in on the banter with a few character filled whines and barks. Yep, Alistair even gets outdone by the dog :-) As with all Bioware games, there's potential for relationships between the characters too.

It's a deep game, I've only scratched the surface of it so far. Looking forward to a few full plays through. Hopefully I'll get the chance to do so before Bioware's next masterpiece, Mass Effect 2, comes out :-)

For more, including pictures, check out the CVG review linked.

How's it actually run ?

My PC specs : Athlon X2-3800+ with 2GB Ram running WinXP. It's got an ATi Radeon 4850 in there.

It's not a really new PC, if I remember right it's had that cpu for 2, maybe 3 years. The graphics card was new this January. The performance in Dragon Age is surprisingly good. I have the resolution up as high as my monitor will take (1280x1024), which the engine handles well even with lots of the pretty options turned on. Frame rate is still pretty good even when the action hots up. No problems here.

Verdict - Bioware do it again, I reckon I'll spend as much time on this one as I have on most of their classics : Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars KOTOR, Mass Effect.

PS There usually is a word on stability with a PC game and it strikes again here ... There's a Crash-To-Desktop bug in Dragon Age that seems to hit the ATi cards. I got plagued with it on my first run through and it still hits certain areas. When it hits, it's a case of "Pete GO TO BED" :-) Always save often ...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oops - forgot a title :-)

You know those days when you're rushing around frenetically but when the day's done, you haven't a clue what you've achieved ?

Been having a few of those lately. Part of it's firefighting stuff that other people just haven't done, part of it's working my usual pattern of getting the little jobs out of the way quickly and then completely banishing them from memory. But I think the most part is down to being distracted again.

This time it's my back stiffening up and I guess this post shows how much it's bugging me at the moment. I'm one of those people who try to hide all signs of any pain they may be in, which is a trait I really took on while playing cricket. It's a tough game cricket, the randomness means you get hit pretty often by a ball which definitely isn't soft ... And if you show pain, it'll encourage bowlers who then think they're getting the better of you. So you don't show any sign that the ball that bounced a bit more than you thought has fractured a finger or that the one you took on the leg means your movement is hampered.

A batsman shaking a hand in pain or sporting a limp is like a red rag to a bowler, trust me - I've been the bowler with the evil grin a few times :-)

So I try to avoid all outward signs of any pain I may be in. Sometimes that's easy, there are wonderful days when I have no pain whatsoever. Other times it's hard, with the toughest part being to not get caught in a negative feedback loop where taking notice of the pain means you stress more, which tenses up the muscles which makes them hurt more. That's negative feedback (or negative reinforcement) at play.

So yeah - hey, my back's sore, time for me to try and deal with it.

What I'd like to do is find someone with strong fingers to rub that stiff part of me better. (Oi! I know there's one or two out there who thinks that last sentence is smutty :-) People like that seem to be a bit thin on the ground at the moment, or that could be my unfortunate habit of going after the unattainable.

What I think I'll have to settle for is a looooong hot shower (lets see if I can run the hot water tank to empty !) and then hope I don't embarass myself and others tomorrow by begging for a massage :-) :-) :-)

Other stuff I do when stress is rearing its head is try to make myself and others laugh. Turning frustration into fun doesn't make the problem go away but it is like making a statement that you're not going to let the stress win. It's either that or a deep need to bang one's head against the wall. That's why I prefer laughter, it has less chance of needing hospital visits than trying to do demolition without the proper tools.

What else have I been up to apart from feeling sorry for myself with a bad back ?

Think I may leave that for a post coming soon cos I hate to have a depressive post at the top of the blog :-) A summary would be : books, games, music, TV :

Legend of the Seeker - scifi channel series, watched 3 and it's got my interest bigtime. Possibly due to the Foxy & Ferocious Bridget Regan who co stars.
Defying Gravity - BBC are showing this and it's totally blowing away Stargate Universe. SG:U is dim, dark, depressing and devoid of humour. Defying Gravity is highly entertaining light, fluffy, decent scifi that cheats only a little. It remembers the purpose of TV, which is to entertain. Stargate SG:1 remembered that, Atlantis tried hard to entertain but they've totally forgotten with SG:U.

Books - finished the Ringworld series, it's a fitting epic end of the series. Next stop is the 2 books set in Bioware's Mass Effect universe.
Games - more Bioware, they have a talent for good storytelling and most importantly they draw the player in with the interaction with the non-player characters. I struggle with some well regarded computer role playing games like Bethesda's attempts (Elder Scrolls, Fallout 3) but Bioware's Dragon Age is another that has my attention. Possibly because of the character Morrigan, voiced by Farscape's Claudia Black.

Right - that hot shower is now overdue, time for me to escape to that so I can listen in to more of Morrigan's antics before trying for sleep.

PS Claudia Black has long dark hair. Bridget Regan in Legend of the Seeker has long dark hair. I'm doomed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Water, water everywhere

Birthday today :-)

And there's an excellent tradition that we have at work for those. Cakes ! I took mine in yesterday because another tradition at work on a Fryday (deliberate typo) is to haunt the canteen for the fry up. As usual, I buy way too many cakes, to the point where I've brought the remains of a box of minidonuts (chocolate tipped) home. They'll disappear over the weekend.

Watched "The Men Who Stare At Goats" last night with the Crazies. Truly strange film. Entertaining but very weird. The Mall was pretty nuts with traffic due to the Xmas lights going on, so we missed out on getting a decent meal in. I'd have missed out anyway due to being kept at work longer than I really wanted. Flexible working means I don't miss out there, we'll stay longer than 9 to 5 to finish things off because the flexi credit we get from that lets us leg it earlier on a day where we'd otherwise be clockwatching.

The people where I work have a habit of making that kind of thing worth it. I've been lucky to be involved for a while in a fun project with lots of great people. I got reminded of that this morning when I found a Happy Birthday card at my desk, signed by Ms Sunshine, the Snow Queen, WT and two other characters from that section that I've not mentioned before. That's Mrs S (who still scares me due to how effective she was at poking the younger me into doing training!) and the diminutive Miss M who's been keeping me honest with filing system stuff over the last few months :-)

They're a great bunch, complete with Superspy (you'd know where that codename comes from if I let slip his name :-) they're the Unsung Heros (Heroines? :-) keeping a big team running smoothly. Often unappreciated and unduly hassled, they stick to their guns and keep smiling. Especially Ms Sunshine, who's ever present grin brings brightness to dim, dismal days like today. (4pm and it's almost pitch dark from cloud and we're expecting lots of rain today) And our Snow Queen who gets to field all the IT questions about problems caused by the people who provide our IT. Every team needs a heart and that's our BM girls, ably assisted by The Boss. We're lucky to have them around. (Although we lose The Boss in a few months due to the impending arrival of a MiniBoss)

Right - that's work - what else am I getting up to today ?

Picked up presents from the Crazies that had gone back to the Post Office :-) And did the traditional tearing into the Amazon boxes :-) I have new books and new dvds that will keep me happy for a while. Now it's South Africa vs England in the cricket. Fully expecting England to get bashed but they're doing ok at the moment.

Pizza later :-) Unless the rain makes me chicken out and do the walk to collect it another day. Stepping outside the house right now may lead to drowning. I'm not kidding !

Oh - I stopped off to drop off a couple of minidonuts with the canteen girls and had a chance to run possibly my favourite bit of birthday related entertainment ... Most guesses have been scarily close, to within a couple of years (meh) but the Canteen Girl guess was 25 :-) Which is 10 years younger than actual. Cue a Big Grin :-)

But now - time to concentrate on a cricket match that's happily warming up while contemplating how long the minidonuts will last ...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Thinking of ...

... writing stuff again.

This is something I've been thinking about for a while, I reckon there's a book or two in me somewhere trying to sneak out. Trouble is, it's daunting thinking of all the setting up that a book would need before you can crack on with telling the story. The best books are consistent with themselves and stay faithful to all the little things. Rules get set up that govern the world, if those rules get broken then the readers can quite rightly call you a fraud.

Pacing is critical as well, I'm picking that up from watching Stargate Universe. I'm still curious about this new series, although it seems very badly afflicted by StarTrek Syndrome. That's an episode pacing style that has the cast fumbling to fix a problem, only to miraculously sort it at the end. SG Universe is similar, episodes tend to be slow-slow-slow until 5-10 minutes from the end when the pace goes ultra fast. And their problems get sorted out just in the nick of time. That pacing style seems rather jarring.

I've two options really for what I'd write in terms of the fictional setting. It would either be a Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy swords, sandals and magic world or it would be science fiction with starships. Worlds of magic are pretty easy, there's a blank slate and the Rules that govern the world can be far simpler. You just make them up because you can ignore the laws of physics if you want to. Or bend them with that magic stuff :-) Just have to be careful not to plagiarise someone else's world.

Science fiction on the other hand ... That's much tougher. This is where "being consistent with itself" bites really hard. You see it mainly with series that have grown and grown, with the backstory taking on a life of its own. David Weber's Honor Harrington series is very good but is starting to suffer from "where do we go from here ?" On the other hand, Larry Niven's Known Space books have a very strong theme running through because the Rules of that universe, while being quite tight, give a huge amount of scope allowing the stories to be about the characters.

Star Trek tied itself in hellish knots because of all the "Hey ! That looks cool, we'll use it in an episode". Plot devices that aren't properly thought out come back to bite you later. There's a quote in ST The Next Generation where the computer says "NCC 1701 D, the fifth Starfleet ship to bear the name Enterprise." Which was fine when that episode was written but got broken with the series Star Trek Enterprise. Star Trek also suffers immensely from the demon of Time Travel, allowing this to happen in a series (unless incredibly carefully planned) opens up all sorts of cans of worms. Curiously, the fella who wrote this alternate non-Federation ST timeline avoids time travel completely. That's a good read too, when you get around some of his phrasing :-)

So - I'd like to start writing scifi but I'm a bit daunted by the amount of setting up that would be needed before getting down to the fun stuff of storytelling.

Things like :

Mechs or tanks ? (noone argues with a 100tonne Big Robot)
What type of guns ? (projectile or energy)
How much attention do you pay to physics ? (Star Trek and Star Wars are extremely badly behaved with respect to physics)
Military or civilian characters ? (Star Trek vs Firefly)
Socio-political situation (religion, wars, customs)

Choices made there define the whole world and the rules within which the stories must play out. "New technology" as a plot device can only go so far in changing or bending those rules. Stargate is a decent example of how new technology can change the rules but it has to make sense or the audience is lost.

Hey ! That's enough about theory of writing fiction, why's this come out again ?

There's a few reasons, like reading some of the stories that come through the Eve alliance's newsletter. I play sci-fi style games that have great stories, with Mass Effect being a great example. I also get scenes sparking through my head as well, there's one running that involves a new spaceship in the yard having techs do inspections on it. Now there's a scene where an author could lead a reader into how the ships are put together. Interesting for a techie, not likely to be much story there though.

Stuff I do with work occasionally kicks off ideas that, as is normal with me, lead off into tangents so lateral they've turned longitudinal.

For the fantasy world, I had the starting few chapters of a novel lined up which I reckon would have grabbed people. A fantasy setting is best with a party of characters to have fun with and the Monday night gaming gives plenty of ideas there. Question is though, how to carry it on. Novel's gotta have a plot.

Riiight - that's enough Wall of Text about writing a Wall of Text :-) Time to get back to listening to stuff while wondering if my blocking sinuses (and resulting slight sore head) will let me play that Internet Space Ship game :-)