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Terraclean

There’s a TV channel in Finland that plays back-to-back Wheeler Dealers and Deadliest Catch. All day long. When I stay over there I tend to have it on in the background while I’m working, because I’m partial to a car being fettled, and seeing people nearly die just to catch a fucking crab never ceases to amaze me. Anyway, this popped up…

So I had a hunt around and lo, there’s a chap in a van that comes around to your house and does it. Since I’ve just bought myself a ten year old hairdresser’s car, I figured what the hell? It can’t hurt, so I’ve had it done.

And fuck me, it seems to do exactly what it says on the tin! Idle revs are about 200-300 lower, and the car perceptibly gets through the gears more cleanly. Obviously, I’ve not owned it for long enough to tell if the claims of returned horses are true, but I’m definitely happy knowing that my little motor no longer has lungs like Dot Cotton.

Thought I’d pass that on.

Subscriptions...

Over the last year I’ve carefully trained Instagram to only show me adverts for rucksacks, backpacks and bags. Now, I do kinda have a thing for a good bag – you can never have too many when you carry a laptop about – but I thought it would be amusing to test how quickly I could hone advert trackers in on the subject. Depressingly quickly, as it turns out, although it does give my GF and I a good chuckle. Anyway, because of this it was a surprise when Readly, a “Netflix for magazines”, for want of a better description, popped up.

I’ve written before about my love of magazines, and two years on, I still subscribe to a few, but even I’m hard pushed to see how it makes sense to continue when Readly has every single managazine I read available for 8 earth quid a month. Or rather, 4 earth quid, because you can have multiple profiles, so my girlfriend and I share one subscription.

From a purely consumer pov, Readly is fantastic. I currently spend way more than 8 pounds a month as a subscriber, so I’m in for some big savings when my subs run out… I’m consuming more content, for less money, and there’s the benefit of it being digital, so always in my pocket. Woo! But it’s absolutely the writing on the wall for what’s left of the magazine industry. Enjoy it while it lasts, etc…

Of course, digital distribution has always made these services inevitable. What’s surprising, to me, is how long it’s taken for the subscription model to land for computer games. I’ve had slides in my lectures since the start of the previous generation predicting it, but it’s basically taken until now for it to happen in a large-scale way.

So far this month I’ve had free games from Epic, Twitch & Humble. Far more content than I would realistically be able to play. Humble monthly has 10s of thousands of subscribers and gives away 3 or 4 AAA games a month, along with a bunch of Indies. After a year on that I have a backlog PC games so large that I don’t even know where to start. I’ve been sharing keys for stuff that I don’t like with friends, and I’ve still got more than I can play. It is, quite simply, a gamer’s wet-dream. I now live in a world where there are more games than I’m ever going to be able to play, and they’re all basically at my fingertips, for free.

The downside, for me at least, is that I have to really filter through things to find the content I want to play. Despite having more games than ever, I find I’m actually playing less. The paralysis of choice. Crazy, eh?

And we’re still not at the end-game.

What I do worry about, is the damage services like Readly do. Are they, like Netflix & Amazon, investing in original content? Or are they just siphoning the last few pennies out of the wrinkled husk of a dying industry? Does Spotify actually help the music industry? Or the podcast industry?

Will the myriad of game streaming services and subscriptions be re-investing back into small teams – or even solo developers like me – or will they be paying us pennies per-hour of play? Or a one time flat-fee, if we’re ‘lucky’?

Whatever happens, as a gamer I win. We all do. But as a developer it’s going to be rough, because nearly all the services I’ve heard about are offering pennies.

But then again, how many people that write books, make music, or create any sort of content actually do it full-time?

I don’t…

Travel in the UK

When I returned to the UK I was pretty determined not to own a car. Not purely because of some “save the climate” thing – although that definitely was a part of the reasoning – but because I’d learned to genuinely love public transport in Finland. Before I left I couldn’t imagine life without a car, but six years later, it was hard to imagine a single reason why I’d ever want the expense and hassle again.

Reality in the UK has kinda bitten that plan on the ‘nads. I started going through Monzo, last week, and had a hard look at my travel expenses. It wasn’t pretty.

Now, bear in mind that I’m self employed, I work from home, and being a developer means I rarely need to leave the house, but when I do, it’ll be to one of the cities I live between, or a bigger hike, like London or Cambridge. I don’t live within walking distance of chums any more, and I don’t get to catch up with out-of-town pals anywhere near as much as I’d like to, but I try to make the effort to get to someone about once a month. We’re not talking Marco Polo levels of travel here, but amazingly I can’t actually get a bus to my nearest Tesco. Such a thing doesn’t exist. In 2018.

Not being funny, but this is fucking insane. And I can’t believe I live in a country where this is normal.

I’m not 10s of miles out of the city, larging it up in some country mansion. I live in the burbs, nestled between Southampton and Portsmouth, two reasonably large and modern cities!

Since I got back there hasn’t been a month where I’ve spent less than 180 pounds on travel. Trains, some taxis, the odd Uber, and some petrol in my GF’s car. On a bad month, it can be hundreds. For comparison, in Helsinki I could spend 100e a month and get infinite travel anywhere around the 3 zones of the city, for a month. A long distance train to the city (Tampere) where I worked was 28e (for fancy first class, btw). And I got a tax rebate on every one of those trips, because Finland.

When you stare at the numbers you realise how utterly crippling this situation in the UK is. To do this long-term would mean I’d effectively be location locked, to make the money last. I have no idea how someone worse-off than me, in this part of the country, could ever remotely cope. It’s impossible to live out of places like the local McColl’s – have you seen the quality of the food they sell there? – but excessively expensive to get a taxis to Tesco, so you’re fucked.

Shit needs to change. I’m fortunate, I have savings I can use to buy a car (I just have, hence the post), but my god I’m feeling for some of the people I know, that struggle with the rent. The longer I’ve tried to do this the more outraged I’ve become. Basic travel shouldn’t be a heinous tax on the poor.

Things can be different, I’ve lived it.

Travel

I’ve been travelling “A. Lot.” the last few months, and even if you ignore the risible security-theatre antics at most airports, the experience is awful.

Why? I just don’t get it.

Without fail, every airport in the world fails to deliver:

  • Decent food, at a reasonable price
  • Comfy seats
  • Power adaptors
  • Something to fucking watch while you’re waiting

Instead, it seems to be the top priority for every airport in the world to:

  • Sell you fucking suitcases (just, whaa?!)
  • Sell you a fucking laptop
  • Get you drunk
  • Make you stand up for more than would ever be desirable

So I’m going to let you in on my top-tip, life-hack, improve your airport experience guide:

  • Pay for lounge access

Seriously. It’s that simple. You can pre-pay for a bunch of visits to airport lounges. I bought a pack of 10 for 180GBP, which were valid for a year and to-date I’ve failed to find an airport where I can’t use one. i Given that a burger at Helsinki airport costs about 15e, you don’t need to do much mental arithmetic to see how this starts paying for itself. The food is complimentary. The booze is complimentary. There are comfy seats. Most lounges have somewhere to charge your shit. There’s bound to be TVs you can actually see, and hear. And most importantly, no-one is going to try and sell you a fucking suitcase. Because you already have two of those.

I’m not saying this is the perfect antidote to airport travel – it isn’t – but you can’t beat Beans-on-Toast, a couple of glasses of bubbles from the free bar, copies of the broadsheets, and infinite coffee, while you wait for your cheap-ass economy flight to where-ever, all for a bargain basement price of 18 earth pounds. Bonus points, you probably won’t have to listen to any screaming kids, either.

Which brings me on to life-hack number 2: Invest in sound cancelling headphones. You won’t regret it.

Surface

I own a Surface Pro 6 and I like it.

There’s a sentence I never expected to write.

When the Surface first came out it was intriguing (I use the term loosely), but it just wasn’t something I could ever see myself using. I had an iPad and, well, that was what a tablet was supposed to be.

Since then I’ve fallen out with Apple (well, technically I’d fallen out with them years ago). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to find a continued use for my iPad, but it keeps getting sidelined, or just fucking frustrates me. So these days, at best, it’s not much more than a glorified PDF reader, and one that struggles to load a file off my NAS when I’m in bed. :(

So the Surface, then… How the hell did I end up liking something that runs Windows 10?

Windows 10 is an absolutely shit-show of a “touch enabled” operating system. Tablet-mode is broken in a host of ways. “Non Tablet” (normal) Windows, even more so. The gestures are poor, undiscoverable, and some times hit-or-miss. Touch areas are often too small, or just don’t exist because you’re using a Win32 app. Windows still struggles with HiDPI. It gets a little confused as to what to do when you change orientation. The Windows store… I mean, I can go on. Windows is, as Windows does.

But it runs everything

And I’ve grown to realise that, the Surface’s biggest weakness – Win10 – is actually it’s biggest strength. My tablet already has the full version of Photoshop on it. And ZBrush. And Modo. My tablet actually compiles my game, and amazingly, handles UE4 well enough to run it at a reasonable clip.

Of course, you need a keyboard for that list, but the Surface keyboard is excellent. The keys have travel and feel great. The trackpad is perfect. It’s easy to get on and off. Even the pen – which I’ll happily agree is not as good as the Apple one – is lovely to use. Especially in Krita, or Photoshop.

I have the Linux subsystem. I can connect to everything in my house. Battery life seems, even under reasonable use (like compiling my game), to be ample. Even the power adaptor is small and light. I literally cannot complain about the hardware, or the price.

So, fuck me. I really like my Surface. Even though it’s running Windows 10. This is a seriously compelling form factor that you can do a surprising amount of “real” work on. It’s even powerful enough to drive my DDJ-1000, so it’s probably going to be my travel DJ rig. Pretty damn impressive for 800 nicker.

Oh, it even reads PDFs well. Laters, iPad :D

Readly

DDJ 1000

DDJ 1000

Stupidly, I can’t remember when I started DJing. My late teens have merged into the sort of haze that’d be left over from the bongs I was smoking back then. It was the 90s though, maybe 93 or 94? Either way, back then it was all vinyl, and we scabbled around trying to save the money for basic belt-drive turntables that would get us going, learning how to beatmatch. I never managed to save enough, instead sloping off to friends’ houses to use theirs. Maybe taking over from them when the got too high at a house party.

When I left Uni I needed to consolidate my debts, so took out a loan, 1.5 grand of which I promptly spunked on two shiny, Technics 1210 turntables. I still have both, they’re so solidly built that the cockroaches will be learning to scratch once the nuclear winter subsides. They’re (still) super expensive, but they’re absolute fucking units.

I only mention this to frame my overly positive comments below, as I’m old and also a bit of a traditionalist. I didn’t move from vinyl to CD until 2005, for example. I was that guy.

That being said, I’ve not been completely shy of experimenting and, technically, I’ve been a digital / laptop DJ for a decade or so. I spent a couple of years with a controller and Ableton Live, but pressing buttons without the risk of failure (or just doing something drunkenly out of time) didn’t work for me. For the last few years I’ve been a Traktor Scratch user, two CDJ1000s and my trusty 1210s, driving it via timecode. The problem with this is basically space. Four decks, my Xone42, and a stack of vinyl just don’t fit in my current place. As for rocking up to a mate’s house for an impromptu party… Well, it’s not as bad as carrying boxes of vinyl about, but they better have a shit-load of plugs and a big table sorted, or it ain’t happening.

I’ve been looking for a solution to this since I got back to the UK. A few of my musical chums have been happily rocking out with some iPad apps (Traktor again, iirc) but the touch interface makes me die inside, so I’ve been looking around at control surfaces. There are a million of these on the market, but I’m fussy; I want four channels, something “full size”, so big enough to give me all the controls I’m used to, jogwheels that feel as close to CDJs as possible, and - preferably - something with a decent mixer and outputs built-in. I’m less arsed about weight, as the amount of time I’ll be carrying it is dwarfed by the time spent using it, but you know, it’s a factor.

That basically points me in the direction of Pioneer. I’ve been looking at their DDJ and XDJ range for a while. There are plusses and minuses to all these controllers, some steal features from the Nexus decks, some are tied tightly to Rekordbox, some are made for Serato, some are “big”, some are half-size, and until recently, none of them quite did it for me. Until I spotted the DDJ-1000.

Holy shit, not on is this controller a bit of a monster (in size, if not in price) but hand on heart, this is the first time I can say that I’ve enjoyed using a control surface as much as I do a pair of CDJs. Everything is laid out as you’d expect, the decks mimic CDJs, and the in-built mixer is basically a DJM 750, so you have everything from colour, to post fader single channel effects built-in. EQ quality is superb (although not quite as rich as my Xone) with great feel on the pots, and all faders have just enough heft that you’re not going to accidentally knock them anywhere. The only niggle with the mixer itself is that the crossfader curve can only be set in software, so if you want to jump from a linear, or soft curve to something with a hard-knee (for scratching) you’re going to have to fuck about in the settings. Not something you’ll be doing live.

The Jogwheels feel identical to a CDJ, being the same mechanical types found in Pioneer’s high-end gear and the displays are bright and sharp. The artwork display is basically useless, but the waveform and timers are all clear and easy to read, as is the cue marker, especially if you’re trying to scratch. These are by far the best jogwheels I’ve felt on a controller.

This particular unit is tied to Rekordbox. I’d not used the software before, but it’s already moving ahead of Traktor for me, thanks to the way it handles my music library. It digested 13k music tracks in no time, and the beat / key analysing seems to be just as accurate. The DDJ1000 has eight assignable pads, under each platter, and I thought these were going to be a bit of a novelty, but they’ve opened up a lot of possibilities for me. By default they can be used to assign hot-cues and loop points (which I use a LOT), or, flip them over to programmable effect presets. These are pre-fader effects (so will be affected by EQ) and they don’t have any ramp on, or off, but that being said, they’re super useful, to the point where I’ve not even changed the defaults yet.

Slip mode, reverse play and loop controls are all what you’d expect. You can run each deck in Vinyl or CD mode, match key, and have everything looked to beat quantisation, so again, pretty standard. Admittedly, quantisation is a bit lazy, but when you’re in a public situation with bad monitoring it’s nice to know that you can still get pin-sharp drops when you need them.

Build quality is great. It’s mainly plastic, but thankfully so, any more metal and it would have weighed a ton. Mine, in it’s flight-case, is what I’d call luggable. Better than what I’m used to, but not exactly light. Outputs are RCA and XLR, so once you have lugged it somewhere you can drop it straight into a booth and it’ll plug into whatever’s there. Whether there’s enough room in the booth is another question. It’s not exactly big, but it is about the same size as two CDJs and a standard mixer, so it’d be a tight fit in most places I’ve been.

I’ve only had one public airing with the controller so far – and I was, ahem, rusty to say the least – so although I have some more learning to do (especially this style of mixing) I can heartily give this controller two massive thumbs up. For the money (I got mine for 1000UKP) it’s an absolute steal. You literally couldn’t buy a single, proper CDJ or even a decent mixer for this money.

So, that’s the problem of how I’m going to mix in a house with no space for my gear, sorted. Keep an eye out, as I’m going to kick off a new podcast sometime next year.

Going Green...

The not so eagle eyed of you – those that still use RSS feeds and haven’t unsubscribed from this blog – have probably notice that this wee blog of mine has been dying on its arse for the last year or so. That’s partly down to me being busy, but also a conscious effort not to constantly stray into political rantings over Brexit.

As a Brit that was – at the time – living abroad, Brexit cast a long shadow. At worst it would prevent me from living and working in my country of choice. At best, well, there was no best.

As it turned out I had other reasons for leaving Finland and heading back to the UK, but that’s not made me feel the impact of Brexit any less keenly. I still work in Finland, and it’s a place I want to spend as much time in as possible. Friction-free, and ideally, with my rights intact.

I’ll set my stall out now. I’m a federalist. I believe the UK should be a federation. I’m, largely, anti-capitalist. I don’t think the system, or the corporations it spawns, are the best we, as a species, can do. But yes, I have my own company and I work within the system as best I can. I believe in the co-op, over the company, and try to work with people on that basis where I can. I don’t believe the EU is perfect, but I do believe it’s the best construct we currently have within the larger context of countries surviving in a capitalist world. I also believe the EU should be a federation, and that, until then, and until the monetary union also goes as far as being a debt union, the EU project will always falter. But it will survive, and at its heart it is a social democratic entity.

So obviously, as someone that lived abroad for more than five years, I deeply value the EU, and in particularly, freedom of movement, which is why it pains me so deeply to hear the current rhetoric from our main political parties. I have, basically, given up on Labour – in its current guise – while its so myopically determined to treat immigration as a vote winner. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.

I’m also quietly shitting it about climate change. They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I understand just enough about what’s going on to be very scared indeed. To that end I’m trying to get by without a car, I’m eating less meat, I’m much more religiously recycling, and doing what I can to make the house a bit more energy efficient. None of which will be enough.

Anyway, this is all a meandering way to clear my throat a little, try and avoid having to talk about Brexit here, and tell you all that I’ve joined the Green Party. As a Labour voter who feels the party no longer represents me, or my views, it’s refreshing to go through the Green’s pledges and see they had so much in common with my world-view. And Caroline Lucas is one of the few leaders that’s spoken any sense over the last couple of years.

I am part of the 48%, and when we leave the EU I will work, in what ways that I can, to help us re-join. Until then, I’m feeling pretty happy about adding my voice/cash/skills to the Greens in the hope it makes the tiniest bit of difference to the biggest issue facing us all.

Below Zero: 020

Below Zero: 019

Prince Of Persia: Sands of Time

Here’s the second of my WotR reviews. I think I might have done more stuff for them, but it’s probably lost to time…

Pop

There was a time when I was impressed by sexy animation alone - Saturday lunchtime to be exact - as I was playing the original Prince Of Persia as a prelude to a credit card-bending trip to Game.

What I can’t believe about Sands Of Time is how evocative it is of this original platforming masterpiece. From the first climb and jump (which is nicely presented with unobtrusive tutorial aspects) you know you’re The Prince. Or, in my case, MC Hammer. It’s the trousers.

So, there I am testing out the controls when all of a sudden the Hammer wall-rides 30 feet to a platform I’d barely noticed. Time to sit up and pay attention. And that’s what makes Prince of Persia so great. There are plenty of genuine attention-demanding moments in this game.

The cinematics, camera blurs and fixed views all bring out the vast scale of the environments, but there’s never a point where this daunts you. Need to get to a door four storeys up with only pigeon nests and light fittings to grab hold of? No probs. Hammer will probably slip in an extra backflip off the pigeon’s beak for good measure.

This is platforming goodness on a new scale. Everything from the past updated to the new. It never feels scripted, you never feel that you can’t grab hold of that ledge and you never feel like you’re playing a game.

And then there’s the combat. Ooooo, the lovely combat.

Initially, waving your sword about feels lacking in control - you don’t pick the combo for instance, you wave the stick in the general direction of where you want the kick-ass, leaving the fleet-footed 80s rapper to do his thing. But a few well placed text messages later and you’ve got the game Buffy The Vampire Slayer wished it was. I’m telling you now, there is no better combo than a 6-foot run up a wall, followed by a graceful backward flip with a mid-air slash and sand-sucking stab of death. Only takes three button presses, that.

So the sands, then… Yes, you can rewind time about 20 seconds - which makes every platforming mistake and fighting fuck-up a mere practice run for the crowd-pleasing display of joypad prowess that is to follow. Yes, you can slow down time as a whim for when you’re really showing off. Yes, you can stab enemies and force them into matrix-like bullet-time while the world around them continues at normal pace. Yes, you can do all of this whenever you want.

It’s a lovely, lovely feature and empowering to say the least. But it’s a minor thing compared to the goodness in this game’s heart. Everything about it oozes high production value and attention to detail. From the visionary moments at Save Points to the epic scale of the architecture. But, more importantly, for taking a cherished idea from yesteryear, supplying it with a new pair of baggy trousers, giving it a stern talking to about family responsibility (and how crap 80s rap really was), before throwing it out into the brave new world.

Lara Croft? You can’t touch this.