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December 27, 2007

Crash Party on the 360

It’s been an interesting past couple of days for computers. On the upside, I managed to fix a problem that’s been plaguing Vickie’s PC for about a week; the external LCD monitor for her laptop would go into some sort of power-saving mode after five minutes of inactivity, and nothing short of resetting the laptop would get it to work. Some fiddling with the screen saver and power saving settings in Vista got it back up and working properly, though.

On the downside, the wireless transceiver for my rather expensive mouse was broken – definitely not due to a fault in the manufacturing, so not a warranty replacement – and I went out and got another one. Well, a different model, but a Logitech still. Also, as mentioned in the prior post, Karl’s Xbox 360 Elite decided to shuffle off to Buffalo in a blizzard of screen distortion.

You know, of my local circle who own Xbox 360 consoles (myself, Karl, Podge and Nodge), all of them have had to do warranty returns. What’s disturbing is that Karl’s 360 is not only barely four months old but also an Elite, and although Microsoft are keeping the details of their products’ hardware close to their chests, scuttlebutt says the Elite’s processor manufacturing process underwent a die-shrink. This, coupled with a new heat sink, was meant to have fixed these issues, often linked to overheating – which is triply interesting, as Karl’s living room is air conditioned, and he bought one of those third-party console stands with cooling fans built in.

It’s got to the point where, as much as I’d love to get someone else I know onto Xbox Live for some Halo 3, I can’t in good conscience recommend the 360. Karl even mentioned that he’s turned a few people off buying 360s after telling them about the problems that both he and I have had. Yesterday, as well as a new mouse, I bought a $50 third-party external cooler for my 360; while the console hasn't played up since I got it back I’m keen on making sure it doesn’t in the future.

Something else, though - there's nothing game-wise that I'm particularly looking forward to this year. The only things I'm keeping half an eye on are Guitar Hero III, Burnout Paradise and Halo Wars, but two of those are sequels to games I've not even finished yet and the third - well, it's not exactly a sequel, but I already have a real time strategy for my 360 (Command & Conquer 3) that I also haven't even come anywhere close to finishing. Plus, I still have some Achievemnts to unlock on games like Halo 3 and Mass Effect. Then there's my PC games; Team Fortress 2 has me sewn up for first-person shooter action, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and its expansions (another one of which is on its way in '08) feed my RTS needs, and if I ever feel like a massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game, the fee-free Guild Wars awaits.

In essence (please feel free to roll your eyes at this), I don't think I'll be spending much money on computer or video games this coming year.

Christmas 2007

Merry Christmas, everyone! Yes, I know I’m a little bit late, but you know, what the heck! I have no Internet or computer outages to blame it on, I was simply eating!

So, yes, good Chrissie. Good indeed. Big brekky, prepared by my lovely Vickie (note the buttering up as my trying to keep out of the way wound up with me not helping when it was needed). Then it was a nibbly lunch and after that, everyone was so tired out, they went home, and Vickie spent most of the afternoon and evening sleeping. Me? Oh, I spent it with Mass Effect. I was at the point in the game where - hmm. How to explain it? It's like, there's this awesome TV series, but you've only been watching it when it comes out on DVD. You've polished off most of the show's first season, which has been good all the way through, and it's been gearing up to a huge finale in the last two or three episodes. You can turn the DVD player off and wait for a few days - or you can blitz through the last three in one big hit.

Fuelled on a lovely breakfast and lunch, that's just what I did the gaming equivalent. aside from the odd hitch I was highly impressed. In fact, I wouldn't mind playing it again, this time creating a slightly different character.

Boxing Day was good too. The planned Xbox 360 system-link session didn’t come off, unfortunately; Karl’s Xbox 360 Elite began to glitch heavily on Christmas Eve before finally and irrevocably red-ringing. Still, Karl came over, bringing his controllers with him for a recharge, and I showed him how Halo 3’s Matchmaking service worked. We wound up playing over ten matches yesterday; after everyone else had gone home, Vickie and I kicked him out at twenty past nine last night. Suffice to say he’s now keen on getting a broadband connection at his place.

Gaming aside, though, I got to spend a good couple of days with the local family. I made sure to call my folks in Sydney, although I don’t think I actually thanked most of them for the gifts they got us. I’ll fix that up PDQ. I’m working today, tomorrow and Monday, but I’ve got the rest of the New Year week off, which I’m expecting to spend getting the spare room ship-shape for when the Cazman and his lady arrive from Sydney in late January. We might even see about doing our room while we’re at it, although that might be pushing our luck – we have to sleep somewhere that doesn’t stink of paint fumes.

Anyway, I’ll end this here. I hope your Christmas Day was fantastic, and I’d love to hear and/or read about it!

December 21, 2007

Reflections on 2007

As the year slowly draws to a close, I find myself in the mood for a little more navel-gazing. Today, I skimmed the posts I made during 2007 and made some notes on the trends I noticed, and I’d like to do a “state of the me” by summarising them and seeing what I can learn.

I’ll start the trend that was probably the most obvious to the most people: Transformers Mania. A good half of this year was spent in anticipation of the release of this film, and while it was good fun, I think I cost myself the opportunity to enjoy a good few other things in my life by spending time on the Intarwebs looking for pictures and nuggets of news. I knew I was probably spoiling the movie for myself, but I just – I dunno. It just felt good somehow. Now, I don’t think there’ll be a next time; I’m not hunting down rumours about Iron Man (or even the TF sequel) like I did with Transformers. But if it does happen, I’ll recognise it, take a deep breath and recognise the plenty around me.

The other side of mania is, of course, depression. It’s something I’ve struggled with a good chunk of my life, especially in high school, but I’ve never really thought of what I was going through as “the D word”. Giving it a name gives me a bit more power over it, makes it feel like something transitory, but I’m still not wholly self-confident yet. Vickie said it best recently; I’ll do anything for a quiet life, even take the blame for something that’s not really my fault. The solution is obvious – be comfortable with an unquiet life. Roll with the punches instead of flinching. But like any solution, it’s hard work to achieve, especially when I’ve spent most of my life flinching or ducking for cover.

I’ve noticed that the item that usually drives my bouts of depression is our money situation. The thing is, our money situation is a lot better than I used to think. Hell, my home loan debt is at most a third of almost everyone else in my general age group, and while I mightn’t be on great money now, that doesn’t mean I won’t be earning a lot better in the future. That’s something I intend to work on this year, but it’s still good to know that we really do have a stable base.

Socially, 2007 started off promisingly with the gamer get-togethers and meeting local lad David on the bus. Unfortunately, the get-togethers petered off fairly quickly and we’ve not done a great job of keeping in touch with David. We lost one set of neighbours when one of the couple behind us passed away and his wife sold the house, and we were soured on the folks who moved in after the incident with Ziggy. People have also been in and out of the house on the highway side of ours. My wonderful love Vickie has also had a hard time getting out of the house, between illness and the loss of her smile. Thankfully she’s been feeling a bit better lately, and some recent dental work has given her back her smile; tonight we’re heading out to the farewell party of a friend of ours who’s heading overseas. So next year, I’ll see if I can do a bit better job of keeping in touch with our local friends (and hope, in some cases, that they follow the example).

I was hoping my purchase of an Xbox 360 in April would help me get together over the web with some fellow local gamers, not to mention some of my friends from back down south. Unfortunately, organisation, or the lack thereof, was our undoing. Even when all our consoles were working properly, the four-man team we came to call King Podge and the Commodores of Love was only ever online at the same time once. Most of the people on my Xbox Live Friends list I’ve never actually met.

That hasn’t stopped me from playing more Halo 3 than is probably good for me. My streaks were broken when I had to send my 360 to Sydney for repairs twice, and Vickie told me that her heart sank when it arrived back again last Friday. She commented in October that I live between games a lot, marking time until I next sit down either in front of the TV with a controller in my hands or at a gaming table for an RPG session. It’s troubling that a month and a half after pointing it out, Vickie still feels like she’s losing her husband to the console, such that she’s glad when it breaks down.

It’s not been all obsession with SF and games this year, thankfully. Vickie and I both got involved with the Cairns Youth Mentoring Scheme, and I was partnered with a boy named Alex. We had a good time going bowling, fishing and laser tagging, and although Alex left one month shy of completing our six months when his circumstances changed, I’m still with the program and have just recently been matched with Josh, whom I’m going bowling with just over a week. I’ve also joined the local branch of the Lions Club, which has been good – I’ve helped out on their food fan on more than a few occasions – but I’m the youngest there, and that, coupled with being an out-of-towner, means I don’t have a great deal in common with the other members, largely long-time residents.

I’ve also got a bit more involved in the house. The bulk of the renovation work was done in 2006, but we’ve been making gradual process on the remaining areas of the house. The garden has spring to prominence; we’ve converted several sections into vegetable and herb beds, and most of our vegetable needs are now supplied out of our own garden. I’ve helped heft sleepers, put up fences, turn soil, plant herbs and vegetables, which is more than I’ve, well, ever done before. It’s almost a shame that I have to remind myself that I actually like to garden in order to get myself away from the computer or console.

Hmm. I’m reading this post back and realising there’s a lot of negative in it. I beg your indulgence while I comb out the positives in there and go hunting for some more.

  • For starters, I’ve got Vickie, who gives me love and support through my bouts of gamerism and depression in the trust that I’ll find my way back to stability.
  • I am feeling a lot more sane and stable than before; not only with Vickie’s help, but also through actively seeking out ways to build mental peace. I’ve been pulling things together from all over the place, from a collection of quotes from the Dalai Lama (a present from Vickie before we left Sydney), some self-help books recommended by a psychologist back in the nineties, the self-help book du jour called The Secret and some podcasts and CDs on meditation. The trick is to practice consistently, something I’ve only done thus far in relation to Halo 3.
  • I have a great family.
  • I’ve kept our home computers running (largely) smoothly over the last year, and even got the wireless network working at our place after five years.
  • I became game master of a regular role-playing game group for the first time since leaving Sydney, and am much less panic-stricken about planning and GMing sessions than I used to be – I’m actually loosening up enough to have fun!
  • I’m financially stable.
  • I’ve got a great house with a huge yard filled with growing things, especially the fruit and veg.
  • I’ve got a great pair of dogs.
  • I’m active in my community.
  • And you know what? I'm pretty good at Halo 3. Plus, the both of us owning an Xbox 360 has given my stepson Karl and I plenty to talk about - in fact, I've told him to bring his (and a spare TV) over on Boxing Day and we're going to see if we can get some System Link action in!

Plenty of reasons to be cheerful!

December 04, 2007

Starting the Summer with a Bang

I'm starting to notice a pattern to the recent days here. In Cairns, we've just had some of the hottest days in the past few years, and of course out where we actually live it's been even hotter. The evenings, though, have been rainy, and not just that; we've been switching our sensitive electronics off at night for fear of lightning-induced power surges. I have the feeling we're in for a cycle; the hot days will draw the moisture out of the ground, making the humidity a killer, and at night the humid air will make for whoppers of thunderstorms.

Last night was particularly nasty. It started bucketing down at around eight, and the sky was regularly lit with flashes. Ziggy, our red cattle dog, started getting very agitated, pacing up and down the house, never settling, even dashing underneath my desk a few times. This, it seems, is his chosen comfort spot when thunderstorms are about. I wouldn't mind, but for the facts that (a) behind my desk is an assortment of hanging cables connecting my PC and peripherals and (b) my PC itself is situated on the floor, and Ziggy sheds more than an airport hangar.

I tried setting him up another "Ziggy hide-y spot" in our wardrobe in the bedroom, the logic being it's close enough to us during the night and enclosed enough to keep him happy. I even put the T-shirt I was wearing down on the bottom, so he'd have something that smelled like me. Unfortunately, he didn't much care for it; in fact, when the thunder got loud, he kept trying to get up on our bed with me! We put him back downstairs and I went to bed at half ten.

I got up about half an hour later when I heard Vickie and Deena both arguing with the dogs; Ziggy had become so agitated that he'd urinated down the steps, across the living room floor and on the couch when he jumped up onto it. I helped clean the spill up, then Vickie ordered me back to bed.

When I got up this morning, Deena told me to check the cables behind my computer. Ziggy was still having a rough time of it after I nodded off. There were times when the rain would slack off and Vickie and Deena would try to calm Ziggy down, but then there'd be another thunderclap and Ziggy would be all raw nerves again as the rain moved back in. Deena went back upstairs to get something, and Ziggy barged through the dog gate we've got set up at the top of the stairs, past Deena, down the hall and straight under my desk - where he got his legs all tangled up in the cabling. Deena got him out, and I'm glad to say nothing was (or seems to have been) yanked out of its socket or damaged.

Still, with the summer wet well and truly on its way, I'd say we're in for more of the same - both thunderstorms and nervous Ziggy episodes.

December 02, 2007

Weekend In The Garden

Vickie and I are making progress in getting the garden in better shape. This weekend was intended to be a big blitz, but soaring temperatures at midday gave us baking afternoons, so we've had to get as much done in the morning and evening as we could. That's been quite a bit, thankfully; we've dug up some roots that were interrupting our sewage line, turned the soil in the vege patch over, cleared away a lot of debris (Vickie especially went gangbusters on the fallen leaves).

Of course, I had fewer diversions to distract me. My Xbox 360 has finally packed it in; on Friday night, whilst playing Mass Effect, it froze up, and when I powered it off and on again, the dreaded Red Ring of Death appeared on its front panel. Repeated attempts to resurrect it on Saturday were fruitless, so I called Customer Support this morning and am waiting on the e-mail from them so I can send it in. Actually, if the e-mail doesn't turn up by tomorrow morning I can probably get away with sending it in early; I have the form from last time and the current call log number. Still, best to wait; Microsoft might've changed its contracted repairer in the meantime.

The latest really annoying thing was that today is Karl's birthday, and I was planning to take my 360 over his place, network it to his Elite and have some multiplayer Halo 3 and Burnout Revenge action. So much for that.

Other computer-related efforts have been more fruitful. I finally managed to get the wireless function of our network router running properly here. At first I thought we'd need a range extender, but it turns out that all we needed was to get the router off the metal surface it was resting on and elevated a couple of feet higher than it was. Right now, Vickie's and Deena's laptops are communicating with the network all the way out to our backyard without the need for Cat5 cables. The Wii worked for a little bit, but I think I need to fossick with its settings again, so Hayama, as soon as I get it operating properly I'll send you my Wii Number.

Also, with Halo 3 not an option for another couple of weeks, I've been getting my online multiplayer fix from a game called Team Fortress 2. If you're into computer games, you've probably known this one as a member of that rarefied vapourware league that includes (and is still championed by) Duke Nukem Forever, but after nine (or is that eleven?) years of development I'm happy to say that those Valve lads have produced a damn fun game. Granted, I'd still prefer to be playing Halo 3, especially as I know absolutely no one in real life who has TF2 as well - but then again, Halo 3 doesn't have one-eyed, black, Scottish demolitions experts who swig from bottles of hooch, nor giant bald Russians toting miniguns.

Actually going about purchasing the game was an interesting process. The only way to buy Team Fortress 2 in stores is as part of the five-game package called The Orange Box. There are a few off-putting thoughts, though. For starters, The Orange Box is $100, and splurging that much on games is hard to justify this side of Christmas. Secondly, having never finished the original Half-Life, I really wasn't interested in Half-Life 2 and its attendant episodes. Thirdly, although all reports say Portal is all kinds of quirky fun, I can easily go without it. So instead, I signed up for Valve's online delivery service, Steam, and downloaded it for a mere AU$34.00. It's definitely been worth the money! I'm getting pretty good with both the Demoman and Medic roles. Check out the stats!

Oh, and speaking of garden work, it was with not a little relish that I finally got rid of my moustache on Friday night. I feel so much better, and all you folks who reckoned I ought to have kept it can grow one of your own, especially the women!