Kiss me like the ocean breeze (redux)

Technically, can you call it 'surfing' when you barely managed to get to your knees? Consequently, can I start calling myself a 'surfer' now? Please?

Kiss me like the ocean breeze

In just under an hour, I'm leaving Dublin and heading to sunny Sligo for a weekend's surfing and camping. According to Met Eireann, it's going to be rainy and windy (42km/h). Perfect for the surfing part of the weekend, not so great for the camping part.

For the rain-delay parts, I'm bringing a few things to read:

Of course, there's a very good chance I could die out there. Whether it's from exposure, or at the hands of a crazed, knife-wielding maniac. Or maybe even in a really nonsensical, over-hyped way, Blair Witch-style. Or perhaps just from embarassment as I make a complete ass of myself on a surfboard.

Either way, if I don't make it back, avenge my death.

EffecTV - real-time visual effects

There's a discussion on Thumped about the merits of 'visuals' at gigs/shows. Personally speaking, I'm all in favour of some sort of visual show to accompany the music, especially when the music of the particularly chin-stroking variety. Although I can see where many people's complaints are coming from: it gets very tiring seeing the same handful of movies being chopped up to make a visual backdrop.

So that's why I think something like EffecTV is such a good idea. Armed with a computer running Linux and a webcam, you can create some pretty interesting visuals in real-time, for a tiny, tiny budget. Installation (on Ubuntu, at least) was a snap. And it goes some way to providing a middle-ground for the people who don't want to spend the night looking at a DJ nodding his head and people who don't want to see the same old stock footage soaked in irony.

Here's a shot of me playing with it earlier - not mind-blowing, but bear in mind that this was being displayed on my desktop in real time.

Side-note: Jesus, I really need to trim my beard.

Unlocking Sony DVD players

I recently bought another new DVD player - a Sony DVP-NS52. Both the Sony Store and Peats offer to make this player multi-region for an extra EUR20. I opted not to go for this and take my chances unlocking it myself (albeit safe in the knowledge that I could bring it into Peats and get them to unlock it at any time in the future for the EUR20).

Anyone with a region-locked Sony DVD player could do worse than to check out Selen.org's Making the Sony DVP-NS705V multi-region before shelling out for a 'chip' or anything like that. Although this didn't list my model explicitly, it did say that it theoretically should work for the entire "NS" series, and has even worked across other models. I tried it on mine last night and success!

One note though - Windows 2000 and XP have nasty IR support. You're much better grabbing a DOS boot disk from bootdisk.com and using that instead.

A weekend wasted

My girlfriend took off to Westport on Friday for a hen weekend, leaving me with an entire weekend to myself. By Friday evening, I had slipped back into the exact lifestyle I lived before I met her. Watching bad movies, eating food that would rot my teeth (and my gut) and playing games that would rot my brain.

Over the course of a single weekend, I watched nine movies (For the record: Children of the Corn I-III, House of the Dead, Jaws, the Incredibles w/animators commentary, Red Sonja, Exorcist III, Clerks). I also spent some time rearranging my DVDs. After trying a few standard organisational schemes (Alphabetical, chronological..), I decided to set myself a challenge and organise my 800+ DVDs by colour (and then by sub-colour, e.g. white background with red writing, white background with blue writing).

I'm not entirely thrilled with the results. Disappointingly, approximately 60% of my DVDs have either black or white sleeves, which means that our shelves look a whole lot more sterile than I'd hoped.

My favourite organisational scheme so far has been contextual - Robocop beside Total Recall beside Scanners (Paul Verhoeven directed Robocop, he also directed Total Recall, Total Recall has Michael Ironside who also starred in Scanners). Because the context is purely my own, it makes the whole thing more personal. This was fine when I had a couple of hundred DVDs, it could be done in an afternoon. At 800, I think I'll need a week off work.

I also spent a while getting back into GTA: SA. Given the recent furor about the "Hot Coffee" 'mod', I've been shocked at the amount of stuff that people aren't getting upset about. For example, a billboard with an image of a girl licking her lips suggestively and the words "A taste of what's to come" that suddenly gets a hole ripped in it to change the words to "A taste of ... come."

Potato Bravas

Browsing around the cookery section in Chapters, I came across a book called "Potatoes: Mash and More." Atkins be damned, I love potatoes and I'm always searching to make the perfect mash. Unfortunately, the book doesn't reveal any previously-unknown tips, so my mash remains at "average", but it does have a few other good ideas which suit my tasty-but-easy demeanor.

So last night, I decided to try out their "Potato Bravas", with a few changes.

Ingredients:

(Serves 2)

  • 10 small new potatoes
  • 1 Chorizo, chopped into thin slices
  • 1 medium onion chopped fine
  • 4 tablespoons Olive Oil
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 2 teaspoon "Cajun" seasoning
  • Salt

Preparation:

  1. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees.
  2. Chop the potatoes into 1cm slices and lay them in a baking tray, one row deep. Drizzle all over with olive oil and salt, and put it into the oven for 30 minutes, turning occasionally.
  3. Make the sauce: put the olive oil, water, red wine vinegar, chili powder and cajun seasoning into a bowl and mix well. Add some salt to season.
  4. In a pan, fry the onions until they're opaque but not brown, then add the chorizo. Turn the heat down to a low simmer.
  5. Pour the sauce into the pan and add the potatoes. Keep turning until the potatoes are completely covered and the sauce has reduced down.
  6. Pour into bowls and serve with sour cream and salsa.

Now I have one less reason to go to the Market Bar.

Something for the weekend, sir?

A few things before I disappear for the weekend (still no broadband at home!)

BBBQ

The weather being unnaturally sunny and warm, and I being Irish and a slave to tradition, we're having a barbeque tonight. As well as making tabbouleh, babaganoush, Moroccan pork chops and the old favourite: cheeseburgers, I'm hoping to approximate the taste of the chicken wings from Elephant and Castle, which are easily the best in Dublin (Magruder's on Thomas Street taking second place).

Games

My copy of Everyone Loves Katamari arrived today, and I'm hoping to give it a good blast over the weekend. But my back-log has reached the point of panic. I'm also in the middle of playing:

  • God of War Gameplay is fast and kinetic - you can literally tear your enemies apart in a shower of blood. "Contains Strong Bloody Violence" indeed. The sex mini-games are slightly embarassing, however.
  • Destroy all Humans Bought cheap in Game. Not the most spectacular game ever, but worth the occasional look. Amazing physics though :)
  • Midway Arcade Classics 2 I bought this purely for Hard Drivin'_ and _NARC, two of my favourite games when I were a lad.

To top it all off, my girlfriend and I are playing Silent Hill 2 together (her: to prepare for the upcoming Roger Avary movie; me: because I just can't play that game on my own).

Cycling

I bought a bike last weekend, and have been making the most of the freedom it has given me. It has broken the chains of lunchtime bondage - Spar/Centra/Mannings (virtually the only places to get lunch on Thomas Street). I've been zipping into Blazing Salads for lunch and eating it in Stephen's Green, and have been gorging myself on their baked tofu and goat's cheese pizza.

So far, I'm please to say that I haven't really been in any major scrapes, touch wood (touches wood), but if you see someone on a grey bike whizzing past you and he looks like he's not really paying any attention - watch out! And sorry!

Edge's review policy

Jason Kottke recently changed his movie review system from a 100-point scale to a 5-star scale, claiming that a 5-star scale is easier for him to judge (he asks "How can there be a tangible difference between a 75 movie and a 76 movie?").

This reminded me of something from Edge magazine a while ago. They did an issue where they got rid of the review score completely. At the time, they suggested that the score did not necessarily give an accurate representation of the nuances of the videogame they were reviewing.

As a reader, I found this issue especially interesting. One of my (many) bad habits is reading the review score first, then the body of the review. Without a score, I was forced to read the text to find out whether a game was particularly good or bad. This was definitely more challenging and informative than usual, since I tend to skip bad reviews completely, unless it's a game I had high hopes for and wanted to see what the reviewer disliked about the game.

It seems Edge's dislike of neat 'scores' for games still continues. With their recent redesign (which has taken quite a bit of getting used to), they also revamped their "review policy"

Previously, it read:

Every issue, **Edge** evaluates the best, most interesting, hyped, innovative or promising games on a scale of ten, where five naturally represents the middle value. **Edge**'s rating system is fair, progressive and balanced. An average game deserves an average mark -- not, as many believe, seven out of ten. Scores broadly correspond to the following sentiments: zero: nothing, one: disastrous, two: appalling, three: severely flawed, four: disappointing, five: average, six: competent, seven: distinguished, eight: excellent, nine: astounding, ten: revolutionary

Now, it goes:

**Edge**'s scoring system explained: 1 = one, 2 = two, 3 = three, 4 = four, 5 = five, 6 = six, 7 = seven, 8 = eight, 9 = nine, 10 = ten

Deliciously succinct and pithy.

While I'm on the subject, I honestly don't think Edge magazine gets enough praise. It was promoting "new games journalism" before anyone ever thought of giving it a name. Every month, it writes the most beautiful prose-poems about video games. It's less a videogame magazine, and more a love-letter to video game culture.

Housekeeping

A lot of people have started asking me "Do you have a blog?" I've been trying to play this down with responses like "Oh maybe, but you'll never find it - try Googling for 'John Kelly'" But people have been getting smarter: "Yeah, but what if I search for 'john kelly' and uh.. shit, cunt, prick dot com?"

I realised then that people are going to find this blog, whether I like it or not. They might spend a few minutes pumping the kind of obscenities into Google that would make a sailor blush, but they'll eventually find it.

And my mother's pretty well-read, she's probably seen the recent piece about blogs in the Sunday Business Post. I'm sure she's going to ask me if I have a blog soon. And when she does, well... I can't lie to my mother, but then again, I can't turn the air blue just by telling her my domain.

So I got a new one - LowBrowCulture.com

It might not sound like much of an improvement to you, but any domain I can tell my mother about is a huge improvement to me.

Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

The third level of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, which takes place on board a moving train, is simulatenously one of the most thrilling and exciting and yet entirely frustrating levels of any game I have ever played. And as such, it is a perfect macrocosm of the game as a whole.

The level starts with your character, Sam Fisher, rappelling down from a helicopter onto the roof of a speeding train. From here, he has to get on board the train and locate one passenger, a suspected double agent named "Mortified_Penguin" (yes, the dumb name is even made fun of in the game). All this without killing anyone and, above all, without being seen - if your character is spotted by anyone other than Mortified_Penguin, it's game over. Simple, right?

Since games tend to take their cues from Hollywood blockbusters, it's fair to say that a lot of people playing Splinter Cell will be familiar with many of the settings, combat techniques and high-tech fuckery-foo featured in this game from watching James Bond and Mission Impossible movies. And although the Splinter Cell series had always aped its influences to a very high standard, it really hadn't shown me anything I hadn't seen elsewhere.

And that's why this level took me completely by surprise.

Let me explain. Very few games have ever really attempted to do anything involving trains. The few that stand out in my mind are the train from GoldenEye (although that was just like being in any really long, narrow corridor and never once felt like an actual train). There was also a train level in Red Dead Revolver that attempted to recreate the atmosphere of the trainride shootouts from old Westerns. But on the whole, there are very few games that can support a 'train'.

So kudos to Ubisoft for trying to actually give us something that behaved like a real train. When you first drop down on the train roof, your character automatically crouches against the wind. Pushing the stick forward, your character visibly struggles; straight movement is difficult, and he staggers around against the force of the wind. Stand up for an instant, and he's blown back a bit. Jump and he's blown off the train entirely, although why anyone would want to do something so obviously stupid is beyond me. Ahem.

Once inside the train, things get no more simple - each compartment is well lit and populated. When your goal is to remain completely unnoticed, both of these are immediate show-stoppers.

The first trolley is the storage area, patrolled by an inspector. There are a couple of lights here, and a locked door at the far end, blocking your exit there. Fortunately, there is a trap in the floor which allows you to crawl out and under to the next compartment.

So here's where things get tricky. Shooting out the lights gives you an extra few feet of darkness to crouch in, unseen. But there is virtually no way to reach the trap in the floor without being seen by the guard. I know: I've tried. I tried again and again. I must have retried this one particular compartment roughly a dozen times before I discovered what I was supposed to do: knock out the guard.

But I didn't know that I could do this. In the previous level, your character meets up with an informant in a locked room with no obvious exits apart from an air vent, which brings you to another locked room. After 10 minutes of running around, trying a few things, I started to get frustrated. I spoke to the informant again, my character asking him if there was any way out. "Do you think I'd still be in here if there was?" I asked again. And the game started repeating this one conversation again: "Is there a way out?" "Do you think I'd still be here if there was?" "Is there a way out?"

So I hit the informer.

Just a quick punch, that's all. After I did this, I crawled around for a while and finally spotted the gas-vent I was supposed to shoot to open up the way to the extraction point. At the end of the level, my character's boss gave out to me for killing the informant. But wait a minute - I just punched him?! Obviously, my punches are lethal!

So, it was in a similiar burst of frustration that I hit the guard. This time, no boss giving out to me for killing him. How come my punches only knock this guy out? Is he made of sterner stuff than the informant?

Through the floor-trap and onto the next compartment, and there are similar issues. I wait until the guards finish their conversation and run for the door - I'm spotted. I try again, doing the exact same thing as before, and this time I'm not spotted.

From there, I climb outside the train and inch my way along the side of the compartment, trying not to be spotted by anyone and also trying to avoid being knocked off by a passing train.

And so on, and so on, until finally I meet mortified_penguin. He tells me he has to make a phone call, and I'm my orders come in to follow him and listen to his conversation using my "Laser Mic" - a telescopic microphone which the manual tells me "works by picking up microscopic vibrations, especially from glass." So I stand outside the door of the compartment where the conversation is taking place and point the laser mic through the glass, but I get nothing. I'm told I failed the mission, try again. Only when I go through the door and use the laser mic from close-range do I complete this part of the level.

This lack of consistency is apparent in virtually all areas of this game - from the videogame tradition of only having some doors that can open, there are also some lights that you can shoot out while others can take a grenade and still shine. And it's this lack of consistency that ruins the game's ultimate objective of completely free-form gameplay.

Anyway, back to the train.

The level ends with a brief firefight on the train followed by your character climbing onto the roof again and running down the full length of the train to climb onto a rope hanging from a helicopter, all this while an enemy helicopter is shooting at you. Thrilling stuff - arguably better and more innovative than anything Hollywood has given us.

But I reckon, in all, I must have restarted this level 20 times, because each time I was forced to use trial-and-error rather than a consistent set of rules to complete each section. When restarting a level becomes second-nature, it's time to start asking questions.