Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Day 1: Ormskirk->Birmingham->Pisa->Florence

First day, typically spent pretty much entirely on trains, aeroplanes and in airports. Set off from my house at 10:30am, train to Birmingham, train to Solihull, lift to airport, flight to Pisa, train to Florence, and now sitting in the hostel for the first few days, which thankfully has wifi.

In general the first day has gone fairly smooth. Nobody got strip-searched at the airport or forgot their passport or any other major drama. We had an hour wait at Pisa airport for the train to Florence on account of there basically being one an hour. The train was only €7 each though, which wasn't so bad. First thing of note is that there seem to be weird tax charges for so much stuff over here. We have to pay €2 city tax each for each night we stay in Florence, and there was an odd extra charge on the train tickets too.

Apparently I don't have a means of charging the camera, because rather than the camera actually having a charger, you have to take the battery out and charge it separately. I do have a USB cable that can connect the camera to my netbook, but currently it's unclear whether that actually charges it or not, and the only way to properly tell would involve letting the battery run down to 2/3 charge, at which point I'm fairly screwed if it turns out it doesn't work. So for the moment the camera will be used fairly sparingly and sans-flash to try and keep the battery alive for the next four weeks.

First proper drama was arriving late at the hostel, where there appeared to be absolutely nobody about. It's not quite the traditional hostel, but more a single room flat off a tiny staircase that serves as a reception, with a weird sprawling network of rooms behind it. On arrival outside the staircase there was absolutely nobody around and ringing the doorbell gave no response whatsoever We managed to get in by tail-gating some guy coming out, and then found the hostel reception door, again with no answer on the other side. It did have a phone number on the outside, which Jamie rang, and managed to summon the guy to let us in and sort out the room and payment and stuff.

Apparently the toilet in the room cost €800, something that was made abundantly clear to us a good four or five times as the owner made it particularly clear that we shouldn't put any rubbish or toilet paper down it. It's probably good that he put so much emphasis on telling us this, because the sign next to the toilet offered no help whatsoever:

Anyway, sleep now and up fairly early tomorrow for sight-seeing in town.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Things That Piss Me The Fuck Off, Part Six

I was going to do this for my 200th post, but it turns out that that's almost certainly going to be while I'm in Europe, and I'd rather not stick it in the middle of my from-the-road blogging stuff, so it's getting done early as my 196th post. This series was actually the initial stuff that started this blog, though I've actually not done one since my 100th post. Clearly I need to be more whiny.

As a gift for people who can't be bothered using the search/tag function on here, here are links to parts one, two, three, four and five.

51. Passport Photo Booths

Every instance I've ever had of having to use one of these things has been shit. I had to use one a few months ago for my BRA membership card, and have had the displeasure of using them various times before that.

I mean, first off, you always need to get four photos, or if it's being a real bastard, six. When the fuck does anyone actually need more than one, maybe two? I have a driving license, passport, college ID card and my BRA membership photocard thing. That is four items that I need photos for, given, but what the hell are the chances that I'm going to have to renew all of them in the same few months? Am I just shit for only ever needing a single photo once a year, by which time I've either lost the three I had spare last time, or they look out of date, and I need to cough up around a fiver to get another photo plus three I don't actually want? Are other people actually badass enough to synchronise when everything needs renewing so they do genuinely want all four?

And half the time I've used one of these things, there's been some sort of fingerprints or other shitty smudge on the glass in front of the camera and screen, so there's a crappy blurry bit on the photos. Or, the absolute worst, you don't like either of the first two chances it gives you, but tough shit, that's all you get. Why? It's a fucking digital camera. If I'm prepared to stay in the booth and keep pressing the buttons in front of me, I should be able to have as many retakes as I want until I'm satisfied. I'm paying enough for the fucking privilege, so why the fuck do you get two shots at a decent photo and that's it? If this thing is going on some sort of photo ID for the next ten years, at least give me more than two chances to not blink or otherwise fuck up the photo. It's not like it's much extra effort for the machine, and it's not like I'm holding people up because there's never a queue for these things. It's fucking stupid.

52. Electric Stoves

Given that for the entire time I've been old enough to use a cooker, we've had gas hobs at home, I'm somewhat used to the way that they work. You turn gas on, you get fire and heat. You turn gas off, you stop getting said fire and heat. The thing is, at college they don't trust us with fire (which is probably not a bad thing), which means we're provided with electric hobs. And in my experience so far with various incarnations of these things, they're all absolutely shit.

The thing that's awesome with gas hobs is that you actually have decent control over how hot the thing is. With electric hobs you completely don't because there's so much fucking inertia in the plates. You turn it on, and it's going to be a good few minutes before it's actually hot, and it's the same when you turn it off. If something is burning or boiling over, the heat control for the plate does fuck-all - you have to physically lift the stuff off the stove. It turns cooking simple shit like scrambled eggs into a black art, where you either take forever because you're being careful with the heat, or it gets too hot and you burn the shit to the pan. I'm pretty sure there's no such thing as a "low heat" on any of the electric stoves in Downing unless you're prepared to wait fifteen minutes for it to get there.

53. Tourists in Cambridge

I've already covered how these assholes wander all over the grass in Downing (people outside Cambridge probably wouldn't understand), but even outside that they're still a pain in the ass. Cambridge is already a pretty tight, congested city, and it's really not helped by huge groups of French and Spanish kids completely blocking up everywhere on school trips. During the summer vacation, fine, whatever, but during exam term it's fucking annoying.

What's really annoying with tourists is just how totally oblivious they seem to be of roads and cyclists. You get them standing in the middle of the road to take photos of the mathematical bridge at Queens', and it's like they're totally unaware that there are cars and cyclists trying to get through. So many times they just randomly step out in front of you to take a photo of something and they're completely not looking where they're going. Getting through the middle of town is even more of a nightmare than it already is.

Some of the tour guides are fucking retarded too. I mean, there are plenty of stories about Cambridge that are well known but also not true, but then you get people who are just clearly making shit up. Stuff that is just blatantly not true, like King's College chapel being carved entirely from a single block of stone. I mean, seriously, how retarded would you have to be to think that could possibly be true? Or that Downing was built to look like a monastery, when any muppet could see clearly based on classical Roman/Greek architecture, what with all the pillars everywhere. This claim was questioned, and apparently backed up with the claim "it's post-modern", despite the fact post-modernism appeared over a century after the college was built. If you're going to make stories up, at least don't be a complete dumbass about it.

54. Dodgy Internet Connections

Having crappy internet is annoying in itself, but I swear that tenuous wifi signals have some sort of sentience that lets them fuck you over at the absolutely most inopportune moments. Just a somebody is about to tell you something fairly important, or when you're five minutes away from a fairly large upload/download finishing, it'll cut out. Or just when shit starts going down in a game of StarCraft. It'll be completely fine for hours, and then it'll decide to die right when you least want it to.

55. People Who Moan About Ryanair or Easyjet

This being a classic example of people taking shit for granted when they shouldn't do. I'm not the greatest fan of Ryanair, but I think Easyjet is fantastic, and people have the most self-centred and dumbass reasons for complaining on these companies. You had to wait an hour at the airport because your plane was late? How absolutely terrible. But didn't they then transport your ungrateful ass halfway across a continent in a mere couple of hours, for about the amount of money it would cost you to fill up your car?

I'd say you get what you pay for, but with Ryanair and Easyjet that wouldn't quite be doing them justice. It costs me around £50 to get to London on the train, one-way, and with a railcard. It cost me around £50 to get flown to Amsterdam and back, covering around twice the distance in half the time.

So what if you get delayed at the airport? Didn't you bother taking a book or something to keep you occupied? Was it that terrible? Appreciate the fact that even including the delay these companies are still taking you somewhere in a fraction of the time it would take using other means, and at a fraction of the price too. Louis CK has an amusing rant on the subject:

The beauty of this rant is that I'm flying with Ryanair tomorrow. I bet I'm delayed five hours.

56. Cyclists in Cambridge

With the roads in Cambridge being about as wide as an aisle in a supermarket, and generally being one-way, closed off, or full of traffic, pretty much the only way to get around Cambridge is on a bike, or on foot. But we're all too busy to waste time walking places, so pretty much everyone uses bikes. The issue with this is the number of people who clearly haven't really ridden a bike before. Or been given any sort of formal or informal instruction on how to ride a bike, or just how to use the roads in general. Or general highway code shit.

Traffic lights, for example, apply to cyclists. This isn't even highway code (which is more a set of guidelines than rules) - this is actual bona fide law. It doesn't matter if they're on the pedestrian cycle, you should bloody stop. It wouldn't bother me so much if these people were clearly in some sort of epic hurry, but they hardly ever fucking are. If you're going to run straight through a red light, at least have the decency to cycle faster than I could jog (and believe me, I don't run very fast). Those thirty seconds you just gained by totally disregarding the rules of the road could more than be made up for if you could just be bothered to press down a bit harder on the fucking pedals. Also people who don't ever give hand signals when turning, and who I give way to at T-junctions only for them to turn into the road I'm coming out of. Fuck you guys too.

You see plenty more reckless shit than merely running through lights on pedestrian cycles. Like, people on bikes who seem to assume that because they're on a bike cars are obliged to give way for them. And buses. Personally, I'm fucking cautious when it comes to buses, because buses are pretty frickin big, and I'm very sure that in a fight with a bus I'm not likely to come off very well. Generally if a bus is signalling that it's pulling out, I wait behind it. Apparently plenty of other people don't, and just assume that the bus is going to see them overtaking and not just wipe them out.

Like, I have a rough general rule for cycling, which is that if the only thing stopping me from potentially getting killed is assumption that the driver can see me, I won't do it. Undertaking cars that are signalling to turn left is retarded. Overtaking cars that are signalling to turn right is also retarded. Signalling that you're going to turn right doesn't give you the right to pull out into the middle of the road right in front of a car about to pass you. You see so much stuff that's just completely stupid, and I can't count the number of times I've seen an idiot cyclist not be knocked down purely because the driver somehow saw or telepathically predicted what they were about to do. Which is basically just their own dumb luck, because pretty much anywhere outside of Cambridge you can't rely on road users to be that aware of cyclist, and there are plenty of retarded drivers in Cambridge as it is...

57. Drivers in Cambridge

This part mostly excludes taxi and bus drivers, because aside from a few assholes these guys seem to know what they're doing, but it's totally amazing how many drivers in Cambridge are completely retarded as well. You get idiots on the road anywhere, but the number of idiots in Cambridge just really seems to be ridiculously high compared to anywhere else I've been.

For example, whilst plenty of cyclists in Cambridge don't stop for red lights, plenty of drivers in Cambridge do the opposite, and do stop for green lights. Or apparently don't pay enough attention to see when they turn green, which I don't really get. There must have been a dozen times where I've seen cars just sat there at traffic lights, with the lights green for them, and they're just not doing anything. Sometimes it's because they apparently don't understand how filter lights work, but I've had one at the top of Castle hill where there literally wasn't a red light in sight and the guy didn't drive off until I yelled at him that he could.

The bollards by Queens' and on Regent St are pretty ridiculous for the number of people who attempt to go through them, despite the absolutely huge no entry signs and the fact that well, there's a massive bollard in the middle of the road. I don't really get how drivers can manage to get as far as the bollard itself, stop, and then wonder why it doesn't go down for them. Do they just think it's some sort of crazy traffic-calming measure, and don't realise that it's actually to stop anyone who isn't a taxi or bus? I'd go past the one at Queens' on my way back from lectures and about a third of the time I'd have to stop while some muppet did a three-point turn to go back the other way having been denied by the bollard.

58. Sleep & Tiredness

How I can feel tired all day, and then suddenly I'm wide awake when I bother to go to bed. Or that I can get a good nine or ten hours sleep and still wake up absolutely knackered.

But really, just the concept of sleep in general. This is somewhat going into the realm of shit that science doesn't understand, but really, why the fuck do we need sleep in the first place? I could do so much more shit (or waste so much more time) if I didn't have to spend a third of my life lying down and doing literally fuck-all. What exactly goes on while we're asleep that means we feel like absolute shit if we don't do it enough. Is it really that sodding necessary?

Imagine if other things worked like that. If your car, or computer, or microwave or whatever insisted on having eight hours a day where it would just refuse to function, or else be really crabby the rest of the time (OK, the analogy breaks down somewhat). You're driving down the motorway, and suddenly your car insists on pulling into the hard shoulder and stopping for a few hours. It doesn't appear to actually be doing anything at all, but it insists if it doesn't stop for a bit then it'll stop working properly for the rest of the trip.

I mean come on science, figure this shit out. If someone can crack a way to make sleep unnecessary without horrific side effects then they'd essentially be giving us another 25 years of being awake and alive in our current life expectancy. Because aside from the occasional epic dream, I'm currently getting jack-shit from those 25 years at the minute.

59. IRC Tennis

The general pattern of such tennis matches generally goes something along these lines:

<A> B, you there?
*five hours later*
<B> ah, sorry A, I wasn't, what did you want?
*three hours later*
<A> ah crap, I was out B, just wanted to ask you something. You around?
*eight hours later*
<B> I'm here now A, what was it?

And this generally goes on as long as is necessary until both A and B happen to be online at the same time. It's such a hilariously shit way for people to actually communicate. If you're going to bother to ask if someone is there, you might as well at least just ask whatever you're going to ask. Or send them a PM. It's like leaving an answer-phone message to tell somebody that you've rung, without actually giving them any inclination of the reason why. Or sending someone a text to ask if they're around to be asked something.

What's stupid is that half the time it really is just something that could be resolved in the first iteration if A left the question, and allowed B to leave an answer. One of the features of IRC is that it lets you leave highlights and messages for people which they'll get even if they're not necessarily around (which, to be fair, pretty much all IM clients do too).

60. Shitty Packaging

In the mood for some bourbon cremes, go to open a new pack, pull the "tear here" tab, and the fucker just rips off after the first centimetre and doesn't get me into the packet whatsoever. It happens all the damn time. Same goes for the shitty tabs on the top of plastic milk bottles:

Also the bags that you get rice and pasta in, which you have to open like a crisp packet (and with a reasonable amount of force) and yet the plastic they're made from is utterly shit, and it's so ridiculously easy to split the bag and everything goes everywhere. If you're going to make packaging out of weak-ass plastic, then at least have the courtesy to make it easy to get into it.

Or, even worse, it's made out of super-strong plastic. I mean, fuck absolutely everything about this shit:

I fucking hate anything being in that stuff. It's completely impossible to get into without powertools. When "pull here" tabs break off, you can at least get in with scissors or a knife, but that sort of tough plastic crap they use for electronics is just stupidly hard to open. It can require a good five minutes of fucking about with scissors, and that stuff is bloody sharp when it's been cut too. Plus it's usually used for electronics stuff, meaning whatever is inside is usually either something I'm quite eager to get at, or is something that's fairly fragile and I don't really want to use a chainsaw to liberate.

Also packing peanuts. These assholes(d'aww kitten):

If I order something fairly fragile, then fair enough, but I get these things in boxes that contain perfectly robust items, and they're a pain in the ass. You end up having to go routing through them to find whatever is in the box that you actually want, and these things get fricking everywhere. Why can't people just use jiffy bags, or scrunched up paper like sensible online retailers (Amazon) do?

Some packaging is awesome. Cathedral City comes in resealable bags (and proper ones with a plastic fasten, not the shitty ones where you have to use a not-very-sticky sticker. Except then my dad goes somewhat nuts with the scissors or tearing or whatever the hell he managed to do and it ends up a complete wreck, but at least that was human error. Other packaging almost seems designed to be irritating, frustrating and generally a pain in the ass.

And there, part six of Things That Piss Me The Fuck Off. Maybe in another hundred posts or so there'll be a part seven. Who knows.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Blame The Muslims

People should spread the word on this - the worst case scenario is that a light-hearted political joke just generates more hate and anger from people, especially Muslims who might be offended.

When the news broke of the bomb attack in Oslo on Friday, the first reaction from various sections of the media was to assume it was some sort of terrorist attack. In particular the far-right likes of FOX News and The Daily Mail pinpointed it probably being some sort of Islamic attack from al-Qaeda (though in fairness to FOX News they also had some guy who said we shouldn't jump to conclusions). This was at a point where pretty much no concrete information had been provided on what had gone on, and the vague descriptions actually pointed towards it being a white European who had set the bomb off, but still the initial reaction from a large portion of people was to believe that Muslims had probably done it. Bad stuff happens in the world? Blame the Muslims.

This sort of thinking was parodied by the British, Muslim Twitter user Strange_Sanum, who mockingly created the hashtag #blamethemuslims to be used for trivial events. Phone battery has died? #blamethemuslims. Can't find the remote? #blamethemuslims. Et cetera.

As humour goes, it's a fairly standard British form of simply satirising the attitude of a fairly sizeable number of people into something that's fairly obviously ridiculous. Quite a few people found the concept funny, it caught on, and it wasn't long before it was amongst the top trending topics on Twitter. Now I'm not claiming to be any sort of genius of perception, but when I saw that #blamethemuslims was trending I immediately figured the sort of sentiment that was behind it. This is the internet after all, where mockery, satire, sarcasm and irony are the bread and butter of humour.

Case in point (also I need to break up the wall of text):

What's sort of ridiculous is the number of people who clearly didn't get the joke, and quite naïvely took #blamethemuslims to be some sort of legitimate racist attempt to attack Islamic people. Which obviously is when things really took off. The sly beauty of these sorts of things on Twitter is that the more people got all indignant over #blamethemuslims, the more the hashtag was being used, and the longer it's stayed at the top of the list. If it had only been used by the people who got the joke, it would probably have been up there an hour or two and then died down, like pretty much everything else. Instead it's kept at the top of the list by a constant stream of angry comments from people demanding that Twitter block it (as they've done to various celebrity-related tags).

Initially it annoyed me how many people were getting their knickers in a twist over it, until I realised that really if people are going to get so fired up over people being racist against Muslims then that's probably not such a bad thing. And obviously there are people who have both missed the humour and support the statement, but they seem to be a pretty small minority and they're getting the hell flamed out of them as it is. What is a bit annoying are the idiots who are really continuing to argue against the hashtag, or are attacking Sanum over it without really bothering to get their facts straight. It just highlights the exact sort of thinking that has brought this whole thing up in the first place - that people are quick to hate and jump to conclusions rather than finding out the true story. People are happy to spend all their time on Twitter being pissed off about it, but don't actually bother to find the full story.

Not to say I derived humour from an event that killed nearly a hundred people, or that I enjoy taking some sort of moral high-ground from it, but I was somewhat pleased by the fact that the person responsible not only wasn't a Muslim, but was an extremist on the other side. All these far-right media sources who continually harp on about how evil Islam is, how immigrants are bad for our nation, and eventually they're going to entirely destroy our culture, bomb our cities, rape our children and what have you, and the guy actually responsible for these atrocities was one of them. He was a far-right fundamentalist Christian who hated Islam and hated the concept that Europe was Islam-friendly and allowed Muslim immigrants.

I read some of the published manifesto and video (I mostly just watched the video because the manifesto is some 1500 pages), and it is mostly the same sort of anti-Islam, "defend our tradition/culture/heritage from immigrants and multi-culturalist hippies" that you see in the far-right media. Obviously I'm not to say that every journalist who works for the likes of FOX News or the Daily Mail is going to kill a fuckload of people, because that's exactly the same dumbass logic that implies all Muslims are equivalent to al-Qaeda (it's actually not quite as stupid, but splitting hairs there). But, as an example, some of the stuff targeting the BBC in that video is pretty much the same lines of argument as the sort of crap that Melanie Philips spouts for the Daily Mail. The same people in the media who stir up furore that you apparently have to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" nowadays (which is complete hyperbole) aren't that different in some of their lines of thinking to the guy who set off a bomb in Oslo and gunned down around ninety people on Friday.

Now I'm not to claim that my line of thinking is snow white, and that the concept of a left-wing Atheist killing a ton of people is completely impossible, but I'm not the one who jumps to conclusions and stirs hate in these sorts of situations, and that's why I take satisfaction from it. It's not about seeing a group of people whose beliefs I dislike being tarnished by the actions of an individual, it's about this highlighting the narrow-mindedness and the hypocrisy of these people. Hopefully this will have woken a few of these people up to the notion that not all bad people in the world come from Islam, and what's even better is that the actions of these Norwegian to try and take a stand against multiculturalism and the infiltration of Islamic people could actually have had the opposite effect and opened people's eyes a bit and brought people together.

Sure, the people who committed 9/11 and various other terrorist attacks since were Muslim. But really, what's important in that context is not that they were Muslim, but that they were extremists. And extremists can come in all sorts of flavours and from all sorts of ideological standpoints - including your own - and that's why you shouldn't blame the Muslims. Except for when you accidentally spill your coffee. Then it's completely their fault.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Castle & Le Tour de France

I recently finished watching the third season of Castle, and I have to say that the series is easily one of the best TV series I've ever watched. It started off a tad slow in the first two seasons, but it's really kicked up a few gears lately.

I first started watching it because it has Nathan Fillion in it, and he's one of my favourite actors. Thought he was fantastic in Firefly, and he's also brilliant in Dr Horrible's Sing Along Blog (both of which are fantastic shows, and I'd recommend them to anyone). He was in Desperate Housewives as well but that's a bit gay so I didn't watch that so much. It helps somewhat that he gets awesome characters, and his role in Castle is pretty similar in many respects to Capt. Reynolds in Firefly, but part of the reason I think he's so awesome is that he seems to have the same sort of character in real life as well. His twitter is fairly amusing, he was well known for joking around on the set of Firefly, and his photobombing exploits are almost unrivalled. Stana Katic is pretty brilliant in her role as well (and she's also smoking hawt).

The easiest show to compare Castle to would be House M.D., because they both follow a fairly similar formula. House solves medical mysteries, whilst Castle helps solve murders, but the basic bread and butter episodes feel the same. The difference I would say is that I don't particularly understand the finer intricacies of medical diagnostics, and most House episodes boil down to "Oh he's ill, we think it's this, oh apparently it's not. Maybe it's something else? No, not that either. This? Oh lol turns out it's actually this crazy thing." Murder mysteries hop around in a similar matter, but the plot twists are actually completely followable and not shrouded in the mysteries of medical jargon.

Where the shows both really excel though, are in the long-running episodes where the writing staff clearly go completely all-out. The regular episodes are fairly episodic and stand-alone, but the ones that continue a plot can really be epic. I've generally regarded the House season finales to be some of the finest pieces of television ever made, and recently Castle has definitely been getting up into that region. The two-parter episodes in the middle of the last two seasons have also been absolutely brilliant. I can't wait for season four, and I'd recommend people give it a shot. If you're not a fan of downloading and watching TV over the internet, then it's also apparently airing on Channel Five as well.

With Castle done and dusted, most of my TV time has been taken up by the Tour de France lately, and the main reason I bothered getting a Twitter account was to follow the various posts of cyclists after the races. I've really enjoyed the Tour so far this year, though it was sad to see Bradley Wiggins drop out, meaning that the main British interest for honours now lies pretty much solely on Mark Cavendish, though he seems to be doing the job pretty well. If he can get through the next two stages then the green jersey is all but his in Paris.

Probably the most bizarre moment of the Tour so far was the incident involving a TV car crashing into the lead group of riders on Stage 9, entirely wiping out Juan Antonio Flecha and sending Johnny Hoogerland careening into a barbed wire fence. It's pretty impressive that Hoogerland managed to get back up and has kept himself in the Tour given the injuries he got from that. It's mental enough to ride the distances these guys do, at the speeds they do, pretty much every day for three weeks. It's even more crazy to do it when your legs look like this:

As well as the various twitter feeds, I've also been following Jens Voigt's blog, because it makes for fairly quick but interesting reading (especially if you read it in his voice). Jens Voigt is one of those sportsmen who might not be the greatest in terms of the number of wins and outright achievements in the sport, generally working as a team-mate for someone else, but still is massively well-loved and has a huge fan following because they're such a fantastic personality in the interviews outside the racing. Rubens Barrichello would probably be another example. Jens Voigt is a beast of a rider, but gives some fantastic interviews, including a great one for ITV4 this year and a fairly well known one from 2008. I hope he keeps riding for several more years yet.

The general classification is still completely wide open, though it looks now like Voekler is probably not going to keep it until the end of the race. To be fair, he was always pretty critical about his chances of keeping the yellow jersey, even when he looked like he might actually manage it, but he lost a bit of time today, and I can't see him maintaining the gap for the next two stages or the TT. Personally I'd like Cadel Evans to take it (even if he does have an arse for a chin), and I think he's got a pretty good chance. It'd be nice to see a British flag represented on the top step of the podium in Paris, even if it is in the confines of an Australian one.

On Tuesday I'll be kicking off my own (non-cyling) tour of Europe, for which most of the stuff has finally come through. I've still got to go out and buy some stuff (mostly currencies), but at the very least all the travel crap is now arranged and sorted out.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Rostradamus: Prediction II - Google+ Will Fail

In the first of my outlandish prophecies, I predicted that some day Google would own the world. In this second one, I guess I'm going to backtrack on that somewhat and predict that the new hyped darling of the internet, Google+, is going to be totally unsuccessful in its attempt to replace Facebook.

I will say, straight off the bat, that I've not actually used Google+. Primarily this is because I've been busy with other shit, but it's mostly down to the fact that it's still operating under an invite system and the majority of the people I know aren't using it yet. I honestly don't know why they're going with the invite system again, because they did it a year or so ago with Google Wave, which was an extremely innovative and useful service, and it completely flopped in comparison to how they'd expected it to go. Personally, I blame it's entire failure on the stupid exclusive invite system they used to launch it. It's good for raising hype, and maybe for ironing out issues in the beta stages before less tolerant users start trying it out, but ultimately it's not good for getting people to actually use the service. You're doing the exact opposite of that. People want to start using it, and you're saying "No, fuck off and go find a friend to let you in first".

For services that don't require you to interact with other people, such as Spotify, this is totally fine. But for stuff like Google Wave and Google+, it just doesn't work. I liked Google Wave, but pretty much everyone I would have actually used it to interact with didn't have it, and getting people to sign up through an invite-only system is a real pain in the arse. Google+ also suffers from the fact that it's not a particularly novel system - it's basically trying to replace Facebook. Why should people bother using Google+ with a small number of friends when they can use Facebook and everyone is there? Maybe if it's totally awesome, and clearly superior to Facebook, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

I'm openly acknowledging here that I've never used Google+, and I'm doing that because it doesn't matter. For Google+ to displace Facebook, it would have to be substantially better, and from what I've heard from pretty much everyone I know who has used it, it's not that good. It has a few neat features, and it's +1 system seems to be a nice way to integrate it with the entire rest of the internet, but really, that doesn't seem to be a particularly brilliant incentive for your average joe to switch and start using it. That and most of the decent features will probably be stolen and implemented in Facebook by the time Google+ actually gets out of its invite-only phase.

If Google+ isn't even getting rave reviews enough to persuade me to bother with it over Facebook, then I can't see the majority of people swapping over. Aside from the faff of setting an account up, I have a lot of history, photos, old posts and the like all there on Facebook, that aren't going to be around on Google+. There's a proper commitment involved in switching over from Facebook (because really, I think people are unlikely to use both in the long run), and I don't think most people are going to be willing to commit that much.

Now a lot of people have pointed out to Facebook's obliteration of MySpace, and pointed out that at the time most people thought MySpace would be what everyone used for the rest of time, as it already had the critical mass to prevent itself from being dislodged. The thing is, while it had the mass, it wasn't the right type of mass, and some types are heavier than others (yes, I'm aware I'm totally ignoring physics for the sake of an analogy). When MySpace was popular its primary demographic consisted of teenage kids. Maybe a few older people, but mostly high-schoolers. High-schoolers are incredibly fickle. All high-school kids actually needed to move over to Facebook were a few gimmicks, something that appeared to be slightly better, and the notion that 'all the cool kids use Facebook'. Most of the people using MySpace were either nerds who would be keen to try out anything new on the internet, or dumbass teens who were too stupid to know any better.

Facebook has a far more solid userbase than high-school kids. Parents use Facebook. People who generally fear computers and the internet use Facebook. Nerds might be quick on the uptake of Google+, but are regular people, who have now become the main bulk of Facebook in a way that was never the case with MySpace, going to be so keen to switch over? Especially if it doesn't actually seem to be that much better? Personally I don't reckon it will happen (xkcd made the point that while Google+ had the disadvantage that your parents would never bother to switch over to it, it also had the advantage that your parents would never bother to switch over to it). There are too many pragmatic people who won't bother, and no matter which one you prefer, if half your friends from Facebook aren't actively on Google+, Facebook is probably going to remain the more attractive option.

Whilst it collectively it might be more convenient for everyone, and better for the functionality of the internet (given that everyone on the internet uses Google as their search engine except for complete weirdos), I just can't see the personal benefits of Google+ to be good enough for most people to switch. The invite system isn't helping that, but even without that I just think Facebook has too much staying power unless somebody comes up with something totally revolutionary, and from everything I've heard Google+ just doesn't seem to be that revolution.

On the topic of social networking, I've now got a Twitter account. I'm not sure to what extent I'll actually post tweets on it, because I've primarily picked it up to follow other people, but we'll see. If I have internet while touring Europe next month then it'll probably get a fair bit of use (as will this blog).

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Golden Power Eindhoven TC Meet 2011

I actually got back from the Netherlands on Monday evening, but I'm lazy so this is a little delayed. To be honest, there's not a huge amount to really say about the meet other than I massively enjoyed it, and it was really good to meet people. We've managed to generate an absolute fuckload of video from the web stream, which features fairly large amounts of profanity, and a lot of fairly random late-night energy-drink-fuelled chat. Zircean's man-boobs got a five minute conversation, and he wasn't even there.

I'd already met muf and Kevin before, but this was my first time meeting Kevcel, Steadshot and Jago. Meeting Jago was especially cool, because he's pretty much the only major European player I'd yet to meet in person, and he's ridiculously good at TGM and TAP. Kevin is impressively quick, but his play style doesn't have quite the same amount of elegance and finesse to it, and it's far closer to mine. Watching Jago is just spectacular because he is just that much better than I am in the tekkers department. Plus I can remember a time when I was way better than Kevin, whilst Jago has always been one of the top three western TGM players ever since I started player.

Plus he made delicious Tetris cookies!

I didn't set any brilliant records, and spent most of the time being fairly sucky because I'm horribly out of practice with a joystick (not that I was ever particularly in-practice to begin with). Plus there's only so much that crappy energy drinks can do to help once you've been playing for a couple of hours.

The set-up was really good, there was decent sleeping space in muf's house, and to be honest I think it'd be hard to find a better location. Eindhoven is pretty easy to get to from most places, and unless we needed to house way more people I doubt we'd need to shift to somewhere else. It also helps that muf has most of the technical stuff, which means people don't have to faff lugging monitors, PCBs and other crap halfway across Europe. Bring on 2012! :D

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Eindhoven 2011: Ready, GO!

Tomorrow I set off for just under a week-long TetrisConcept meet in Eindhoven. I've decided to take a break from non-nerdy activities like an Engineering degree and playing StarCraft II to go to a good ol' fashioned Tetris LAN party (it's not really a LAN party, but it's close enough) in Eindhoven at the château de muf. Thanks to EasyJet being obscenely cheap, it's actually costing me less in transport than the one in London a couple of years back.

It's not quite up to the level of DreamHack as such parties go, but I'm still massively excited. Out of the handful of TGM players that are going, there's Kevin, the USA #1, and Jago, the French and probably European #1. And me, not quite in the same league, but with the fastest Death Gm time there, and the third best player going.

With TGM being an arcade game, it's naturally fucking expensive. TGM1 is around £100, TGM2+ around £300 (I think?), and TGM3 would set you back at least £800, maybe more. This means, as a lazy student who has neither the funds to buy this stuff, nor the work ethic to build a supergun/cabinet and all the stuff needed to actually get an arcade game to work, I don't actually own these games, and I'm stuck with emulation and clones. Given the current set of things set to be there are approximately two of each game (I forget exactly), I'm pretty hyped just because it's a chance to actually play the real thing for once. It would be the case that I'd be aiming to set personal records because the real games have less input lag than the emulators, but the real games also require you to use a joystick instead of a keyboard, and I suck hard when using a joystick.

For people who really have nothing better to do over the next week or so (and TC guys who won't be there I guess), there should be cameras set up and streaming (from Thursday at least), on (password will be either 'voidray' or 'tetrisconcept'). Not promising anything noteworthy though, except glimpses of how shit I am when not having the sort of flukey awesome run that ends up on YouTube.

It'll also be awesome to meet all the guys in Eindhoven I've been playing SC2 with over the last couple of months, because the last time (and first time) I met them (except Roel and muf) was September 2009, which is frickin ages ago. Also there'll be the British Grand Prix, and it's predicted to rain over the weekend, so that could be epic.

I'll have my laptop and internet, so there may be some sort of post in the middle of the week. If not, then there'll probably be a post on Tuesday when I get back.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Proun - A Review

About a week ago I was watching a YouTube video by TotalBiscuit. The video itself wasn't that amazing, but it did have some gameplay in the background that looked pretty funky, of a game called Proun. So I checked it out.

Proun is a fairly simple racing game, released under a pay-what-you-want system, where that figure can be $0.00, meaning I picked it up for free just to give it a try. The gameplay is fairly innovative and unique, racing a ball down a wire which you rotate around to avoid various obstacles. The trailer gets the point across fairly well:

The gameplay itself I really enjoy. The tracks are fairly fun, it comes with four different speeds - Fast, Sonic, Supersonic and Speed of Light. The lower speeds should make the game accessible to even the most newbie of gamers, but the game is pretty damn challenging at the higher speeds, and I've still not beaten the Supersonic championship. The game features online records for each track, both all-time and for the day.

While the gameplay is good, however, the game definitely suffers a bit in my opinion from being a properly indie game. For example, it doesn't have a leaderboard for friends which other games, such as Super Meat Boy do. Given I'm nowhere near the top 10 times to actually appear on the rankings, the leaderboards are somewhat useless and knowing my time was the 1023rd best time ever set isn't really the greatest incentive for improvement (I did set the 5th best daily time for a track today though). If it had some sort of friend leaderboard for competition with people I actually know, then I'd probably give it a bit more gameplay. It does local records, but having friends play on the same machine is a little bit too 90's and not a huge amount of use any more.

The time trial mode is good, with the ability to play against the ghosts of every single run you've ever done (or to not, if you find them distracting). It also offers four-player split screen, which is pretty good, though again, it'd be better if it had some sort of online versus play.

Another thing the game suffers for is map selection. Currently there are three maps, with another one unlocked if you pay actual money for the game, and another one to unlock if you beat the Supersonic championship. The really low number of maps is somewhat offset by free user-created ones being offered, though currently that amounts to only two more maps. That said, it'll probably pick up a bit over the next few weeks and I imagine it won't be so much of an issue later on.

I really love the visual style of the game, and I think that as well as being a nice gameplay concept it's also very well presented. The maps are simplistic, but also quite artsy and generally pretty pleasing on the eye. I've also heard praise for the jazzy soundtrack too, though personally I'm actually not a fan, and I found the songs to be a bit annoying after a few plays through, so I've currently got them muted.

For a game I paid no money for, I really quite like it. It's not something I'm going to devote serious time honing my skills on, but for something that's legally offered for free (or for a couple of quid if you don't want to be a tightass - though I wouldn't rate it being worth any more than a fiver personally). It's fairly obviously been produced by some guy in his spare time, but that doesn't stop it being good fun, and given the pricing structure I'd recommend people check it out and give it a try. Maybe I'll set up some sort of friendly leaderboard on a forum somewhere or something.

Friday, 1 July 2011


There's a fairly well-known law of the world which states that women can

a) Be attractive
b) Have a good personality
c) Be available

And that from this list of three, only two options may be true for any individual female. I've learnt in the last couple of weeks that this rule extends pretty well to properties, with some minor adjustments to the three criteria:

a) Be of a reasonable size
b) Not be fucking miles away from every place I'm ever likely to want to go
c) Be available

Again, you may only pick two of these options.

After two or three weeks of stress, spending most of the working day looking through online listings, and burning through the credit on my mobile ringing up places to arrange viewings faster than a teenage girl who has just heard like, totally the most amazing gossip evar, I finally have somewhere to live next year. Somewhere that isn't the best out of the places we saw, but at the very least was still available to rent by the time we arranged a viewing.

So many times I rang up somewhere to view a place and it turned out that it was already in the process of going to someone else, and they just hadn't taken the listing down yet. Or someone would apparently buy it in between us seeing the listing and actually having our viewing. Or trying to buy it ourselves. I lost count of the number of places that looked awesome but were already taken, but as a rough ballpark figure, I'd say it was FUCKING LOADS OF TIMES.

The issue, I guess, was that I have no real clue how to judge houses until I've seen tons of them. We came to a fairly basic criteria of "is there enough space in the bedrooms for us to each have a desk?", and also wanted a kitchen and communal area, but so much of it is hard to judge. I feel it takes several viewings to judge what is good, and what isn't. What's worth £1100 per month, and what is worth £900. How do I value a 3 mile cycle to lectures over a 2 mile cycle? Et cetera.

I remember when my family moved house a few years ago, and we'd look round places, and my parents would generally ask for what I thought of it. I'm not sure if they were particularly valuing my opinions at the time (I was about to bugger off to university anyway) or just trying to make me feel included in the decision, but either way I never actually had any opinion whatsoever. I mean, really, a house is a house. I was a teenage boy - I couldn't give a crap about the décor, the pros and cons of the location, or most of the other features of a property. I have no grasp of those sorts of things or how much they're worth.

A slightly irritating by-product of this whole house-finding bollocks is that the cycling trip to Oxford didn't happen, but given I'll have the house from August it'll probably just happen at some point before term starts instead.

Also the internet was down in my room (and the rest of the North range in Downing) last weekend, from about midday Friday to sometime on Monday morning. I spent the entirety of Saturday out at the UK mahjong thingy, but man the rest of the weekend went slow. Like, firstly it really screwed up the whole finding a house plans for the weekend, but above all it just proved the point made a few weeks ago that life is crap without the internet.

Aside from the fact that most people seemed to be busy or just not around, which made finding people to talk to somewhat problematic, I basically had fuck-all to do but watch TV stuff I've got downloaded. And then I'd recognise actors in episodes of Castle and go to Wikipedia to look up where I recognise them from... except there's no internet. I staved off a mental breakdown, but jesus christ it was a pain in the ass.

At the risk of potential embarrassment, I'll take this opportunity to link to the blog my Dad has started.

I'll be going home from Cambridge tomorrow, meaning a crappier internet connection and slightly more temperate weather (because after pissing it down for bumps and May week, Cambridge randomly decides to be 30°C for a few days, which is way too hot for my liking). Also the Tour de France starts, which I'm massively looking forward to, because it'll give me renewed purpose for the middle of the afternoon, when most of the guys I play SC2 with are busy with real life jobs and stuff.

I'll be off to the TetrisConcept meet in Eindhoven next week (leaving Wednsday), and I really can't wait. I'm sort of travelling with Kevin, by which I mean we're getting completely separate flights and then he's waiting for me at Schiphol to get the train. Anyway, it's going to be a liek ttly awesome weekend. After that, things aren't properly set, but I'll probably be interrailing around Europe or something. Hopefully I'll have a netbook and sporadic wifi and will be able to blog from the road, but we'll see.