Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Political Compass

Apr 22nd, 2009

I first played around with the political compass a few years ago, and was vaguely worried that I may have betrayed my old self, and have darted to the far right without quite realising it. As it happens I haven’t, and indeed I think the score is somewhat more extreme in the other direction than it had been previously.

Your political compass
Economic Left/Right: -7.88
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -8.62
Political Compass

Now in practice of course I realise that asking everyone to march to my drum would be ineffective, impractical, and immoral. While I’m not prepared to indulge every contradictory philosophy, finding some abhorrent, and still others mutually exclusive, I realise that expecting everyone to become raging liberal-lefty is not going to work in political terms, or even practical terms. As a result were I ever to become a mainstream politician, I’d probably have to take a bit more moderate a position. This is probably why I’d never be a mainstream politician.

There are also many points raised on which my opinions are far more nuanced than a four point scale will allow. I don’t think this changes my idealism in my approach to them, but believing something is a good idea is still fundamentally separated from knowing how to implement it. I also realise that any ideas I may have will almost invariably need to work in our current social climate, and complete political upheaval required to achieve some ideals will cause more problems than it solves. While I may be less than enamoured by the pandering to popularism democracy results in, I’m far less keen on many of the alternatives which have been seen. I may very well love everyone to live governed by rules of sunshine and happiness, but unfortunately I fear that the rules of Kalashnikovs and power would find a way to take hold.

One question intrigue me, and I’m not sure I see it as a left-right argument.

There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment.

The question itself could be interpreted to apply to many facets of the modern entertainment and information industries. I’m currently a big fan of Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe, but should that push me more to agree or disagree? The program is entertainment undoubtedly, but also informative, but paradoxically one of its prime thesis is to attack the way in which the news has allowed the need to deliver facts to be hijacked by the need to entertain. Is there hypocrisy in this situation? Secondly, infotainment has been one of the primary driving forces of the web and internet, with sites like Wikipedia being both methods of entertainment and sources of information. While I think letting entertainment get in the way of your facts is a Bad Thing™ I don’t think I could say the same for the reverse, although perhaps the end result is inevitable.

Favourite WordPress Plugins

Apr 10th, 2009

One of the benefits of using an extremely popular blogging platform, such as WordPress is the diverse range of plugins available. This allows for the easy addition of new features to a blog, and the latest versions of WordPress provide excellent tools to make it easy to install plugins and keep them updated. In this post I will mention some of my favourite WordPress plugins, and describe what they do and why I like them.

Akismet

Akismet is one of the most popular anti-spam plugins, and has replaced spam karma 2 as my plugin of choice after the latter was discontinued. Akismet is incredibly simple to use and configure, requiring just a WordPress API code. It then sits quietly by, monitoring all comments and trackbacks and filtering out the spam. At the moment it is working overdrive, thanks to an overzealous spambot operating form a small set of IP addresses.

Unlike some anti-spam solutions, akismet uses a centralised server which serves as a filter for thousands of different blogs. This allows the service to take advantage of the repetitive nature of a lot of comments spam, and to rapidly isolate dodgy IP addresses. Of course, it also adds a central point of failure, but I haven’t noticed any issues in this respect.

Obviously the most important stats with respect to a spam filter is accuracy, and while Akismet has a low rate of misses, I haven’t been able to assess false positives as this blog doesn’t get enough traffic.

Spam: 257
Not Spam: 13
Missed Spam: 2
False Positives: 0

BackType Connect

A recent addition to my blog, Backtype Connect is the offspring of the excellent Backtype website. Backtype initially began as a comments aggregator, bringing together a users comments across the entire blogosphere, all under one page. This move helped to solve one of my major problems with the blogosphere, a dispersed identity which can lack cohesion. A user visiting my blog would be completely isolated from comments I’ve made elsewhere, despite these comments being as important as those made on home turf.
From this beginning Backtype went on to consider another issue of the social web, namely that a lot of conversation remained divorced from the article being discussed. If someone were to tweet a comment about this blog post, I’d have little idea, and systems such as bit.ly and tinyurl.com obfuscate the connection even further. Backtype worked to index these references, extending pingback to places such as twitter and comments threads.
It is this latter service that the Backtype Connect plugin integrates directly into the blog. For example, a look at the comments of this entry will show the tweet I made to advertise this post, as well as any other conversations about it that may arise on other places, such as Digg or Reddit. (God forbid this blog should ever get dugg, it would be dead before it hit the front page.)

iBegin Share

Given my fear of getting dugg, it was possibly a mistake to add this plugin. There are many plugins which add share-this links to the bottom of blog entries, making it easier for users to share the content over different websites. I was already familiar with the author of iBegin Share after having used the fantastic lifestream plugin, discussed below.
iBegin share is particularly appealing, as it adds a compact link which opens up an in-stream list of possible options. The plugin is free and open-source, and thus is easily extensible with further options. It also offers the option of sharing the article via E-mail, and provides statistics regarding exactly which articles are being shared, and via what services.
You can see it in operation at the bottom of this post.

Lifestream

Lifestream is absolutely amazing. Just as backtype unifies comments made across different blogs, lifestream unifies activities across the social web. It does this my making use of RSS feeds and API’s for a diverse range of services, and combines this into a timeline for your activity across the web. Developer David Cramer is still adding to an already impressive list of services which can be monitored by the plugin. As it currently stands my lifestream tracks my activity on:

  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • Steam
  • GfW Live
  • Backtype (obviously)
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Last.fm
  • Delicio.us

It also supports many more websites which I don’t use, as well as any generic RSS feed. As well as generating a dynamic stream, the plugin is also able to generate regular digests, much like my summaries of weekly tweets.

Twitter Tools

Twitter tools is probably THE tool for intergration between your blog and twitter. Not only does it allow one to make tweets from within WordPress (admittedly a fairly useless feature), but also allows one to generate automatic tweets when new blog posts are made. This blog also makes use of its API for retrieving recent tweets, both for the status bar at the bottom, and for the widget in the sidebar. The option for weekly tweet summaries is also useful, although the ability to make a blogpost for every tweet is somewhat more questionable.

Others

I have plenty of other plugins running on this blog, many of which have been active from the beginning. WordPress.com stats allows a self hosted blog to make use of wordpress.com’s stat tracking tools, WP-Footnotes1, Collapsing Categories is a simple javascript widget which collapses down subcategories in the sidebar, Better Blogroll helps you configure the number and order of the links in your blogroll, while Configurable Tag Cloud provides additional layers of customisation for the tag cloud.

  1. Makes it very easy to add footnotes to blog posts, and is surprisingly customizable []

Spotify – First Impressions

Mar 5th, 2009
This review is based on early impressions of a beta product. It should not be taken as representive of the final product, and it is likely that my cursory examination have caused me to miss a few important features. Also, while very critical in places, it should be pointed out that I am VERY impressed with Spotify, and my criticisms are largely to reflec the way I hope it develops in future versions.

I’ve just started playing around with Spotify, a service which would seem to hit the ‘too good to be true’ warning, and would have done so if I hadn’t seen it covered in the mainstream press.
Spotify Screenshot
Spotify is a free audio player available from www.spotify.com. Unlike other audio players, such as winamp, iTunes1, Media Player or Songbird, Spotify will not limit you to playing just your own music; it will allow you to play any music. Well, any in its library, something which I’ll come to later. While this may sound like a dodgy file-share front end, it is in fact legitimate, fully legal and licensed. The service is ad supported, although so far they appear to be less regular, and less annoying than radio adverts. You can’t skip them, and they pause if you mute your system. However, if the ads annoy you, and you decide you want to go ad free, you can do so for £9.99 a month.

The interface is clean, fast and smooth, especially in contrast to the positively clunky Songbird. It’s styling are clearly inspired by Apple, although the window doesn’t look out of place on my Windows system. Its easy to search for and find tracks, however the interface feels a touch limited at times. For example, if I search for tracks by Queen it successfully finds 4862 tracks, these cover the band, other bands with the word Queen in them (eg. Queen Latifah) as well as albums and tracks containing the word Queen. At the top of the search it provides links, which look as though they should narrow your search, but instead link you to a page about the band/album. This detail is a nice addition, and you can add tracks from these pages, but it can make searching a touch cumbersome. Fortunately it is possible to write quite detailed search strings, and gain control that way. It is also the case that once you have sorted your search results, new results are no longer appended to the bottom. While this is understandable when it comes to maintaining the sort, it could cause problems if your track makes a later appearance.

The interface also has limitations when it comes to playlist management. It is possible to get a track playing in two ways, double clicking it, or queuing it to the playlist. The former begins it playing immediately, and adds the remainder (or a subsection thereof if there are lots of results) of the current search to your playlist in a greyed out fashion. These will be played automatically once the currently playing track has ended. However any tracks that you add manually following this will be highlighted in white, and added immediately after your last manually queued track, or whatever is playing currently. This behaviour is excellent, as it allows for a quick dive into a genre or band, or more careful queing up of songs. The interface also allows you to easily re-order playlists, including bringing the grey, automatically queued tracks to the front, or middle, of your manual playlist.2 However it is not possible to modify this automatically generated playlist, meaning that if I notice it has queued up a track I don’t like, I have to wait for it to play and skip, rather then removing it from the playlist. However this approach does allow one to be listening to, say, a random selection of Rock from 1960-1980, and then easily add a track of interest to begin playing immediately after whatever is currently playing, or at least after the last manually added track.

Spotify will live and breathe on the diversity of its library. Limited selections is a major issue with many digital music retailers, and Spotify suffers similarly. While I was able to find any Queen song I so desired for instance, the selection of Pink Floyd was limited to a few covers and tribute bands.3 Some bands sit in the middle of this continuum, with the odd few tracks being picked up due to collaborations, of compilation albums. I imagine this situation is one which will improve with time, but as it currently stands Spotify will not be replacing many people’s media libraries. However, it is far from a useless selection, and includes a mix of mainstream and Indie labels. A nice touch is that the library also includes a few interviews and other shows, which are sorted into suitable categories and thus will occasionally crop up in automatic playlists. I haven’t yet found out if it is possible to control whether this happens or not.

As well as the few limitations of the library size, it also has a few problems with annotation. For example, clicking the screenshot above and you’ll see that it classes Atomic Kitten as rock, which seems a bit of a stretch, even for categories which are often subjective.

So how does Spotify compare to something like Last.fm? Well firstly Spotify give you far much more control over what you are playing, and is far less dependent on having a browser. It makes it theoretically possible to use Spotify to entirely replace your music library, a task for which last.fm is neither designed nor suited. Both feature mechanisms of being introduced to new music, although only Last.fm’s system dynamically responds to your tastes. Spotify doesn’t even allow you to rate tracks, and I feel it could gain significantly by replicating Last.fm’s Love/Hate ratings, allowing you to completely forbid tracks, or make them easy to find in future. While it is possible to add favourite tracks to a playlist, a favourites system would allow users to easily find ‘my favourite 1970s Rock tracks’ for example. The other major area is the social side of things, one in which spotify is surprisingly lacking. While it is possible to share music and even colaberate on playlists, this is all achieved outside the Spotify player, and even the website. This isn’t perhaps a failiure, but does seem a surprising oversight in this age of social media. However it is possible to scrobble Spotify tracks to Last.fm, so ther use of one certainly doesn’t preclude the other. Overall though the two systems currently perform different functions, last.fm being a site for discovering new music and sharing what you are interested in, while Spotify is attempting to replace the local media library.

One final feature I feel could benifit Spotify is support for local media libraries. While its eventual goal may be to entirely replace local media collections, or at least digital ones, it is not there quite yet. This feature would encourage people to abandon their current local media players more regularly in favour of Spotify, and would also help ease bandwidth for tracks which are already stored locally.

In summary, Spotify may very well be the future of digital music, but that future isn’t quite here yet. However, Spotify is still in beta, and makes a very impressive present.

  1. Which annoyingly I keep Malaproping on and calling iPlayer. []
  2. I realise this talk of automatic and manual playlists is confusing. What I’ve dubbed the automatic playlist is a list of songs cued up through selecting a radio station or by double clicking a track in a search result. This playlist is greyed out and located at the end of any manually queued up tracks; it will only begin playing if it gets to the end of the manually queued playlist, and will automatically extend itself using the same search parameters if it nears the end. []
  3. This does’t actually appear to be a label problem as EMI, Sony, Warner, and Universal are all signed up, among others. []

Aquaria

Mar 1st, 2009

This review is compiled from my posts on Rock, Paper, Shotgun and the snopes message boards.

I’ve just finished Aquaria, one of the most beautiful and magical games I’ve played. On its surface the game can be thought of as borrowing from Ecco the Dolphin and Metroid.

Aquaria is a beautiful game

Aquaria is a beautiful game

I got it shortly before Christmas on the recommendation of someone on RPS with the intent of playing it on my netbook. However the small screen made this a bit fiddly, and the graphic quality was cranked right down, meaning that I lost one of the main appeals of the game. However I then picked the game up on my desktop one evening when I wasn’t feeling like playing some of the other titles I got recently. I fell in love, and for the past couple of weeks its all I played.

Firstly, the game is beautiful, both visually and audibly. Fantastic artwork seems to flow and move naturally, creating one of the most visually rich and dynamic environments in gaming. This creates a game environment which feels amazingly emotive, and ultimately feeds in to the feelings of loss and loneliness which are woven into the plot. Exploration forms a central part of the gameplay and is truly rewarding in itself.

The plot is simple on the surface, but has a subtlety to it which rewards closer inspection. It is a rare game where you can actually identify themes, and a still rarer one where those themes are interwoven in different parts of the game design.

I’m actually feeling somewhat saddened that it now looks as though there will not be the hinted sequel. The feelings of intense heartbreak for dubious rewards is something I am familiar with, in the entirely unrelated field of completing a PhD, so I can’t criticise the team’s reluctance to pour themselves back into the project. I just hope that their move to pursue independent projects may allow them to return to Aquaria in the future.

I strongly recommend the game to anyone who has a half-way decent PC or Mac, as the game has very low specification requirements, and even manages to work on my netbook (although it is not entirely smooth and looks so much nicer on a larger screen). The game is available on Steam.

Where does the weekend go?

Feb 15th, 2009

The third part of the ‘On art and Games’ series won’t be appearing this week, but instead will be up once its done. That’s not to say I’ve been ignoring it, but these things can take a while to put together, and I don’t want to fling the whole thing together in a rush. I’ve also reconsidered the idea of it being a fixed series, as its a far larger topic than I had first suspected. Instead, I expect the series will be interleaved in with other posts, and each article will be more or less self contained.

Ch…Ch…Ch…Changes

So this leaves a bit of a stream of conciousness affair here instead. If anyone actually is reading this blog regularly, you’ll have noticed the ‘this weeks tweets’ post which appeared this Wednesday. As you may have gathered, this is an automated weekly affair and ties in with my use of Twitter. You might also have noticed the ‘lifestream’ tab, a page which summarises my activity across the web, perfect for all you stalker types.

Time and Tide

The title of this blog post refers to the weekend’s tendency to disappear. I had intended to get some food shopping done, but suddenly it was six and I hadn’t got to the supermarket. I was in the lab though, before ayone thinks I was in bed. Odly enough this is probably actually a good thing, as I had forgotten than I was heading home later this week for my Mum’s birthday. I had planned a whole week of food.

The Great Train Ticket Gamble1

Oddly, talking of going home I had a great time playing the ‘find the cheapest train ticket’ game. It turns out that the answer was Megatrain from Edinburgh to Birmingham, and then a standard return from Birmingham to Kemble. I could have actually done it cheaper with an offpeak return, but that would have left 15 minutes to change trains in Birmingham, which is a bit tight if one of my connections suffers a delay. I’m still slightly confused at what happened to one of the tickets offered to me between Birmingham and Kemble, as it seemed to change price. This isn’t unusual for ‘advanced’ tickets, but only standard tickets were availible at that point.

And Now for Something Completely Different

This was originally going to go in On Art anf Games [Part3] but never really fitted. So I’ll stick it here instead, where is still doesn’t fit but at least its surroundings are similarly muddled.

Genre?
I have always felt the term genre is mis-applied when used to describe computer games. In other media, genre describes the theme and style of a piece, whereas when applied to games it is more often used to describe the mechanism. In rare cases, particularly with some more arty indie games concerned with dissecting gaming mechanics, this may be appropriate, but in most cases it isn’t. I think part of the problem is that game-play mechanics are often far more central to games than any vague themes the game may explore; in many games it would be ridiculous to even attempt to identify any ‘themes,’ particularly in the early days when these terms were coined. However, it would be ridiculous to describe a film genre as ‘animated’ or ‘black and white,’ it is still more difficult to even identify an equivalent concept for literature, prose and poetry perhaps. While overarching game-play mechanics are important in defining the tone of a game, and are likely to be one of the primary influences in terms of appeal, I feel the term genre has been misapplied.

And now, finally to football is over, sao I can start watching Being Human.

  1. I almost went for the great train robbery, but the price was fairly reasonable in the end []