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January 30, 2008

Cracked 2,000!

Oh, and I broke the 2,000 Gamerscore barrier! Like I figured, it was by earning the Sniper Expert Achievement in Mass Effect.

New Year's Rebuilding

I’m planning a complete rebuild of my PC this weekend. I think I have some sort of Trojan lurking on my system somewhere. My web-browsing performance has been spotty over the last few months, even when I’m the only person on the network and I’m not downloading anything. A file I sent to Vickie a few days ago got a virus warning. My firewall software switches itself off randomly at startup, forcing me to restart it manually. My anti-spyware software has flat-out not worked in ages. Finally, a safe link I clicked on yesterday was redirected to a URL with a very unsavoury name (thankfully I got a “Page Not Found”). So on Friday night I’ll start backing my vital files up onto DVD-ROM, with the aim of reformatting my hard drive on Saturday morning. I’ll have to get a spare floppy disk drive out, as the setup utility on the Windows XP disc doesn’t natively recognise Serial ATA drives. Once I get the system rebuilt to my preferences, I’ll do a thorough virus scan on my backups before re-copying the data over.

On a general PC note, I’ve switched my browsing and e-mail utilities back to Firefox and Thunderbird from IE and Outlook. I intended to use Outlook mainly for its calendar facilities, which Thunderbird doesn’t have (Mozilla is developing a separate application, Sunbird), but I didn’t wind up using them anyway. Now, one thing the Mozilla products are known for is their ability to be expanded using downloadable add-ons. Now, I’ve never used these much, as I’ve not felt the need of any extra components – but with the impending rebuild, I’m wondering what I might be missing out on. How about you folks? Which Firefox and Thundebird add-ons have you discovered you can’t live without? What do they do for you?

Going Batty

Vickie’s just recently put a new post up on her web log. One very noteworthy item she writes about is the visit we had on Monday evening. I'm only wishing we'd managed to get a photo of the tiny creature before he left!

January 28, 2008

Ten Fantastic Days

It’s been a great ten days off work. Vickie, thankfully, cracked the whip and got me cleaning and tidying up before the arrival of the Cazman and his lovely lady Linda, and we got the spare room looking great for them. Although we weren’t able to spend much time with them as we’d hoped, we just appreciated their company the more. I didn’t know, for example, that Linda was part Chinese, nor that she has a hilarious, trash-talking competitive streak, which came out during a few games of Uno! Speaking of which, I’m starting to think Uno is more fun than Chez Geek.

I fully intend to do a better job of keeping up with these two (ideally using Skype a lot to cut down on those pesky phone bills) and I’m sure Vickie does also. We also (yeah, yeah, I know, but it reads better than “in addition”) must get back in regular touch with Caz’s Mum and Dad. We got a great Christmas letter from them!

With the spare room out of the way, all that’s left to be renovated is our room, our walk-in wardrobe and the shelves and desk for the computer room. We’re not sure exactly when we’re going to get around to these, but according to my payslips I still have around four weeks of leave stashed away, so I’ll probably use up one of those on getting it all finished. Plus, the shelves are going to have to wait until we get some wood back from Karlos, who swiped some of the planks we bought so that he could put some storage shelves up for his wife’s home day care business.

I’m making a little headway on that 4,000 Gamerscore goal. I managed to nab the Shotgun Expert Achievement in Mass Effect and, quite by accident, the Triple Trouble Achievement in Burnout Revenge for a total of 30 Gamerscore, bringing my overall total up to 1,985. Caz wanted to see me earn an Achievement while he was here, but somehow I managed to earn those two while he wasn’t looking. I want to get up to 2,000 before the end of the month so that I only need to earn a nice, round 400 Gamerscore per month until July. So, I need to earn either the Sniper Rifle Expert Achievement in Mass Effect or the Stack the Pack Achievement in Burnout Revenge before Friday. My money’s on the former.

Hang on – 400 Gamerscore per month is 100 per week. That’s actually pretty scary…

There’ve been a couple of recent distractions, though, aside from Caz and Linda (and let’s face it, people beat Xbox hands down). On the Dreaded Console front, there’s the advent of a new Halo 3 custom game type dreamed up by those crazy lads and lasses at Rooster Teeth (you know, the ones responsible for the hilarious Red Vs. Blue, which, along with Bubba Ho-Tep, we introduced Caz and Linda to while they were here). It’s called Grifball, the sport where you get to kill Grif a lot. It’s a high-speed combination of Halo 3, gridiron and a Viking brawl, and I’d love to get some solid games of it sometime. The problem is, it requires two teams of four, and as it’s not one of the standard matchmaking game types, you can only get players by inviting friends – who have to be online at the same time as you. Easier said than done. I managed to get a lopsided game in a few days ago, which only whetted my appetite for more.

Then there’s the tennis. To my surprise, I’ve actually sat down and watched some of the men’s finals matches of the Australian Open with Vickie, including the grand final between Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last night. We saw Djokovic demolish Federer, and in another surprising twist, Vickie sat through most of last night’s final. She has a superstition that if she watches a match, the player or team she supports will lose – and as she was firmly behind Djokovic, I’m hoping that’s broken! I did enjoy the match itself, though. It was a highly entertaining display of what, to my amateur watcher’s eye, looked like some very good tennis. Certainly commentators Roger Rasheed and Jim courier were impressed throughout.

While Caz and Linda were here, we had young Brook’s birthday party and a surprise drop-in by one of Vickie’s kids (whom Vickie’d not seen in years). She might stop by again this afternoon!

January 16, 2008

Goal-Setting and Planning: 4,000 Gamerscore

Around this time of year, people start thinking about things like resolutions and such. Like most, I have some trouble fulfilling my resolutions, so my first and main resolution for this year is to improve my skill at goal-setting. This has been a problem for me ever since the last year of primary school, especially when it came to assignments. I’d get told to make this big thing in this amount of time, and I got so intimidated that I just shut it out of my mind until it was too late. I need to get good at recognising how to break this huge thing into discrete, easy-to-accomplish chunks and then processing those chunks while still managing my overall progress.

There are a few goals I want to set myself to; paying off the mortgage, determining my ideal job, take Vickie on a trip to Cambodia, play more RPGs, etc. Those sorts of goals, though, are large, long term and / or require someone else to make an opportunity available (not the Vickie to Cambodia one, the job one). I want to get some practice at goal setting with something familiar (so I know whether the goal I’m setting for myself is achievable), something easy to measure, something that requires no additional investment beyond time and effort.

I’ve been playing a lot of Xbox 360 games lately, so putting a goal around my play might help manage it. Every game designed for the Xbox 360 has a list of Achievements that players can earn. When the player earns the Achievement, he or she receives points toward his or her Gamerscore. Gamerscore isn’t like frequent flyer miles; players don’t get anything out of having a total Gamerscore of, say, 10,000 other than sheer personal satisfaction and maybe kudos from fellow players.

So, let me try setting myself a goal:

Achieve a total Gamerscore of 5,000 by the end of June this year solely though my current library of Xbox 360 games.

It’s a nice goal; it’s got a time-frame; the easy-to-process chunks are individual Achievement and as it’s numbers-based it’s easy to keep an eye on how I’m doing overall. But is it achievable?

As of this writing, my Gamerscore stands at 1,955. According to my Xbox Live profile, I can earn a maximum of 11,300 points; my goal of 5,000 is less than halfway. The problem is that my Live profile includes demos for Arcade games that I’ve not actually purchased (so I can’t earn Gamerscore through them) and one game that I’ve traded in, Project Gotham Racing 3; as the intent is to not spend money, I can’t earn any more points on it. Some quick addition of the remainder tells me the maximum Gamerscore I can earn is 7,650. At first blush, my goal seems achievable.

But what will meeting that goal entail? Well, I have just over five months to earn 3,045 Gamerscore, which comes to a little over 600 points per month. To put some perspective around that, Halo 3 awards players 125 points for beating the Campaign game once on each of its main levels of difficulty – Normal, Heroic and Legendary (you can either play through it once on each or go straight to Legendary and earn 375 points in one play-through). So earning 600 points in a month would be roughly equivalent to playing through Halo 3 on Legendary, from scratch, twice.

Now, I’m working on beating Halo 3 on Legendary at the moment (having already clocked it in four days on Normal), plus I’m playing each level with Campaign Scoring (a Halo 3 scoring system separate from Gamerscore) switched on to earn a few more Achievements. Between Mass Effect, renovating our spare room, preparing the house for the arrival of Cazman and his lady at the end of the month, multiplayer matchmaking with Karlos 186 and actually making time with my wife, I’ve barely touched the Halo 3 Campaign. Complicating the matter is the fact that, with the features I switched on, I can’t save my progress during a given level; I have to play it all the way through in one hit to earn the extra Achievements. That’s around ninety minutes of play a level.

In light of the fact that 600 Gamerscore per month is a marathon effort best reserved for schoolkids and college-types, I'm revising my goal:

Achieve a total Gamerscore of 4,000 by the end of June this year solely though my current library of Xbox 360 games.

Now, I have just over five months to earn 2,045 Gamerscore, which comes to 409 points per month. Is this doable?

Let’s go back to Halo 3. If / when I clock it on Legendary, I’ll earn myself 250 Gamerscore (leapfrogging to legendary from normal); if I can earn 15,000 points of campaign score in each of the seven levels I’ve not beaten yet, I’ll earn an extra 70 Gamerscore. I also want to find all the terminals on the levels “The Ark” and the “The Covenant” (I already found the one on “Cortana”) while I’m at it, which will earn me the “Marathon Man” achievement and 40 more Gamerscore. That’s around three hours of play per week for a total of 360 Gamerscore, fifty shy of the monthly total.

Hmm. On one hand I feel as though aiming to earn 409 Gamerscore every month for five months would be pushing my luck; I don’t want Vickie to become a console widow and we have other things we want to be doing in the meantime. On the other, I like the idea of challenging myself; why soft-ball it when I’m not really risking anything?

Now a plan to achieve a goal needs to identify the steps on the way and the time those steps require. Looking at the Achievement lists for each game and the Gamerscore awards for those Achievements I’ve not yet earned give me a better idea of what’s available and what I’ve got a good chance of earning. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Game: Burnout Revenge
    • Gamerscore Available: 885
    • Probable Earning: 200
    • Key Achievements: Complete Maniac!; Perfect Assassin!; Dominate the Dominator!
  • Game: Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
    • Gamerscore Available: 975
    • Probable Earning: 455
    • Key Achievements: GDI Silver; NOD Silver; Scrin Silver; Something to Write Home About; GDI Campaign; NOD Campaign
  • Game: Gears of War
    • Gamerscore Available: 850
    • Probable Earning: 220
    • Key Achievements: Commando; Complete Acts 3-5 on Insane; Domination; I Can’t Quit You, Dom
  • Game: Guitar Hero II
    • Gamerscore Available: 760
    • Probable Earning: 300
    • Key Achievements: Points in a Song Achievements; Five Stars Awards; Note Streak Awards; Hard Tour Champ; Expert Tour Champ; Kick the Bucket Award
  • Game: Halo 3
    • Gamerscore Available: 405
    • Probable Earning: 360
    • Key Achievements: Campaign Complete: Legendary; Marathon Man
  • Game: Hexic HD
    • Gamerscore Available: 175
    • Probable Earning: 50
    • Key Achievements: Hexic Addict; Millionaire Extraordinaire
  • Game: Mass Effect
    • Gamerscore Available: 490
    • Probable Earning: 200
    • Key Achievements: Distinguished Combat Medal; Shotgun Expert; Sniper Expert; Asari Ally; Quarian Ally; Extreme Power Gamer; Long Service Medal
  • Game: Need for Speed: Most Wanted
    • Gamerscore Available: 990
    • Probable Earning: 155
    • Key Achievements: Defeat Hector Domingo “Ming”
  • Game: Worms
    • Gamerscore Available: 185
    • Probable Earning: 100
    • Key Achievements: Silver Damage; Gold Damage

You may note that I’m mainly focusing on the single player achievements; as mentioned, I want to achieve my goal without needing to get anyone else involved. Still, the Dom achievements from Gears of War would be handy to have; I reckon I can get Karlos to play through the Campaign with me, especially as he’s not clocked on Insane yet.

Earning these Achievements plus a handful of others nets me 2,040 Gamerscore, five points shy of my goal. Given that, I might drop Hexic and Worms in favour of attacking the larger Achievements in Burnout Revenge and NFS: Most Wanted. Mass Effect is probably the worst game for earning further Achievements; I’m already about a quarter of the way through a second play-through and I’d need to finish a third in order to nab the biggest Achievements still outstanding.

Now, let’s look at time management. I reckoned earning 360 Gamerscore in a month would require three hours of play a week. So, can I squeeze in four hours? Probably; say, half an hour every weekday on Burnout: Revenge, NFS: Most Wanted and Guitar Hero II (races and songs can be completed in small bites) plus an hour and a half stretch on the weekend for a battle of Command & Conquer 3 or a level of Halo 3 on Legendary with Campaign Scoring switched on.

Well, there they are; a goal and a plan for achieving it, including measures and time management. Now let’s see if I can take this and apply it to some larger, more nebulous life goals…

January 15, 2008

Bring On the Co-Stars

We’re slowly heading toward the end of the ratings-blank period for 2008, and the TV stations are already running promos for this year’s new and returning shows. Two of these have caught my interest, but not (well, not just) because of the plot or the leads – it’s the co-stars who I want to tune in and see.

Premièring tonight on Channel Ten is Burn Notice. It’s hard to tell from the ads exactly what this show is, but action and spying appear to be the key features, plus the obligatory romance between the leading man and the hot love interest. The studio seems to have done a good job with said leading man; Jeffery Donovan certainly caught Vickie’s eye. But the one who really grabbed my attention was none other than Bruce Campbell, playing “the informant”. That’s right, after last being seen on TV regularly in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and semi-regularly in Xena, Warrior Princess, Mr. Evil Dead himself is finally getting a regular gig again – provided the show doesn’t get canned within the first season.

Speaking of which, Channel Seven has been airing promos for the upcoming season of Desperate Housewives (I know, definitely wasn’t canned during its first season; I’m getting to that). Now, while I like Desperate Housewives, I probably don’t watch it as often as it deserves; for some odd reason I wind up going and browsing the web instead. But the obligatory New Season’s New Arrivals on Wisteria Lane might well change that. The promos are naturally dwelling on the more famous Dana Delaney (hey, the show’s really all about the women). But I couldn’t help but cheer when I saw the man playing her husband (at least, I assume he’s her husband) – Nathan Fillion (see, I told you I was getting to it). Sure, he’s not playing Cap’n Mal, but the guy’s that funny (see “Our Mrs. Reynolds”) and that good at angst (see Serenity) that he’s worth watching even when he’s not wearing a long brown coat. I still have to see Waitress sometime. And maybe even Slither. You know, when Vickie's not about.

January 08, 2008

Watching Paint Dry

The renovation of the spare room has gone much better than we thought. Vickie especially was dreading the removal of not just the wallpaper but also the carpeting. When we did the other rooms, we had a hard time with the glue paper that went between the wall and the paper, and the removal of the carpeting in the computer room revealed a foamy substance (I know it has a proper carpeting name, I just can’t think of it right now) that we had to buy huge scrapers to deal with. That was a nightmare.

In the spare room, though, the carpet came up with no trouble, and the nail strips holding it down came up with just a little chisel-work. The glue-paper was a dream, too; a good spray of water and it just came off in long strips with a razor-blade scraper. Karl undercoated the room and primed over the nastier stains, but he and I shared a lot of the work; puttying holes, putting the top-coats on the walls, sanding after each coat and cleaning up the dust from the sanding. I took to the skirting board, door- and window-frames with the enamel paint. An electrician has taken the old wall lamp fittings over the bed head off and installed the new ones we bought. All that’s left is to clean and sand the floor, then cover it with vinyl tiles. Oh, and move all the bedroom furniture back in from where we have it stacked in our dining room.

Of course, Karl used the breaks when the walls were drying after painting or cleaning to get some more games of Halo 3 in on my Xbox 360, and I, of course, used stepfather-stepson bonding as an excuse to play more myself! Karl was able to use his one month of free access to get himself a Gamertag, so his progress can now be measured. If you’re curious, you can check Karl’s progress here, but in summary we’re doing pretty good, although we’ve not had a great deal of luck playing ranked matches. Karl’s now seriously looking at the DSL plans his ISP offers, so with any luck he’ll be able to get onto Xbox Live himself once he gets his Elite back from repair. And we can play without needing to split my screen!

I’ve also begrudgingly done some garden work. I’m not sure whether to be grateful for the rain we’ve had these last few days; while it sort of gives me an excuse to not get out into the garden (I say sort of, as our appliances are petrol-powered and theoretically capable of operating in the rain), it means everything’s going to be so much longer and taller by the time the rain breaks! I mowed on Sunday afternoon, and I’m fully expecting to do so again this weekend…

We’re due for a replanting of the garden bed soon, although the Cairns branch of Bunning’s was almost out of seedlings when we went in on Saturday morning. I still owe you folks some photos of the garden bed, especially the lettuce, which few can believe grows as high as I tell them it does!