Saturday, 25 June 2011


A couple of months back I complained (largely without foundation, as readers quickly pointed out) that cinema was lacking in a particular class of coming-of-age film centred around a female character. I should have waited a bit. While Bridesmaids doesn't really fall into this class, being centred specifically around a wedding, it does provide a neat counter-example to my deeper claim that cinema is largely male-focused. Of course, I could still argue that it's a rare exception that proves the rule, but I learnt enough from the good-natured pasting I took last time round not to push it.

Anyway, Bridesmaids, as the name suggests, is built around a small coterie of bridesmaids and the series of familiar rituals (dress-fitting, hen night, bridal shower) that they pass through on the way to the wedding. At least, the structure is familiar, though the detail is definitely not. Things, needless to say, don't go to plan, and much hilarity ensues. But the film is much more than a lowest-common-denominator gagfest. Its central protagonist, Annie, goes on a journey that explores the nature of her friendship with the bride, Lillian, and forces her to confront some downright unhelpful aspects of her character. Actually, describing it as a "journey" might make the film sound far more pedestrian and convention-following than it actually is. It's not a cliché-busting work of genius, but I thought that it genuinely captured something of female friendship (he says, looking in from the outside), as well as more obliquely covering the societal roles of women at the start of the 21st century. Now I'm making it sound like a didactic piece, or, more likely, sounding like I'm travelling up my own backside.

Anyway, by way of summary, I thought it was great. It appealed to my base humour, while leaving plenty for me to mull over afterwards. Which is far, far, far more than can be said for the film that it's frequently compared to, The Hangover. To describe that film, which, though amusing, is pretty cliché-enforcing, as a male Bridesmaids would be a grave disservice. All of which isn't to say that Bridesmaids is perfect. There are a few places where a gag is allowed to drag on too long, a sequence on a plane that would most likely have landed the protagonist in jail, and a particular scene in a dress shop that may, well, stretch the boundaries of some viewers' tastes (sadly, not mine). But, overall, it's pretty great.

Grade: B+ (+2 on the Leeper Scale)

Sunday, 19 June 2011

2011-06-19 Eastleigh cycle ride

Out on a nice, early morning cycle ride today. A somewhat longer one than I'd originally planned (21.6 km), and via a location (Beastly) that I more usually deride than cycle passed. But easy going and taking in a bit more variety than my usual Woolston-to-Hamble route.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Forty Thousand

Another Flickr milestone - 40K views. This time it took 134 days to accumulate 10K views, so it's getting faster (~74 views per day). Though, given that there are always more photographs, one should expect this. If I was being completely (rather than mostly) self-obsessed, I could compare the growth in number of photographs, views per photograph, and total photograph views across time to be sure. But let's not.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Coring with Charlie and Nina

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For about the first time since 1993, I actually did some field work (well, field collection) yesterday.

My student CM is due to head out to sea soon, and will be doing experiments with deep water sediment cores while she's there. So that she's had a bit of practice before getting there, she decided to have a "dry run" with some sediment cores collected locally. So, she persuaded a colleague NR and myself to give her a hand collecting cores from the shoreline of nearby Hamble.

Though it was a bit of a drag lumping the equipment to the sampling site (see map), and certainly a chore tramping (while sinking) over anoxic Hamble mud, it was actually a lot of fun doing the sampling. After a single aborted core, CM got into the swing of it, and before too long we had a full set of 8 cores. I had a go myself at one point, but while I got a good core in my sampling tube, my seal wasn't too good and the whole lot slithered out before I'd sealed it. Next time ...

Anyway, while I certainly don't intend to give up modelling any time soon, it was really good to get back out into the world and do something a little more real. Of course, now tired and covered in blisters from ill-fitting wellies, I'll maybe wait a bit before my next trip out.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The portrait in the attic

I visited BAG today to shoot the breeze about our outing last Friday (see below). While there I gave him a hand to clean and defrag the laptop that will be accompanying him to Oz. He'd never heard of defragging until today, and it showed. The disk map produced by Defraggler of his poor computer's hard-disk was like an electronic version of the Picture Of Dorian Gray. All of his virtual excess was logged in the shocking decrepitude I found. Instead of a few patches of fragged files, there were a few isolated islands of single-chunk files. One file even managed to clock up almost 100,000 fragments. Not that catching sight of the evidence of his shameful binary depravity perturbed BAG at all - freed of the constraints of civilised society down under, I expect he'll get even worse.

Cheerio to a bonzer mate


Cheerio to a bonzer mate, a set on Flickr.

Friday was our first outing to say "cheerio" to our good friend and workmate, BAG. Together with his family, he's soon to depart for our antipodean prison colony, where he'll be taking up a job with the Aussie equivalent of the UK Met. Office, the sinisterly-named "Bureau".

We started out at Southampton's annual beer festival in the Guild Hall, and after a few beers of mixed quality (Perridge Pale a particular high point) headed to the rooftop garden of a nearby pub. After a blistering period of shortwave irradiation, we headed back to BAG's home, where his good lady wife, T, served us a fine Sri Lankan curry. Then, inevitably, the cigars came out. As they can't be imported to Oz, they had to be smoked, and I did my bit, albeit with consequences - a splitting early AM headache that paracetamol took it's good time taking the edge off.

Anyway, more events to cheer BAG on his way will doubtless occur in the next month, so this isn't (quite) the last Flickr will be seeing of him.

It's only a model

Out last night to (finally) catch Spamalot, Eric Idle's reboot of the 1975 Monty Python film, at the Mayflower theatre. I say "finally" because the (presumably unexpected) success of the show in London led to its run being prolonged there (that cash isn't going to rake itself in), and to the cancellation of the Southampton portion of its national tour. Much to our annoyance. Anyway, after being prompted by an e-mail flyer last week, which also offered 1/2 price tickets (a feature of many a Mayflower visit for us), we've finally caught, done and dusted the show.

So, any good? Definitely. But I couldn't shake the feeling that, fundamentally, it's a somewhat unnecessary affair that, while certainly entertaining for Monty Python fans (so we were happy), mostly serves to keep Monty Python alive for the "youth of today". That said, that's still a much better rationale for existence than many other shows have, so I shan't complain further. As it happens, and contrary to what I expected going in, the best parts of the show are actually the new bits that Idle et al. have added. These include a series of big musical numbers that very effectively pastiche and satirise the clichéd and overwrought songs of mainstream musicals (e.g. Act 2's "Whatever Happened To My Part?"). Largely sung by the semi-token female character, the Lady of the Lake, these were right on the money, and certainly the highlight of the show for me.

Overall: recommended. But don't go in expecting something to trump the film. That was excellently silly enough without extended musical numbers. And, I should add, the film has the benefit of the Bridge of Death scene.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Viva New Vegas

Last year's gaming highlight (bearing in mind that I'm always a year or two out of date) was Bethesda Softworks' reboot of the Fallout franchise, the Washington DC-set Fallout 3.

As I opined at the time, this retro-futuristic, post-apocalyptic romp is easily one of the best games I've played in ... well ... ever. It created a vast, richly-detailed environment chock full of interesting NPCs and their varied stories, and tied the whole package together with an enjoyable central quest that mixed equal parts exploration and combat. The exploration part of Fallout 3, in particular, appealed to me, to the extent that I largely abandoned the central task for the first 100 hours or so while I wandered the Capital Wasteland.

Fallout 3 was initially followed up by a series of expansion packs, that also largely went down well with me, but has now been followed by a full-scale title, Fallout: New Vegas. Developed by members of the team who produced the original Fallout titles (and who were previously honing an aborted Fallout sequel, Van Buren), this title takes the series back west, in fact to one of my favourite places, the Mojave Desert. So, how does this second visit to the future stand up?

In an almost perfect inversion of the start of Fallout 3, which began with the player character's birth, Fallout: New Vegas kicks off with the death of the player character. Almost. Shot in the head by Benny, a New Vegas gangster, and left for dead in a shallow grave, it's only down to the quick actions of Victor, a friendly robot, that the life of the player character, the Courier, is spared. After surgery and a period of recovery in the nearby Mojave town of Goodsprings, the Courier is back on his (or her; the player can again choose) feet, but what next?

FalloutNV 2011-05-26 11-03-44-66 An obvious course of action is to hightail it to New Vegas and track down Benny for revenge. But the Courier owes his life to the good folks of Goodsprings, and this little town's got some big problems that could do with a helping hand to resolve. And then there's the bigger picture. The Mojave Wasteland is at the centre of an impending battle between the New California Republic (the NCR), a land-grabbing force from the west, and Caesar's Legion, an effective, if brutal, empire of former Raider tribes from the east, set on enslaving the Mojave. Both sides have already massed their forces on opposite sides of the Hoover Dam while they await the starting gun to begin war to the finish. Further complicating the mix is the shadowy presence of Mr. House, the unseen owner of the gambler's paradise of New Vegas, who's keen to keep things the way he likes them.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 07-59-18-92 Away from these main factions and their grand aspirations, the Mojave Wasteland is also home to a number of other, smaller groups. The lawless, drug-addled Fiends occupy the periphery of New Vegas, where they constantly harass NCR efforts to tame the Mojave. The Powder Gangers, escaped convicts from a NCR prison near Goodsprings, are new on the scene but keen to expand their territory. Up in the mountains, two separate encampments of Supermutants have formed, one under the "leadership" of the insane Tabitha, the other led by the humane Marcus, who seeks peaceful coexistence with his human neighbours. And while they were a humanitarian force for good in Fallout 3, the Brotherhood of Steel now bide their time in a secret military facility after an earlier defeat by the NCR, leaving the Followers of the Apocalypse, a scientific spin-off, to help the residents of the Wasteland alone. Meanwhile, in the slums of New Vegas, law and order are enforced by a gang moulded in the image of a legendary, pre-War leader of men, The King.

FalloutNV 2011-05-26 10-22-35-31 Against the backdrop of all of these competing, and occasionally cooperating, factions, the Courier's actions don't appear to stack up to more than a hill of beans. But by applying brute strength or smart thinking at the right time, in the right place, and with the right companions, then the Courier can help shape the fate of the entire Mojave Wasteland. Annexation by the NCR? Slave-grounds for the Legion? An oligarch's paradise? Or an independent, sovereign territory? All of these are options. Assuming, that is, the Courier survives the many and varied natural hazards that this often hostile environment also throws in his way.

FalloutNV 2011-05-26 17-22-37-74 So, the obvious question is: can Fallout: New Vegas fill the shoes of the fairly inestimable Fallout 3? In a word, well, two words: Not quite. Much as I said last year when I was shamelessly gushing about Fallout 3, pity the game that tries to follow up that particular behemoth. That was such a finely polished marriage of content, character and combat, that any game would struggle to hold a candle to it. Fallout: New Vegas tries to do this, and does actually improve on Fallout 3 in a number of areas, but it doesn't quite manage to succeed as comprehensively as its older sibling. Which, of course, isn't to say that it's anything less than a great game, just that it can't but fail to be compared somewhat unfavourably to its illustrious forebear.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 08-13-48-48 First though, the good points. As I've already noted above, the setting really appealed to me. Ever since I first visited it back in 1993, I've been a big fan of the Mojave, so in offering me the chance to (virtually) roam among the Joshua trees, F:NV is automatically onto a winner (not least because, living several thousand kilometres away from it, regular visits are not an option). The game does a great job of bringing this region to life, with the Wasteland full of dessicated valleys, lonely mountain-tops, eroded mesas and desert flora. And it's great to visit virtual versions of places like Lake Mead, Red Rock Canyon and Hoover Dam.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 07-41-51-31 Another plus point is that companions are both more useful and easier to interact with in F:NV than in F3. In the earlier game I quickly tired of my companions constantly getting me into trouble, and being awkward to deal with. Here, the introduction of the "companion wheel" makes it quick and easy to speak with and control the various companions I picked up. In fact, I wound up working alongside all of them for various stretches of the game, and even helped them knock off all of their quests to boot (= their "personal development plans"). While she was practically certifiable, I think Lily was my favourite companion, although it gave me a nice warm feeling inside helping Raul rebuild his confidence and discover his inner gunfighter.

FalloutNV 2011-05-28 07-34-06-43 And, combat fan that I am, there's a nicely expanded range of weapons in F:NV. Almost all of those from F3 return, but they're joined by some neat Wild West firearms such as the varmint rifle, the cowboy repeater and the caravan shotgun. And there are plenty of new, not-exactly-Wild-West ones to accompany these including the grenade machine gun, the thermic lance and the plasma caster. Dealing death is still a heap lot of fun in F:NV. Much as with F3, it still lags noticeably behind mainstream shooters, though as its strengths lie mainly in RPG territory, this is easily forgiveable. On this particular point, where the Fallout titles really score higher than regular FPSs for me is in their use of stealth in combat. Some of my favourite sections in F:NV were those where gradual infiltration rather than stand-up fighting was most successful. Not least because sneaking up on an enemy NPC opened up violent possibilities not available when running and gunning, for instance, the old grenade-in-trouser-pocket trick.

FalloutNV 2011-05-28 07-42-50-22 But not all of the decisions of F:NV's developers have been wise ones. One of the most glaringly bad ideas is that only about half of the map that appears on the Courier's Pip-Boy 3000 is accessible. When I started the game, and slowly made progress through the territory immediately around Goodsprings, I figured that there would be a vast number of places for me to wander to. But no; large sections of the map are completely unreachable, and are revealed as empty once the Explorer perk is acquired. Bad move. And one made worse by the way that the developers often keep the player out of forbidden zones. In many places, steep mountains block the Courier's path - fine, can't go that way - but in lots of others the land looks accessible but invisible walls are used to exclude the player. Which, if you've just hiked across a valley floor for 20 minutes aiming for an apparent mountain pass, is extremely frustrating.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 07-56-23-93 Another misfire lies with the conflict between the NCR and the Legion that lies at the heart of F:NV. Throughout the game, it's presented by NPCs as "imminent", something bound to happen in the immediate future. But the game's mechanics allow you to postpone the final showdown as long as you like. Being a fan of exploration, I just completely sidelined the central quest until I'd visited every nook and cranny in the whole of the Mojave. More than two game-years later, I finally washed up at the Hoover Dam for my date with destiny - just as well that the NCR and Legion were happy to wait for me to arrive is all I can say. This mismatch between being told war is "imminent", and then having the amassed forces just kick their heels until the player can be bothered to turn up, just dilutes the player's suspension of disbelief. In F3 the storyline was constructed much more cleverly, such that the timing of events, however delayed, still made sense (e.g. Dear Old Dad held plausibly incommunicado). Not so here.

FalloutNV 2011-05-28 07-50-26-78 An odd flaw in F:NV, one that should have been very easy to identify through play-testing (and even easier to fix), lies with the assortment of enemies found across the Mojave Wasteland. First of all, foes are considerably more sparse than in the Capital Wasteland. I spent the first few hours constantly expecting to be attacked, but was assaulted far less often than I felt I had rights to be. Admittedly, biologist hat on, the game is set in a desert, so one might expect inhabitants to be fewer and further apart. But then, when I did find someone (or something) displeased to encounter me, the balance of difficulty was extremely poorly configured. Some enemies, geckos, mantises and humans, were a bit of a pushover; while others, cazadores and deathclaws, took me almost the whole of the Experience Level scale to get on top of. It wouldn't have been difficult for the developers to create a more graduated scale of enemies, but for some reason they stuck with a rather "lumpy" distribution. Unlike, it must be said, F3, which seemed to have a much more incremental, and much more satisfying, range of enemies.

FalloutNV 2011-05-26 10-25-29-93 Among the lesser peeves that I had with F:NV was the absence of several weapons that I had great fun with in F3. Two of my favourites there were home-made weapons, the dart gun and the fabulous railway rifle. All of the ingredients to make them were present here, but I was never given the opportunity. Also, from an atmosphere point of view, a number of locations in the game that are meant to be well-populated, and which usually had ambient crowd noise to this effect, were disconcertingly lonely places. I guess this was because of the computational burden of having extra NPCs wandering about, but it doesn't help one's suspension of disbelief when the centre of a game's universe, somewhere that's supposed to draw people from miles and miles around, has a population of about 10.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 07-30-05-83 A more general criticism that I'd make, largely because it seemed such an important part of F3, lies with the game's tone. In the earlier title, there was an almost palpable sense of melancholy and loss as one wandered the ruins of the Capital Wasteland. Through the situations and characters encountered, it truly felt like a post-apocalyptic game in which humanity had committed the worst sort of self-destructive foolishness, one that the survivors were now paying the price for. That did make F3 a little humourless at times, but it certainly made the game stand apart from, and tower above, generic post-apocalypse titles in which the setting seems largely chosen to allow the game designers to just lazily cut-and-paste ruins. While F:NV does recapture some of this atmosphere, it somehow dissipates quite a lot of it. Partly, I think, because it does have quite a bit more humour in it which, while welcome, does tend to make the game more difficult to take seriously (erm, well, I suppose it is a game ...). To be fair, it does replace some of F3's atmosphere with an infusion of themes from cinematic westerns, and perhaps it's just me that doesn't appreciate that enough.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 08-09-53-46 Anyway, notwithstanding the above criticisms, it's been great to have a whole new Fallout world to yomp over, and a novel set of virtual adventures to take part in. And it's not over yet - much as happened with F3, there are four published or planned add-ons for me to get around to, and I don't doubt for a minute that I will too. However, until they're all out and I can go at them in a big Fallout-blowout, I'll switch to other presents from birthday/Christmas. Of which, first up is a rather novel, first-person jumper title, Mirror's Edge. Of which, more anon ...

More images from my time in the Mojave Wasteland can be found over here.