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Friday 31 August 2007

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot! [Brit]

You may remember back in February, I wrote a blog entitled "Which Car?", based on my need to flail ever so less ineffectually in the second-hand car purchasing arena.

Since that blog was written, we've spent countless hours looking at our options - from the out and out banger to the new vehicle route; pouring over websites, 48 hour test-drives, magazines and various Real Cars. The upshot being that with so much choice, we went exactly nowhere.

Its also worth noting that in my last post to that blog, I ended with this: "I've decided to prioritise Honda, Hyundai and Toyota." This turned out to be utter bollocks.

Yesterday morning Ollie is on Autotrader and suddenly, cries out. 12 hours later, we're pulling up outside Brit Towers in our brand new car. When I say "brand new" I mean "brand new to us".

Following our extensive discussions, we've gone and got ourselvesthis, aFiat Bravo SX 1.6 (unleaded so as to protect the baby penguins). Its in absolutely brilliant nick, and even came loaded with radio/cd-player, 'leccy windows and air-con. Full service history, new clutch/cambelt and tyres inside the last 24 months... £1,175 cash. Thats a bloody bargain from where I'm sat.

Now of course, picking the thing up in "north east London" meant we had no idea how to get home (mother of God that area is rough as Amy Whinehouse's morning face), so in true EED style we rocked up to the nearest PC World (Halfords was shut) and grabbedthis, aTom Tom ONE XL - their new ultra slim widescreen nav getup... interestingly for £199.99, a full £50 cheaper than the price on the Tom Tom webby.

So, finally, we have a chariot!

Wednesday 29 August 2007

A short message [Spiny]

Am turns something years today - hooray & happy birthday!

Serendipitously, a friend showed me a carrier bag he'd recently got from China, which contains a most appropriate message :

Bottoms up!

Making extra cash from "special numbers" [Brit]

I got an automated SMS from O2 today. It says:

From 28th Sept calls starting with certain numbers e.g 0844&0845 will be charged outside your incl. mins & cost 20p/min. Details at

I figured that on the site there would be information explaining why this is the case. I pay £50 a month on contract and get a bundle including 1,000 free texts and 250 free minutes which means that every month I pretty much guarantee I only have £50 to pay.

The one 0845 number I use regularly is that of my bank, First Direct and occasionally the likes of BT or a utility supplier. Up until now, these calls which (the bank notwithstanding) inevitably resulted in me sitting listening to hold music for a good few minutes have been free. Now I'm going to be paying for them, and o2 have just slapped this new charge on me with no explaination why.

Am I wrong to feel put out by this? The soul-less o2 website reveals nothing at all, just a slightly more verbose equivalent of the SMS I got. Its all rather bollocks eh?

I'm going to write a letter to these people and send it COD. Two can play at this game.

Tuesday 28 August 2007

iPhone... iDon't understand what they're up to? [Brit]

I noted with interest this story on El Reg that AT&T have apparently called in the legal dogs on a company about to release software that will allow iPhone users to connect to any mobile network operator. In case you're wondering why this should be such a big deal, the iPhone shipped with a catch - you had to use AT&T as your carrier, or you couldn't use the phone... which is absolutely ludicrous in the highly commoditised mobile phone market.

Of course, it didn't take long before this act of abject stupidity was run through the gamut of hackers and interested parties with various solutions providing an unlocked iPhone appearing online within weeks of its retail release.

I'm gobsmacked at Apple/AT&T's tie-up decision here; the universe of people prepared to a) fork out for a hugely expensive phone and b) potentially shift everything into AT&T from a current provider can only be a small one... with new phones being released all the time, consumer choice is one thing this particular industry isn't short of.

So genuinely, I'm interested in the reasons behind their initial decision making process - now that you can unlock your iPhone with a couple of corks, two pins and a few hours of your time (as an example of the lower end of the unlocking solution spectrum) it really is game over for the likes of AT&T if they see their future in such restrictive tie-ups.

Can someone perhaps explain a cunning plan that I've completely missed here?

Friday 24 August 2007

The state of PC Gaming [Slim]

There's little doubt that Bioshock will probably be the game of the year. We wanted it so bad, and it looks like it's going to deliver. Provided you play it on the 360...
[16:46] gah trying to find a goddamn yank proxie[17:14] what sucks about Steam right now is that they've done a news announcement "Bioshock is ready for play, if you pre purchased!" and there's a button for pre-load, and it does absolutely nothing and its all a sham[18:25] why is bioshock still not out on steam?[20:02] still don't see bioshock as an option to download on steam, cie la vie[21:37] stupid auto patcher wont download the patch[21:44] I actually have 60% of the patch[21:45] but I guess the servers are being hammered[21:45] It keeps disconnecting me and claiming its my connection at fault[22:12] crashed on loading the first level[22:38] 4 crashes now[22:38] this is turning out to be quite s shit night[22:48] thats 1.5h I've been here now and I've not mannaged to actually play the fucker yet[22:48] can't get bioshock working properly on my ati laptop[10:05] bioshock simply wont load the autosave now[10:05] just hangs

What the fuck is all this about? I'm still a big fan ofPC gaming, especially as I can't play Bioshock tonight either because the missus is watching that annoying bender on the Friday Night Project, but after all the DRM and Fov bollocks to be hit with these extra fustrations must surely tarnish the Bioshock appeal?

Walking for fitness and profit [Slim]

Since moving into civilisation (Onchan village!) I've been walking to work. It's been about three weeks, starting a few days but now every day. I've lost a bunch of weight, 3 holes on my belt, feel a load better had some good compliments bt need some new clothes.

I'vesaved about 40 quid in petrol, if I paid for parking I'd have saved another 75 quid, I feel loads better and I'm not fekked off with the traffic when I arrive at either end. I've also got a nice tan, that's worth a few quid too eh? Oh and my carbon footprint is considerably lower!

According to the charts, at my weight I'm burning about 650 calories a day on the walk there and back, which is a bit more than a big mac a day, while saving dosh and not spending on a gym sub. It's by far the quickest fat loss I've ever managed, I wont say weight loss, as that seems to go quite slowly when you're suddenly exercising lots more, fitter friends tell me this is because I'm putting on muscle as I lose weight.

The walk in Takes me about 40 mins, in rush hour the same drive takes about 20 - 25 mins so not that much extra, and most of the time I'm on the seafront, so away from traffic with a nice view and some good tunes on me ipod. I might not be as keen in the crappy weather, been caught once in the rain and it wasn't much fun, but I can always jump on a bus or just bring the car if it's looking shitty.

I've no real point to make other than to advocate walking more, it's working really well for me!

David Beckham planet destroyer [Lurks]

There's been a fair bit of clan hand wringing over carbon in the last couple of years. Some of us, at least, have made significant lifestyle changes in order to lower our carbon footprint while others do less... At any rate, I have pretty much no interest in soccer and even less interest in David Beckham but it's interesting to read how he's trying to play for a local US team and also be on the England team as well.

In the next three months alone, according to the BBC, Beckham is due to clock up around 80,000 miles worth of air travel. Based on these figures, we have a rough figure for carbon output. However the figures are based on economy class where as it's fair to say that being in first class you should accept a higher percentage of the carbon output given the larger seats, increased space etc. So I'm going to use a figure of 200gr per mile for Mr Beckham.

At that rate, Beckham's CO2 output in the next three months will be around 16 tonnes of CO2.

We can probably subtrate a small amount off his overall footprint since his wife clearly eats less than our wives do, and hence farts less greenhouse methane than our wives do. But I'm not thinking that this makes up for this air travel insanity really. No matter how little she eats.

Thursday 23 August 2007

Giraffetastic - Space Giraffe Review [Slim]

Space Giraffe, here'sa hot tip: Don't play it like Tempest.

It's not Tempest 4000, though some reviewers have insisted it is. There are similarities to Tempest x/2000 of course, it's heritage is obvious immediately. It has a 3d wire-frame web view, you're stuck to the top, you shoot stuff crawling up it, it's trippy as fuck, it has a bonus round that makes you say 'what the fuck?'. But what Space Giraffe adds to the trippy shooter party makes the difference between this and the original Tempest about the same as manic miner vs Super Mario Sunshine.

In Space Giraffe, you don't just shoot things you see, in fact it's often a bigger challenge to not shoot things. This time the web has a moving bar, called the power zone. To make the powerzone grow, you shoot stuff, a pause in the carnage causes the powerzone to shrink, staying stationary makes it shrink faster. An active powerzone gives you a bunch of advantages over the crawling enemy, you can bump into them if they reach the top, you get two attacks, the default 'always on' front attack and a new directional attack that's controlled off the 2nd stick and the powerzone also slows enemy bullets and enforces their spawning location. If you get in deep shit, you can jump, a power granted by collecting pods, when you jump, you get a new powerzone for free. The powerzone is key, you need a powerzone.

But there's more, the jump pods that wander up the web give extra love if you don't use them for jumping, you get faster fire andextra men, for example, or you gain access through them to the bonus round. Your secondary attack can bounce off the side wall and killing like this earns you more precious points. You can shoot enemy bullets, sending them back down the web. They'll bounce back though, so you have to keep shooting them down. Any bullets juggled like this still in play at the end of the game makes more points.

Bumping enemies off the top of the web is also crucial, if you can save a few enemies up and bump em off all together, you get a very satisfying mooo and a multiplier jump. A high multiplier is crucial for a nutter score, so you really need to get those bull runs lined up. Problem is, you're shooting all the time, so you need to avoid parts of the webto entice the fellas up to get a bull run in. But if you avoid parts of the web, you'll miss pods, you'll miss bullets, you might let flowers grow up (like the old spikes in tempest, but have flower-heads that shoot off and fuck your shit up), and you might not kill enough stuff to maintain your powerbar. It's a frantic juggle that requires split second decisions to maintain your multiplier and keep you in the big points. If you're playing it right, you'll zone click, you'll phase out,your brain no longer consciously making those decisions but everything's still happening for you, you're tripping, in game, and it's wonderful.

All this is accompanied by the LLamasoft signature over the top psychedelic visuals. Sometimes the maelstrom of colour and light will make threat identification difficult, so you have to use other clues, likeaudio hints, or adjust to a different perspective to see the enemy. Some enemies actually strive to fuck up your visuals even more, making the chaos even more frantic! Sometimes you've just got to use the force, and trust in your abilities to keep yourself alive until the path ahead becomes clear. This is an area that's been heavily criticised, but I can't help thinking people simply don't 'get' it. One thing I would like to have seen is some kind of death replay so in those 'what the fuck' moments you can identify exactly what killed you, where you went wrong so you can learn to do something about it.

Shit, I didn't mention the sound. Sound of course plays a vital role in the experience, tightly intertwined with the visuals as you'd expect from Mr VLM and laced with oddities like animal samples and kids talking in welsh overlaid with techno. Perfect.

Live also boosts the appeal, as with all shooters. Point harvesting becomes a lot more important and compelling when your scores are automatically compared with both your mates and the rest of the world, and achievements are also present and collectible. The scores not just about your Live status though, you get a rating after the end of each level, and a record score with three lives remaining gives you a precious save point at that score for that level, meaning you can start off at that point next time you play. You'll also get a rating such as 'a bit good' or 'meh', and a graph relative to how you should be performing if you've got any skills at all. It doesn't add a jot to the gameplay mechanics, but it does focus your attention on actually playing well rather than brute forcing each level and pressing continue at the end, a temptation with many shooters historically.

Bleats? Well, I miss some of the powerups out of tempest, like AI Droid/Superdroid. Those 'what the fuck' moments happen an awful lot at first until you've sussed the game out a bit more.Finally, the bonus level is even more odd than Tempest 2000's, very random and very silly, but does serve for a nice change of pace.

What's worth mentioning too is the price. Space Giraffe in the UK works out at about £3.50. The same price asa couple of downloadable tunes for Guitar Hero 2, the same price as a couple of static theme packs someones knocked up in photo shop. The same price as three icon packs. The same price as 80's arcade retro classics that have been free on mame for donkeys. Half the price of similarly bloody ace shooters like Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm. It's clearly too cheap, this is one of the best games on Live and it's obviously been created with love and not a desire to suck cash, but that's the price, and it's easily worth it. Buy it even if you don't want it, developers like this need our support!

So it's fucking good. It's very fucking good. It's everything I anticipated, and more. It's trippy and phsycadelic but it's also a bloody satisfying cerebral shooter with a great risk/reward mechanism. Finally a Minter game on a platform we can actually play it on, hallelujah, Eat Electric Death!

Sunday 19 August 2007

Future of the human race [Lurks]

There's a question which I've spent more time thinking about that any other in the last few years. That is, what do we need to do to ensure a continuation of the human species?

Some of you will be sitting back already wondering what he's on about. Here'sa quick backgrounder devoid of much detail:

Human beings are irrational creatures, by and large. Even those who excel at the application of reasoning and logic only do so because they're able to momentarily overcome their base nature. This nature essentially boils down to the fact that our brains aren't computers (sound familiar? I've spoken about this before), they are elaborate pattern matching problem solvers. Powerful learning machines no mistake, but ultimately this is done by taking the most direct of shortcuts.

A tinsy bit of elaboration may be needed here. There's an experiment where researchers taught a lowly pigeon to recognise patterns of light and to peck at the right things in order to trigger a treat. It was pretty good at this, so far so good. Then they switched off the association and basically just had the treat trigger at random intervals. They observed a strange thing. When the food arrived, the pigeon happened to be looking over it's right shoulder. The next time the food triggered, it was also looking over it's right shoulder. Thereafter the pigeon madly looked over it's right shoulder to trigger food.

Stupid pigeon you say. In fact we're little better. I've had 36 years on this planet so far to observe this same basic behavior in human beings. In essence: Thing A happened when Thing B happened. Therefore Thing B caused Thing A. It's often wrong but it doesn't stop people from these incredibly leaps of faith and gives mankind an ability to believe the most astounding things and to be quite difficult to talk around. A fairly good example of the modern age would be an Islamic Terrorist. Let's hold onto that example for a moment.

Let's get off the human condition, hoping that you'll generally see what I'm talking about and agree, and move onto my primary question: what can we do to survive? Right now, there's a lot of people that wish various other people harm for a whole number of reasons. If there's something that marks out the current age it will be our hand wringer over trying to identify with people doing bad things, to find out why they do them. We ask every question appart from asking why people do these things when they know, no matter what has happened, it cannot be justified morally or intellectually.

In a nutshell: Some people want to do do bad irrational things and they're not going to be dissuaded and sometimes they get away with doing the very worst and most irrational things of all.

All that remains is to look to the future knowing what we know about human nature. Technology is improving, medicine is improving, globalisation and the irreversable dropping of information barriers so that increasingly anyone, anywhere, can be exposed to any idea or piece of information. This is about as far away from the environment in which we primarily evolved as it's possible to get.

Eventually in the future there must come a point where it becomes possible for anyone to gain access to the technological means to do almost anything they set their mind to. That sounds really great, we'll all be whizzing around in jet cars wearing flickering animated clothes with our heads permanently jacked into the Web-verse. However it's reasonable to assume that somewhere, somehow, someone is going to want to do really bad things. Here's a list of some bad things which someone could concievably get up to in order of how far away this kind of thing might be away from 'the many'; synthesizing a deadly virus for which no human has immunity, building a nuclear weapon, creating a self-replicating nano machine 'eater'.

All of this things could, and eventually I would put it to you dear reader, probably will ultimately result in the extinction of the human race. It sounds like Sci-Fi but I'd call it a reasonably likely prediction of what is to come. The hall marks are here right now in circumstances we face. Islamic Terrorists would like to blow us up, meanwhile an Islamic rogue state is developing nuclear weapons and said Islamic state has shown no qualms about armingfreedom fighters in a border country under Western occupation. We're at the point right now where we can see a cause and effect and probably do something about it.

However as time marches on, these things get harder to deal with. It's one thing knowing what questionable people are building nuclear weapons (needing to set up tens of thousands of gas centrofuges tends to make it something you can find out about) but what about bio technology? There's nothing. Let's interject a bit of real sci-fi to make the point; what if everyone had a replicator in their kitchen like Star-Trek and let's whack in a house AI from Eureka too. Good morning Sarah, I would like a cup of coffee, a plate of eggs and bacon and an old Vectrex console from the 80s. Certainly, Lurks, that'll be with you in a few minutes. Is there anythign else I can help you with? Oh yes, could I also have a W88 nuclear warhead too please? I'm on it, have a nice day!

I'm being silly here but the point is as time goes on, access to the knowledge and the means to do potentially great harm to a large number of people (or the planet as a whole) becomes easier. Yet the one thing that's not improving, the one thing that remains the same, is human nature. We haven't addressed that core ability to believe in absurd things and of course that core ability to wish eachother harm.

Dr_Dave recently said he thought Dawkins was motivated in tackling religion by this sort of realisation. I think Dawkins would understand the idea well enough but probably also realises it's futile to try talk an entire species around to virtues of everlasting logic and reason. But he's having a go, good on him.

I think at some point we'll actually start to realise the scale of the problem. We'll spend years yet, decades maybe, leaping from problem to problem, wringing hands as to why people would want to do various ghastly things, before we realise the central problem. I'm a fish keeper right. One of the things known to aquarists is that there's some species that need a large amount of space, not because they grow large but because they just plain aren't nice. They might dig up all the plants, attack the rest of the inhabitants or basically secrete so much waste that they end up drowning in it, sound familiar? So we pick species which are suitable. Happy species, non-aggressive species that will not be a danger to themselves and everyone else just because of their bare nature.

The way I see it there's two basic solutions to problem at hand. One is to in essence return to a type of environment in which we can flourish. I'd say village-sized populations for one where social interaction rights all of the kinds of strange things that happens. The second is to modify ourselves. I don't mean talking sense into eachother, I mean some basic reinvention, some bio-engineering. Some getting right into the brain, working out how it works and getting rid of a bunch of the nasty stuff (and maybe boosting the good stuff).

Right now it's hard to see how the second option will be considered. In the age, right now, there's this prevailing view that natural is good. We shouldn't meddle. GM is bad. You shouldn't even screen your children for undesirable traits and we most definately shouldn't expeiment on embryon and so on and so forth. I think that'll change. I think this will be viewed in the future as a kind of illogical superstition of our age. I guess I have to believe it will change.

What of the first option though? It's a small planet now and we are many billion and the planet aint getting bigger and we aint getting fewer. Either we'll end up destroying a very large percentage of our population through one, more or perhaps other unnamed human follies, or perhaps we'll end up finally looking at the stars. I've been thinking about the colonisation of space for a long time and most of that time, I just generally thought we'd do it because it seemed like a good idea and, you know, maybe we could use additional resources or something.

In more recent years I came to understand how expensive it would be. The effort of boosting the weight of any kind of actual percentage of the human race into orbit would be beyond anything we've even considered. There'd have to be a pretty good reason. Not just because you think it's a good idea, and not because you're a bit short of selenium for mobile phones or thorium for your reactors. No, you'd do it if you thought you were going to die otherwise.

So kind of puting these two threads of thought together for the first time, I came to realise that the real reason for colonising the planets - assuming option two never gets on the cards - for spreading the wings of humanity and setting sale for the stars, would not be for any other reason than to... get away from the rest of humanity.

And that's it in a nutshell. I think for us to have a future, we either have to work out a way of modifying the human race to get used to cramp conditions and play nice and wish nothing but the best for our neighbours, not just our family. Or we're going to basically destroy ourselves and maybe, just maybe, we can reach some sort of equilibrium in the post-apocalyptic scenario.

So, will we realise before or after the apocalypse? I think global warming is an interesting thing to watch. If the planet can deal with this, maybe we can deal with ourselves later on. If we can't, then I'd say we've a very rocky ride ahead. Maybe the coachroaches will be all that's left after all.

PE0N spec 1.1 (Final?) - Goodbye AMDEEEEE! [Brit]

As you lot know I've been spending some time spec'ing up my new rig; codename PE0N. I'm starting to vibrate with excitement over the release of Team Fortress 2, Duke Nukem Forever and the mighty Unreal Tournament 3.

My current rig, an Athlon 2.something with 1.5 GB RAM and a 256MB ATi X8500 series is just about keeping up with GRAW (even with the addition of a Physx card) so I'm looking at PE0N to provide me with at least 18 months of quality gaming support.

That said, here's the spec I've arrived at:
  1. BFG nForce 680i SLi (Socket 775) PCI-Express DDR2 Motherboard
  2. Intel Core 2 Duo E6850 "LGA775 Conroe" 3.00GHz (1333FSB)
  3. GeIL 4GB (4x1GB) PC8500C5 1066MHz Black Dragon DDR2 Dual Channel Kit
  4. BFG GeForce 8800 GTX OC2 768MB GDDR3 HDTV/Dual DVI
  5. Western Digital Raptor X 150GB WD1500AHFD 10,000RPM SATA 16MB Cache(2 of these)

The intent is to combine these items with a new high end PSU, existing Plextor optical drive, existing Physx card (also by BFG), any my Samsung SyncMaster 213T to deliver the complete system, looking to replace the monitor as it is starting to show it's age, withapair of Samsung 24" Widescreen jobsa short while down the line. The whole lot will sit inside a new Coolermaster RC-1000 Cosmos Silent Full Tower Case

I've deliberately not shoved loads of disc space in, and I'm probably taking a punt on the Raptors and hoping they don't have a working life measured in weeks, but I'm also not intending to overclock or do anything crazy; hence wanting the fastest components within reason (DDR3 is stupidly expensive for example, so I'll stay with DDR2 for now).

I'm looking at complementing the 2 HDDs in that list with an external big-ass NAS, such as the 2TB Lacie rig which we use at work and which performs flawlessly if a little noisily. Docs, photos, "stuff to keep" etc will sit on something like that, and I can also ensure the fella has his stuff on there too.

Anyhow, thats how PE0N looks and if anyone can see any glaring errors please shout out; the driving principle behind this build is speed (win/apps/games/etc), gaming experience, and as far as possible, a degree of future proofing. The whole lot will come to just under £1,400 when I add in a the PSU and a few other bits and pieces.

Oh, and finally, XP Pro or Vista?! Thats the one thing I can't decide on (I run both - as I type I'm on XP, my lappy is on Vista Home Premium) but I figure the forthcoming games will all support Vista properly?

Heading off... [Rabido]

Sorry for the lack of communication recently, and even worse a gay no show at AmLan. I've been at Apple for about 18 Months now, and they recently offered me a relocation to Cupertino - I've been out there for the last 2 weeks tying it down. I had my Visa approved by the US yesterday, (luckily no anal probes and they didn't find out about my EED background) and I should be heading out there at the end of September for good. If any of you are in the SF area anytime, feel free to holler ;). Its been a blast and I wish my work was a bit more relaxed so I could get to play some good stuff like WOW etc more often. Hopefully should get some more free time out there, but the time difference is gonna suck.This is not a resignation post btw...and I'm proud to be part of what is clearly the l33test clan ever formed ;)

Friday 17 August 2007

Virgin Media: No good bums and liars [DrDave]

Ever been stuck in a customer service loop that you can't break out of? Ever suffer the indignity of having to repeat your eternally lengthening tale of woe and miscontent to yet another uninterested, minimum wage monkey? Ever get the feeling that your concerns are never noted, seldom acted upon and frequently binned? If so, there's a very real chance that you're a customer of Virgin Media.

I signed up with Virgin at the beginning of July, when I moved house. Since I'm now a home worker, I decided to go for their top of the shop, VIP package. Sounds good on paper, £85 a month gets you all the TV channels, sport, movies, phone line with virtually free calls, 20Mb broadband, the works. And since it was the primo-package, I thought that maybe they'd treat me nice like. I wasn't really expecting to have a Thai masseuse come around of a night, cup my gonads and sing "oh what a loverly bunch o' coconuts". But some degree of efficiency in dealing with issues seemed to be indicated. I was, after all, a Very Important Person with a Very Important Package.

The reality of the situation started hitting home on install day. TV and broadband went in fine, but the engineer had trouble with the telephone signal - a fault somewhere between my house and the green street box apparently. Not to worry though, he kindly offered to cancel the phone line (so I wouldn't end up paying for it) and raised it with HQ, who would send out a team of engineers to fix the line. Great!

A week passed, and of course I heard nothing about my rescheduled telephone line fix. So I got on the phone, spoke to a nice Scottish girl and she promised to raise the issue with installs. I would hear back from them shortly. Okay!

Another few days passed, still nothing from installs, but I did receive my first monthly bill. £110. Clearly some mistake, I thought. £110 for an £85 a month package seemed to be a little... cheeky. But there it was, a breakdown of services: TV, Broadband, sports, movies. All adding up to £110. Of course, it was obvious what had happened. When the engineer cancelled the telephone line, the system knocked me out of the VIP package since I was no longer receiving a component of it and instead had me paying for each service seperately.

Needless to say, I was on the phone like a ferret up a drainpipe. I was calm, the customer service rep was helpful. He agreed there was a mistake and credited my account with £35, taking the bill down to £75. While I was there, I inquired what had happened to the telephone install. The rep said nothing, and offered to raise it with installs. I would hear back from them shortly. Yay!

A week passed, still nothing from installs, but I receive a letter from Virgin telling me that I had an outstanding debt of £75. Odd, I thought, since I'd set up a Direct Debit and it looked fine from my bank's point of view. So I get on the phone (a task that would be a lot easier if I actually had a phoneline). I end up speaking to an Indian fella. He claims that he has no idea what went wrong, I'd have to check with my bank. Grr. I'm in a rush, so I tell him I'll pay the balance by debit card and we'll sort out the DD later. He agrees and tells me he's going to take £110...


Calmly, I point out that I have already agreed the discount and even have a letter from Virgin in front of me saying I only owe £75. Nevertheless, my cold, calm logic has no effect on him and he is adament that his screen says £110 so £110 is what I shall be paying. At this point, I am getting somewhat irked. I ask him to read out what package I am subscribed to. "The VIP £85 a month package", he dutifully replies. I ask him how much I owe. "£110", he replies. I ask him if he thinks this is a little weird. He doesn't.

So I tell him, in no uncertain terms, that I am going to pay him £75 quid there and then and he is seeing no more money from me. I may have even said "goddamn money", I was that het up. He relents, and takes the money. He also offers to raise my missing telephone situation with installs. I would hear back from them shortly. Cough.

Weeks pass. No word from installs. I receive my second monthly bill. £145. I take a couple of seconds to wonder exactly how high this spiralling monthly £85 bill will go, before reading the breakdown. TV. Broadband. Sports. Movies. Outstanding balance from previous month. GNGH!!

Dave. Phone. Scottish rep. Explain. Once again, rep #247 agrees there is a mistake, credits my account with £70. I manage to regain my calm and decide we need to get to the bottom of it. I ask him to find out where my telephone line install is (reasoning that the problem is caused by having no telephone, so if I somehow manage to get a telephone line it will all go away). He spends a couple of minutes doing something and comes back: "I'm sorry sir, I can't book you a telephone line install". I ponder this, waiting for him to offer a reason, but he offers nothing. I ask why and he replies, "there's an IT fault on your account". There's an awkward moment of silence between us where neither one wants to speak. I break first, and ask him what exactly needs to be done. He replies, "it needs to be fixed". I calmly, politely ask him if he expects me to fix it. I'm pretty sure he considered asking if I might not mind, but instead he came back with "I will raise it with IT". I ask him what would happen next, he tells me that once the fault is fixed he would raise it with installs. I would hear back from them shortly.

It is, at time of writing, now five days later. I haven't heard from installs. Nor have I heard from the manager I demanded to speak to. Nor the IT department who were going to fix my account. I don't expect to. I do expect to call again on Monday, go through the same process, talk to the same monkeys, end up with a lie about installs phoning me. I expect to get a bill next month for £175 and go through the same process again. I expect to shout at Indians and Scottish people. I am, after all, a Very Important Person with a Very Important Package.

Clan, help me. What can I do to sort this out? Who should I call? Who should I threaten to call?

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Mind the China [Slim]

Mattel and others are recalling millions of pounds worth of product, chineese factory bosses are literally swinging from the rafters, and there's people on the news are actually surprised by this whole affair. Let's reintroduce people to some very obvious wisdom:

You get what you pay for.

These low prices we now demand from our mass produced goods that have travelled half way round the globe to get to us clearly come at the expense of quality. This is a pretty simple choice, either pay up or put up. The Chinese shouldn't be topping themselves over this, they're just responding to demand. Don't buy this shit if you want decent product, as a consumer it's in your hands.

Celebrity Voices for your TomTom GO [Beej]

I recently bought a TomTom GO 720. I've scoured the interweb for free voices so that when I'm out on a MINI Adventure™ a celebrity can speak my directions to me. In my search I found 102 "review copies" (ahem) of celebrity-ish voices to review. Presumably we're actually supposed to part cash for these, from Mobile Ringtone scum and so forth. Almost all voices are a bad impersonation, and very few are authentic. They're done by voice actors well below the standard set by Stella Street, Dead Ringers, and Sir Rory of Bremner.

To save you searching, downloading, installing, testing or paying for the voices, here are the ones which I think are worth getting:

  • 76_Lady Newsreader is not a newsreader, its a heavily edited heavily digitised neutral female British voice. Borderline mediocre, 5/10.
  • 83_Andy Siddell is a Magic FM DJ. Very clear voice, with local radio super-friendliness. 7/10!
  • 84_Justin Moorhouse is the real deal comedian from Phoenix Nights. 9/10!
  • 85_Liz Whitaker is a local radio DJ, only she looks hawt too. Perfect satnav voice, 9/10!
  • 88_John_Cleese really is the man himself. Available direct from TomTom if you pays up teh monies, but 8/10 to me.

Every other voice I tried out of the hundred or so - including KITT, Arnie, GW Bush, Tony Blair, Joanna Lumley, Ozzy, Patrick Stewart - are all awful. A-W-F-U-L. Not the real deal, and not even good impersonations. Man down the pub stuff.

There's definitely a market for these done by real voice actors, or even the real people. I'd pay a pound or two a go. If you were recording these you'd only need to sell a thousand or so to break even on an appearance fee I reckon?

UK drinking in public places [Lurks]

Oop Norf a bloke was recently murdered for accosting a bunch of drinking teenagers who were vandalising his property. It's brought certain concepts to the limelight which is no bad thing and has lead to one police chief urging action on alcohol. For what it's worth, I think this stuff does need looking at.

I grew up in Australia and you've never been allowed to drink alcohol in public places. I found it just plain weird when I got to the UK that people were sat on busses and tubes with tinnies of the strong stuff. I fail to understand why this hasn't been addressed. Sure drink in your own home, drink in your own premesis or even drink at a public event which is licensed too - but random drinking on the street is generally a bad thing, particularly when, as said rozzer points out, alcohol is cheap and freely available from all sorts of late hours premesis such as small shops and petrol stations.

Raising the drinking age to 21 is also being discussed. I'm not sure about that really. That needlessly criminalises plenty of younsters who are going to drink anyway. The only reason to do it that has been cited is to send a message concerning the seriousness of drinking. I agree with the sentiment but not with the process. Instead I think places where alcohol is sold needs examining.

Right now the governments cop out on drinking in public places is that they've invested this power in local authorities that decide where you can drink and where you can't. In practice local authorities have done absolutely nothing, I mean surely for a start you'd ban drinking on public transport right?!

No, I think that should be sorted out nationally and also perhaps it should be made some sort of punishable offense of parents if their children are found on the street drinking. Something needs to be done lest there be more like Gary Newglove and more worryingly, the whole thing continues to foster this idea that adults feel like they have not the power to accost errant teenagers for bad behavior. It's absolutely vital they DO feel safe in doing so for the good of our society.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Bioshock [Slim]

When the Bioshock xbox 360 demo started, I didn't realise I wasn't still in a cut-scene, I just sat waiting for it to continue. It simply looks too fucking awsome to be in game, but in game you are. This must have come up in testing too, because the game gives you a friendly 'use the left stick to move, dumbass' nudge. And move I did, finally, into the terrifying art-deco horror world of Bioshock. You get about 30 mins play from the demo, three weapons and one psi style effect, a bunch of backstory and your underpants filled with dirt at least twice.

It's simply awsome, the atmosphere is spot on, little video reels play, neon flashes through water filled streets, the architecture and fashion is traditional 1930's art deco mixed with flash gordon style sci-fi, and the fear is always there too, from the insane inhabitants to the tonnes of water constantly threatening to crush you, it doesn't let up. It's actually a harrowing experience to play.

There are some things that dull the impact, particularly if you were looking for System Shock 3. It's not as open as the system shock games, it's more fps than they were. This plays and feels a lot more like Half Life 2 than SS3, but does add adventure like elements such as background text to items and the psi abilities, but there's no character development or skills like in system shock.

It's a work of art though, I wanted more the second the demo ended, and my pre-order is still firmly in place. This will be the gaming experience of the year I've no doubt.

Seeing the benefits of Physx [Brit]

On a quick PC World stop last night to grab a new mousemat, I grabbed a copy of GRAW2 (therefore enabling me to play with m'clan colleagues as war is waged against Mexicans various). As I trawled through the harshly lit emporium I remembered the whole Ageia Physx shambles that both GRAW and GRAW2 make use of and thought "what the hell, lets see if these cowboys have any".

Phenomenally they did and even more unbelievably, for £75 which is cheaper than Overclockers. So I grabbed one. (Interestingly, the PC World website lists the same card for £79.97 not including delivery at £4.99).

Installation was of course a breezy 2 minute affair - indeed, downloading and installing the upgraded drivers took longer. Expecting great things, I fired up GRAW2 and in a fit of pique (and figuring my aging 256MB Radeon X8500 would breath slightly easier from a dedicated physics card) shoved the video quality up a few notches; negotiating the usual ramshackle Ubi approach to multiplayer lobby interfaces, I joined a server and started blasting.

The results of this card are immediate and impressive, and frankly, give those with them installed a slight edge by dint of the added effects which help reveal if not the location of, the direction an enemy is firing at you from.

Of course, it also looks very pretty and therefore the game experience is more engrossing; grenades and the resulting explosions are extremely powerful and impressive, ricochets, debris, smoke, and yes even the humble tumbleweed all behave differently or at least appear to - net net, for £75 GRAW and GRAW2 actually become GRAW+ and GRAW2+.

Interestingly Unreal Tournament 3 is also taking advantage of both the software and hardware Physx components which means at least one of the two games competing for Game of the Year 2007 will benefit from a (in the grand scheme of things) fairly trivial investment cash wise. Of course, as I now launch headlong into my new rig build (codename PE0N) and upgrade my graphics card to an uber NVidia doo-da, I expect things to come together quite nicely and hopefully future proof my GFX capabilities for at least 18 months.

I'll grab some screenies later and chuck them up, the difference really does need to be seen as its quite the turn on.

Sunday 12 August 2007

Media Player Hell [Slim]

I've moved from the stix into town, and find there's now five wifi lans in my street. Not ideal, so decided to invest into some powerline ethernet adapters. Here's where my hell started. Powerline worked right off the bat, and tested out at 80mbps, great stuff given they're the cheaper ones that are rated 85. Laptop works off it, streams movies a treat, file copies are super fast, xbox 360 works fine off it, live seems ace, downloads work, bosh. Plug the chipped xbox in, stutter hell. Gah. So no worries, the xbox goes back on wifi, and works. Then I remember my wifi lans only on wep because I was using my DS on it, and wasn't really that arsed about wifi security when I lived in a field. So I enable WPA on my wifi, change the bridge to the xbox1 to wpa, now that's in stuttering hell too. So my xbmc basically doesn't work any more. Feh.So I try the 360 as a media player. Jesus, how hard is that? First effort involves connecting it to Media Player 11, except that doesn't work if you have a domain, as I do at home. So, I install ORB, a upnp streaming thing. That works very well for mp3 and images, no complaints at all. But it transcodes xvids, so they look shite. Fuck that.The next step is to fuck it all and go for native wmv 360 encodes, but orb and it wont play windows media at all, fuck knows why, just dosn't. Jesus. So apparently I can plug in an external hdd to play shit via usb 2. Cor, didn't know that, so I try copying a 9gb hd wmv movie to my external hdd. It farts, you can't do that, it's FAT32 and the limits 4gb. Fuck me! So I convert to NTFS, copy the file, sorted. Plug it into the 360, naff all. I read up some more, the 360 doesn't do NTFS. What the fuck? It's microsoft for fucks sake! What I can do, apparently, not tried this yet out of principle, is format it HFS+, and that works with large files AND the 360, fuck knows why.So, I'm fucked, I've fucked me beloved chipped xbox somehow and I've got no replacement. Wank.(ps, anyone got the default cache settings for xbmc, I'm wondering if I've dicked that up?)

Saturday 11 August 2007

Madeleine search reaches 100 days [Lurks]

But really, who gives a fuck?! Jeez, enough already.

Friday 10 August 2007

My local beer has gone green! [Slim]

Great item onmy local radio stationthis morning from our branch of the Campaign for Real Ale about how drinking locally produced beer in a pub is good for the environment. Of course, 'buying local' is greener isn't hot news, but the owner of a local brewery did pretty well to back up the argument as it applies to brewing. It boiled down to:
  • local beer doesn't travel far to the pub
  • it's delivered in barrels that are re-used, not creating waste like beer cans and packaging
  • if your drinking in a busy pub instead of alone at home, you're sharing the heating/lighting with more people making it more efficient
  • you can walk to the local rather than drive to the supermarket to buy your cans of beer
  • local breweries re-use the bi-product, like the waste fromthe beer productiongoes tonearby horsesto eat

So get down the pub and sup for the planet, I'll be down there this lunchtime doing my bit!

Saturday 4 August 2007

Shattering the green myths [Beej]

Great article in The Times today which suggests that walking to the shops does more damage than driving to the shops. Hehe! Although presumably not in my car or Am's barge. This is something about how much energy from walking you will need to replace by eating (although presumably, but not mentioned, if you ate stuff from the farmers' market not from evil Tesco this would not be the case).

There's also a follow-up with some great anti-green Clarkson-esque trivia:
  • Disposable nappies are not worse than traditional nappies, as the traditional cloth ones need a lot of washing (argument fails if you wash in cold water without detergent!)
  • Paper bags take more energy to store and transport than plastic bags (hmm, we should use more paper bags anyway).
  • Organic milk is less environmentally friendly because less milk is produced by the organically, erm, farmed cow than a regular cow, and therefore methane emissions are prortionally higher (heh!).
  • You undo a year of saving from an energy-saving light bulb if you buy two bags of imported veg (the easy fix is that we accept that we can't eat runner beans all year long and so we don't fly the things in from Kenya... celebrity chefs have a lot to answer for!).

Something to chew on :-)

Thursday 2 August 2007

Egg must die! [Lurks]

So you have a credit card, right, and the idea of them is that you type some numbers into web sites and you can order things. It's a way of paying. It's quick and convenient and that's why you use them and how they managed to cream 2.5% off the top to the shops. However today I tried to order something and my card was declined. The phone rings, missus picks it up and it's some automated Egg thing. I don't make it to the phone in time and it rings off.

Odd. I check my details and submit again, denied again. Alright this aint cricket so I call up Egg only to be greeted by this new blight upon the service industry, the voice recognition automated system. This actually does a good job, to be fair, of recognising my irritated monotone but it still takes three times longer than had a human being just gone through the security stuff.

I get through to a human being eventually and apparently it's just some security thing which has randomly decided to decline the transaction. Despite the fact I've bought stuff off them before many times over the previous years. She fixes it, I say you don't mind if I hang on and give it a go. I do, it works, fine.

But it's not fine, not really. I appreciate credit card fraud must be pretty high and they look for ways to minimize it but if I have to call up for fucking minutes at a time just to order something, I may as well pay some other way. All of these developments have been shoveled onto me, wasting my time, to save them money. You reckon I'll see anything back from that? Lowering of interest rate? Will I buggery. I signed up to these guys years ago when they were 9.9% but now they charge 70% more interest than they did back then.

They just seem to think they can fuck me over bit by bit and now I can't even use a web site to buy something without having to go auto-retard voicemail hell. Enough is enough I say!

I need a new credit card. Anyone recommend something?

Mainstream wakes up to broadband speeds [Lurks]

At long last it would seem there's something of a backlash against the ridiculous selling practises of broadband Internet in the UK. Pretty much all of them sell broadband by advertising the top rate that you might get, if you live every close to the exchange.Which released a report which the BBC is commenting on where the average speed of delivered broadband is 2.7Mbps. I would assume that this is a measured throughput so equates to an ADSL sync level of about 3.5Mbps.

Of course this is nowhere near the fiasco of wireless technologies being sold on a base signalling rate which has pretty much no relation whatsoever to throughput seen. The bottom line is you let companies get away with it, they'll keep boosting the numbers however they can.

The truly depressing state of things though, I happen to live virtually on top of my exchange and I'm one of the few that gets a full 8Mb ADSL sync from my exchange. However I get a bit less than 6Mb of actual throughput on that rate, or 700K/s max. So not only is national ADSL (let's ignore cherry picking LLU companies here) based on a seriously ancient standard when everyone else has done a great job of rolling out ADSL2, but it seems that there's some additional invisible handicap on actual bandwidth delivered applied within BT's network.

Protocol overhead wise, throughput on my line ought to be around 13% incorporating ATM and TCP overhead. This should equate, all said and done, to around about 900K/s throughput. The thing is, BT actually cap throughput on the DSLAMs in each exchange based on your sync speed. I discovered this because a common ADSL issue on speed regrades is that your sync can be regraded but you don't see a shift in bandwidth until something magical happens. It turns out that this is called a BRAS profile and it's basically a set of throughput cap limits for each possible ADSL sync rate.

This is the table of BRAS profiles which are allegedly employed by BT.

Download sync rate (kbits/s) BRAS profile limit (kbits/s) BRAS profile limit (kBytes/s)
8128 7150 893.75
7968 - 8127 7000 875.00
7392 - 7967 6500 812.50
6816 - 7391 6000 750.00
6240 - 6815 5500 687.50
5696 - 6239 5000 625.00
5120 - 5695 4500 562.50
4544 - 5119 4000 500.00
4000 - 4543 3500 437.50
3424 - 3999 3000 375.00
2848 - 3423 2500 312.50
2272 - 2847 2000 250.00
1728 - 2271 1500 187.50
1152 - 1727 1000 125.00
576 - 1151 500 62.50
288 - 575 250 31.25
0 - 288 250 31.25

This is, patently and demonstrably, complete lies. I think BT have a completely different set of figures. We're not talking about me getting my throughput numbers wrong here. It's not contention. It's not dependent on the time of day. The result is the same if I use my neighbours consumer DSL or my own business DSL. The figures in the boxes on the top row appear to be in actuality more like 5600 and 700.00.

Of course I like so many others have no choice. None of the LLU operators will be heading down to my south coastal retreat in order to get into exchange and install some expensive equipment. They're too busy hitting the big cities where the real low lying fruit lies, which seems a bit rotten to me really. Unfortunately we'll be getting the same treatment from BT with the 21CN network rollout, where ADSL finally becomes available, as being listed in the third quarter of 2009. So it would seem I will have to wait three years for any better quality broadband, although who's to say they wont cripple it in much the same way asBT are now.