Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Last Minute Christmas Ideas: A Pet Rock

'Tis the season to be lazy. Fa la, etc. I'm afraid I'm going to be fobbing off on a real post this week, so I thought it only appropriate to help you, yes you, dear reader, fob off on your gift giving this year. Why buy someone something nice and useful when you could make them something they'd never possibly want instead? As such, I give you...a pet rock!

The gift tag says "Help, I'm trapped inside a tiny purple bag!"
OK, so I promise it's not the massive skive of a gift that I alluded to it being. I gave this to a friend of mine as a wee jokey present and made a little guide to looking after their new pet rock, so a good couple of hours of MS Paint went into this; that's plenty effort. This post, however, not so much. If you'd like to make your own pet rock, all you need is:

- A rock
- Some googly eyes
- Glue (strong stuff)
- Paper
- A printer, preferably with ink in it

Step one, you could probably work out yourself. Glue the googly eyes onto the rock. No shit. This is the worst crafting post ever; does it even deserve that difficulty rating? Eh, why not.

Difficulty - 0 (10 if you are also a rock)
Duration - Infinite (you never stop looking after a pet rock)

"I will outlive you."
Googly eyes on? Good. Now print out my little booklet. See? I've done all the work for you. Really it's you who is the slacker. For shame. FOR SHAME

I've shown the pages below individually, but the best way to print them is obviously paired like their pages would be so you can staple it together. Oh yeah, you need a stapler.

- Stapler

It's darned annoying that Blogger doesn't let you show separate images side by side, so I'm afraid you're going to have to exercise your scrolling finger. Other than this, I can't really think of anything else to tell you... Well, I guess, you know, have a nice Christmas and all that.

Love you.

[This space has been intentionally left blank]

[So has this one]


[Redaction has been redacted; original text follows:]

Scientists have narrowed Emma Stone's appeal down to either her cartoonishly huge eyeballs or her "husky 60-year old with throat cancer" voice.

Rocks don't sleep. They wait.

Other illnesses cut from the final edit:
- Limestone Disease
- Acid Rain
- Tectonic Eruption
- Earthquake
- Psybeam

Ah shit, I got into naming Pokemon moves again.

Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff, this.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

My Retro Game Box: Worth The Wait?

The box itself is not quite as retro.
Important Note (10/03/16): I recently checked up on the MyRetroGameBox website to see how things were going, and sadly, as of the beginning of the year, the company has closed down. The front page now contains a very heart-felt and emotional message from the owner, who sounds close to broken with regret and disappointment due to their misfortune. I would just like to say now, before you continue reading this review, that although I provide plenty of criticism of the service, My Retro Game Box has stayed in the back of my head since I subscribed to it. It was one of the purest and best subscription services out there, forgoing all of the useless crap that fills most of these other things for a little bundle of lovingly picked joy, and I'll always be thankful that I got to support that in some way or another. Ok, carry on.

Over the past few years I've been diving more and more into the dangerously addictive (and costly) world of retro video game collecting. My collection is still small and limited only to early Nintendo and PlayStation efforts but it is ever so gradually growing into a respectable little pile of gaming history, and I hope for that trend to continue in earnest. Eventually, by the time I retire, I'll have accumulated enough gaming goodness to last me until death.

And beyond...
As my unquenchable desire for aged digital comestibles continued to swallow my bank account, I stumbled across a curious site called The cut of it's jib? To provide a monthly subscription service akin to the likes of Loot Crate, but giving you a hand-tailored selection of old video games for you to keep rather than a box full of mass-produced tat that'll inevitably end up at the bottom of a drawer. I was sold; I love the idea of a subscription service that a) gives you things that you genuinely want rather than an endless stream of keyrings and shitty nerd fusion t-shirts, and b) curates every box to suit the personal desires of the particular subscriber. Don't want N64 games or anything R-rated? Done. You won't get them. It's a brilliant idea and one that works surprisingly well too.

Before I start, I will point out that this is not a promoted post. My Retro Game Box have not approached me to do this, nor the other way round; in fact, they're such a small company that they balk at the idea of extra publicity. I simply found this service, used it, and am now relaying my experience back to you lovely folk seeing as there was a distinct lack of information for me when I was researching it. I'm not trying to sell this to you but merely letting you know what the deal is and what you could expect for yourself. So, that said, let's start with the important bit.

The Box

Game boxes cost either £10, £20, or £50 (plus postage) with 1-2, 3-5 and ~10 games sent in each box respectively. I went for the mid range twenty quid box and got three games in each of my two boxes. Before we get to what was in them, let's look at the presentation of the package:

I learned not to put my address online after that last incident with a 6 ton crate full of fly swatters.
I'll be honest, that's underwhelming. No, I wasn't expecting fancy custom boxes and such, but both packages were wrapped differently with what looked like spare boxes. Kudos on recycling old packaging, but it does tarnish the first impression a smidgen. Like, a nanosmidge. Really, books and covers and whatnot, it's not that big a deal in the long run. My games were safe and dry and that's what matters.

Speaking of games, the first box contained Way of the Samurai, Bust-a-Move 2 and MicroMachines, and the second arrived with Croc, Jersey Devil, and that weird Mario and Yoshi GameBoy game. I'm happy to say that on a whole I'm thoroughly chuffed with my haul; some absolute classics plus an obscure gem. Also fucking Mario and Yoshi, but watcha gonna do, eh?

Pretty games...
From a cursory Google, the games probably hit just over the £40 line if you bought them all separately, so I can happily say that this does look to be value for money. However, seeing as you're receiving a personalised service sending you games curated to your particular needs, I'd say any extra you're paying if the games were cheaper is going to a good place.

How about quality then? Again, the site states quite clearly that this is not a service for collectors, there's no "Only games mint in the original box" button to click; you get what you're given and you'll like it because omg guys, you're being sent old computer games in the mail, what more could you want? I am, however, extremely impressed with the condition of my games. Lookie:

I haven't had cases this clean when I've bought games new.
The manuals for Croc and Jersey Devil were a particular delight, with nary a frayed edge on them. These are in better condition than some of my PS3 games. Then there was the adorable damage to MicroMachines.

"Heh. It says Nintendo on it. That's not a real word."
Someone has written "Dad's" down the side of it. I don't know why but I find that infinitely adorable; I have an image of this late 90's dad who comes in from work, sticks on this game and plays it with his 3 kids. This is one of those things that's great about buying second hand: there's a little story to everything you have that you'll never learn about. It's lovely.

Ok, so far, so good. The games were good, the box affordable and good value. Here comes the less so good bit.


I paid for my first box on the 17th of September. The website suggest delivery will happen within 2-3 weeks. Cool beans. 3 weeks come and go, still nothing. So I drop them a message to see what's going on and I receive and automated email reply telling me that they're still working on earlier boxes. Hmmm... I'll be honest, I did not feel like my customerness was serviced particularly well at this point. I wait another week. The payment goes out for my second box on the 10th October (there was a disparity in the days because their system was updated and I had to resubscribe), and yet I still have no news of my first order.

Me, waiting.
Finally, on the 15th of October, I am told that my package has been dispatched. Not by an email confirmation, mind you, but through the very odd My Retro Game Box website; we shall get to that in a moment. That's 28 days from order to dispatch; Cillian Murphy can accidentally survive the apocalypse in that time! The delivery is so delayed that you're essentially paying one month ahead for your boxes, with last month's arriving as you pay for the next. 

The second box was dispatched on 10th November, exactly a month after payment, so this doesn't appear to be a one-off thing. I think the issue is very simply the size of the company compared to the scale of their customer base. There are a lot of people who would like this service, but simply not enough on their end to fulfil that demand; it's really sad, because it essentially boils down to what should be an amazing, unique service being marred by the fact that it's too amazing and unique. They can't cope with the giant can of geek-flavoured worms that they've opened.

The Website

The main stuff has been covered, but I thought I'd give special attention to the My Retro Game Box website. It is mental. Please, hire a web designer as soon as you can.

Kindly ignore my tabs and the open game of FTL...
That's the Member's Page. Scroll down and you'd see text boxes where you put in all of the games/consoles you own (even the types of games you'd prefer/dislike; it's quite a genius idea), as well as personal details and the like. Sadly, as you can see, it's ugly as fuck. I'd say only sign up if you're comfortable with navigating numerous error pages and unnecessary forms.

This guy turns up with alarming regularity.
I mentioned earlier something about delivery notifications. For some unknown reason, you don't receive an email when your box has been dispatched, instead you have to log in, scroll to the bottom on the Member's Page, and check to see if the latest dispatch date has changed. It's an unnecessary faff on top of a number of other minor annoyances.

All in all, is fab. You get exactly what you expect for a brilliant price. Why pay for 30 quid's worth of tat when you can get some great condition retro games to add to your collection instead? It's a splendid service only hindered by it's size and some qualities which really remind you that this is a small business, notably site design, delivery times and customer service. As such, I'd recommend that you only opt to subscribe to My Retro Game Box if you really think it's for you; let's not drown these folks in any more work than they already have.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

How to Build a Computer

I got all this stuff just to play with the boxes.
Oh hai there!

"Hai" - You
It was my birthday this week; my 21st to be exact. What with it being a big deal and all I was asked what sort of big deal present I wanted. My totally reasonable and attainable answer: I asked for HAL-9000. I mean, that's not that bad. I did cut it down from demanding Deep Thought and golden goose eggs.

"We're afraid we can't let you have that." - My Parents
By HAL-9000, I meant I wanted a super awesome PC to play reeeeally pretty screensavers on when it's not running Netflix. Also I wanted it to look like HAL. Now, I have absolutely no experience or knowledge in computer building other than the fact that it definitely requires at least two RAM, so the job was handed to my kind, benevolent brother to handle. Now, ah yes, it says here that, as a sibling, I am contractually obliged to state that he is indeed a smelly poo face who looks like a really sad badger; but he is actually quite good at computers, so he gains one point for that.
Brother: 1, Malodorous Melancholy Caniform-Likeness: 592
This brings us to the first, very important rule of building your own computer:

Rule Number 1 - Get Someone Else to Do It

You'd think that building a PC would have reached jigsaw levels of simplicity by now, with everything fitting nicely together and working in perfect harmony like all the animals in a Disney forest. No. To put it simpler: N. Every plug is different, every make and model works with some and doesn't work with other different makes and models, it's all very complicated and I swear the companies that make this stuff enjoy watching poor sods like me suffer by numbering all of their products in completely illogical ways. Say last year, Big Computers Inc. releases a new graphocapacimory card or whatever; they call it the XT449-alpha. That's confusing enough, why not just name it Bill? But then what they do is, the next year, they'll call the new model of exactly the same thingamabob the WIKY610-Agamemnon. There's no continuity! WHY? Why do you hate me, MSI? I suggest that from now on, we name all computer components the same way we name hurricanes; A-Z names. With that said, here's all the crap that went into my compyooter:

MSI Z97 Gaming Motherboard
Intel i5 4690K Quad Core Processor
16Gb RAM (2x 8Gb)
MSI GeForce GTX960 Graphics Card
2Tb Hard Drive
Other sundry bits like fans and tiny little hamster wheels.

So, with a great deal of help from my kin, the components had been chosen. Now was the simple task of putting it all tog- oh, who am I kidding; this bit is equally as over my head. All the computer crap was in Edinburgh and I in Dundee, so he sent me regular photo updates of the build as it happened.

Rule Number 2 - Watch From Afar

I have to say, it all looks very flashy. Here's the metal skin of my soon to be robotic slave:

It's got a window in it so you can watch it learn how to feel.
First thing's first is putting in the power supply:

The green arrows are to remind me where the hell everything is in two months time.
Then the motherbrain, with the processor plugged into it:

The best thing about the motherboard is that it came with a "Do Not Disturb" sign.

What was next...? Oh yeah, RAM.

Sexy, sexy RAM.
Then, as far as I can tell, my brother just sort of balanced the graphics card on top of everything else.

Just behind it are a bunch of tiny spinning plates.
Lastly was the hard drive (and the cooling I believe, but I wasn't sent any photos of that), which isn't the most interesting picture ever so I'll skip it. Oo, and because I refuse to leave the past I demanded at least one means of reading physical media; a floppy drive was vetoed so I got this new fangled Dee Veedee thing?

Witchcraft if you ask me.
And that's everything all crammed in! Hurrah! My total contribution to the process: 0.

Rule Number 3 - Make it Look Cool

Now for the awesome bit: turning this-

"O hai."
-into an awesome, evil, red-eyed AI. Step one: spray paint the edges of the case's front panel silver.

Incidentally, the graph of "Use of MS Paint" over time for this post is an exponential curve.
Bless him, me bro even went so far as to spray the hard drive racks red like the memory room in 2001; sadly there is no photographic evidence of them in situ as of yet. Next, very delicately and with great precision, bash a hole out the middle of the case.

It appears he used a hacksaw blade wrapped in masking tape. Safety first kids!
All you've got to do now is shove a big red button in the middle and print out a HAL-9000 sticker. Sadly, the plan to make the button turn the PC on when you press it had to be scrapped due to too much awesome computer shit taking up room inside the case, but it still lights up!

"I'm feeling much cooler now."
And that's my new computer thingy. I'm super happy with it, and want to thank my brother for slaving away at it for the past three weeks and to everybody who put money towards for my birthday; I am a very happy nerd right now.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Martian: A Review

So, there's a new Ridley Scott movie coming out starring Matt Damon. In fact, it comes out today. What a crazy random happenstance! Sadly it's not being shown anywhere near me so I can't do a release day review like I was hoping to...buuuuuuuuuuuuut I did, in my excitement about the movie, buy the original book by Andy Weir and devour it in 48 hours. For that reason and absolutely nothing to do with getting Google pings for The Martian, the new Ridley Scott movie with Matt Damon in it, I thought I'd let you know how the book is before you go off to see the movie adaptation with Matt Damon what was directed by Ridley Scott.

I hear there's this film based on this book...
OK, enough tomfoolery; to the review! I actually first heard about The Martian, book or otherwise, from our good old friend Randall Munroe, who writes xkcd:
This is the second most informative site I read.
Naturally I looked up the trailer and lo, it was awesome. Then I promptly forgot about the whole thing until the beginning of the month when I finally decided to buy the book before the film came out, cause I'm that asshole who likes going to a movie and whispering to my neighbour "actually, in the book, they did this..." in every scene. I go to the cinema on my own a lot now, no idea why...

The story is very simple: Mark Watney, a botanist and engineer on the third manned mission to Mars, ends up stranded on the planet and presumed dead after an evacuation during a sandstorm goes wrong. That' really. The book follows his, wait for it, desperate battle for survival (aw yeah, I'm a super original journalist) against the harsh Martian environment armed only with spare parts and lots of duct tape. Think of either the bit in Apollo 13 that the comic mentioned or that part in Castaway when he opens all the FedEx parcels to make tools, then spread it over 300 pages. It's awesome. Really, in retrospect, Watney's part was made for Tom Hanks, not Matt Damon, but y'know.

There's even loads of occasions for him to pee on screen again. 
Now, the premise of a scientist tinkering with pipes and machinery for a whole book either sounds like the best thing ever or your worst nightmare; but have no fear, Little Miss I-Hate-Cool-Things, cause Andy Weir has your back. In the hands of many writers, describing constant problem solving, no matter how life-or-death-high the stakes may be, would eventually stagnate into a tedious "he did this, then that happened" rhythm. Weir manages to counteract this, firstly, with a splendidly witty yet realistic character: Mark Watney is quite simply the most charming young man ever to get stranded in space. He can be rattling off back-of-the-napkin calculations about how soon his food is going to run out while simultaneously pondering the mammal-wrangling capabilities of Aquaman and how silly Dukes of Hazzard is. Weir has managed to create a character with all the background and knowledge he'd need to survive his ordeal while making sure he's as relatable as possible to the audience.

The long and short of it is he's wonderful; and I have a feeling a lot of that comes from Weir himself, who is the nerdiest human alive (a computer programmer born to a particle physicist and an electrical engineer, with a love of role-playing games) and simply adorable. Lookit him!

He looks like Stephen King got fused with a 19th century chimney sweep.
Watney makes all the big science jumbo digestible for us plebs, but even so a whole book of one guy tinkering might tire after a while. Weir has countered this by chopping up the big long sections of sciencing with what's going on back home on Earth. And what's going on is everyone is losing their collective shits, that's what. Imagine that reaction when someone realises they've left their pram at the supermarket, but exponentially larger.
"MY BABY!!!"
You might recognise this extract from the movie's trailer:

"If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it's found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don't care, but they're massively outnumbered by the people who do."

Every story has a moral to it, and The Martian's is certainly that when it really comes down to it, people can put aside their differences to help someone who is really in need. Yes, it's a bit hokey and sentimental, but... Yeah, it's just plain hokey. Even so, it's nice to see someone having a bit of optimism in their writing, and the parts of the book showing Earth knuckling down together to get Mark home are some of the most satisfying parts of the novel. We're all too bloody cynical and it's about time we enjoyed a bit of gultless pie-in-the-sky idealism; I take back the hokey thing. I'm sorry, Andy.
"S'alright, guv."
What about the meat of the book though? The science in a hard sci-fi novel has to be good; and golly, it is splendid in The Martian. I mentioned a minute ago that Watney acts as a bit of a filter for the audience to help understand everything that's going on, but that's really just a round-a-bout way of saying that Andy Weir should get a job as a lecturer. He's a wizard when it comes to explaining the complexities of biology, engineering, space flight, programming, and god knows what else. You'll finish the novel feeling like you could apply for a job at NASA (note: maybe don't) with the way he manages to gradually lay more and more complex information on you like a delicious knowledge sandwich.

"Mmm, science."
Right, I think I should stop there. This book is fun, interesting, and even surprisingly touching at points. The science is understandable but meaty, and Andy Weir is wonderful. That is all.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Magical Music of Steven Universe

Now, before I begin waxing lyrical about yet another cartoon that I've fallen in love with, I'd like you to listen to this:

Isn't that just pure joy to your ear holes? The very first note seems to manage to encapsulate a perfect mixture of care-free fun and epicness and the whole thing is 22 seconds of the aural equivalent of diabetic shock. This is Steven Universe at its very core; a great big ball of sweetness with a surprisingly awesome chewy interior. I mean, just look at it; the pinky muted pastel colouring is deliciously gorgeous and the art itself is so fulfillingly crisp and well framed. Hell, I bet I could pick a bunch of random shots from episodes and they'd all look splendid. Oh look, I just did:

I am actively chewing the screen looking at these. If you aren't too, you're soooo weird.
Ahem. So yes, Steven Universe is beautiful; we on the same page? But a show merely being pretty isn't enough; there must be a reason I've gathered you here today to talk about this particular curiosity. And you would be right, sceptical character from an Agatha Christie murder mystery; almost...too right... I'm on to you...

I guess the first thing I should talk about is the show itself which, on the surface, doesn't do much more than many of its Cartoon Network counterparts. The 11 minute episodes follow a monster/mini-plot of the week structure very similar to Adventure Time, with a season-wide (of which there are only one and a half so far) overarching plot that burns slower than an epic put-down in Morse Code. It's also got a healthy share of weird that seems to be a mainstay in most shows of this ilk. There are three things, however, that put Steven a cut above its collective peers. First is, very simply, its unfathomable adorableness.

"Fear the extent of my squee!"
I haven't experienced such concentrated joy and child-like lust for life in a character like Steven since I started re-watching Barakamon just to get a cute fix. But it's not only him; either through wonderfully imaginative animation or moments of dazzling emotional clarity, almost every character in the show's gradually expanding cast provides a moment that'll plaster a grin on your face that could rival the disturbing permanence of Joker gas. Plus, the very premise of a show about a little boy with a pink pet lion going on adventures with a bunch of magical gems is the very definition of saccharine (note: I do not have a dictionary to check this, but I'm, like, 60% sure I'm right).

Oh yeah, Steven has a pet lion. Called Lion.

He's the pink one.
Number two: the writing is brilliant; I brushed on it in the last paragraph as a matter of fact (see: the last paragraph). Taking a cue from anime like Sailor Moon and such (I sooooo don't watch that show from time to time...), the tone of Steven can go from syrupy goodness to heart-rending emotion in a second. And, much like Adventure Time started exploring themes of abandonment, broken relationships and loss in later seasons, Steven shares its time among equally as unexpected a series of heavy topics.

At it's heart, the show is about family, and even more particularly about a family dealing with the loss of someone close to them. Steven has grown up without his mother Rose, a Gem, and with a father who, despite loving him dearly, doesn't have the capacity to care for him; and so his custody is thrust upon the Crystal Gems, who are still reeling equally as much from the loss of their leader, who ceased to exist to bring Steven into the world. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Beach City deal with issues from over-bearing parents and fathers who work away all the time to having to work the family business or just learning what it means to grow up. What's brilliant is that we see all of these tensions and family dynamics through the eyes of a little boy, who we get to watch grow up as the show goes on. Surprisingly quickly too; at the beginning of season one he's an annoying kid getting in the way and by the end he's holding his own as a crystal gem and even helping those around him do better for themselves.

Every good kid's show makes grown adults cry from time to time.
A lot gets said about this already, but I'll add my voice to the fray: how awesome is it that the cast is pretty much entirely women? There's what, like 3 principal male characters in the whole thing? And that's counting Lion. And guess what, people who expect the world to end if an all-female show ends up being great; it doesn't even seem to try. It took me watching the show a second time round to even notice that all these amazing, splendidly fleshed out characters (Peridot excluded; cause fucken hell, she needs work) were girls. Trust it to be created by the woman responsible for making PB and Marceline's (implied) romance canon in Adventure Time.

Ah yes, number 3. The music. This is especially relevant as one of the best songs yet aired in this week's episode. Skip to about 1:15:

Actually, you know what, I'm just goanna finish this post off with the best music from the show. I'll try my best to limit myself to three...if I can. Before we leave you, listeners, I just have one thing left to say...

The gist of the whole post.
OK, give it up for Steven Universe, everybody!! *woooooo*

Maybe one more...