Friday, May 30

New Music

Tashan - Tashan

A bit late in the game on this one, but suffice to say I'm a bit late on this one. With only five tracks on it, this OST isn't very long but is worth it for Dil Dance Maare ("Oh, white white face dheke!") alone. Other tracks of note are Chhaliya and Dil Haara. The OST is as fun as the film really, which is no bad thing.

Wednesday, May 28

Overclocking A Q6600

It's fair to say that I bought my various bit and pieces of my new build with the express intention of overclocking it. The main enabler of this is the Intel Q6600, a pretty long in the tooth quad core processor that runs at 2.4GHz out of the box. There are newer processors now which run on faster system buses, but their technical designs make them harder to overclock. And of course they're more expensive too and I was on a budget of sorts.

Overclocking is a bit of a dark art with a number of variables to consider, some in your hands and some out. It really is down to luck how successful you'll be even if you have the exact same set up as someone else. For instance, not all Q6600s are made equally; those of a lower quality require a higher voltage to run at stock speeds, and a higher voltage, although safe, will result in higher operating temperatures, something that needs to be kept as low as possible during the overclocking process. This Voltage ID or VID is set by Intel during their tests of each chip at the factory.

Unfortunately my Q6600 had a pretty poor VID of 1.3250 (other Q6600s have VIDs as low as 1.2250). 1.3250 is toward the upper end of possible VIDs so I was pretty unlucky with mine. Still, you play the hand you're dealt and it's precisely because you can overclock bad chips that makes the Q6600 such a good buy.

It's a point of contention as to what exactly a safe voltage is. Stock is certainly safe, but some people think that 1.35 is still stock, while others say that anything up to 1.5 is safe too (since it falls within Intel's own voltage range on the Q6600). One thing everyone agrees on however is that increasing the voltage above your VID may decrease the life of your processor; whether you need it to last the full 15 years it's been designed to operate for is up to you.

I wanted as much as possible "for free"; that means that I didn't want to adjust any voltages or other parameters which would push any of the system beyond their designed specifications and I would stick to the VID (or thereabouts). Within this criteria I was aiming for a core speed of 3.2GHz using a bus speed of 400MHz (the maximum for my RAM), a 33% increase on the the stock speed. Oh, and I didn't want to break 60C in core temperatures while fully loaded.

The basic method for overclocking is one of trial and error. Since I wasn't messing with any of the more complex settings I just had the FSB, CPU multiplier (which when multiplied by the FSB gives you the core speed) and the CPU voltage (which you may need to increase in order to allow the CPU to run at a high speed). Since everything is controlled by the BIOS, you need a reboot for each iteration making it all a long winded process.

Once I got into Windows (if I got that far - if not then I was pushing too far and needed to up the voltage a bit) I used CoreTemp to measure temperatures, CPU-Z to measure effective voltages (it usually drops by the time it gets to your CPU) and the number cruncher Prime95 to stress test the system.

I recorded most of my results here. I was a bit disappointed with the results, although they are pretty in line with those expected from a VID like mine. The good news was that I could reduce the voltage quite a bit to run the chip at stock speeds, but that was an academic conclusion - I wanted to go up in speed, not down.

At a stock voltage of 1.325v I found that I was able to get a stable 3.0GHz (375x8) with some very decent temperatures. Pushing it further to 1.35v allowed me to hit 3.08Ghz (385x8) and still without getting near 60C. To stem my curiosity I hit 3.2GHz (356x9) but only after ramping the voltage past 1.4v (I was lazy and used the auto setting in the BIOS, not a good idea since I now don't know if I could have gone lower). As a result my temperatures hit 62C under load.

Throughout testing I didn't have to touch any of my other components - even the RAM was using its stock voltage at a CL4 speed. I was especially impressed with the performance of my Akasa 965 CPU cooler - I wasn't worried about temperatures at all throughout, and I reckon I might still get 3.2GHz under 60C if I nail the right voltage.

Other things I found was that a faster FSB is better than a higher multiplier (so 400x8 is preferable to 355x9) and that a faster CPU core speed is better than a faster FSB (so 3.0GHz via 375x8 is preferable to 2.8GHz via 400x7). Another thing to note is that power saving technology like Speedstep may not work as well once you adjust some of these settings (for example since Speedstep works by automatically reducing the multiplier under low loads, going from 8x to 6x will have less of an effect than going from 9x to 6x).

Considering all the above and since I like the idea of sticking to stock (for now), I decided to settle with a speed of 3.0GHz via 375x8. I think with a better VID I could have pushed it a bit higher (1.325v alone may have taken me to 3.2GHz), and over time I envisage taking the system to 3.08GHz at least, and possibly even higher provided I can find a voltage that both keeps me there and my temperatures under 60C. But for now I'll take my free 25% increase and leave it at that.

Sunday, May 25

Film: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Click for more info

You know, when it comes to modern updates of eighties' classics, I'm not that poignant really. I thought the later three Star Wars were pretty cool and I liked the Rocky and Rambo reprisals. I don't hate a film just 'cos it's crapping all over my childhood.

So it's with full objective confidence that I say that Crystal Skull wasn't very good. It was almost as if someone saw the first three installments, thought it was easy to reproduce and then failed supremely. That it was written by Lucas and directed by Spielberg makes it even more disappointing.

There's just no fun factor here, no bravado and no magical moments. I refuse to believe that Harrison Ford was too old for the role; that his severe lack of Indy charm was due to something else. The rest of the cast were equally soulless, although Cate Blanchett was okay I suppose.

But it was the story that let the whole thing down the most I think. I can't really go into it without major spoilerage, but my jaw was hanging open in disbelief at some of the plot developments. I guess in today's world Indiana can't cover the ground it used to (and you might understand what I mean by that if you ever go watch).


Saturday, May 24

Steve and Nadine

After seven (or is it eight?) years of being together, Steve and Nadine finally wed today. None of their friends expect to see any change in their relationship, since we all thought that they were married in everything but name already anyway.

Being a loner anti-social type, there are very few people whom I talk to every single day. Steve is in that rare few, and even on a one-to-one basis we're able to talk about all manner of, well, crap for hours on end. It's fair to say that Steve's one of my more closer mates.

If anyone is responsible for what little friendship I demonstrate to others, it's Steve. He's always picking up the tab and never gets irritated at the smaller things that pee the rest of us off, especially when it comes to his friends. He helps put things in perspective. Apart from all that he's also generous, funny and unashamedly brash, a trait that may have rubbed off a little on me as well. He's also a bit of a pervert but the less said of that, the better.

Unlike is typically the case, I knew Nadine before she and Steve became an item - in that way I can call her a friend in her own right and not by association. Full of integrity, she knows what her responsibilities are and won't complain (much) when she's asked to fulfill them. She's also super patient - a prerequisite when you're with someone like Steve I guess.

Although it happens less often, I don't think either of them realise how much I appreciated being their third wheel. They still remain the people I've seen the most amount of films with - the three of us were hitting West India Quay's Cineworld up to two times a week at one point. Being able to freely hang out with them as a couple has high value in a world where single people sometimes get left out, and even if I'm as half as welcoming (although Nadine did have to sit between Steve and me sometimes) as they were I'll consider it an achievement; I hope to be able to treat my single friends just as Steve and Nadine treated me.

I don't think I know a couple who are so comfortable together; where other relationships are based on compromise these two are able to remain honest and true to themselves in theirs. It's an aspiring quality and shows that you don't have to be someone you're not (as I'm sometimes being advised to) in order to maintain a successful relationship.

There are no fears in my mind about their future together; the proof is in the pudding and they've been together so long already today's nuptials is literally just a formality. Despite that, it was wonderful seeing them in their obvious happiness today as they cemented their relationship in front of their closest friends and family and I was proud to have been a witness to it.

Friday, May 23

Shak And The City

No, no and a thousand times no! I will NOT go watch Sex And The City with you! So far three ladies (steady, that count includes an aunt) have now asked me if I'll be going to watch SATC and whether they can tag along if so. I dunno. Am I really that girly[1] or something?

I mean hey, I'll admit it. I may have once for a microsecond considered watching the film, but only to be in the company of the awesome Kristen Davis for a couple of hours. Having not seen the series (in fact I despised it and all that it stood for and was amazed at how women could not see it for the misogynistic pap that it was) the film would probably have been wasted on me anyway, but the continued insinuation by those asking me to take them to the blummin' film has kinda made it a point for me not to go.

And of course this weekend is all about Henry Jones Junior anyway. It'd be like tainting his name if I partook in the oestrogen orgy that is SATC.

So just in case you missed it, no. And just in case you're wondering, I don't want to know how "absolutely brilliant" it was either.

[1] I've chosen that adjective carefully. Anyone who mentions the letters GBF gets a life ban. And a slap.

The Butt Joke Test

It's tough meeting a potential rishta. On the one hand you're meant to be on your best behaviour (on order of certain other parental stakeholders). On the other you're also supposed to portray as accurate a picture of your true self as possible, and all within a limited amount of time.

But what of those of us whose true selves don't exactly have best behaviours? A rishtaview is hardly something in which it's a good idea to lie, especially if it's yourself you're lying about. I guess it's sometimes a good idea to go slow when introducing yourself, especially if you have, um, a unique personality, but I think you really should communicate that personality in whole at some point.

But I think behaving oneself isn't necessarily about hiding the more undesirable parts, but more about giving your opposite the chance to organically learn about who you are, just like any friends you happen to be close with did. Of course the difference here is that you don't have the time or opportunity to go through the same kind of generic experiences.

It's actually a problem I've been thinking about on a personal level recently. Apparently I'm a bit too honest (if such a thing is possible) during my own rishtaviews, and need to be selective about what I reveal about myself, especially in the first meeting. I have a problem with this, of course. It's not that I can't tone it down a bit; I've always claimed that it's easy enough to play the part if that's what you really want to do. It's just that I don't want to.

So what's the solution? Is it actually possible to be genuine and true to yourself and well-behaved? Well on discussing this issue with some friends last night, I came up with The Butt Joke Test. Hey wait - just hear me out.

The idea is to be decent and well behaved for most of the time you have with the potential, up to the point where you've established that you might actually have a chance of getting some kind of positive outcome. And that's when you make the butt joke. It can be about your butt, their butt (careful!), butts in general or anything similar but it has to be boundary crossing.

It's the reaction you're looking out for. If they chuck you out of their house then further analysis isn't really necessary. However them ignoring (or tolerating) you is something worth investigating further. Them laughing or even responding would be like hitting the jackpot. In this single small step you'll get to know how patient, easy-going, open-minded, sensitive and funny this potential rishta is. Or isn't, as the case may possibly be.

Ideally you should leave this till the end of your allotted time, partly so that you're already familiar but mainly so that you can give any mehram a chance to swallow at least one samosa, otherwise they may spit it out in surprise (if you're lucky) or disgust (if you're not). And, most importantly, you're only allowed to do it the one time, whatever the reaction actually was.

For those of you thinking I'm crazy and about to comment telling me how they would never consider a rishta who acted in such a way, well you're kinda validating the method. I mean don't get me wrong, I totally get why one shouldn't ordinarily make a butt joke during a rishtaview, but I think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks here. And anyway, at least I'm not using The Butt Crack Test as was originally discussed last night. I do have some sense of proportion y'know.


Wednesday, May 21

Yet Another PC Build

Yes, yes. I know. Two PC build posts in a month? Well to be fair this project, to build a replacement for my current workhorse, was a far higher priority than the HTPC - in fact that the latter was a PC at all was second to its primary purpose.

I'm actually late on this too - I was due a new PC in March, the standard four years after buying my trusted Medion MD8083 from Aldi. But what with dropping prices and a bit of confusion about new technology I held off for a while. But now I need one for work (and play) I decided to take the plunge.

So, after hitting various forums and friends for advice, I settled on the following spec:

  • £131.98 Intel Quad Core Q6600 95Watt G0 Stepping 4 x 2.40Ghz 8Mb Cache 1066 FSB Quad Core Processor
  • £10.87 Akasa AK 965 (Socket 775) Aluminium with Copper Base Processor Cooler
  • £73.27 Corsair 4GB Kit (2x2GB) DDR2 800MHz/PC2-6400 XMS2 Memory Non-ECC Unbuffered CL4(4-4-4-12) DHX Technology Heat Sink Lifetime Warranty
  • £63.58 Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3 iP35 Socket 775 8 channel audio ATX Motherboard
  • £13.99 Nvidia 7100GS 128MB Supporting 512MB DDR2 VGA DVI TV Out PCI-E Graphics Card
  • £51.29 Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500GB SATA II 7200rpm 32Mb Cache 11ms 300Mb/s
  • £15.98 Samsung SH-S203D 20X DVD±RW/RAM/DL Serial ATA Black Bare Drive - OEM
  • £63.23 Corsair HX Series 520W Modular PSU - ATX12V v2.2 APFC
  • £24.60 Coolermaster Elite 330 Black Mid Tower Case - No PSU
  • £1.49 Extra Value 120mm Internal Case Fan In Black - 4 pin connector
Once again, everything was bought from E-buyer, with the exception of the CPU and hard disk which came from Novatech (the prices above include any Quidco).

Looking back I think I spoiled myself a little with the PSU and RAM, but prices are so low now I thought it was worth spending a bit - the total for the above hits a reasonable £450.28. Note however that I bought the cheapest disposable dual-view graphics card I could get, in anticipation of new stuff from ATI in a couple of months that I'll be upgrading to. I've set myself a budget of around £200 for that (but hope not to get near that!).

Putting it together was more problematic than I had expected it to be. It took a whopping three and an half hours altogether, although I did break a bit for dinner and the match. The most troublesome and time consuming bits were attaching the case fan to the CM-330 (threadless plastic sucks, no matter how soft it is), attaching the heatsink (I'm not a fan of the push button way of fixing it to the motherboard) and arranging the SATA drives in order to use just the one power cable.

The final build is pretty neat though. The modular PSU is pretty cool - I only ended up using the single SATA power cable (case fans have been attached directly to the motherboard) so it's definitely doing its job right.

I managed to POST okay, and since I have a DVD drive this time I don't envisage any issues installing an operating system (although I seem to be having some reboot issues right now. Hmm [1]). However that doesn't mean my building is now over; no, because running everything at "stock" isn't what I had in mind. But any experimenting with overclocking will be done later on, once I'm confident about the general stability of the system. Eep.

Piccies of the whole process (if you haven't nodded off by now) can be found on my Picasa.

[1] Seems that a BIOS update fixed all the issues I was having. Strangely enough, my motherboard came with version f10 of the BIOS, when according to the website the first for my board was f11. Upgraded to the latest f12 anyway.

Tuesday, May 20

It's Like Riding A Bike

It's no big secret that I can't ride a bike. Well when I say I can't that's not entirely true, it's just that whenever I get on one I always end up hitting a tree. Even if I'm in a field there always seems to be a blummin' tree in my path and for some reason I can never quite manage to steer around it - it's like the bike becomes programmed to head to a Oak on autopilot or something.

This is all much to the dismay of the person who had lent me their two wheeled pride and joy; but then I don't feel guilty partly since I always inform them of what's going to inevitably occur but mainly because they were the ones saying how easy it all is. As I always explain to them, I guess I'm just more of a motor vehicle kinda guy.

Anyway, committing to an upcoming sponsored bike ride has prompted me to get back on the saddle and get to a level of reasonable competency. So, borrowing a friend's bike (with his son's helmet; Star Wars if you really need to know) I hit a nearby park for half an hour or so this morning to see how much damage I could inflict on the trees there.

And it all went quite well considering. Okay, I did hit some park railings at one point. And almost ran over a jogger. And perhaps glanced off a gardener's van. But they were all nothing major - in fact since most of the altercations happened in the same place I blame the track more than my (admittedly beginner's) skill. Once I avoided all the deceptive pits and dips I was lapping the park like a pro. I even changed gears a couple of times and everything. Woot.

In terms of fitness and effort, I still don't quite think I've underestimated this bike ride like some have been accusing me of, but I'm glad I've started practicing already. I did have the wobbles at times, and I do seem to have trouble keeping the steering straight while doing, well, anything else.

But here I am, legs feeling like jelly and my bum slightly sore. It was all worth it though, since there is something free, liberating and exhilarating about riding a bike - I'm glad that I've been forced to finally get on one!

Sunday, May 18

New Music

Heartbreaker -

Super smooth funky track that really shouldn't be as good as it is. And the video has Cheryl Cole in it! Result!

4 Minutes - Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake

Although I wouldn't class this as a Madonna classic it's still catchy - it wouldn't have been anything without Timberlake/land either.

Saturday, May 17

A Joke

Q: What happens when you spend the day obsessing over a pretty girl while deep in deliberations over picking the parts for your new PC?

A: You spend the night dreaming about said pretty girl managing to overclock her Q6600 G0 to 4GHz. On air.

Nope. I'm no sad geek. Nuh uh.

Anyway for those of you interested in the new build, watch this space. On the other hand for those of you interested in the pretty girl, well, I find not holding one's breath a proven idea.

Friday, May 16

Food: La Porte de Indes Click for more info

Make no mistake folks, this place is definitely more Indian than French. From the decor to waiters it's tough to imagine being able to order anything other than a fancy chicken korma, but then I guess I'd need to actually visit colonial Pondicherry to really decide how authentic the place was. But then I never really care about the context of such places - a bunch of friends and I came here to eat, not imagine that I'm in some French-run colony.

I've actually been here before, way before I started writing. I remember not being too impressed by the place, its only talent being able to overcharge us for pretty basic food. Fortunately I had a better experience this time around, probably due to a change in both my taste and the restaurant itself.

Since we decided to hedge our bets and picked various platter/mixed grill dishes for both starts and main, I'm not really sure what we ate. There were fish mince, prawns kebabs and chops, all pretty much edible but nothing special. I'm still wondering how good the portions were, since even after under ordering dishes (two starters and three mains for five of us), we had a bit left.

Only the lamb and chicken are halal (by assertion of the waiter), although I was more convinced by the opportunity to pray Maghrib on-site without any eyebrows being raised than the testimony of staff. Atmosphere was pretty good too, both now and the previous time I came - Indes is the perfect place for both intimate conversation and public debate and I felt at ease with the vibe at all times. Service was also top notch: we were given all the space we needed while ordering and were even treated to an unrequested dessert (it had been a fellow diner's birthday that week) and flowers for the ladies present.

All of this came at a cost of course. At just under £30 per head for the food and drink (the non-alcoholic cocktail was £7 quid alone!), I can hardly call Indes value for money, especially since we had under ordered. Still I don't think anyone went away hungry and we undeniably had a good time so I can't call it a total con - so perhaps Indes is only really a place to go to armed with a top table offer or two?

Wednesday, May 14

In Spitting Distance Click for more info

To be honest I didn't really know much about this play before going to see it. Other than it being Palestinian I was going in blind. So I was kinda surprised by a) it being wholly in Arabic b) the availability of subtitles via a floating display toward the ceiling of the stage area and c) the fact that it was a completely solo performance.

So it was certainly different to much of what I've seen before; yes, good ol' Drama GCSE did give me the chance to see some pretty peculiar stuff, but nevertheless watching In Spitting Distance was a novel experience for me.

The Barbican's The Pit is a cosy and intimate space, perfect for performances like this one. There were no props or backgrounds, and the most technically advanced feature was the filtered and silhouetted lighting.

All this meant that the main focus was on Khalifa Natour and his ability as an actor. He didn't disappoint at all - he was powerful, expressive and very funny and seemed made for the part. He was assisted by a charming yet equally powerful script by Taher Najib - the whole hour (actually it was slightly less than that) was well rounded and balanced, managing to provide laughs, romance and tragedy in equal and sometimes simultaneous measure.

It was poignant revisiting Ramallah, Rucarb Street, Kalandia and Israeli immigration through the play, but even if you haven't visited the region in the past few months In Spitting Distance is certainly an hour and £12 quid well spent. It's only on till the 17th, so be quick.

Film: Speed Racer Click for more info

The Wachowski Brothers do their awesome thing with the classic Anime. For over two hours we follow Speed (yes, that is his name) as he climbs the ranks in professional car racing, while discovering the shady world of race fixing as he does so.

The first thing to really hit you are the visuals. Almost fantasy-like, you can see what they were trying to do with the use of bright colours and cartoon backgrounds. The acting wasn't all that in itself, but the cast should noted for making such good use of the virtual stage. That said, Paulie Litt as Spritle was an amazing young actor and I thought Christina Ricci's Trixie was utterly gorgeous (which in itself is scary).

Fast and frantic, we were spoiled by the action. Unlike other films Speed Racer isn't stingy and has a number of equally impressive set pieces, some too fast to register properly - in a way that makes it very Matrix-like in structure. It's also similar to The Wachowski Brothers' masterpiece in other ways too, particularly with its blink-and-you'll-miss-it plot.

Needless to say, I loved Speed Racer. It was a pleasant surprise from the identikit and sometimes shallow action flick of today, and I can't wait to revisit it at home with a pause button. Until then I recommend that you all watch it as soon as possible.

Monday, May 12

90210 Spinoff Confirmed! Click for more info

You know, there was a time when I didn't watch television. Well, not as obsessively as I do now, anyway. There were two shows that changed all that, and introduced me to the whole world of serials and their weekly doses. Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of them, while the other was Beverly Hills 90210.

For many, 90210 was the original US Teen Drama, the one that all others were based on. It had the typical boy-girl set up, the same predictable storylines and drama and tons of mushy feel good factor. The cast was both hot and cool at the same time, and all fans played the whole "which 90210 character are you?" game.

Which kinda explains why I'm so excited at the prospect of a spinoff, rumoured for months but finally confirmed today. It won't be the same (and even if it was that wouldn't necessarily be a good thing - it really hasn't aged well), but in terms of poignancy it'll deliver in spades.

Oh and the fact that they've brought back the best thing about 90210, namely Jennie Garth's Kelly Taylor, makes it all the more unmissable. Frankly, I can't wait... I wonder if I can get hold of the original series anywhere?

Wednesday, May 7

Absolute Distance

I've written before about how I find it strange to criticise someone for practising Islam. Stated in those terms I'm sure you'd probably agree, yet so many people still do it - the latest example being to comment on how a passing woman wearing a headscarf was also wearing a revealing top and tight jeans.

It's a stance I need to challenge, seeing how I recognise a similar behaviour in myself - I practice relatively thoroughly, but at times am known for the odd rude joke or ogling behaviour. In fact, since no Muslim is perfect we could all be accused of acting in this misrepresenting way.

Yet for some reason a woman in a headscarf always seems to warrant extra attention and that, funnily enough, usually by ladies who choose not to cover their hair at all (and if I was mean I'd accuse them of insecure self-justification). The reasons for their focus vary, but don't usually hold up to much scrutiny. So for a random girl walking with a headscarf and not so modest clothes:

  • She's being hypocritical. Well not really since she's not telling anyone else to do anything, be it wear a headscarf or dress like she is. She's just living her life.
  • She's passing herself off as something she's not. But if that was the case why would she give anyone such an obvious reason to criticise her? It's unlikely that she slipped up and accidentally wore what she did.
  • She's a role model and should be acting as such. But she didn't ask for that responsibility and more than I have by praying regularly. In fact I reckon it's the fault of others if they want to assume she's some kind of super-perfect Muslim to be imitated, and even more so if they copy her immodest dress. And besides, as mentioned above, most Muslims claim to be Muslims; does that make them role models too?
  • It's a half-hearted attempt at practising the wider practice of hijab. But isn't that better than no attempt at all? And since we're never going to be perfect, doesn't that make all of us trivially half-hearted too?
One significance of the headscarf is that it's a constant thing and so occurs at the same time as bad practice. But I don't think that the temporal order of things is the point here, otherwise we wouldn't expect anyone to don a headscarf until they're perfect.

I always try to avoid talking about headscarves - although I think that people can have an opinion on situations not applicable to them, it's tough to talk about women covering up without appearing to judge or command. But as I touched on above, this isn't really about the headscarf itself, but about all of us practising as much as we're able to.

I would agree that this poor girl would probably be in a better position if she covered up, but then so would someone who dressed the same without a headscarf. The point is that she can't be in a worse position than before by putting on a headscarf. In an absolute sense she's now closer to the God, not further, and I'm not sure you can criticise anyone for that - after all, would someone really be better off removing their headscarf?

While on Hajj, my imam/guide was asked how to fulfill the obligation of prayer when a job wouldn't let you. Although it was clear the questioner was trying to get out of praying at all (it's unbelievable that any office wouldn't let you pray today), the reply was pretty surprising.

In short, it was to do what you could: so if there was no time for wudhu, then skip it. If you couldn't leave your seat, then pray in your chair. If you couldn't move at all then just close your eyes and do it in your mind. Back then I was totally taken aback by how easily the imam advised us to compromise our prayer, but now it just makes total sense. The conclusion was that it was better to do what you could than to do nothing at all since even the smallest positive act brings you closer to a perfect Islam.

Would an alcoholic be better off not fasting at all? Should I stop praying just because I have some dodgy behaviour at times? Of course, we cannot use the good we do in order to justify the bad (so you can't steal in order to pay charity) and similarly we can't rest on our laurels just because we do some good at times, but this discussion assumes some level of honest intention.

The opposing attitude is one that discourages people to practise as much as they can, something that would probably increase for them as time goes on anyway. No one becomes a perfect Muslim overnight, and if people are left to think that they can't do as much as they can (or want) without doing it all, then I fear that many won't even bother making a start in the first place.

Tuesday, May 6

Building an HTPC: Software

We left the building of our HTPCs in dire need of something to run on it. Now usually installing the OS would be an easy step - we would just whack a CD or DVD installer into the drive and sit back. However, since we didn't have any kind of DVD drive getting something on our HTPCs turned out to be a project in itself.

The problem itself is platform agnostic - all the candidate OS's (XP, Vista and Ubuntu) expected to be installed off a disc, with ISOs available for each that resulted in something that is bootable. Since we had limited options (just Ethernet and USB really), whichever OS we actually chose wouldn't just go on by themselves.

We (arbitrarily for now) settled on Vista. Our first attempt was to copy all of the files on the DVD to a USB stick after which we attached it to the HTPC. Although the stick itself was detected by the BIOS, it complained it not being bootable and hung. Unfortunately just copying the install files wasn't going to work.

Using an existing XP install we then used the disk management utility to both make the stick's partition primary (it was already) and to activate it - something I recalled was used to set which partition the BIOS should boot from. Retrying this in the HTPC got further than before except now we were getting a "missing NTLDR" error. Still at least we were getting somewhere!

Turning to my pocket drive instead, I lifted the necessary files from my existing XP install, blindly hoping that there would be nothing more for the HTPC to complain about. This turned out to be in vain as the BIOS now searched for an XP install that didn't exist. In the meantime, however, I noticed a file called BOOTMGR amongst the Vista install DVD's files. A quick Google showed this as the direct replacement for NTLDR, and it finally occurred to me that something on the pocket drive was telling the BIOS to look for the latter - something probably set while "activating" it in the previous attempt. If that was the case, all I had to do was to figure out how to activate it Vista-style.

I didn't have any existing Vista installations handy, and rather than visit a friend's house to use theirs I searched for a tool that would do it instead. It turned out that the application needed was called bootsect.exe and was freely available from Microsoft. It was at this point that I messed up a bit - I downloaded an AMD64, thinking that was the version relevant to me. Of course it wouldn't run on my x86 XP installation, but I incorrectly concluded that bootsect.exe in general was a Vista only app.

Faced with this apparent chicken-and-egg situation, I begun to consider other options. The solution of installing Vista over the LAN was nixed as being too long and convoluted, while just finding a spare DVD drive and connecting it to the HTPC temporarily for the install was becoming more and more appealing.

In passing, a friend suggested that I look into using Windows PE. The PE stands for Preinstallation Environment, this being a stripped down version of Windows used to run native tasks (like installing Windows proper). It all sounded vaguely relevant to what I was doing, so I looked into it further and downloaded the Windows Automated Installation Kit that included Windows PE.

It was all a bit of a red herring really. Since Windows PE was just another OS, I was faced with exactly the same problem - I had a bootable CD, with no way to transfer its magical self-booting properties to the pocket drive. If I knew how to do that then I would have just applied the procedure to the original DVD install in the first place.

It hit me that since WAIK was designed to create Vista installs, and that it was itself running on my XP machine, that it could do what bootsect.exe was supposed to. I actually got more than that, since checking the PETools directory under WAIK resulted in me finding an x86 compatible version of bootsect.exe.

Running bootsect.exe /nt60 P: did exactly what I wanted it to do. My pocket drive would now tell any BIOS booting it to look for the available BOOTMGR, and after booting the HTPC with it connected I finally managed to kick off an install of Vista.

Game: Ghost Squad Click for more info

Until now I hadn't played any fun and non-shallow shooting game on the Wii. Sure there was something on Wii Play and I had also checked out Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, but both were lacking in either depth or fun-factor.

Being the spiritual successor to Sega's Virtua Cop series, Ghost Squad was always going to be fun. Quick, action packed and novel, it's has exactly all the qualities we come to expect from a on-rails shooter - in fact it takes me back to the days of Time Crisis on the PlayStation (a sequel to which has recently been released on the PS3). Of course it helps that you already have a wireless gun in the form of the Wii remote.

Since Ghost Squad is an arcade port, it is pretty short. But for this style of game that's not really a problem - it's just the ticket when you only have a few minutes to kill, or don't want to worry about progressing through a 50 hour game.

But you do get a bit of lasting value by virtue of the numerous unlockable weapons and costumes, and by design you're always trying to be quicker, better and more accurate so will always come back to it. Add to that some extra multiplayer modes (up to four players!) and you end up with a pretty good package, very much worth the sub fifteen quid price you can now get it for.

Film: Tashan Click for more info

There has been a spat of silly-yet-charming bolly movies released recently. They all share a distinct lack of quality and seriousness, but somehow manage to capture fun and spirit in spades. Tashan is the latest from such a genre and is not to be taken as seriously as the trailers and posters suggest.

So we have some awful special effects, some cringe-worthy jokes and a poor plot. On the other hand the acting was good if only because none of the cast took themselves seriously (and as a side note check out the impossibly thin Kareena Kapoor), there were plenty of laugh out loud moments and you are kinda engaged till the end.

The question is whether or not its worth sitting through for three hours. The film does feel long and I have to admit that I nodded off a few times during the show so indications point toward "no". However as something that is played in the background while chilling with friends at home, it's pretty perfect, and I'd recommend it possibly only for that situation.

Monday, May 5

Building an HTPC: Hardware

I've been waiting months for a cheap and flexible way to watch digital media on my telly. I've actually been quite fortunate and spoiled so far: my 2004-bought Medion PC came with a SCART socket and I've been using that since then. But in this age of high definition it doesn't quite cut the mustard - it can't really handle 1080p for one, and SCART isn't able to carry HD anyway. As well as that, I've been wanting to move away from using my main PC to watch stuff, wanting something a bit more "under-the-telly".

I had hoped on using an Xbox 360 or even PS3 to do this "for free", but since they just about managed to offer Divx and H.264 support (and even then not very well and with strings attached) my hopes for flexibility aren't high. Then there are problems with streaming and integration. The Popcorn Hour also got me a bit excited, but the lack of availability and a few other niggles didn't make it quite right either.

Because I was used to playing stuff back on a PC, the most appropriate option for me was some kind Home Theatre PC. The only trouble with that solution is cost - a few months a go an adequate system (or Mac Mini) would have cost around 400 quid, a price that was way out of my budget. I decided to stick to my PC for the time being.

So when a friend told me he could build a 1080p-capable HDMI-equipped HTPC for under £200 I became pretty excited. After spending a day researching and negotiating on the spec we both bought the following components each:

  • £49.10 for an AMD ATHLON 64 X2 4850E 2.5GHZ PIB Processor
  • £24.98 for an OCZ 2GB Kit (2x1GB) DDR2 800MHz/PC2-6400 CL 5-6-6-15 Value Series Memory
  • £54.57 for a Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H 780G Socket AM2+ onboard VGA 8 channel audio mATX Motherboard
  • £35.99 for a Western Digital WD2500AAKS Caviar SE 250GB 7200RPM SATAII/300 16MB Cache - OEM
  • £59.98 for an Antec NSK2480 MATX Desktop Case Black & Silver - With 380W EarthWatts PSU
Apart from the CPU which was bought from all the components were ordered from eBuyer. At £224.62 we were slightly over budget, but we felt that the extra 25 justified a good quality case and beefed up processor.

The key component that made all this possible was the 780G based motherboard. It's not more than a month old, and provides an on-board Radeon HD3200 graphics chipset that can decode 1080p natively, and then spit it all out via an onboard HDMI connection once it has. This meant that we didn't have to spend extra on a graphics card.

The AMD 4850e is an update to the 4800+ dual core processor, the main improvement being that it runs at 45w instead for 65w. Just having also been released, it also seems to be the processor that reviewers and system builders paired with the 780G chipset - the dual cores running at 2.5GHz should be more than enough to handle any 1080p file that the on board graphics can't. It was pretty difficult finding the processor at all in the UK, so it was a bit of a result once we had.

The RAM was the cheapest 800MHz we could find, and the WD disk is the latest update on the notably quiet WD2500KS. Even though it's the most expensive component, the Antec case seems to the default picked for those building an HTPC on a budget. It's a bit on the big side, but should accommodate the components nicely. It looks good and is relatively quiet too.

Putting it all together was a relatively straightforward, plug and go affair. We mounted the CPU (its heatsink had thermal paste already applied) and RAM while the motherboard was out of the case, but lowering the whole thing into the now deceptively spacious Antec was a bit challenging. Cabling was a bit of a hassle too due to the spacious, chambered layout of the case, but all in all the whole thing took well under two hours in total to build.

But we always knew the hardware side of the project would be the easy bit. The fun/boring/challenging part (depending on your viewpoint) was to come as we figured out how to install an operating system onto the brand new drive because, as some of you may have already noticed, our HTPC came with no DVD drive.

Virginia Water Click for more info

There was a time when we, as a family, would visit Virginia Water every couple of years. At that time Surrey was a distant land, somewhere special and isolated to take visitors from abroad while remaining exciting and different for that natives who had done all the usual sights umpteen times before.

But of course all that stopped once we grew up. Family trips as a whole became less frequent and these days no one really has the time to go on group outings anyway. It's not unreasonable then to feel poignant about going back to Virginia Water, only this time as an adult with friends (it was a kind of hen party) instead of family.

It must have been well over a decade, possibly even two, since I last went there. I was disorientated at first - the lake was found easily enough but I couldn't find any of the lush green gardens my memories were presenting to me. Since we were all pretty hungry, we dropped our anchors at the first suitable place we could and munched away, delaying our search till later.

I figured that if we headed toward the Totem Pole I'd be able to get my bearings. I remember standing at its feet as a youngster, seeing how long I could look up its length before the dizziness overcame me. The pole was just as tall as I remember it was, something that pleasantly surprised me given the rose tinted lenses I seem to look through at these things usually.

From that point I was back again in the eighties - this was the Virginia Water I remember and enjoyed coming to. We found a spot near the Punch Bowl (a much nicer one than where we had eaten) and spent the rest of the afternoon playing Frisbee and softball, skipping and just chilling out. Even the rain held out on our behalf - we only got a few flecks of the so called downpour, and that on the drive home.

So yeh, for me the trip was of one down memory lane. I regret not getting the chance to walk around the whole place in order to revisit the specific places where my family and I used to picnic and play, but then it was a new time and I was with new people - perhaps the whole point was to start making new memories?

Saturday, May 3

Film: Iron Man Click for more info

Iron Man does pretty well for a comic book adaptation. It's fun, straightforward and doesn't try anything too clever in order to add something new to an already exciting franchise. On top of that we're treated with both good acting (Robert Downey Jr playing a fantastically arrogant yet charming Stark) and awesome effects. The film really delivers the goods, although seeing how easy that is to do it's about time that something did.

So is there anything wrong with Iron Man? Well not really, although I can say that it's a bit forgettable - even as I type I'm struggling to recall my best moments in the film.

Still for popcorn fun it's ace and totally recommended for both comic book junkies and not alike.

Friday, May 2

Plausible Deniability

This post isn't about the tactics some governments use to get away with the bad stuff they do - I mean since when do I care about the dregs of daily politics? No, I'm talking about a different strategy altogether, that of showing another that you're interested in them without risking your social neck.

Simply put, the idea is to be vague enough about propositioning someone in order to leave yourself with the ability to deny any true intent you may have (if necessary, of course; hopefully you won't need to). So for example you could create a project you can both work on and ask for their help, or invite the other to an innocent public gathering or even go out on an explicitly platonic date[1]. It's a bit like creating an ice-breaker but in a more purposeful, long term, directed and (in my opinion) useful way.

For once I can't claim to have come up with this on my own. In fact it's an age old way of doing these things, with various examples dotted throughout history. My favourite is how women, back in a time when it was all so easy, used to accidentally-on-purpose drop their hankies in order to allow their fanciful retrieve them. In more modern times girls dropped books or shopping; now they don't do anything at all except sit back, watch and wait (much to my disappointment).

So both parties knew what the score was, but neither could accuse the other of anything either. The point is that it didn't matter - by that point they would have gotten to talking and getting on with business. The benefits of such a set up are clear - if the guy (in this case) isn't interested then he can make it clear via his polite language and behavior but without being explicit. If the relationship doesn't work out on its own accord then there's no face to lose either - after all no one actually made a proposition.

Plausible deniability isn't about playing games or being an ambiguous tease though - no, the assumption is that you're serious about wanting to take things further with that person in particular. You shouldn't be dropping your hankie for everyone and anyone just because it officially doesn't mean anything or because there's nothing to lose. No, plausible deniability is a tool that should be used under the right circumstances and not flippantly.

In these days of simple singletons looking for complex relationships it's a skill worth working on. Prepare a repertoire of contexts and scenarios that you can use to innocently get to know someone better. And leave your opposite room to plausible deny themselves - pick up on the signs they give and don't ask them to be too explicit.

If done correctly, allowing yourself some plausible deniability when showing an interest in someone is something that could save all involved a lot of hassle, heartache and embarrassment. Surely that's something none of us need during such a time?

[1] I obviously don't have any personal examples of my own to draw from. And even if I did, I'd have to be careful not to mention any of them - that would kinda defeat the point of the concept.

Originally drafted 30th January, 2007

Game: Final Fantasy XII Click for more info

The trouble with Final Fantasy games, and indeed any RPG of its type, is the redefinition process that each series goes through. Sure there are constants, but most of these aren't to do with the gameplay. This is a problem since each game now has a learning curve and a process of forgetting what the previous games have taught you.

And so it's the case with XII. The main difference with this version is the introduction of Active Dimension Battle, a system where fights are "live" and during general play. This lack of a dedicated battle arena has a few implications.

You now always have to be on guard. Enemies can now start a battle with you standing still, and you can also accidentally stumble into a fight without even realising it - there's no obvious "readying" period anymore. A consequence of this is that you sometimes get caught by surprise, or don't have time to prepare between fights anymore. To help with this, an autopilot or "Gambit" system has been introduced, allowing you to set up your characters to fight on their own based on flow chart rules. Quite a good addition considering how 90% of all fights are played in the same way.

Other gameplay elements are also new - we now have a licence board in order to gain abilities. Well not quite since you have to both license the ability and purchase it, something that's a bit counter-intuitive for Magicks and Technicks.

The fully rendered 3D world has its issues too, mainly to do with navigation and camera. The game does look good though, both visually and in terms of story telling. I'm already quite gripped by the universe, which is a good sign for a game belonging to a series that relies so heavily on storytelling.

To be honest I wasn't enjoying this at first. There was too many new concepts and not enough explanation of it all and I felt thrown into the deep end. A forced restart has changed my opinion, and I've now begun to appreciate the new mechanisms within the game - if there is one constant about Final Fantasy it's that you'll eventually get past the learning curve and love it for what it is. I'm not quite there yet, but I've no doubt that I will be soon.