An Unemployed Summer being filled with Rich Videogaming Delight

“Plant!” you shout at me in the street, causing mild surprise! “Why do you have a lovingly drawn header of Super Meat Boy on this post, something everybody grew sick of hearing about in 2010?”

Well, my very rude and very hypothetical friend, the root of the answer lies in the fact that despite reams of resumes sent to the four dark corners of the globe, I don’t have a job this summer. This means that I’ve been spending quite a lot of my free time – free time in which most of my regular socialites and girlfriend are working for their finals, which were billed later than mine – finally redeeming my £4.27’s worth on the last few Humble Indie Bundles.

Despite donating towards them at the time, I never really touched them for more than a glancing blow due to some deadline or other steaming ever closer and finding a fair few of the games less interesting than this receipt I’ve just found that tells me I bought three cans of macaroni cheese on Valentine’s day.

“But Plant, you handsome stallion!” you retort. “Why are you telling me about them when this isn’t a gaming blog in the slightest? Why do you never talk about your life as a student biologist instead? And when are you going to finish that post about your crappy UoS-approved house?”

I’m getting to that, you fictitious nuisance. And I’ll do it when I can write a funny joke about all my taps being backwards. Comedy gold.

Okay, so that’s not entirely true, some of the games were interesting enough as I did pay money for them in the end and I’m too impoverished to give away money without getting something useful in return. Useful being a relative term where videogames are concerned, but my point is that some of them are actually really good fun.

Indie games are a personal soft spot of mine. That’s debatably because my brother and I are currently developing one for Windows Phone, but at least partly after Minecraft left an impression upon me comparable to that of crack cocaine. I used to get a kick from LEGO, but now I’m looking for the bigger thrills. I now have to re-arrange cubes at least once every other day or I get the shakes.

The Humble Bundles have left me with a few choicy picks, such as the delectable Trine, a game whose USP is the ability to switch between three unique characters with individual skills in a manner reminiscent of Sonic Heroes, only not shit, the artsy and cinematic Trauma which at first appears more pretentious than a beret with built-in latte foam dome and goatee curler but turns out to be a compelling and ethereal experience, and Super Meat Boy, which is most unashamedly a videogame and is a great big squishy beanbag of fun. Between these three and Minecraft, I have been left with piles of wasted time, a knackered gas lift on my office chair and an intense, warm glow of satisfaction.

“Do you have a point to this?” you reply, glancing pointedly at your watch and having taken a seat on a nearby bench.

Not really, apart from letting my housemates and girlfriend – who read this blog and have likely declared me legally dead by this point – in on precisely what I’ve been doing in here for the last few days.

Wasting time at my computer, of course, but thanks to indie games, in one of the best ways.

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Factory251 OR A practical guide to distressing your Chucks with Ecstasy

The nightlife in Salford is terrible. Oh, there’s the Crescent, with its plethora of Real Ales to choose from, and Bar Yours, the Union bar, which has regular entertainment provided by the various societies around the University. Some of it is even entertaining.

My point in saying this is that if you want to go for a night out, you have to go into nearby Manchester. The nightlife situation here is understandably much better, with all the major chain clubs like Tiger Tiger and Baa Bar making an appearance, and independent bars like 5th Avenue, which is full of hipsters*, and the delectable Font, where brightly-coloured cocktails flow like water. However, with every Yin must come a Yang, and Manchester serves one up on a golden plate. Factory251 is the name of this dish, and it’s stone cold and two hours late.

At a glance, Factory251 doesn’t seem any different to any other club in Manchester, except perhaps a little smaller. The club is split into three floors, with each its own DJ and genre of music. The ground and first floor change with each night of the week, but from my experience the second and top floor is always dubstep. You enter on the ground floor, confusingly named the first floor by the club’s advertisers**.

* My derision against hipsters from a couple of months back has evaporated.

** This isn’t unique to Factory251. It seems a lot of people like to call the ground floor of a building the first floor. Yes, this would be correct in America, but here in Britain it’s always the ground floor. Textspeak is one thing, but when spoken language degrades to the point where the location of, say, a room in a building is ambiguous then something is clearly badly wrong. But I digress.

The second thing you’ll notice about Factory251, subsequent to the lightened pocket and anal soreness after paying the entrance fee, is that you can’t see a damn thing. Most clubs will have some form of ambient lighting alongside the spotlights and strobes in order to provide visibility, however limited. Factory251 dispenses with this, and in case the dizzying array of rotating lamps gave you enough visibility, there’s a fog machine that is never switched off. That’ll teach you to try and walk around.

The only static lights on each floor are on the bar, to which the extremely numerous clientele are attracted rather like moths*. Did I mention how long it takes to get a drink? Put a schoolboy at the back of the crush for the bar, and by the time he gets to the front he’ll be old enough to get served**. Due to a curious combination of this and the sweltering humidity, I usually feel completely sober within 15 minutes of entering the place.

After making your choice between a Jagerbomb, which is comparatively cheap*** but consists of barely 150ml of booze, or a pint of lager which costs £158, you have to join the dance floor. Again, in most clubs, joining the dance floor is voluntary, with at least half of the club dedicated to tables, booths, benches, seats, or at the very least an area you can stand away from the hive and where the music is a little quieter. This means the area is suitable (loud) talking, enjoying a drink, or mingling with attractive ladies****. This is a good thing. It’s something you want in a club.

* Or probably a taxic response to smelling Stella Artois.

** Although in total fairness this is a problem in any busy club. There was an idea floated in the newspapers a few years back for an arrangement where customers queue and go to numbered stations on the bar when called forward, like in the Post Office. It was a great idea. Why has nobody done this?

*** Ish.

**** Font is very good for this, especially because the girls in there tend to have higher brain function.

Factory251 has no such area, and the jostling is relentless. Enjoying a pint of Stella would be impossible under the best of circumstances, but I’m sure even Hobgoblin would be terrible in Factory251 if they sold it. Some beers recommend on the bottle being drunk with a fine meal or in the warm rays of a summer sunset. None recommend being drunk whilst crushed between a hooting Burger King shift manager in a muscle shirt and a woman who looks like a bison that’s been shaved and hurled through Primark.

Ducking into the toilet provides little respite from this. Always present in there, as much of a fixture of the gents toilet as the actual fixtures, is the staple of Manchunian nightclubs: the man who sells squirts from his huge stock of cologne. Actually, that’s not quite true, as the term selling implies some choice in the matter. It’s more that he accosts you with the spray when you least expect it, and then demands a pound, usually when you have no change. I consider it a Hugo Boss branded mugging.

Anyway, the man in Factory251’s gents has a unique selling technique involving shouting crude sexual puns in broken English, much to the amusement of the patrons of the toilet. I won’t judge the clientele of Factory251 because, in fairness, they’re very, very drunk* by the time they get there. Therefore I can forgive conversations as perennially inane as this, usually conducted between two peers on either side of me at the urinal:

Drunkard #1: Arrr yeah, kid, gonna get fuckin’ clunge** tonight, lad!
Drunkard #2: YEAH LAD! Gonna get us some fuckin’ birds, Wooo!
Drunkard #1: Fuckin’ Hi-Five, lad!
They Hi-Five, awkwardly leaning around behind me to do this.
Drunkard #1: Wahurr, Hey Spray Guy, what d’ya think of this, hurr?
Cologne Seller: NO ARMANI NO PUNANI

* A situation in which I’m hardly close to godliness. Think staggering around my shared kitchen whilst bellowing the lyrics to The Girl from Ipanema.

** I hate this word. Of all the slang for lady bits, “clunge” is the least sexy and “sausage wallet” the funniest.

So in Factory251, ducking into the toilet for a moment of peace is clearly not an option. And where would I be ducking from, you would ask if this was a conversation and not a blog post? The second floor, of course, where the music is dubstep and the street drug of the night is ecstasy, which as far as I can tell makes you lie on the floor periodically springing up to give a stranger a big hug. A very, very tight hug. An airless hug. The kind of hug where their full weight presses the broken glass and dirt from the soles of their boots into the toecaps of your brand new Chucks. This kind of hug doesn’t exist in the realm of sobriety, and the world is a better place because of that.

So there you are. Factory251 in Manchester. I’ve a few loose ideas to wrap up here, so here’s a big list of disordered advice to fool you into thinking this post has a point:

  • Don’t go if you’re entranced by the idea of a floor of indie music, as there sometimes is. The much superior 5th Avenue is practically next door.
  • Go if you like air that has had all the oxygen removed and replaced with BO.
  • Go drunk. Very drunk.
  • Have pocket change for the cologne guy. I’m serious, this guy has incredible spraying reflexes and does not take no for an answer.
  • I once saw a guy walk into the middle of the gents and piss on the spot. Classy.

I will give one plus point, though. If you’re drunk, the cologne guy is an absolute riot. And that’s just about the only thing I like about the place. Cologne guy, for brightening up many a poor clubbing experience, I hand it to you.

Sorry, Factory251, it could have been beautiful, but it just wasn’t to be. Avoid.

Rest in Peace, Steve Jobs

I know I haven’t been posting very regularly for the last few weeks, but as a person who is an avid follower of Apple, their products, and their influence on the technology world, I had to make time to pay tribute on this day to Steve Jobs. He was a man I never met, yet he changed the lives of myself and everybody I know with the products his company innovated. Today marks the sad loss of a truly inspiring and remarkable man, and I join the online community in condolence. May he rest in peace.

Keeping the G4 alive – A practical case study on modern use of Apple PowerPC hardware

By James Plant

In this latest segment of the digital age, the domestic computer market is dominated by the x86 processor architecture and its derivatives. Until the mid-2000s, Apple had been a major exception to this rule, placing only PowerPC processors at the core of their computers, and as a direct result, at the core of their software strategy. When the decision was made to switch to x86 with the rest of the industry, Apple transitioned their software strategy to the new architecture, slowly dropping official support for PowerPC. With OS X 10.6 marking the official end of the PowerPC era, can the architecture still hold relevance in an x86 world? Let’s find out.

The eMac was designed as a budget alternative to the ‘lamp’ style iMac G4.

First of all, let me speak from experience. Alongside a primary Linux-powered machine which I use for daily activities, I run a 1.25GHz eMac as a media center and my main field computer remains an 800MHz iBook G4. Both were purchased second-hand, the eMac in 2008 for £125, and the iBook G4 in 2011 for £60 noninclusive of minor upgrades. Both of these machines run OS X 10.4 and see daily use. I shall begin with the iBook, and for comparison I will use a EEE PC 1005PE bought late last year.

Unfortunately, the differing architectures and operating systems between the compared machines presents me with a significant roadblock in a comparison: To my knowledge, there is no benchmarking software common to both PowerPC OS X and Fedora Linux, making it impossible to gather benchmark scores with any meaning. In lieu of such a figure, I will list the specifications of each machine;

EEE PC 1005 PE

iBook G4

CPU

1.66GHz Intel Atom N450

800MHz IBM G4

Memory

1GB DDR2

640MB DDR

Storage

250GB

40GB

Screen size

10.1” 16:9

12” 4:3

Battery life

10 hours expected

6 hours per battery expected*

* I own more than one iBook battery

Unsurprisingly, given that it is a much more modern computer, the EEE PC out-performs the iBook on paper. In practice, however, the difference is not so clear-cut.

On a 802.11G WiFi connection with good signal strength, both machines load the landing page of this very site in the region of ten seconds, and both show signs of slowdown when the multitasking load begins to stack up. Booting time is similarly matched, at about one minute from power button to login prompt. It should be noted that the EEE PC is running Fedora Linux for these tests, and not the stock Windows 7 Starter.

Software support for the EEE PC is the usual Linux fare, but to my surprise the standard Linux fare also frequently extends to OS X in the form of PowerPC or Universal binaries, with many open-source projects still supporting the architecture. This surprising fact is the best bet for PowerPC in remaining relevant in the modern world, as almost all off-the-shelf Mac software this long after the Intel transition no longer supports the previous architecture. Even some closed-source software – For example, I am a Spotify subscriber – retains active development for PowerPC*.

The iBook G4 was the last of Apple’s PowerPC consumer notebooks

Moving on from the portable to the desktop, the eMac performs admirably as a media center, running Spotify – a subscription music streaming service – and playing DVDs. Web browsing is infrequent, as I use my aforementioned primary machine for such activities, although it should be noted that the extra megahertz in the 1.25GHz processor make it fast enough for most Flash objects and even Youtube. A comparison with my 2.8GHz quad-core primary machine would be completely unfair.

Both of my G4 powered machines are restricted by their PowerPC lineage, as in they cannot run the latest versions of OS X and off-the-shelf software is out of the question. While the computers are definitely past their prime, they are by no means obsolete. For most of the activities a user would want to do on the machine, the world of open-source provides an appropriate tool, often with a PowerPC package. Unless you have highly specific needs as a computer user, these older computers make excellent sidekicks to their more modern brethren, especially considering they can be picked up for petty cash online and in used hardware stores.

And while completely unconnected to their PowerPC hearts, it’ll look a damn sight nicer on your desk than a wintel rotbox.™

* This was true at time of writing, but as of October 2011 Spotify are soon to be dropping updates for the PowerPC platform, although I believe a legacy version of the player – as well as several unofficial players – will still be available.

[James Plant is a blogger from a folded corner of the UK near Liverpool. He mainly sticks to infographics, but occasionally likes to blog like a human being.]

Got an opinion? Tell us in the comments!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

eMac image courtesy Tyler9xp on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

iBook G4 image courtesy Akira Kamikura on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

James Plant on: The Digital Economy Bill

If you live in the UK, or more precisely, you live on the internet but you eat, sleep and work in the UK, you may have heard of a little thing called the ‘Digital Economy Bill’. Why do I say that you have to live on the internet to know about it? Simply, it’s been put through incredibly quietly and without much media coverage. Only through the outrage of the British online community I have heard about it, and it’s just about the only thing in British politics that’s put me into an apocalyptic rage.

So you may or may not have heard of it. For the benefit of those who haven’t, and I wouldn’t blame you, it is a bill that will block file sharing, any online content suspected of copyright infringement, and even cut off the internet of those who may or may not be guilty of noncompliance without a trial. If that wasn’t bad enough, the government will have the power to levy massive fines on internet providers who allow circumvention, even accidentally. The definition of “provider” includes anybody who gives internet access to the public, including public Wi-Fi providers. If a user on a Wi-Fi connection in, for example, a café, broke the terms of this bill, the café could then be fined a huge figure. Would a business as such therefore take the risk of even having internet access? Of course not. What about content providers such as Youtube and Google? They would have to filter their content and results, resulting in – at best – the absolute massacre of online content.

Welcome, then, to the death of the public internet. Content sieved by politicians in the record company’s pockets and brought straight to you along a government-approved connection. Welcome to the dark ages of the internet.

Alternately, you can protest. You can say no. Put a poster up. Email your MP. Tell your friends. Take action!©

James Plant on: Computer Graphics

Congratulations, you. Yes, you. The one who came here from my deviantArt page. Well done for seeing, and then having the curiosity to click on, the imperceptibly tiny button at the bottom of the page. It’s grey too, just to make it harder to see. Good job on that.

As was oh-so-subtly implied just now, I have a deviantArt. Yes, it’s full of my 3D stuff. Yes, I’ve been through that before on here. No, I’m not going to link to the page on deviantArt until the end. I’ve taken up CGI a little more as of late, as of late being the last six months or so. I’ve always had a closet interest in design and especially computer graphics and seeing as I spend 99.7% of my waking life sitting at the computer utilising exactly that, I thought back in February that the time was ripe to share it with the world. Or rather, other people exactly like me.

As I said up there, I’ve covered this before. And Christ, after reading that post do I regret it. My writing style was awful back then. Jesus, is that a Japanese emoticon at the bottom there? Fucking hell.

What in the name of fresh hell is that!?

Oh, I remember now. Stuff from when I was just starting with Blender. Two years now? I wouldn’t have thought. I really wouldn’t have, to the extent where I actually haven’t. Why don’t I jam my latest scene up here for a comparison of where those two years has taken me?

Click for full size

I think that’s just a little better. Better in any case than five spheres, a python-script helix, a photograph of my own iris and “Awesome AO”. If I was at all defensive of my former self – and I’m not – I could say that I was using a much earlier version of Blender back then. But that’s no excuse at all, 2.45 was more or less just as powerful as 2.5, albeit with a more bewildering-to-the-newcomer interface. And I was a newcomer. Look at me, using terms like “Nor mapping” and pretending I knew back then what that actually meant. Looking at the spheres, there’s also a blatant cock-up on the sunset-lit one, and I’m not talking about the crappily positioned camera. Look at the reflection. There’s two suns.

Now, anybody who relates with me when I’m talking about my 3D work knows I am an absolute perfectionist. Nothing less than the best goes. So really, past me, was avoiding a 40 minute re-render time really worth the buggered up camera? I wish for 40 minute render times these days, and I’m on a quad-core now.

I know the title of this post is “James Plant on: Computer Graphics”, and I also know it’s degenerated into a rant of how much of a newbish dick I was when I was younger. But really, I have a point. There’s a common misconception that 3D is easy, that it’s just pushing buttons to make things happen. That’s so not true. It takes time and dedication to even get to the meagre level I’m at now.

And hear you me, the payoff of seeing a beautiful render you made yourself is worth it.

As for you, past James, Christ, you’re a tosser. No wonder you never got that girl you were after. Get out of here.©