First of all, and a long time ago now, the new year. Diana was staying with me for a couple of weeks, so she was here at the time. We decided to all (Diana, Graham and myself) go to The Antelope, thinking we'd have a meal early in the evening and then stay for drinks and whatever entertainment they had planned. When we arrived, though, we found that they had replaced their usual menu with a special one for the evening, which was very limited. The items on it were all (at least trying to present themselves as) high class 'gourmet' meals, featuring strange meats and exotic sauces, none of which appealed to me. We probably should have made a decision right then to go elsewhere, but decided to stay and give it a chance. I ordered what I thought were the most edible items, paid lots of money for them, and didn't really enjoy any of it. I think the others felt similarly. We stayed for a short while after the food, had some tea and coffee and tried to talk over the DJ, until deciding that we could do much better by ourselves. We left quickly and called a taxi back home, stopping at a petrol station on the way just in time to buy some whiskey and coke before it got too late for them to sell it. We stopped at my house for a moment for me to pick up the Playstation and Ghettopoly, and then went to Graham's. With various games, music and drinking, the night got a lot better, and 2010 began.
Last year, I wrote that "this year is for repair", and it really has been. I have to say that overall, 2009 was A Good Year™. I feel I have advanced in some way, to a better stage of life. It feels a little strange to say that whilst I'm sat here in my parent's house, when last year I had a house of my own, but I know this is temporary and I feel sure it was a good choice. I learned to drive. There was the interesting change in atmosphere at work, Vantage has been a success and I started working on some new subjects I find fascinating. I finally left Shanna behind me, and spent ten months with Diana. She asked me sometime during December, I think, to tell her when the new year began whether 2009 had been better than the year before. I got annoyed with her for asking, taking it more like a command than a request, but the truth is I had already been thinking about that, and the answer is yes, she helped a lot to make it a much better year, and I thank her for that.
Our relationship is something I would like to say a lot more about, but also one of the things for which I feel the most pressure to keep details to a minimum. Not only because of Diana's preference for privacy, but also because I couldn't tell you just pieces of the story - it wouldn't be a fair account - I would have to tell you all of it, from the beginning. It's interesting. We've been together for a few months over a year now, and though it initially felt strange and difficult to have another long distance relationship, this isn't the same; we've managed to spend on average at least a week together each month, even if that time hasn't been distributed evenly. It hasn't been perfect uninterrupted happiness; there have been plenty of frustrations and arguments, and we spent our anniversary almost breaking up, but we've also had so many good, happy times together, and I still have that strange feeling of optimism about us that I've had since we met. It's hard to see the whole picture sometimes when you're focused on a particular moment, but when I do... the good things are such good things, and the bad things are so stupid and petty, it seems incredible they ever happened. I have felt a change, very recently, I think a kind of recognition that it's time; we've been together quite a while now, we know each other well, we've seen all the good and bad points we have to offer each other and we know we want this - we should just work together and make it happen. I have been very happy, and I know there is much more to come.
I'm going back to Bremen for the last time in the foreseeable future on the 1st of June. Things are about to change; Diana is graduating from her university, and we don't yet know where she'll go next. Since her parents will also be attending the ceremony, this will be the first time that I meet them. It's probably going to be an interesting experience, partly just because we might not be able to communicate very easily - apparently their English is not particularly fluent, and I know only a few simple words of Romanian (which I'll talk about later), so it might be down to Diana to provide translation. I'm looking forward to it, but am also slightly cautious about what they might ask me. I refuse to lie about anything, but there are some subjects I know Diana would rather we did not talk about, so I can only hope that in the interest of peace, they just don't come up. It'll probably be fine - I think everybody would prefer that this all goes smoothly.
I'll actually miss Bremen. I can't speak for the rest of Germany, but from what little I've seen of the city, it's a nice place.
Speaking of where Diana is headed next though, we are hoping she will get a place in a university in England. If she does, there's a possibility that when the time finally comes for me to move out of this house for the second time, I might look for somewhere wherever she is. It's far too early to say how likely that is, but it's an idea, and I already asked Darius about how I could continue working if I wanted to leave Bournemouth. Work is really the only thing tying me to this place, other than general familiarity, but the idea of moving and working remotely didn't seem to be an issue. Indeed, almost everything I do now is remote anyway; they just like my presence in the office for reassurance, I think, but we said we'd agree some scheme where I basically guarantee to be 'available' at certain times and days, and probably hire someone local for the trivial tasks, and who is technically proficient enough that I could give instructions to them for anything that needs to be done 'on-site'.
In January, I went ahead with my plans to build a new PC. I went significantly over budget, but I don't regret it. My computer is my one real possession, the only physical item of any real importance that I own, and very personal - this is why I always build it myself. This time with an AMD Phenom II X4 processor, a lovely MSI motherboard with hardware RAID support and 4GB of DDR3 memory. Initially I kept my old power supply and graphics card, but they were too noisy, so they had to go too. I bought a new Nexus PSU and a Sapphire Vapor-X Radeon HD 5770. The 5770 seems to be roughly equal in power to the 4890 that I had before, despite being almost 1000 more model number units, but is a DirectX 11 card, and most importantly, extremely quiet. Combined with the huge heat sink and fan I bought for the CPU, the system is almost silent, and runs very cool - the processor never makes it much above room temperature even under heavy load. The only things making any noise now are the hard disks - 3 x 1.5TB disks in RAID 5 configuration.
The peace was disturbed briefly when the PSU started making a whining noise under certain conditions. The volume and pitch of the sound seemed to be directly related to system load, which made it very annoying as it would vary as I did things, making itself very noticeable. I sent QuietPC an email asking if I could send it back, and they accepted. Shortly after that however, I lost power without warning a couple of times, and eventually, it wouldn't switch back on at all. I ordered a new Scythe PSU instead, and haven't had any problems since. Also, as the reason for return had changed from 'unwanted noise from item' to 'broken item', QuietPC collected the old one for free and refunded it. I have to say I have been very pleased with their service, and I'm thinking of buying a couple more things from them: a fan controller, and possibly some acoustic foam to put around the hard disk enclosure.
I named it Xana, after the character from Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. My old computer, eventually named Nemo after being called simply WhoAmI for most of its life, met an end strangely fitting to its name. Unlike the system before it, Carbon109, it had many parts replaced, never really retained its own identity, and now serves Graham as a host for various virtual machines. The nameless one has faded from existence.
Back in what I think was April, but may have been March, Graham and I went to see 30 Seconds To Mars at the BIC. They're not by any means our favourite band, but still are somewhat unique in our music collection, and we had a feeling that they'd be good to see live. We were right. Songs that are usually 'pretty good' became an amazing experience. Thankfully it turns out that Leto really can sing every bit as well live as in the studio, and he and the rest of the band gave a fantastic performance. I bought two of the traditionally-ridiculously-overpriced T-shirts they were selling after the show, which I feel was only fair after having downloaded all three of their albums from the internet. We'd talked about seeing them a few times before when we'd noticed that they'd been scheduled to play in local places like Southampton, but nothing ever came of it. Seeing them down to actually play Bournemouth though, was too tempting, and I'm glad we went.
For the first quarter of the year or so, I went through a period of working my way through quite a few games. Mostly they were games I'd been meaning to investigate for a long time but hadn't, and now I've played through all of them in a row. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was first, and probably the one I was most impressed by. It just somehow fits the perfect balance between FPS and RPG that I'd been waiting for. The combat is much more realistic than typical 'pure' FPSes like Unreal Tournament, with more importance given to stealth and caution, but still plenty of action. Getting shot actually hurts you and is fatal pretty quickly (at least on the hardest difficulty), so rushing in madly is usually not the best tactic. The AI is good, too. The atmosphere of the game is wonderful, fitting the storyline perfectly, having a real sense of hopelessness. Graphically it's not up to the latest standards, but still very impressive, and the underground areas with only your torch light to see by, casting shadows all around the environment, look superb and can actually be pretty scary. The RPG element is just right; I feel like the player character has a real identity, you get a lot of freedom to play things your way, but still directed through a mostly linear storyline to keep things interesting. I think the only aspect that bothered me was the same kind of issue I had with Fallout 3: the game encourages you to put a lot of time into things which end up being worth nothing. STALKER isn't quite so bad as Fallout, since you don't ever really have a 'home', but at least the first half or more of the game is spend travelling between the same territories, and you become very familiar with the world, and start collecting items for 'later'. Then, you take a critical step in the storyline, leave that place and never return. You take only what you can carry (which isn't much) and play through to the end of the game. I'd been so used to games like Morrowind and Oblivion allowing 'free-play' after the main quest is complete, it's still slightly surprising when I reach the end of an RPG-ish game and discover that there is no more to see but the credits.
The sequel, by comparison, was relatively disappointing. It wasn't terrible, but the world somehow seemed a brighter, happier place, which doesn't really fit with the supposed setting. The contrast in difficulty between areas was extreme too - the game as a whole was significantly easier even on the hardest setting, and felt a lot less serious or challenging, but had some short sections that were ridiculously hard, the only way to make it through alive basically being lots of quicksave/quickload. The main cause of the easiness was the new equipment customisation feature. I don't think I've ever seen this implemented well (except perhaps Mass Effect); all I had to do was save up a bit of money, buy all the upgrades focusing on range and accuracy, and build what was effectively a Assault Rifle of Extremely Long Range Pwnage. Nobody stood a chance after that. The story was much less interesting and immersive, and the ending felt incredibly rushed, not to mention being very buggy. The third instalment, I've only just begun playing, so I can't comment on that yet.
I became interested in trying out the new Red Faction game, but like Half-Life, decided that if I was going to play a franchise I'd start from the beginning. So, I bought the original Red Faction. It was what I expected it to be really - from around the same kind of time as games like Half-Life and Unreal, it was another now-old-looking but very long and fun shooter, which a few interesting gimmicks like the deformable environments thrown in. It was also laughably easy. I tried to take it seriously in the beginning, playing stealthily and trying not to get hit, but pretty soon discovered I didn't have to care. Most of the enemies do little damage (although some do extreme amounts), and the AI is too stupid to be a threat anyway. Most of the weapons seem to have pinpoint accuracy at all times regardless of range or movement, and I'm accurate myself, so enemies tended to be dead before they really had a chance to respond. Interestingly, my main thought after finishing it is that if Doom 3 had been more like Red Faction, it would have sucked significantly less.
Finally, I bought Mass Effect, which is something a little different. It's more like a film than a game for most of the time, very heavy on dialogue and story, and takes the 'pick what your character should say next' approach to determining how events unfold, which I quite like. I found the control system to be almost unplayable in the beginning and almost gave up on it, but eventually got used to it. The interface has quite a steep learning curve with very little instruction, but some of the mechanics, like the inventory and upgrade system, I really like.
Since I'm talking about games, there are two that I will not be buying, at least unless some changes are made. Bioshock 2 and Assassin's Creed 2, both of which I've been looking forward to for a long time, have now arrived but with some horribly restrictive DRM. Bioshock 2 is tied to Games For Windows Live, which means that I have to have an account with them, be online, logged in, and have the GFWL client running at all times if I want to play. I'm used to that general idea because I buy games on Steam, but they are not producing different versions of the game with appropriate copy protection; if I buy it on Steam, I will have to have Steam running, online and logged in, as well as GFWL running, online and logged in. That seems somewhat excessive to be able to play a game I paid them for. It also includes the lovely SecuROM, and apparently now a 15-install limit. Assassin's Creed 2 requires you to be online and connected to Ubisoft's servers for the entire time you are playing - any disconnection, even temporary, and the game will stop running. If you don't reconnect, your progress since the last checkpoint will be lost. It seems to me these companies are continually probing to see how far they can push with these restrictions. Well, this is far enough for me.
Oh actually, there's one more game I won't be buying, because Remedy suck. Alan Wake, announced literally years ago and marketed as a showcase for DirectX 10 and Vista. Time passed though, and now we already have DirectX 11 and Windows 7. Very little information on progress was published, the release date always set as 'when it's done', so for years I've been waiting patiently. Only to see that in the last few months before the waiting came to an end, the plans change from being a primary PC release to a primary XBox release, with PC version coming 'later', to then being an XBox exclusive with no PC version planned. So, that was worth the wait.
Having written this much, I couldn't possibly leave out Portal 2. Valve played a game with fans leading up to the official announcement that it's being developed, and it was... impressive. You can read the whole story elsewhere, but there was a sudden update released over steam with a cryptic description, which turned out to include several new sound files, some of which were Morse code, and some of which were actually encoded SSTV images. The images provided hexadecimal digits, which were assembled into an MD5 hash, and a text mask. Finding a string which had the correct MD5 hash and fitted the mask revealed a phone number, which turned out to be an old BBS. Once the login information was discovered (from the earlier Morse code), it released bits of text and ASCII images. There was a progress bar which counted up towards the official announcement, the text of which had more login details hidden within it. Those details a made the BBS output some new files, including some more images in unique file format, and a QBasic program for reading them. The work that Valve put into setting up these puzzles, and the work that the community put into solving them, was wonderful to see as it all unfolded. Now that is how you generate interest. Apparently the game is actually due for release sometime near the end of the year... I am certainly looking forward to it.
Last time she was here, Diana sort of... arranged a day out with Adele. I thought it was a strange thing to do, but we everyone seemed okay with going ahead with it, so we did. We took the children and had a day at Longleat, which was nice. I'd been there once before but many years ago. We didn't really have time for everything there, but went on train and through the place where you can pet the little animals, had some lunch and then on to the main attraction: the drive-through safari. It was good, and we got quite a few pictures, but as usual the animals everyone most wants to see - the big cats - were lazing around in the distance. The queues in those areas were pretty long too, and eventually everyone except me fell asleep. The next weekend I went back up by myself to spend a couple of days. Adele and I basically did a lot of driving, which turned out to be fun. We initially set off to find Cheddar Gorge, but didn't know the way. Adele suggested heading for Yeovil, thinking we'd see some signs on the way. We didn't, and ended up in Yeovil, which turned out to be in entirely the opposite direction from Cheddar. Since it was late, we went up to Bath, where I reversed into a bush and possibly scared away a burglar. I was a bit nervous about wondering around the city late on a busy night, but being Bath, it wasn't as bad as I thought. We went to Moles music venue for a bit, then decided to have another go at Cheddar. By the time we reached it, it was almost 1 in the morning. The darkness and lack of lighting in the little town, combined with not really knowing what to expect, the first turn took me by quite a surprise, as did the next few. Driving through the Gorge in the middle of the night is scary and dangerous, but lots of fun.
At some point, I managed to get caught by a speed camera. I'd gone the wrong way and was looking for a good place to turn around, and the speed limit kept changing every few hundred metres. I was also following a car in front of me, which makes me wonder how I was speeding and he wasn't. Still, I got a £60 fine and three points on my license. Not a good start, considering I haven't had the license that long... I'll just have to be careful for a while. Six points in the first two years results in having to take the theory and practical tests again, so basically I can't afford to do anything wrong for the next eighteen months or so.
The ticket arrived whilst I was in Spain. I went back over for what was supposed to be a five-day visit to see Darius' new business and discuss extending Vantage for it. However, I got caught up in all the problems over the volcanic eruption, and ended up staying for closer to three weeks. It wasn't a bad time; I went out with Darius and family to a couple of places, and once again ate too much nice food. I got to see the new supermarket develop quite a lot in the time I was there, and we got an office set up which will serve as a base to work from in future. By the end of it though, I was quite tired of being away from home, and of being surrounded by languages I couldn't understand. Since every time I rebooked my flight it got cancelled again, I eventually gave up and planned to come home with Darius, who was driving back. In the end, it had to be the day before I was planning to go to Bremen to see Diana, so I was travelling for almost three days - driving from the south of Spain, across Spain and France, via ferry to Portsmouth, and then back to Bournemouth for only a few hours before having to get on a coach to Heathrow, then Stansted, then fly to Bremen, then the tram and train and bus to the university.
After longing to go home so much, once I got there I almost changed my mind. This place is so full of scum. In just the few hours in the country I had to see some chavs hanging around the coach station disturbing the other waiting passengers, and then try to board the coach without having enough money, arguing with the driver with "just fuckin' let us on mate". When I finally returned from Germany it didn't get much better either. The next day back at work there was some fight outside, and various other things. I suppose it's no different that it's always been, but it's funny... having spent just a few weeks in Spain and Germany, I didn't any of this. It really made me notice so much more when I came back. These people make me sick.
Also whilst I was in Spain, my laptop's screen finally broke. The plastic around the hinges had been cracking away for ages, but still just about holding together. At last it gave way completely though, and broke right off; it's attached now only by the wires that provide power and data to it. I'd looked before at the cost of replacement parts (back panel and hinges) and decided it wasn't worth the cost - better to buy a new one. I'd bought that laptop when my priorities were different - I wanted something big with a full keyboard, mainly just for using around the house. Now I wanted something smaller and more portable so that I can take it with me when I travel, and something with a good battery life. I spent several hours looking, unable to decide whether to invest in something with some actual power, or go with the cheap netbooks. In the end I compromised with an Acer Timeline 4810T, a small 14" laptop that was quite cheap, but not completely lacking in power like all the netbooks, and has an 8 hour battery. So far it's been good. I named it Sareth, in keeping with the Dark Messiah theme.
So, as I mentioned briefly earlier, I've been trying to begin learning Romanian. I don't really know why - obviously it's related to Diana, but her English is mostly perfect, there's no actual need for me to speak any Romanian - but it seemed like it'd be a nice thing to do. I kind of like the idea of having a private (except around her friends and family, of course) language to talk to her in. And it's only fair. I'm not doing too badly so far: I've learned a few verbs, nouns and adjectives, pretty much all the ingredients you need to put some sentences together, though only in the present tense. There some things I like, such as the very consistent pronunciation, and plenty of things I don't like, such as the huge number of forms of, well, everything, and the usual things I always think are stupid about foreign languages, like words having genders. I ordered some children's books to read (so far one has arrived, Rața fermieră) , but despite them being aimed at age 3-5, I can't read them easily yet (though well enough to understand what is going on). I've been relying a lot on a program called Anki. I was just looking for a simple program to create flashcards with, but discovered this, which is a bit more sophisticated.
My tooth is still broken, but doesn't seem to have got much worse. For a time I couldn't decide whether it was getting worse or not... one moment it seemed to be staying the same, the next I was sure it would probably only last a few weeks before breaking. My estimates were varying like a Windows file copy dialogue, but it's been six months or so now and despite having a huge hole in it, it still feels pretty solid. It's mostly fake anyway, so it's not like when it does finally break I'm actually going to lose anything, so... I might as well just ignore it until it does.
I guess that will do, for now.