Team Fortress 2 – The World’s Greatest Multiplayer Video Game

Although I don’t play video games very much these days, my current favorite game is still Team Fortress 2, and it has been ever since its release. Seeing Team Fortress 2 come to the Mac last Thursday was truly awesome. Finally the Mac was starting to plug its last gap; video game support. I’d never played the original Team Fortress Classic game, perhaps having been too young to appreciate it at its pinnacle, however, after loading the hugely anticipated Team Fortress 2 (the game that had spent nine years in development) for the first time, I was immediately plunged into something very new and exciting.

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Steam for Mac, and Altitude

Because I haven’t been gaming for a while now, I decided a couple of months ago that I should sell my Windows desktop computer. A year previously I’d fully switched to Mac OS X, and I was only using my desktop for the odd few games – of which Team Fortress 2 presided. What’s now awesome is that a couple of months later, Valve have released their content distribution system to the Mac. Steam. Continue reading “Steam for Mac, and Altitude”

Visiting the US Embassy

Today I went down to London to attend an appointment at the US Embassy, and such an amazing experience it was. The embassy itself is a huge building, holding high the flags of the world, and guarded by an assortment of police and international troops. I was certainly a little nervous, and was thankful my appointment went smoothly. After taking the train to Euston Station, a taxi took me through the streets of London to the embassy, leaving  ten minutes to spare. Speaking to a women outside, I was alarmed to find that I needed a sheet of paper with my appointment time and a special bar code (as well as other documents I had with me) in order to gain entry. Thankfully the lady was helpful and pointed me to a nearby chemist across the road, who allowed me to use their wi-fi to download and print out the form within literally five minutes.

Once I had all the documents, I was able to queue for entrance, where firm and fierce airport security checks were taking place. I had had to travel to the embassy without any electronic devices, including my mobile phone and laptop, as they were not allowed into the embassy, and there was no official location to put them. I was with a lady in front of me who I thought was going to be thrown out for sure, for she was being incredibly rude – and these guards weren’t to be messed with; I for one ensured I followed every last instruction and didn’t do anything I wasn’t told to do!

Once I got through the security checks, I followed the building round to the side, and to the reception to check in. The interior was grand, the walls lined with pictures of american history and culture, and as I sat down, large screens boasted images of american flags, american icons (such as the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge), as well as the great american seal I would hope to get on my visa.

I sat down in the hall and waited to be called to one of the twenty-five booths. Once I was called to a booth it was very straight forward. Hand over the documents, have my fingerprints scanned, and answer some simple questions. After two callings to the booths my visa was approved, and I went to a final desk to arrange for a courier delivery of my visa, and return of my passport. I left the building after two hours. Next stop – America.

Beware of Darkness

I think I always try to be as optimistic and laid back as possible. I’ve decided in my naive youth to always assume the best in everyone. As philosopher St Thomas Aquinas insists; humans always seek the apparent good. And most of the time I’m happy enough in my little bubble, rocking through life to love songs from the greatest band of all time, and claiming its never the end of the world. After all, I’m a perfectly fortunate person in the sense of the opportunities in life that I’ve been given.

Every so often though, this small world of mine falls slightly apart. A crack in my beliefs form, and I realise (or perhaps remember) that where there is generosity there can be motive, where there is friendship there is sometimes betrayal, and where there is honesty there can lie deceit. Life is not about living in perpetual paranoia, nor is it about being oblivious of what lurks in the shadows. It is about being cautious, but trusting. It’s about absorbing and deflecting hits. It is about shining light into the face of darkness, so as it can rarely touch you.

Unfortunately today I witnessed a large crack in my reality. I realised that someone I’d known for a long time was not who I thought they were, and so sadly it’s time to move on and upwards. If someone isn’t who they say they are, I say forget them. Life flows on. Certainly for the most part it seems to be a smooth and beautiful journey…

“Beware of darkness… it can hit you.” – George Harrison

A New Government

Last night saw the creation of a brand new government; a coalition between the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrat party. As I’m sure everyone is, I’m looking very forward to seeing how this collaborative government works for the country. A new type of politics? Well, we shall soon find out!

As a liberal democrat I couldn’t hope for anything more. The conservatives have offered a referendum on electoral reform, positioned Nick Clegg as deputy PM, and the liberal’s best policies have been selected, including the £10,000 personal allowance.

As Lord Ashdown neatly put it… “hurray!”

The UK’s Second Prime Ministerial TV Debate

Round two of the leader’s debate ended last night with the two “old party” leaders, David Cameron and Gordon Brown, catching up with Nick Clegg’s original lead. The second debate saw a more quickly paced three-way duel of policies and personalities.

Again, the conservatives were seen to be making poorly thought out moves to sway voters towards them. Last week we saw childish posters depicting Gordon Brown as royalty. This week saw what Peter Madelson described as a”disgusting” and shocking smear attempt, whereby surprise surprise, Nick Clegg was the target…

As I anticipated, Clegg was positioned in the middle this week, and bore the brunt of oppositional offences that were completely lacking in last week’s debate. Cameron and Brown both upped their game, now being much more emphatic, and addressing the camera, resulting quite rightly to a very close series of instant polls.
On the European Union, Brown opened brilliantly with a very convincing argument for being in there. “Jobs”, he strongly claims, is the simple answer. On the other hand, Cameron appealed perfectly to EU skeptics, retorting that far too much control and power over the country is being given away to the EU. To which, Brown again responded very impressively and emphatically, arguing passionately that collaboration within the EU is required for economic recovery – the classic Labour response to the economy. Brown not only well-handled the issue of the EU, but he also held the strongest answers on Afghanistan, giving a necessary (given recent criticism over troop’s equipment), bold overview of Britain’s mission.

But of course not all was good from Brown, he managed to throw a cringeworthingly awful blow to both Cameron and Clegg, claiming that they were “like his two boys fighting in the bath”, in an obvious attempt to separate himself from the other two parties in exactly the same way as Clegg had so successfully done last week. “I think that one sounded better in the rehearsal,” quipped Clegg. Alongside that, Brown’s cheeky grin all too often surfaces at inappropriate moments, giving the false sense that he’s detached from the issues at stake.

The question on the environment was interestingly made personal; enquiring each of the leader’s green policies, whilst rooting for hypocrisy. Brown responded that he uses the train, Cameron said that he uses decent house insulation (!) and Clegg tried to honestly admit that he could do more. At the “after show party” Sky News seemed to play an amusing game of “politician roulette”, doing an awesome job of failing to capture any depth and policies of the people involved. For some reason, the most popular question in the press rooms was on religion, catholicism and the pope – yet this was the only issue where all three party leaders agreed!

The debates seem to be all about creating as much hype, contention and unsettlement within the electorate before an election. The election is now a three horse race whereby one of the horses has to run twice as far in order to win than the other two. A fair, diplomatic election..?

The UK’s First Prime Ministerial TV Debate

Last night saw the United Kingdom’s first political party leader debate, shaped and inspired by the USA’s own presidential debates and displaying an impressive showdown rightly described by the leader of the Liberal Democrats as, “just the start”. To give my own outline, David Cameron was shown to be hollow, and the weakest of the three, Gordon Brown surprisingly managed to demonstrate control, depth to his answers and humor, as well as vast experience, whilst Nick Clegg came out from his traditional sideline position to take to the political stage as a serious contender in now imminent election.

It was Gordon Brown’s performance that was pleasantly the most surprising. The man stood with the most to loose; the debate could have easily involved a large amount of finger pointing into Labour’s grimmer government history, demanding an explanations for the many flaws and mistakes. But it didn’t, and when it did, Brown was able to fend off attacks well, whilst cunningly aligning himself with the Lib Dems to move into an appealing compromising and central ground. Furthermore, it was Brown who dared to joke first, quipping at Cameron, “this is answer time David”, although unfortunately to voters this seems to have appeared heavily planned and poorly executed with a trademark foolish grin. Bu Brown is far too often misunderstood, and it’s really not hard to see through the media and get to the heart of the man that seems to often struggle to present himself.

Cameron certainly let himself down. He perhaps had the most to loose in these debates with the Conservatives having been at the top of the polls for several years now, and he certainly lost a lot of respect. Before the debate began, his party had steeped to low levels by plastering poster’s depicting the Browns as royalty. The posters lacked in taste (not to mention policy!) and were full of irony coming from the Conservative party… Cameron’s words on nuclear deterrent – let’s be real, his words on nuclear war – were unprofessional and rash to say the least, and didn’t reflect well at all, particularly as Cameron was typically the most reserved and cautious throughout the debate. Cameron is slimy, scheming and deceitful, and of the three party leaders he is potentially the most dangerous and least trustworthy. This is the man, of course, who cycles to appeal to environmentalists, but has his car driven behind him…

Nick Clegg, although hailed as the clear winner, came across holding very little substance. Perhaps this has always been the case with the Lib Dems, but having been so impressed with his speech made at The University of Manchester, where he described the scene at Westminster even before the expenses scandal as a “crisis in government”, where “real change” would be needed in order to get the public involved and interested in politics. Clegg certainly speaks with many overarching statements that I agree with, and he often rightly points his finger at the current government for not following up on its own overarching statements, but will his party (should they get into power) actually implement the changes they want to make, or even claim they want to make? Clegg scored this first victory having been rarely attacked. Future debates will not see him get away so easy, and it’ll be interesting to see how his policies are now scrutinized.

Personally, I was surprised by the public’s new reaction to Clegg. But on reflection, it’s a very natural conclusion. The upcoming election has often been described as “an unpopularity contest”, and with the public fed up with the Tories, and now the public fed up with Labour, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg was the most well-received last night. On the other hand, it is certain that nobody would have been able to predict the outcome of the first debate, and nor will anybody be able to predict the outcome of the debates to follow. The results of the next general election have been plunged into uncertainty.

Why everyone should try improvised comedy

I’ve been attending an improv. comedy course run by ComedySportz at The Comedy Store Manchester for a year now, and after a few weeks of my first beginners course, I’d be ready to recommend it to anyone. Improv. comedy can best be explained using five words. Whose line is it anyway. It’s all about going up onto a stage with up to three other players, taking a random suggestion and a game, and with no prior rehearsal – start performing. When done well it looks fantastic, incredibly impressive, and richly comic. To many people, this may seem impossible and daunting, but with a good course that builds up the techniques over time, or even after just throwing yourself into some scenes – it’s surprising how quickly it can be picked up.

I remember attending my first session feeling nervous, with lack of any acting or drama experience, not knowing anyone on the course, and being far from knowing what to expect. Within half an hour, after various warm up and “get-to-know-each-other” games, I knew a whole group of people, and felt perfectly comfortable with them. The things that can go on at good improv sessions are mind blowing. Nowhere else in society can you take a group of fifteen people and get them together so effectively. The best approach to learning to improvise is to allow yourself to say whatever comes to your head, no matter how stupid or crazy it may sound. Exercises such as, “what’s in the box?” involve one person holding up an imaginary box and asking what’s in it, with the other person replies by making things up. To ensure the replies really are spontaneous, the person holding the box can say “no it’s not” to anything they say, at which point, the person answering the questions has to make up an alternative to the last thing they just said.

After loosening into the ability to spontaneously make things on the spot, simple scenes can be attempted, such as the “two-sentence scene”, in which two people take to the stage. The first says a line to the second that conveys who they are, who the other person is, where they are and what they’re doing. For example, whilst miming a telescope, “Captain! We’ve been at sea for three months now and still we have no sight of land!” The second person then has to come up with a response to this first line, “That’s because we’re just not looking hard enough.” Simple.

These scenes can then be slowly allowed to progress. With this build-up, it means that you’re eased into full scenes, rather than thrown straight into a scene. It means that an individual’s spontaneity can be graudally developed. It’s this development that means that anybody can do it, but why should everybody try it? There are many reasons, which can be outlined as follows…

  • Improv. improves creativity and spontaneity (as already exemplified). Improv. is all about saying the first thing that comes to your head, given a particular on-stage suggestion. Improv. is used by writers and actors to work on plots and character development, and can help build your imagination for many levels.
  • Improv. builds an individual’s ability to work and collaborate with other people. One of the key principles of improv. is the “yes and…” principle. This means that if someone ever says or does anything in a scene, everyone else in the scene has to accept what they’ve done and build upon it. The practice of blindingly accepting and working with any suggestion leads to an improved ability to cooperate with anyone, even outside of improv. Have you ever been a conversation whereby someone disagrees with something in such a way that it prevents the flow of conversation? The problem is that the “yes and…” principle hasn’t been followed. This is the key principle behind getting on with anyone, and it can be built like a muscle using improv. sessions! I’m not saying there’s not more to improv. and conversations than always agreeing with the other person – but I’ve found this certainly to be a key, underlying principle.
  • Improv. comedy can improve your sense of humour! Of course! Performing improv. can help you learn to take yourself less seriously, as well as improving your ability to to find humour in things. Improv. comedy doesn’t teach ways of being funny – it’ll come naturally given the situations the improvisation will put you in.

Improv. comedy is such an enjoyable experience. The sessions always provide an environment found no-where else within society. They’re always intriguing, hilarious, comfortable, very much enjoyable, and well worth setting some time aside from everyday life to have a creative blast. Anyone can do it. Try it and enjoy it!

Improv Comedy at The Comedy Store

Apple Inc.

Unbelievably, this is my first post related to the technology legend, Apple. Here goes…

I’d never used a single Apple product up until the age of 18. For my 18th birthday I was gifted with an Apple MacBook. I’d used Windows since Windows 95, and I’d wanted a change, besides, the Apple product looked charming and inviting, and the Mac “find out how” website provided some really well-produced and captivating demo videos. I wanted to find out more, and so I asked for a MacBook.

When I first starting using the MacBook things seemed very alien to a long-time Windows user, and at the time I was the crazy sort of person who enjoyed not knowing what to do to use a computer – it made a change for me! So over the first few months, I didn’t really know too much about how to use a Mac computer, compared to using Windows, and I was still using my Windows desktop as my main computer. In fact, one of the first things I did was install Windows on my MacBook using bootcamp! But whenever I used the MacBook I’d find some new cool feature. I can install any printer at any time after merely plugging it in. Spaces allows me to organise the layout of my desktop. Spotlight allows me to find anything on my computer, from files to calender events, to emails using a simple shortcut and search box. I can beautifully arrange, edit and keep my photos organised using iPhoto. I’m able to scroll pages merely by hovering my cursor over the page and smoothly swiping two fingers across the trackpad. Just a few of my favourite features. So over time, gradually and slowly

I’d say it took me a year before I would say that the operating system, Mac OS X is better than Windows. That’s probably a quite long time for a Mac user (I’ve never met a Mac user that prefers Windows). After a year I realised I could do everything I’d ever want to do on Windows on Mac, and doing it on Mac was always more fun, elegant, reliable and secure. Once I realised Mac was better, I’ve never gone back, and only realised it more and more every day. Every few days I find a cool new thing I can do with Mac that I can’t do in the same way on Windows. These are most often little things, and hard to account for, but when these 100s of little things add up, they equate to me to be the superior system. Everything is so immaculately designed to be user-friendly and provide the most rich computing experience. Mac OS X has so much depth that could only have the surface scraped by an entire book. On the outside the system is warm and inviting, and on the inside is a deep masterpiece of functionality. There is literally nothing you can’t do on a Mac.

Nothing you can’t do I say? Well… perhaps this isn’t quite true. There is still one area of computing that Windows systems are better for… Video gaming. Game developers are still using Microsoft’s Direct X to build their video games, a framework locked to the Windows operating system, meaning that the games have to be ported in order to work on either the Mac OS X or Linux operating systems. So for now, Windows still holds one card high in the air. But with companies such as Valve announcing their up-coming port of their entire catalog of games, will it be long before other game developers follow? Will OpenGL (a graphics framework supported by around 100 of the top technology companies of the world) become the new platform for gaming graphics, allowing development across all operating systems? I hope so.

As a computer scientist, and having studied Apple Development for a short period of time, I can also see the design and attention put into the software development side of things – even underneath the hood, the Mac OS environment and design principles look incredible! Then the Mac system extends to other products such as the phone with the iPhone, and the mp3 player with the iPod, where the company has revolutionised and led the way in these fields, bringing new technological advancements and creating an all-round, synchronised consumer electronic experience.

Apple creates products with incredible care and attention to the tiniest of details. They’re a company constantly striving to improve and rescale existing products to all-new levels of “perfection”, whilst continuously contemplating the next big feature, or brand new idea, concept or product. Apple is a company that, in my opinion, and as far as technology is concerned, they are “doing the right thing“, and they’re “doing the thing right” – and that is why I’d love to get involved.

What’s it all about?

I’m 20. Explosion. I can see a large portion of my life in front of me… but…

What’s life all about anyway? Why is it we’re here? Are we really here to work and make money? Or to simply pass on our genes? How would it be possible to find true life fulfillment? What makes you really you? Am I happy with the person I currently am? Is society preventing me from being truly free? Should I really be asking these questions? Aren’t these important questions that you should ask yourself before you live your life?

The answers are out there somewhere. They’re probably going to be subjective answers, and they’re probably going to be very hard to find. Maybe life is about trying to find answers to questions, it certainly seems that way to me.