Life is a funny thing. For the vast majority of people, we have no concept of it ending. We see people die every day, yet a part of us always manages to convince the rest of our brain that it'll never happen to us.
But it does.
We don't know when, we don't know how. It's not biblical, just a fact.
When I leave this mortal body behind and finally learn what really happen afterwords, I hope I'll be leaving the world a better place. I hope that my actions here will make other lives a little brighter.
God forbid, if it happens tomorrow, I know that I'll miss what I have. I have the most amazing, loving, incredible wife I could ever have dreamed of. I have family that I love and miss dearly every day. I have friends that I hope to grow old with and laugh about our days in college together in fifty years time. I have a job that does make other peoples lives a little brighter, a little happier.
But I don't plan on giving it all up tomorrow, or the day after, or the next month, year or decade.
This isn't a post about death. It's about life. Live it as best you can. Be a positive influence in the stories of as many other people as you can, because when you go, that'll be the only thing that matters.
Make your world a little brighter.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Life is a funny thing. For the vast majority of people, we have no concept of it ending. We see people die every day, yet a part of us always manages to convince the rest of our brain that it'll never happen to us.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
You have suffered much in my hands.
Oh, sure. It started out all sunshine and roses, an easy life, living day to day with just a small handful of games, sharing my attention with the Wii. Life was easy. You were new and shiny, young and invincible.
But all that would change. I would taste the sweet nectar of Live. One free weekend for all Silver Members. So much changed in those few hours. I became addicted, needing more. I bought a One Year Gold subscription and dusted off my old games. I had never played the multiplayer stuff before, now it was all I yearned for. Like any good narcotic (or so I'm told), the more I played, the more I wanted.
But it was Burnout Paradise that got you all hot and bothered, and left me in the cold. At first, I thought it was a random glitch in the matrix, a graphical error that caused a console freeze. But I quickly learned the truth. You were dying inside. It was only a matter of time.
I sent you away. They told me they would make you better, return you to me as if it had never happened. And they did. I remember the day I got that phonecall that you were home. I opened the package to see you lying there. It was you, not a replacement. I could tell by your serial number.
We've had some great times since then. You were always good to me. You soldiered through long nights of Rock Band with friends, twelve hour marathon sessions of the newest release or hours upon hours of watching TV shows and movies. We reached over 30,000 Gamerscore together, just you and me, dozens of games, an internet connection, Xbox Live Gold, days and weeks of playtime... ok. Maybe a bit more than just you and me, but all through you.
I even brought you to Canada. After all those years, I could never dream of leaving you behind.
For a while, you sat there waiting. Waiting. Wondering when I would show you the same attention you had been used to. Then September 20th arrived and it was just like old times. I was running you through your paces again, every evening when I got home, long, intense sessions at the weekends, not only running the game, but sometimes hosting, Party chatting and downloading all at once.
It was to be expected, really. The first time I saw those two red segments light up your face, I paused. I refused to see the truth. I told myself that you just needed dusting. It didn't help. I moved you to a new, brighter location. It didn't help.
Now I have you sitting on my sill, beside an open window. You remain cool and comfortable, sucking in the Vancouver November air. For now.
But I know it's coming. I know our time runs short. Now I cherish every moment. I don't want to start playing a new game in case that will be the one that finishes it.
I just don't want it to end yet.
Your owner forever,
Monday, November 28, 2011
I think I've mentioned this fact before, but I get most of my reading time on the bus either to or from work, or during my lunch break. This means that I rarely have the luxury of finishing up neatly at the start of a new chapter, or even at a convenient break within a chapter. The best I can often manage is furiously zipping through the last few lines of a paragraph and leaving it there. Sometimes I don't even manage that, looking up from the page to discover I'm already at my stop.
This means I had to get creative with bookmarks. My first attempt at tracking where I stopped was simply to position the end of the bookmark roughly around where I finished up. This never worked, as the marker slid from its placing as soon as I released it. Next, I attempted to macgyver a card with a slider that I could position at the point where I wanted to pick things up from, but this didn't really work either.
Finally, I hit on an ingenious idea, one so simple, I feel like I should have been using it for years.
Working in a daycare setting I'm often asked to hold on to hairclips for children that get too fed up of constantly replacing them during play. I usually clip them to my ID lanyard to remind myself to return them safely. More often than not, however, I end up finding them where I left them once I get home.
Thus I struck upon the idea of using hairclips as bookmarks. When I need to stop, I simply attach the clip to the page I'm on at the point that I've reached. Then, when I'm ready to read again, not only do I instantly know what page I finished on, but I know the exact line I read last. It works great, and even comes with its own secondary function.
I like to get immersed in a book. I fall head-over-heals into the world, and when things get tense, I get tense also. I fidget during the exciting moments, and having the hairclip conveniently to hand, I tend to snap it open and closed, back and forth in my fingers. I try to be discrete about it, muffling the snap in my hands, but I sometimes wonder if it gets incredibly annoying to people sitting nearby.
I also end up breaking the clips, like I did today to my current favourite bookmark. I may have to go shopping for hairclips tomorrow on my lunch break.
If anyone asks, they're for my wife.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Classical orchestral pieces have long been acknowledged as stunning examples of music, capable of taking the listener through ranges of emotions, all while really only interacting with a single sense.
Movie scores have shred some of that appreciation during the last few decades. Star Wars, Batman and Tron all have easily identifiable scores that have become classics in their own right. The names John Williams or Danny Elfman can be held up as modern equals to the greats of Beethoven or Mozart. Indeed, the work of John Williams has been a regular favourite of many great orchestras, especially the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
However, despite events such as Video Games Live or the very recently released CD from the London Philharmonic, The Greatest Video Game Music, there still isn't the same level of appreciation for video game scores, and it's a crying shame.
While cut-scenes play out like moments from a movie, unlike movies, video games include incidental music which can be presented as a dynamic addition to the scene or level, shifting tempo and volume according to the actions of the player. This reaction to the events onscreen can deeply effect the level of player immersion into the world. As the music swells in a tense moment, I can feel my pulse quicken, knowing that something is nearby, about to strike.
I'd love to start seeing video game sound tracks get more and more recognition. It's starting to happen now, as major composers are working on games and digital and CD sales of video game score continue to rise.
Several years ago, Claire and I once suggested to a friend that worked on a radio music program for Irish classical music station Lyric FM that they should do a special around video game scores, but we were informed that no-one in the entire station had access to any, so it wasn't going to happen.
Hopefully some day it will happen. Hopefully some day soon.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
Most people enjoy their work-free weekends, going hiking, relaxing at home, or visiting family.
My weekends are usually filled with sleeping in late, going forwalks to Granville Island, or around the beautiful Lynn Valley, hanging out with friends, going for dinner with friends, watching movies or playing Xbox.
But I love getting woken up at 7:30 Saturday morning with a phone-call. It's happened four times in the last two months, and it's always the same.
"Hi Denis. Sorry to call you, but can you work for us this morning?"
Shower, shave and out the door for four hours of working with smallies and their parents on a Saturday morning. I love it.
When work isn't even work, it's easy to enjoy and look forward to. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Friday is my Monday. I look forward to Monday morning like most people look forward to Friday at 5pm.
Friday, November 25, 2011
Today we said good-bye to the first two friends we made on arrival in Vancouver.
Before we made the actual trip, we asked in the internet for tips about moving to the area. We used the best online forum community, RPG.Net to put the word out, and got loads of helpful advice and suggestions.
One user in particular informed us he was from Galway. He and his Canadian wife were living in Vancouver, and offered not only to show us around, but also to put us up for a while. At the time, we had already booked some time in a hostel, but happily did crash with them for several nights afterwords.
They recommended areas that were nice and things to look out for.
They made two Irish people very far from home feel welcome.
Tomorrow they travel across the continent to her parents in Quebec.
Claire and I will both miss them dearly.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
On the way home from work today I sat in my usual spot, in the back half, near the exit door. I put my head down and opened my current read, Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds. The half hour it takes to get home speeds by incredibly fast every time I lose myself in the pages of a novel.
At some point, something caught my eye, a slightly flutter on the floor by the door, next to a lone standing passenger. It was a small slipcase, possibly for an iPod-like device, light fabric, more for style than protection. It was black with what appeared to be a white floral design.
I politely tapped the standing fellow on the shoulder and indicted the object, which I thought could have easily slipped from his pocket, backpack or hand.
"Is that yours? I think you dropped it."
He was well dressed, in his early twenties, I guessed. He picked up the item, offering it to me.
"Oh, no. It's not mine. I thought it might have been yours. I noticed it just now on the floor by your feet."
Without batting an eyelid, he looked at me and said "No. I'm not gay." Then dropped it on the floor again. I shrugged and turned back to my book, whereupon I heard him say "You'd have to be gay to own that. It's really gay."
Let me pause here and clarify something. While the case was not covered in images of naked women, bloodsplattered enemies, or soccer balls, it was hardly what I would describe as overly feminine. Sure, it was a floral pattern, but the black and white style was hardly an immediate indicator of anyone’s preferred sexual orientation.
I continued my reading momentarily, before being interrupted.
"What are you reading?"
I show him the cover. "It's science fiction."
"Are you a 70's?"
He looks at me like I've suddenly sprouted a second and possibly third head. "Do you live down near 70th?"
"Oh", I reply, understanding now. "Yes. On 71st."
"Thought so. You should read something about a dystopian future. I think that'd suit you better."
I try not to stare at him for more that a second, but it's difficult. This random guy has known me for, literally, less than 60 seconds. In that time he has decided that, based on where I live and what I read, I would be much better off reading about some end-of-the-world doom and gloom.
Without responding, I turn back to my book and continue reading, making a judgement call of my own.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Growing up in rural Ireland, Sunday Mass was not an option, it was a ritual. Every Sunday we were woken up at 8:30am to have breakfast, as we couldn't eat an hour before Mass, according to some arcane tradition. At 9:50 we all bundled into the car and trundled up the road to the small local church dedicated to St. James.
And every Sunday at 9:59am, I prayed to God.
You see, the terrestrial Irish television station, RTÉ 2, loved to air children's programming while my family and I were at Mass. This was the reason we had to be almost dragged out the doors some mornings, as we just had to see the last few seconds of whatever show had started at 9:30. 10am was Sesame Street, so I never felt like we lost out on much.
But it was the show at 10:30 that had me kneeling in my pew, praying for a hasty conclusion to the weekly events. Everything rode on which priest walked through the door of the sacristy to deliver Mass. Most gave me a 50/50 chance of getting out on time, while the sight of a select few was met with joyous praise to the Allfather, as it guaranteed a short Mass, home well before the 10:30 deadline. But there was always the risk we had the one who loved his sermon’s, dragging them out to what I felt certain must surely constitute a war-crime against children, choosing the long form of the prayers, and refusing to read the clearly marked shorter version of the Gospel.
Of course, Sunday Mass was not just about sitting, kneeling or standing in church reciting prayers in a monotonous, hypnotic fashion. I also had to contend with the adults hanging around the church gate, catching up on the weeks gossip.
So what was it that had me so anxious? What show could have me praying to God to ensure the shortest possible devotion to that same deity? Only the best, most epic cartoon of it's time, one with a rock ballad opening score that still makes my heart jump to this day and floods my mind wit happy memories, dashing through the front door to turn on the TV and snuggle up by a fire for this weeks adventure.
The original, in all its glory, can be viewed here.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Since the move to Canada one of the most effective systems for keeping in touch with friends back home has been Xbox Live. It'd been great to just switch on and chat to Bob and Jp, whether playing a game or not.
But it's been even more important for keeping in contact with my brother. Stephen has spent a year in New Zealand and a year in Australia, and Xbox Live has allowed us to game together and stay in touch almost every week, across half a world.
Stephen is heading back to Ireland in a few weeks, and in preparation for his trip he posted home his Xbox today. We chatted for a bit yesterday before I went to bed, and I have to admit that I was starting to get a little choked up as we were saying good-bye.
I'll miss gaming with my brother over Live. It made me feel like we weren't so far apart.
Monday, November 21, 2011
I love the feel of a good book in my hand. I love rippling the pages and smelling the paper and ink. New books smell different to old ones, and both smell like adventure, as far as I'm concerned.
Most of the books I've bought since getting here have been second-hand. Apart from the first Dresden Files novel, Storm Front, the rest of the series was collected pre-loved. All of the Sigismondo series had to be gotten third- or possibly fourth-hand, as they have been long out of print. I don't mind. I actually like having a mismatch of covers on a shelf.
Toys are made to be played with, which is why I don't keep any "Mint In Box". Books are made to be read and reread. I love falling into the world created by the author, and I like to follow an author once I find that I enjoy his work.
Which is where my problem arises.
I do buy second-hand books. It makes financial sense for me. But I also regret that I'm not supporting the author. They get royalties from the original sale, but not the second-hand market. Jim Butcher and Cherie Priest are the only authors to get any money out for me since I got to Vancouver, and then only from one sale each.
I can't recall ever hearing an author complain about second-hand book stores or, unimaginably, a library. They just simply accept it as another chain of distribution and hope that people will move from there to the newest releases, I guess. It's a very different view to that taken by the video game industry, who are actively fighting the second-hand sales market, coming up with initiative after initiative to combat the loss of income from pre-owned game sales.
And that makes me want to support authors even more. They are aware of, or at least have grudgingly accepted, the positive effect of the pre-loved market. They hope that once they have captured your attention you'll feverishly purchase the new releases as they come out.
And for me, it's working. Because of when I like to read, I really only ever buy paperbacks, so I'm awaiting the trade paperback edition of the latest Harry Dresden casefile, Ghost Story, as well as his collection of short stories, Side Jobs, due out next month, I believe. And I can't wait for Wise Man's Fear to get a paperback edition! But there are over two dozen other titles from various authors that I love that I'd like to be able to say "Thank You" for in a way that doesn't affect how I choose to buy or read my books.
I like to support local business, and love chatting to the staff in my favourite second-hand book store. I'd just like to be able to share my appreciation with the original author as well.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
The general rule of video games seems to be that characters never ages. No matter how many adventures they have, their features remain frozen, ageless avatars, immune to the ravages of time. While their polygon count might rise and their appearances get updated, characters like Gears of War's Marcus and company, Mass Effect's Shepard and crew, even Mario and friends don't really grow old. In Lara Croft's case, the newest, upcoming release has her actually getting younger!
But rules were made to be broken, and Ubisoft decided to shatter them. After all, in video games, nothing is true, everything is permitted.
I have experienced so much of the life of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Over the course of three games, I have been there for his birth and I have watched him grow from a carefree youth into a responsible adult. I shared the pain of his lose when his father and brothers were taken from him, and experienced the key moments in a life spanning decades as he sought his revenge. I was with him when he romanced Christina, and also when he accepted that the life he lead would keep them apart. I watched him build up a brotherhood of assassins, defending the people when no-one else would.
And now I bear witness to the closing act of his life. His hair is grey, his face covered in the marks and folds of a long life. In his actions, I can see the wisdom of decades; in his movements, the fatigue that those same years have brought. He is no longer the young man of previous games.
He has aged. Time has passed for him. He's not just the immortal avatar of a video game, but someone who has lead a full life, one that I know has to eventually, inevitably end in death, even if we don't see it onscreen in the game.
Ubisoft has crafted a story and a character spanning over three decades. It pains me that Revelations will be the final chapter in Ezio's story. But I love that it is. It has been a unique experience, one that I was honored to be a part of.
Addendum: At the time of writing this, I couldn't think of other examples of characters growing old over the course of a series of games, even though I knew there had to be others. Thanks to some friends, Solid Snake and Sam Fisher share that trait, suggesting that the stealth assassin industry is detrimental to you ability to remain youthful! Though not out yet, Max Payne appears to have aged also in his upcoming release.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
Ack. Oh well. I've been trying to do this whole November daily blogging thing, and I hoped that by not actually mentioning it or making a big deal of it I'd kind of sneak through the whole month without getting myself stressed about having to post every single day!
I've been kind of cheating anyway. For one, I had built up somewhat of a buffer, writing a few related posts together but saving the extra for the following week. I'm not too upset about that as I still had to write the posts.
My other sneaky method had only just paid off. I have my blogs date and time still set to GMT. I just never got around to updating it. So I've been able to post late in the evening Pacific time and have it appear as early the next day on my blog. This gave me a small amount of leeway in case I couldn't or forgot to post something. I could post the following Vancouver evening and justify to myself that I still managed a post per date, if not day.
Unfortunately, I missed Saturday both in Ireland and Vancouver. You see, I spent it entirely playing Assassin's Creed: Revelations. Well, almost entirely. I got up at 10am, played until about 3pm, took a walk and got some fresh fruit for a snack, played a short bit of Gears of War 3, went out for dinner with the lovely Claire, and then back to the world of Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
So here we are. An excuse post. I hate it as much as you. It's so late Claire is gone to bed, I've probably made a dozen typos I'll see in the morning and I'm too tired to even add relevant links.
But I have altered the date so that this appears to have been posted on Saturday. I'm still awake. My day hasn't ended yet. It counts, right?
EDIT: Fixed some typos.
Friday, November 18, 2011
Spoiler Warning! ArrOOga, arrOOga! Spoiler Warning!
The body of this post discusses major plot points from Gears of War 3, in particular a characters fate toward the end of the game. Don't read the rest unless you have finished the game. You have been warned.
Previous posts in this series:
The Coalitions Finest
Brothers To At Least Act Three
Click To Read More
Thursday, November 17, 2011
I got a half day from work yesterday, so I was home early to relax and enjoy Assassins Creed: Revelations. Except my brother was also online, so we raced through Acts 3, 4 and 5 of Gears of War 3 in just short of three hours on Casual to get him his four-player co-op Achievement. It was insanely good fun, very frantic and a totally different experience from the cautious approach of Hardcore and beyond.
But once we had it wrapped up I had the evening free to enjoy the final chapter in Ezio Auditore da Firenze's life as a master assassin.
I eagerly jumped into it, having only played a short few minutes before bed the night before, and was completely engrossed in the world in moments.
I was ripped savagely out of it again when my Xbox 360 decided that it was feeling a bit hot under the collar and shut itself down, displaying a red semi-circle around the power button.
I've had the dreaded Red Ring Of Death before, and it's not fun. But my Xbox was running fine since I got it repaired, up until recently. I got this over-heating shutdown once about two weeks ago, but moved the powerbrick, cleaned the vents, did anything I could think of to help, and all seemed fine.
Today, it red-semi-circled on me three times.
Hoping that it is just a heating issue, we've moved it onto the main dinner table, next to a window we can leave open. There is a cool, early winter breeze blowing across the machine now, and I managed to get through a fair chunk of the game without any more failures.
Out house does get very warm. We have, at times, a laptop, a PC, an Xbox and the heating, which we can't adjust for our individual apartment because it's a whole building thingy, and then on top of all that we have cooking just adding to the rising heat. I find it stifling. Claire complains if I open a window. It's a definite impasse at times.
For now, the Xbox is going to live on the table. We'll have to see how long that lasts. Should it die, I'm going to either grab a second hand one on the cheap, or hold out for the matte black S model due next month and treat myself to a shiny (not gloss shiny, though) new Xbox 360.
Hopefully I won't have to choose. I really like my Xbox, and the thought of having to sort out data transfer and region coding just frustrates and confuses me.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
For the last few month I've been in a role-playing group every Tuesday evening after work. It started as my introduction to FATE 3.0 via Dreadnought and then on to my game based in the Dresden Files Universe version of Vancouver. Starting at seven players, my game swiftly dwindled to three regulars, then just those three, end of story.
I was kind of losing heart at this point, but one of our small number offered to run the FATE powered sci-fi game, Diaspora. I jumped at the chance to play rather than GM again, and we started character creation with five players. Before the first session, that dwindled to two players.
None-the-less, it has been an awesome amount of fun so far, but we've done nothing. We have brought a whole new meaning to the terms sidetracked, procrastinate and distractible. We only really get two hours on Tuesday evening to play, but that actually works out to less than an hour of playtime, with the remaining time made up of stories from our week, random stuff we read online, old TV shows, apt and hilarious quotations that then require explaining, discussions of what we're currently reading or playing and much, much more, all wrapped up in a tidy package of howling laughter.
We honestly get nothing done. In five weeks we've started one adventure, of which we have boarded a vessel, met the other passengers, found a ghost ship, went on board, investigated, had lunch, found something that shouldn't be. Only the last two points were performed yesterday.
I love it. I haven't had as much fun in a long time. Sometimes, gaming is just an excuse to meet up and hang out with people. Getting any progress in the story is secondary to the enjoyment of one anothers company.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Short one today, but here goes.
Yesterday I worked in the after school age program. It's a nice change of pace moving from the little ones up to a group consisting of six to eleven year olds. They are much more independent and capable, such that most of my day is really about just being there for ration and insurance purposes, but they rarely need me for anything specific.
The other major difference is the topics of conversation. Over the course of the day I discussed endangered species, hunting, conservation, Santa Claus, and eating bugs with one group, and later the formation and physics of black holes with a different child.
I love my job.
Monday, November 14, 2011
When I was much younger, back in the days just after my parents generation had eradicated the last dinosaur and before we had civilisation and high speed internet, I used to read a lot. Like, even more than I used to watch TV. Well... maybe not that much, but reading came in a close second.
The first author whose name I learned to recognise was Roald Dahl. I don't remember what book I started on, but I have many fond memories of losing myself deep inside the worlds of his novels. I remember buying Charlie and the Chocolate Factory one Saturday morning while shopping with mum, coming home and going straight to my room. I pulled the covers off my bed, wrapped myself up on the floor and opened page one. I didn't leave the room until I finished it later that evening, forgoing dinner until I had learned all the secrets of the great factory. BFG is one of my favourites, Matilda is a beautiful story, with a wonderful movie adaptation, and George's Marvelous Medicine is still an all-time favourite, which I love to read every other year or so.
My first proper novel after Dahl was Jurassic Park, by the late, great Michael Crichton. My cousin lent it to me shortly after we saw the movie in theaters on release. Reading The Lost World followed swiftly afterwords. From there I tried my hand at John Grisham, but didn't last long, and a few others, before settling on Terry Pratchett. I started Pratchett with Mort before going back and reading the earlier stuff. I enjoyed what I read, but never got past book seven or eight, just losing interest and wandering away from reading in general for a while.
In college I read bits and pieces, but by then I was mostly into comics and graphic novels, starting what was to become a massive collection. Occasionally I would pick up a book or two on sale, fully intending to get back into reading novels that didn't have pictures of costumed heroes leaping about the place on every page. But I read far less than I didn't, never really finding a way to set aside enough time to get into the stories they were telling. I couldn't read in bed as I would inevitably fall asleep five minutes in, waking up to find my face stuck to the page. Reading by osmosis doesn't work.
I was infinitely jealous of Claires ability to read at lightning speed, while still taking everything in, or Jp's seemingly unending enthusiasm for the next book from a variety of authors. It honestly annoyed me that I couldn't seem to get myself to focus long enough to do something as simple as read a fucking book.
The Xbox 360 and high speed broadband at home was a big part of that. There was so many other things to do and see and read online that committing myself to a single novel, many of whom had teeny text just seemed beyond me.
So, upon arriving in Vancouver I swiftly realised two things: 1) I had no internet at home yet, and 2) despite bringing my Xbox, I had nothing to play it on, as the best I could manage was sharing it on Claires monitor, and she used that all the time. Grabbing this opportunity, I raced to the nearest bookstore in search of a good read.
Failing that, I picked up Frontier Earth, by Babylon 5 star Bruce Boxleitner, and actually rather enjoyed it. Nothing amazing, but a nice gentle book to get me back into the swing of things.
Once I started I knew I had to keep going without a break. My biggest worry was that I'd stall and go back to not reading again, so I picked up the first in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, Storm Front. It immediately grabbed my attention, and I bought the next few books in the series before I had even finished the first.
As I got close to the end of Dresden Files, I was stuck. I didn't know where to go. Some of my friends in Vancouver had recommended a work by a first time author, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. It was huge and daunting to look at, but I jumped in feet first and couldn't drag myself back out. I needed to know what happened next at the end of every chapter, I couldn't put it down, reading it on the bus to work, on my lunch break, on the bus home, before, during and after dinner, every free moment I had. It was amazing!
After Jonathan Strange I felt I needed a break from magic, and started reading a series Claire and gotten hold of here in Vancouver. It's a series of six books set during the Italian Renaissance, following the adventures of a heroic mercenary, Sigismondo and his manservant, Benno. Written by a pair of authors under the pen name Elizabeth Eyre, the books are full of mystery and intrigue, with plots within plots and secret enemies within every palace. They are a fantastic read, and I'd urge anyone who is a fan of Assassins Creed, or Italy during the Renaissance to try them out. Funny, action packed, entertaining, but never complex or difficult to follow, I was sad to reach the final page of book six, knowing there was no more. And I don't understand why there isn't any more. Not to spoil anything, but at the end of Dirge for a Doge our two heroes are alive and well and continuing in their adventures. I can only guess that at the time they might not have sold well, and they've never been reprinted, so they are hard to find unless you order online. Pity, they really are fantastic.
My next adventure brought me back to Italy, in the year 1327. Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose is set in a monastery over the course of seven days as the two main protagonists attempt to uncover the truth behind a series of gruesome murders. It was an enjoyable read, and I did manage to finish it, but it was hard going. The novel is less interested in telling the story than in letting the tale become a frame upon which to mount a series of essays on the church and religion and learning and a number of other topics, as characters discuss at length these issues with one another. I did enjoy it, but there were times when I just wanted the net murder to occur and the adventure to push forward. That said, I do feel smarter for having finished it, and a little more knowledgeable about the history of the Roman Catholic church.
For a while I debated starting Foucault's Pendulum next, but decided against it right away. I needed something a little less cerebral than Eco, so of course I started a series by a physicist who has been involved with Cern and the European Space Agency. That was clever of me.
Thankfully, Alistair Reynolds is a riveting read. His writing style does favour large chunks of exposition and world-building, something he has been criticized for in reviews, but I enjoyed it. It felt at times like I was reading the completed text of a role-playing game and those parts were the GM bouncing in his chair, excitedly describing the newest cool thing his world has. Some of his players find it boring and amateurish, others accept those parts because the rest of the story is so enjoyable, and the last group, like myself, sit quietly in our seats, soaking the world into our imaginations, enriching the story. I've only read Revelation Space so far, and have started Chasm City, which I'm loving already.
Where to next? I'm not sure. There are too many choices, too many suggestions by friends whose opinions I trust. I'm delighted to be back into reading again, and I hope I never lapse again. The joy of reading is a gift I look forward to giving my children some day.
I think I'll start with Llama Llama Red Pajama, and onwards from there.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
In my first post, in what has become a series related to the Gears of War franchise, I mentioned that my first experience of the games was through Horde Mode in Gears 2, and that I had ignored the story for some time even after I purchased it thinking I'd hate it. On the surface, it looked like everything I disliked about testosterone fueled war games turned up to eleven.
Turns out I was wrong, and right, in that order.
Make no mistake, the universe of Gears of War is a truly nightmarish place overpopulated with males who sport enormous muscles and necks that resemble tree-trunks, a thriving steroid manufacturing and distribution industry, and tech level beyond our own, while simultaneously never spotting the vast race of cave dwelling monsters that lived below their feet until they burst to the surface. There is so much wrong with the world of Sera that I find it hard to understand how it got past the design process.
I was right in thinking that I'd dislike that kind of game, I was just wrong in thinking that I already disliked the Gears series because of it.
You see for some reason, in this case, it works. It still has all those things I dislike about war games, but by turning them up to eleven, Epic managed to make them entertaining, poking fun at the absurdity of the tropes on display. It's an over-the-top universe of action and adventure, epic battles and heartbreaking personal moments. It has, in my opinion, some great incidental dialogue that characters shout in the heat of battle, fantastic characterizations, and an awesome array of enemies.
I ended up playing both the first and second games through with friends, both through the couch-sharing, split-screen mode and the Xbox Live full-screen version. In fact, now that I think about it, I don't think I've ever played any Gears of War story by myself, and I've finished the first game at least three times, and the second game more than that!
Through Horde Mode, my wonderful wife joined me on the world of Sera, at first watching me play through the story, enjoying the story together, before playing the game herself. She never got around to finishing her own run through, but she put in hours of combat training killing Locust in Horde.
On the release of Gears 3, I knew I wanted to experience the story together with Claire this time. We sat down and played through the entire campaign together over several nights. Our first run-though was even on Hardcore! The campaign allows for 4-player co-op, so we had two bots running and gunning along with us. In practice, this meant that they raced forward, took a tonne of fire, one went down, the other picked his fallen friend up, rinse, repeat, and Claire and I sat back picking everything off at a safe distance.
With our run-though complete, Claire and I joined Bob and Jp on Arcade Mode and played through it a second time in quick succession.
All in all, I can't say that I didn't enjoy the game. There were some spectacular scenes, loads of genuinely funny moments, fantastic dialogue, nice nods to the earlier games and some great easter eggs scattered throughout. The story moved along at a good pace, and while it clocked in at easily the longest in the series, it never once felt like that. The ending almost came too soon.
Playing it on Insane in the Arcade four-player co-op was tough. Instantly dieing instead of the usual safety net of Down But Not Out was at first frustrating, but once you adjusted to it, it simply made some scenes even more tense and nerve wracking. Adding Mutators, fun game changers such as infinite ammo, or bonus weapon damage, certainly made things more enjoyable, shifting the tone of combat from a defensive stance spending the majority of time behind cover regaining health, to a more proactive offensive ideology. There were still a number of really, really difficult-to-finish areas, but the ones we were dreading the most often proved to be the quickest to complete!
I have to say, I was well proud of our little band of heroes when we nailed the final boss without too much trouble. I want to say that we didn't even wipe out once, but I think we may have had to restart once or twice early on. But it was far less painful that certain earlier levels (I'm looking at you, Formers!). In the end, it was some awesome teamwork, combined with a sprint around the tower a few times while the three dead teammates rejoined the fight, that won the day!
Visually, the game is beautiful. The environments have a massive amount of variety, from battling in dark tunnels to stunning, sun drenched walkways. Even the darker sections of the game are brighter than most apocalyptic games, filled with torches, dynamic lighting effects and clever tricks to avoid having to play through an area with my screen brightness maxed out. The character models are crisp and incredibly detailed, with everything moving realistically, whether it's the faces as they talk and react or the solid plates on the armour.
It's also refreshing to see a game with several strong female characters, and even more refreshing to see them wearing much the same amour as the guys, instead of skimpy chainmail bikinis or a body armour that inexplicably leaves the midrift exposed! The girls are just as bad-ass as the guys here, and everything they do, say and wear reinforces that they are not just onscreen to look pretty and kiss the men on the way to battle, but could easily hold their own in any fight. The only thing I'm upset we never get to see is an all female chapter, where the girls have to defend or attack a key location while the boys are busy elsewhere. Admittedly, the main game only has three named female COG characters, so maybe I can suggest that idea for future DLC!
Story-wise, I was bitterly disappointed in some of the major choices made, especially towards the end. I'm not going to go into it here, as I'm going to leave my thoughts and ideas on that subject for another post, but suffice it to say, I still think Gears of War 2 is the stronger story, or at least the stronger resolution.
Gears of War 3 feels like the appropriate ending in the story for control of an entire planet. Unfortunately, it just seems to push itself over the thin line between "epic action adventure" into the field of "ridiculous nonsense" as it gets towards the end. There were several times I found myself close to screaming "WHY?!?" at the Xbox, and at least once when I did. Despite this, I enjoyed it then and still enjoy it now. I've played it through once on Hardcore and once on Insane in four-player co-op, yet I still enjoy joining friends games and playing through a few chapters when I have the time. There are some amazing climax moments, none better than the start of Act 3 where you have to defend a fort against a tidal wave of seemingly unending enemies. The dialogue and character interactions are funny and enjoyable, and once again the Baird/Cole buddy team-up steals the show for me.
A flawed but enjoyable masterpiece, the story of Gears 3 was enough for me to enjoy playing at least twice. While it won't keep me coming back like Horde mode does, it wasn't something I felt I could put off playing, as I had done in Gears 2. In fact, more than anything, playing the Gears 3 campaign has made me want to go back and play the story in Gears 2 again, and relive how an emotional moment in a game is done properly.
Previous posts in this series:
The Coalitions Finest
Still to come:
How I would have written things if I was in control (But with a much snappier title)
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Recently I've started having some very odd dreams. I wouldn't call them nightmares or anything, but they're still the kind of thing that upsets me enough that my first thought on waking is "Thank God that wasn't real." I'm not one to spend much time on analyzing dreams and assigning them significant meaning, but I still feel that these are some for of anxiety dream.
There isn't much for me to be anxious about right now in my life. I love my job, Vancouver, my place in life right now. Of course, above and beyond all of that, I love Claire, and having her near me when I awake brings me right back to a calm state.
But I do think that there is some underlying, bubbling anxiety that has been causing this. Most of my dreams place me firmly back in Ireland. I recently had a dream where I was supposed to be at work for 9am, but it was approaching 10:15, and I was still in Killea, my home home as I still call it, trying to get to work any way possible. The fact that I needed to travel halfway across the world didn't seem to be an issue, I just needed to get a lift. Or the dream where I was back in Cork, about to board a flight to Vancouver, reliving all those upsetting emotions I had to go through almost a year ago,but in the wrong airport and with more than just my mum there. I'm pretty sure I woke up crying from that one, or at the very least, upset enough that all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball for a bit.
Not to mention all the dreams I still have where I'm hanging out with Bob, Jp and Noel, just messing about, doing nothing. Well, not always nothing. There was one dream recently where I vaguely recall being with a bunch of Irish friends and Noel getting up to something that was hilarious at the time, but which, as happens all too often with reams, I've completely forgotten about now. I woke from that one chucking to myself, before I realised where I really was again. Those ones are far from upsetting, but they do illustrate my point.
Christmas swiftly approaches. I got my work schedule for December on Thursday. More and more stores are putting up their decorations, and more and more homes are starting to have colourful displays of light in their windows. Not having and television or a radio has saved me from the inevitable advertisements and music of the season, but I'm sure they're in full swing too by now.
This will be my first Christmas ever away from home. Every year for the past 31 years, I have been home with my family on or before December 24th, and for more than the last decade I've been with my friends for New Years. This year will be dramatically different.
We don't have plans for Christmas yet. Claire and I haven't really talked about what to do. We have a few options, the obvious being staying here in Vancouver and doing something, and a nice offer from Cian also means we could spend it in Seattle. We could of course travel to other places, but budget concerns at a time when we need to renew our visas mean that money is far from no object, even with the tidy savings we currently have.
So I'm not sure how to feel. There is really no need for me to be lonely at Christmas. Regardless of what happens I'll be spending Christmas with family, as I'm going nowhere without Claire! I have the option to spend it with friends if I choose. I can always ring home, made even easier now that we have credit on Skype to make calls to Ireland for ridiculously cheap. I know I'll miss being home, but I'll be happy that my brother will be home from Australia by then, so hopefully mum won't spend too much time thinking about me on the day, or at least not being upset about it. I'm not currently feeling homesick, nor do I consciously think that I'll be too upset come the big day.
But I think my dreams do highlight that at least some part of me is willing to admit that I'll miss it more than I think I will. I know I've said on several occasions here that I miss my friends and family in Ireland, and I do. We never left because of the people, or even really because of the economy (though we are both happy to not be dealing with it right now). We left because we just wanted to see a bit more of the world, and experience a bit of what life is like outside of our tiny island.
Christmas away from home will just be another experience to add to that. I waited 31 years, and would have happily waited another 31, but never let it be said that I was afraid to try new things.
Not afraid. Just a little anxious.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Hail, rain or shine, we always take the children in the daycare outside every day, either for a walk around the community, or at the very least, to the program playground.
On the sunny or dry days, that just means wrapping them up against the seasonal temperatures, either layering on sunscreen, or sweaters and jackets.
But it's the wet days that are the most fun. Every child has boots in their cubby, but more importantly, they also have rainproof covering, affectionately called muddy buddies. These are, as seen at the link, one piece waterproofs, with elasticated wrists and ankles. They can be a bit of a pain to put on, especially if you have a group of eight children all asking for help, some having mastered putting on their boots, while others struggle valiantly to put their leg through their sleeve, a task that is as hilarious to watch as you can imagine. But once they are on and zipped up, once the ankle elastics are pulled over the boots to stop rainwater flooding their feet, they are awesome!
On my second day at work way back in May it rained the proverbial cats and dogs. My group were playing in the yard, all safely zipped up, splashing in puddles, riding trikes in the rain. They were also sitting in a pool of water about a foot deep. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this, but the other staff assured me they were fine. "The worst that can happen is that we change their clothes when we go back in. They all have spares. This is good for them." I was stunned, and impressed.
I've already seen some of the snowsuits that parents are starting to stock their little darlings cubby with. They look like the muddy buddies, but with a much thicker lining. I'm looking forward to seeing the toddlers struggling to play in the snow, their arms stuck straight out from their sides by multiple layers of insulating clothing, beads of sweat building on their little faces, as they slowly heat up from the inside. I've been assured that this too is just as funny as it sounds.
All this post was inspired because of something else we did today that I just could never imagine being let do back home in Ireland. As it was a beautiful, cool, dry autumn afternoon, we took the toddlers outside after snack time, and stayed out there as the evening light faded. In fact, by the time we came back in, it was after 5pm and it was as dark as it was going to get outside. The toddlers had been outside, enjoying fresh air in a playground lit by soft lighting long after sunset. They loved it, and so did I.
Explain to me why this is seemingly not possible under supposed health and safety regulations in Ireland. It makes no sense! You are making us worse, not better, HSE!
Thursday, November 10, 2011
I have now been using the new, stripped down version of Google Reader for over a week. I admit that my initial comments were made in haste, written pretty much from first impressions, so in an effort at fair play, here is my thoughts a week in.
One of my biggest complaints about the new look was that I had to use two scroll bars to read some posts! I found a way around this quite by accident. It turns out hitting "F" enables a full-screen mode that utilizes the full width of my meager netbook monitor. This is good.
On the other hand, the menu now shrinks to a pop-down bar across the top of the page. Nice, except I have the same thing for my browser, again, in order to maximise the workspace on the netbook. When I try to highlight your menu to move to a new folder, all too often I drop the browser menu in too, and have to surgically edge my mouse pointer to the desired location without causing one or the other menus to disappear. This is frustrating.
I thought I had you beat in some small way when I remembered that I had the "Note In Reader" bookmark in my browser. Out of curiosity, I pressed it to see what would happen and a note appeared informing me that "This feature was no longer supported". Okay. Except there was no way to close it!! None. No little X to click and clicking around the page did nothing. Eventually I had to click to a new page entirely to make it go away. This too is frustrating.
Finally, I saw that I could still star items after the update, a feature I really only use so I can go back and read or watch articles and videos at a later date if I don't have time just then. Except when I came back to watch them I couldn't find the option to view my starred items! It took me a lot of searching through menu options, but I finally uncovered where it was hidden. It wasn't too difficult to uncover in the end, but it was, once again, frustrating.
And there we have it. New Google Reader. Three strikes and you're out.
I look forward to finding and using your replacement, of which Hive Mined is looking most promising.
So long, and thanks for all the fish. I'll swim away, never fully understanding why you stopped Feeding us.
Wednesday, November 09, 2011
There's an age old adage that says you should do what you love, but all too often in the world we live in, we are forced to take jobs that are less than ideal. I count myself as one of the lucky few that can honestly stand up and proclaim that I look forward to Monday mornings and the start of another week.
Back in Ireland my friend Aidan and I used to tease our other friends about how great our jobs were. He worked with animals, famously hand rearing a baby ostrich, while I worked with animals of a different type, preschool children, usually aged between three and five years. We both loved our respective jobs and were happy to tell anyone as much whenever we got together. There are few things better in life than absolutely enjoying your job and lording it over others who do not...
I've had my share of crappy jobs too.
I once got so sick of one particular job that I quit on the 23rd of December, right before the seasonal staff shortages. I had volunteered to work over New Years Eve and Day, as I don't drink and the worst I could be on January 1st was tired, a much better condition than many others. Of course I didn't know I'd be pushed to the point of quitting when I offered to cover those days in exchange for a few days immediately after Christmas.
But my shift on the 22nd pressed just the right combinations of emotional buttons to finally make me take the step of ending my time there after debating with myself for months if I should hand in my notice or not. I was scheduled to open on the morning of the 23rd, and I didn't want any of the staff to have to cover for me right away. Instead, I went to work, opened up as usual, wished everyone a "Merry Christmas" and rang my manager at 9am to tell him I was leaving in an hour and not coming back.
Probably not the best way to handle that situation in hindsight, but I hand no interest in working in that industry any longer, so I didn't need to worry about references or other technicalities.
And by God, it felt good.
Since then I've promised myself that I wouldn't stay somewhere I didn't like to be. That worked fine back in Ireland, but it caused me some apprehension during the move to Canada.
I knew I'd have to find a job from scratch. I realised that there was a legitimate possibility that I would have to work somewhere outside of childcare at first while things got settled, in a coffee shop or store. It was not something I looked forward to.
Turned out, I didn't need to worry.
While handing around resumes, one center pointed me to their governing organisation that looks after a large number of childcare centers in Vancouver. They talked to me, and very quickly I knew I wanted to work for them. Their ethos and mission statement sang to the very core of what I believed was an ideal setting to care for children. Plus, they would give me the opportunity to work with children in age groups beyond what I was used to in Ireland, starting from as young as six months, right through to eleven and twelve year olds, an exciting chance to expand my skills across a wider care base.
Thankfully, something about me assured them that they wanted me to work for them as well. I started the day after all my paperwork came through, and have been working every day since May, apart from a few days holidays I took while friends and family visited, or the trip to Seattle.
I love working for the organisation. I've gotten to work in all of their centers, working with probably over 600 different children, not to mention all the wonderful staff and parents as well!
I lucked out, big time. I know I did. I wake up every work morning, excited about what lies in store this day. I suffer from the "Monday Blues" on Friday, and proclaim with joy "Thank God it's Monday" once the weekend is over.
When you find something you love, you keep it safe. I hope to keep this for a very long time to come.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
If the internal workings of a computer are anything like in Reboot, my Xbox is developing a lasting hatred of me right now.
Gears of War 3 has a plethora of unlockables that you earn for completing set tasks, such as being awarded X number of one particular ribbon, getting X number of kills with a weapon, or playing X number of matches in each multiplayer game mode.
It's this last one that has caused me to start leaving my Xbox turned on for hours while I did other things. In order to unlock a particular character skin you need to play 300 matches of each of the six modes in competitive multiplayer. As I have no interest in actually doing any such thing, I have taken to setting up the game to play match after match after match against bots while my chosen character simply stands there and dies, hopefully as quickly as possible so that I can get through another match. This has been a slow process, but as I'm not actually playing, it doesn't effect me, apart from destroying my Win/Loss Ratio.
However, there is one game mode where this system has an unfortunate outcome for someone else. Wingman is all about teamwork. There are four teams of two, and the objective is to be the last man or team standing while scoring ten kills before another team does. Because of this, I have a fully active bot teammate with me during my attempt to clock up those 300 matches.
A fully active bot teammate who hates me.
Most of the time I'm not even paying attention to the screen while it runs through the matches. However, now and then, I do catch a glimpse of what's going on. Let me give you just two examples from the 300 matches that he helped me through.
In one game our team spawned in a nice open area with lots of nearby cover. My teammate, whom I lovingly nicknamed Private Bottington The 3rd, took cover at a nearby low wall, and watched as I was taken down by some dastardly villain. Bottington raced over, providing covering fire, picked me up and dashed back into cover. No sooner had he done so when I was dropped again. Like the true hero that he is, Bottington came to my rescue once again, and once again made it safely back into cover. From the safety behind the wall he turned to look at me. He silently implored me to move, to run, to hide behind something, anything. He watched in dismay as the bullets ripped through my armour one last time, dropping me, ragdoll-like to the ground. This time, there was no reviving me. In a fit of rage, Bottington went on to hunt down and execute my assailant, his teammate and two other bots, single-handedly scoring the highest point total that round.
Just a short few matches later, Bottington and I spawned in a nice, sunny area. Bottington ran about looking for the other teams, but always stayed relatively close by. A firefight broke out around me, and Bottington valiantly attempted to defend me. He raced across in front of me and had just left my field of vision when I saw his indicator change to the Down By Not Out circle. A moment later Bottington crawled back in from right of screen, a trail of blood smearing the dusty ground behind him. He dragged himself over to my feet, pleading to be picked up. I stood there, my only movements the involuntary flinches caused by stray bullet impacts. Bottington begged for help. I did not give it. An enemy rolled into view behind my teammate and stomped his head into the ground, before turning on me and blowing me into several gooey little pieces.
Long after I get my unlock, long after I have given up grinding out match after match for something that means so little, I will remember Bottington and his heroic actions.
And every time I play on a match where the opposing team has one bot to fill out their numbers, and that bot hunts me down and kills me, a little tear will well up in the corner of my eye, and I'll think to myself "Well played, Bottington, well played..."
Monday, November 07, 2011
As some of you may have noticed I haven't really been posting anything to my Flickr account in a long time. In fact, it's been a very long time since I was posting regularly on it at all. It not that I haven't been doing anything. Far from it. I have tonnes of photos from June when we had visitors staying, as well as a bunch of other random photos I've taken, all waiting patiently to be uploaded when I see fit to commit to it.
I'd love to share some photos of the city as it shifts from summer to winter, but, unfortunately, I no longer have a camera. My much loved Canon Powershot died long before we made the trip to Canada, simply from massive overuse. The sensor just could not operate any longer, and with a heavy heart, I had to let it go. For a while after we got here I was using Claire's old Samsung, but that too has decided to cease functioning.
I'm still trying to justify buying a Canon G12, but right now we really can't afford to spend that kind of money on what is, after all, a luxury item. I know there are alternatives to the G series, particularly the S series, which is apparently the same internals with a different body and slightly cheaper. But I like the look and feel of the G12, so that's definitely what I'm shooting for.
Admittedly, I'd happily consider a second hand G11 as well, but it would have to be in damn near mint condition, and significantly cheaper than a new G12 for me to think about taking it.
I'm not asking for much, just perfection. Like everything else in my life.
- While looking up an appropriate site to link to about the A95 I discovered that that model was subject to a flaw in the sensor, resulting in distortions in the image... The exact distortions I was seeing. Canon would have repaired my beloved camera for free. Unfortunately, I no longer have it, as I sold it for €5. Shit.
Sunday, November 06, 2011
Moving to Vancouver was always going to be tough. We left so much behind; family, friends, comics, books, boxes and boxes of action figures. But one of the things knew I'd miss most long before we set out on this great adventure was hanging out with friends.
Specifically, hanging out with friends playing Rock Band!
Yesterday I had the joy of playing a massive twelve song setlist with two friends from back home thanks to the glory of Xbox Live. Normally I play guitar or base, but as those were both claimed before I joined, I jumped onto drums for the first time in a long, long time. It was either that or vocals, and I didn't think either of the others had done anything to deserve hearing that while we played!
Twelve songs was not only the longest run I've had in Rock Band in some time, but also shattered any drum session length record I had previously set. I stayed on Easy, testing the waters of Normal for about 30 seconds at the start of the fifth track before I beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of Easy.
Playing Rock Band again with friends reminded me of all the great nights and afternoons we had back in Ireland, rocking out on plastic instruments, handing around the microphone to blast out our favourite tunes. I've brought my set to a wedding and several house parties, and every time it's been a huge hit.
I still buy new tracks that I like, but it's not the same playing by myself. Rock Band was never even really about playing the game. It was about relaxing in good company, chatting and enjoying a few snacks while listening to and interacting with some great music. Of course, it was also about jumping about and making somewhat of a fool of yourself in front of friends, acting out all those dreams of wanting to be on stage in front of a crowd of thousands of adoring fans. Playing it on a projector with surround sound certainly added to the experience.
I miss those days. I miss my friends.
I'm going to go and console myself with a few tracks on Rock Band. Guitar this time. That ring finger needs time to recover.
Saturday, November 05, 2011
It's that time of the year again! I should just schedule a bunch of these for the next few years so that I don't have to do this.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Dust off that copy V For Vendetta and enjoy!
Friday, November 04, 2011
Halloween is behind us. The little ones are still in a diabetic coma from all the sugar they managed to loot from their neighbours three days ago, and so it's a perfect time to begin looking to Christmas.
Yes, it's that time of the year again, November. This can only mean that shops have removed all their skeletons and cobwebs and replaced them with elves and fairy lights. I still there is money to be made in reversible decorations for these two holiday seasons. Think about it, on one side is a terrifying skull, rotting and empty eyed; then on November 1st you flip it over to reveal the rosy cheeked face of a man whose life goal is to sneak into the bedrooms of children across the world and leave them gifts. The perfect dichotomy.
Admittedly, certain stores need to start the push this early. If your sole purpose for existing it to sell Christmas decorations, or novelty Santa lawn gnomes, then your window of opportunity is pretty tight. You need to have your product out there for people to use as soon as they're ready to decorate their dwellings in the festive cheer.
But if you're a normal, everyday store, then do you really need to have the fir tree adorned with colourful lights and a star in your window before December 1st, or the last week in November at the earliest? Toy stores sell the same stuff at Christmas as they do the rest of the year, they just stock more around now. We don't need to have Let It Snow or some sickly rendition of Jingle Bells blaring into our ears at this stage.
Yesterday morning when I went to get a banana from Starbucks I was shocked to find their Christmas gift displays up already. In hindsight of course I shouldn't have been surprised at all, but it just reminded me that the most wonderful time of the year is fast approaching. Don't get me wrong, I do love Christmas. I can't wait to buy all the lights, a tree, random, brightly coloured decorations and put them everywhere in our apartment. I just want to enjoy Christmas at, you know, Christmas.
And I feel that Christmas starts on December 1st.
Thursday, November 03, 2011
Vancouver is beautiful in the autumn and early winter. Everywhere I walk is littered with the natural tones of the season, leaves piling high by drains, at corners, or beneath the trees they fell from.
For the most part, the skies are a crystal clear blue, sunlight falling onto the city, unobstructed by clouds. The air is crisp and clear, and in the early mornings, I can see my breath while waiting for the bus.
The city is dry, but the mountains, a mere half hour from Downtown by public transport, have already seen a light dusting of snowfall. Experts, or at least what passes for experts when it comes to predicting the weather, claim that this coming winter will be a particularly cold one. Thankfully, I still have my extra warm jumper and the only scarf I've ever owned, both of which were good-bye gifts from the children I used to teach back in Ireland.
I anxiously await my first snowfall of the year, not only because I love seeing everything covered in white, looking like the start of a fresh, new world, a world where anything is possible, but also because I have no idea how well the buses will run to get me to and from work.
That first morning when I open my curtains and look out on a sparkling white landscape is going to be fun.
Wednesday, November 02, 2011
Gears of War 3 has taken up residence in my Xbox almost exclusively since it's launch in September. Apart from hacking and slashing my way through the dungeons of Torchlight and rocking out to the Coldplay pack for Rock Band 3, I've been investing an extraordinary amount of time in the third game in Epic Games' console flagship series.
My first experience of Gears of War was via the second installment. Aidan and Rob had bought the steroid abusing sci-fi action shooter and invited me to try out this new game mode called Horde.
From Wave one, I was hooked. Team based co-operative multiplayer with no competitive element! Wave after wave of inhuman enemies in steadily increasing numbers and difficulty, this was pure survival gameplay balancing edge-of-your-seat tension with frantic and cinematic firefights.
My love of Horde was so great in fact that I pointedly ignored what I thought was surely a terrible, machismo, testosterone filled, steroidal, brain dead campaign. By the time I did get around to playing it, I knew how to defeat every enemy it threw at me, apart from the bosses. This somewhat robbed me of experiencing the terror of the bullet absorbing Sires, as I already knew to simply walk around the area with my chainsaw permanently revved up!
Going into Gears 3, I promised myself that I'd get the campaign finished before trying out Horde 2.0 or the new mode, Beast. Once the surprises of the story were out of the way, I was eager to jump into my favourite gameplay mode in it's newest incarnation.
Horde has seen a vast and sweeping overhaul since it's appearance in the second game. Now you earn cash for kills, and can buy fortifications, ammo boxes or weapons across the map space. Way back when this was first announced I was a little apprehensive that they had messed with a good thing. Horde was great because it was so clean. Just you and up to four friends versus 50 waves of Locust creatures looking to decorate their fireplaces with your skulls. Nothing else.
But the new additions not only work, they work spectacularly. Earlier I called Horde Mode "pure survival gameplay balancing edge-of-your-seat tension with frantic and cinematic firefights". Horde 2.0 adds heart pounding building, repairing and upgrading of all too often meager defenses to help you survive the rising flood of enemies. The fortifications further encourage team-work, as people co-ordinate to maximise the work done in the short time they have between Waves. Players can even share cash with each other if they wish to, although while I have seen this used occasionally in private games with friends, I have yet to witness it during a random match-up over Xbox Live.
One of the best additions to Horde 2.0 however has to be the Wave 10 Bosses. Horde is still played as 50 Waves broken into five 10 Wave sets. In the first version, this meant that the number and difficulty of the enemies per Wave steadily increased up to Wave 10, where we were terrified of Bloodmounts, before resetting to the enemies of Wave 1 again for Wave 11, but making them tougher. Horde 2.0 makes that 10th Wave even more fun by giving it a random Boss, from a choice of about seven or eight. The bosses are usually bigger and badder than anything else in the mode, and standard tactics for almost every one of them is to take out all the regular enemies while avoiding the Boss characters until they are the only things left, and then combatting them. Standard tactics usually result in death. Non-standard tactics however, focusing fire on the Boss characters first and then the little guys, just results in additional iterations of the Boss character appearing. If there is anything worse than dealing with a Burmak, it's seeing its twin brother step out from the smoke of the exploding first one.
Horde kept me playing Gears of War 2 much longer than I have played any other shooter to date. Through it I made some great friends over Xbox Live, and enjoyed many frantic and hilarious moments of both victory and defeat. Horde 2.0 has successfully improved on the original design, and I know I'll be playing it for months, if not years, to come.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011
In the past I have enjoyed your updates to my number one electronic mail service, Gmail, both on the cosmetic level and the features it supports. The most recent version of your email service is clean and effective, visually appealing and easy to find what I need. Features such as Priority Inbox, labeling, and custom skins are all available if I choose to use them, which, in most cases, I don't. I like the basic plain white template and I don't get enough emails to need to prioritize them. But that's ok. I'm not forced into using any of those features.
My blogging days began with this very site, some five and a half years ago! Since then I have posted almost 350 ramblings of varying interest. I have witnessed at least two major updates to the Blogger system. The first I adapted to quickly, considering it an improvement over the previous version, but the most recent I never really warmed to. The "Reading List" at the bottom of the Dashboard cannot be turned off from what I can see. The only thing I have in there is your own "Blogger Buzz", which I couldn't care less about, but I can't turn it off!! I get repeated errors while writing blogs as well, from my paragraph format screwing up when I add an image, to random double spaces, or errors when I hit Enter twice.
Wave was too confusing for me to understand, along with 95% of potential users it seems.
Buzz held absolutely no interest for me, a view I once again shared with 95% of potential users.
All this brings me to Google Reader.
When I was first shown Reader I was mildly impressed. I could read most of my favourite sites without having to have a million tabs open. It even removed the need to compulsively check if a site had updated yet. As more of my friends got into it, I realised that Reader wasn't just mildly impressive, it was freaking incredible!
Not only could I keep track of everything in one tab, I could read the best of what my friends were following when they shared items! My short list of sites grew swiftly, and soon I had to create multiple folders to keep everything in order. Many of the site I follow were suggested to me by items shared by friends. We could comment on the best, the weirdest, the cutest; sharing not only the article, but also our own thoughts and feelings related to it.
But all that is gone. Google Reader is dead. And you killed it. The latest update has, inexplicably, removed the best feature Reader held. Now it is just my sites, with none of the social interactions.
This, of course, is not just a random, insane move. You want me using Google+, sharing my finds there and commenting through the newest addition to House Google. But therein lies the problem. I couldn't give two fucks about Google+. Since it's release I can count on the fingers of two hands how often I have clicked over to it, in an attempt to see if anything of interest is being posted. Every time I close the tab, reminded why I not only dislike this new feature, but why I disliked it's predecessor, Facebook, as well.
And while I can sort my friends into varying sets, the default, which cannot be altered, shows me everything from everyone. If I could guarantee that people would only use Google+ to share articles in the style of Reader, I could just delete anyone that I didn't follow in Reader, and keep it to that small set of friends whose shared posts I enjoyed reading. But that is not how you want it to be, Google. For one thing, the full post doesn't even show up in the feed, just a preview. I have to click through to read more. You are making it harder for me to share with my friends!
But it's not just the whole push towards Google+ that has gotten me all hot and bothered! No. The new Reader doesn't even fit on my screen. I use a small netbook for my internet needs, and the old Reader worked perfectly fine on it, fitting articles into my screen size 95% of the time. The latest update has extended the width of the main area far beyond the right edge of my screen. To read anything I now have to scroll to the bottom, then use the horizontal scroll bar to move right to read the end of a sentence, the last panel of a webcomic, or see the other 33% of an image. And some images or comics require a second scroll bar within their own feed! Arg, Google! ARG! Text cannot describe how infuriated I am right now!
Gmail has all kinds of features, but it is my choice to use them or not. Blogger can switch back to the older style whenever I want, but for how long? Reader is a permanent, complete change, and I don't get a choice in the matter. It's your way or the highway.
You've crossed the line, Google. You're straying into Facebook, and more recently Netflix, territory, trying to force your users to adopt a new system that benefits you when they are more than happy with the previous one.
Tread carefully Google. You are opening yourself to a new start-up that can provide the same features as the old Reader that the fans loved. And when that happens, I for one will be dropping you like a hot rock and jumping on board.