Sunday, November 29

Shak's Choice: Gursharonjit Grewal

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (and perhaps the rest of you who know me too) will probably wonder why this has come so late. Well the truth is that I wanted to see just how genuine her portrayal on Channel 4's The Family actually was; and after four episodes and numerous radio and television appearances I think we all know who Gursharonjit, or Shay, really is.

I have to (respectfully of course) admit that she's not super stunning in the celebrity sense, but then she's hardly ugly. I'd say she has a more "real and practical" good looks, you know, the type that doesn't need an airbrush to pass our now high standards. But regardless of her looks she's actually made the illustrious status of Shak's Choice for much more important reasons: she's really here because of her ace personality and character.

Every Wednesday we see how devoted she is to her family. She finds happiness and contentment in the simple things: whether it's in playing simple games of noughts and crosses with her soon-to-be husband, wordsearches with aunty or messing around with Tindy. She's responsible and gladly so, making sure the dogs are fed even though she's late for her own hen party and finding it an honour to massage her in-laws head/feet or even thread uncle's nose - she both allows everyone to rely on her but equally doesn't find it weak to rely on others. She's smart in a real, experienced way, yet wonderfully simple: she won't feel that she's wasted her life if she doesn't get to publish a book or influence government policy.

Genuinely nice and friendly, undemanding and never a headache; her happiness stems from that of those around her, a selflessness which is depressingly rare nowadays. Shay just goes to show that you don't need to be a tarted up celeb or popstar to be uniquely, yet massively, attractive. I just hope that Sunny doesn't track me down and kick my arse.

Things That Pee Me Off #4: Literary Hypocrisy

  • If a guy offers a girl his coat or scarf, then he's patronising or, even worse, only after one thing.
  • If a guy walks or drives a girl (friend or otherwise) home, right up to her door and waits till she gets in, then he's a creepy stalker.
  • If a guy insists on paying, then he's controlling and repressive.
  • If a guy looks ahead while walking with a girl, or makes sure he walks on her roadside or between her and a rowdy crowd of people, or behind her while climbing up stairs and in front of her while climbing down, then he's obstructive and irritating.
  • If a guy wants to make a girl his main focus, much more than any job or social life, then he's misguided and unambitious.
  • If a guy shows an interest in what a girl likes and wants, then he's either faking it or is too boring to have his own interests.
  • If a guy wants to spend all his free time with a girl, then he's clingy and suffocating.
  • If a guy wants to just talk, then he talks too much.
  • If a guy shows genuine concern about a girl's well-being, then he's over-protective or under-estimating.
  • If a guy says how he feels then he's a metrosexual and unmanly.
All this, unless the guy has a marble-like chest which glitters in the sun and lists blood as his all time favourite beverage.

You all know I'm right.

Saturday, November 28

Link of the Day Click for more info

Eid al-Adha and the Hajj, 2009 does it once again with their big picture, uniquely covering the diversity and massiveness of the global Islamic festival of Eid-ul-Adha.

My picks? 4 (possibly predictably), 5 ('cos of the memories), 19 (due to the contrast) and any piccie that shows thousands of people praying together.

Film: A Serious Man Click for more info

The now traditional Eid film has to be pretty special. After a long exhausting day it doesn't take much to allow me to drop off, and only the most gripping and engaging movie can really do that.

Unfortunately this time, A Serious Man wasn't quite that film. To be fair I kinda knew that it wouldn't be, what with it being a Coen Brothers' flick and all, but even I was surprised at the effect the sheer randomness and lack-of-a-beginning-and-end had on me.

To be fair I enjoyed what I did get to see. The humour was dark and, at times, farcical while all the performances were top notch in their glib depiction of reality and the film as a whole was well put together. I can't really tell you what happened toward the end since I wasn't conscious.

But at the end of the day despite my already-existing state of sleepiness it was a film that had put me to sleep and for that reason I can't really recommend it, unless of course you're into this kinda stuff.

Oh the other hand there's something unique about the sleep you get in the cinema.

Thursday, November 26

Game: New Super Mario Bros. Wii Click for more info

It's a new Mario game! Always cause for celebration eh? To be honest though this, the Wii incarnation of the now not so new DS refresh doesn't really add much to what we've seen before on the handheld. We still have all the moves and grooves (although we now have a propeller hat and penguin suit), the lovely platformer puzzle action that only Nintendo do best and even the graphics look the same. In fact, as it stands I reckon it could have easily been played on the DS.

Except we now have simultaneous multi-player action.

That means up to four players on the screen at the same time, each getting in each others way, and equally helping and stitching each other up. There's no point in me describing exactly what this part of the game is like, if you're a Mario fan then you'd have always wondered what it would be like to play with Luigi at the same time. And it's exactly how you wanted it to be.

There are slight issues though, my main of which is the insistence on using motion controls, in this case to both spin jump and pick up certain items. Maybe I'm just a more animated player but there has already been times when I've jumped or left Yoshi by accident, and in each case it was game-spoilingly annoying.

But once I learned to keep my hands still (!) I was able to more fully appreciate the antics of multi-player Mario. Since lives aren't an issue (in typical Mario style), there's no guilt in throwing someone off a ledge just after you helped them up it. Or being a total git and nicking all the mushrooms even if you don't need them. This kinda stuff never gets boring.

Anyway it was probably a foregone conclusion but I love this game. Very much recommended and one of the rare reasons to turn on your Wii this Christmas.

Wednesday, November 25

Film: 2012 Click for more info

Now infamous over the top disaster movie where for once its not us humans who are the cause of our own demise (it's that damn Sun instead).

Otherwise it's pretty much as you would expect: big bangs, huge crashes and lots of edge-of-your-seat will-they-escape moments.

And I quite liked it! The film progressed, what were quite separate story arcs combined and diverged, and there were some truly awesome set-pieces (despite their slightly sub-par special effects). John Cusack is of course the man, but the supporting cast weren't dummies either.

I don't think it'll win any oscars but I certainly didn't hate it as much as I should have. Recommended!

Sunday, November 22

Alliance of Civilizations Media Training Click for more info

To be honest I still don't know why a good friend had put me forward for this, a UN-funded media training weekend for Muslim opinion makers. I mean hey, I do think that I'm a passable writer who might sometimes talk about religion on his hobby-blog, but that's a far cry from being an influential opinion maker or leader. So despite my paranoia telling me I was just being sent to make a fool of myself I went along anyway: after all, I had never been a delegate or sent on a business trip or like (expenses and all) so it would be something new for me at least. Plus it was quite flattering that I was invited in the first place so would have been rude not to attend, and I was sure it would broaden my horizons in more than a few ways anyway. And hey, it's not like I'd ever get a paid trip to Bristol ever again.

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations is an organisation set up by some important people in order to directly address the problems various cultures and communities around the world have in communicating with each other. For us, this meant some media training this weekend. The pitch given to me was that we would get the opportunity to add value with our existing opinions and form new ones based on the eclectic mix of Islamic personalities. Yay, a weekend of some serious brainstorming and debate, I thought.

In reality it was actually more of a classroom based formal PR and media training: you know, how to give press releases, deal with a crisis and write opinion pieces for newspapers. A team from Fenton Communications were running the sessions and it was immediately clear that they really knew their stuff; more importantly though they also knew how most effectively to get us to understand it all. In terms of the training itself the whole weekend was pretty slick; in fact we were well looked after throughout the whole weekend.

The first day was pretty hard and perhaps even a bit boring, as we were told what seemed like the obvious things about how Muslims were currently being misrepresented in the media. Quite predictably this paved the way for us to rant and moan about how bad we have it and how the world should change. What I saw as digressions made me switch off a bit; after all, if I had wanted to hear this stuff I'd have just picked any random Muslim blog in the comfort of my own home. Having said that it was clear that most of the group found it relevant and engaging, something which added to my increasing suspicion of how I shouldn't have actually have been there in the first place.

The technical training in the afternoon was much more interesting as we found out about controlling an interview, the use of emotion and emotive words, some basic cognitive theory and other PR tips and tricks. Again most of this was obvious once we heard it, but often things have to be said in order for them to be registered and put into practise so I was happy to hear what was being said.

The evening was more fun as I hung out with the rest of the delegates, all smart and with a clear stake in British Islam. We had Imams and chaplains, charity workers, Islamic human rights people, student young ambassadors, lawyers, councillors, mosque trustees, Islamic bloggers and webwasters, authors and journalists - clear leaders in the making. Despite the lack of my own set of credentials (I got used to the polite "oh really"s after telling those who asked that I was a software developer) we did connect on a social level and had fun, even if that was by playing silly games of charades, word association and something called Zip Zap Boing outside on a bit of Bristol University's green. Further still I realised that although my colleagues each had an overt Islamic brand, that I was being unfair in assuming that that was all they were each about, and they didn't wear their Muslim hats (topis?) all the time. Oh and as an aside it seems that there's a bit of a clothes shortage in Bristol on Saturday nights. Particularly for women.

After a night's rest (single hotel rooms are pretty lonely I reckon) I decided to approach the remainder of the weekend in a different way. I'm not really a media person, not in the way the session wanted me to be anyway, and once I realised this the whole thing became a lot less forced - and ironically now that it was of passing and academic interest to me it became quite a bit more fun and interesting. We also began the practical work which helped: video interview workshops (in which I was pleasantly torn apart by a UN representative) and another in which we had our opinion writing critiqued by Fenton. Unfortunately just as we were getting into the swing of things it was all over: a fun coach ride back to London and a brief meeting with others on the programme (whom had been sent to Spain instead) and we were done.

I guess figuring out what you aren't is just as important as figuring out what you are, and for that reason I'm glad that I went to Bristol this weekend. I now know that I don't want to be a "face of Islam", not with respect to the media in the UK anyway, be it via TV, an affiliation with an organisation or even writing. On the other hand it's encouraging to see that there are bright people out there willing to take on that role, do it well and even enjoy themselves while they're doing it. And finally the weekend reinforced my opinion that it's actually okay (and even helpful) to resist Islamic™ branding and that being "subtly always Muslim" can be just as powerful as being "overtly Muslim first".

That's not to say that I didn't learn loads or will take absolutely nothing away; I now have a more formal understanding of how the media functions and will definitely apply some of the things I learned in my writings and even social interactions. And if I'm honest I am excited to by a part of something so important going forward (maybe I'll buy a UN t-shirt or something) even if I'm not going to be the most participatory of the bunch. I did some classic networking and met some ace and inspiring people which is always a good thing as the possible opportunities and doors open up... and hey, the food wasn't that shabby either.

Tuesday, November 17

Film: Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani Click for more info

Passable film about a guy who falls for a girl who is more interested in friendship than getting jiggy. Ranbir Kapoor is pretty neat as the poor sod in question and while Katrina Kaif isn't as hot as she usually is she's cute enough throughout.

There's plenty of laughs and even more sophisticated in-jokes; I didn't even mind the Salman Khan cameo that much. The film and plot were quite simple, if anything spoiled post-interval by irrelevance and distraction. Music-wise I was really looking forward to seeing and hearing those two Atif tracks in the flesh, except those in charge decided to butcher them both.

Nothing really unmissable then, but then not that shabby either; APKGK seems to be pretty much time-pass and nothing more.

Monday, November 16

Abstruse Goose Click for more info

Not that I'd condone chasing the chase (or even what's being implied at the end of it), but I gotta admit I relate to the following on some level:

It'll be a good test of my blagging skills anyway.

Wednesday, November 11

New Music

Sugarless - Swami

The guys who brought us "Hey Hey" are back with this smacker of a tune. To be honest I didn't like it at first, but now? Wowzer.

Sunday, November 8

Film: The Men Who Stare at Goats Click for more info

Disappointing "true story" about a US Army drive to explore psychic warfare over the last few decades. Despite solid acting and a decent premise it's just not as funny or entertaining as it should have been and whether it's true or not becomes irrelevant as the film repeatedly fails to deliver anything zany enough to make you care.

It's certainly well made and scripted and when the rare laughs come you do appreciate them. I guess there just wasn't enough substance or story to carry the film off as a whole, which is a shame as the potential was certainly there.

All in all a bit of a waste, especially of talent. Leave it to DVD I'd say.

Thursday, November 5

New Music

Tu Jaane Na - Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani
Tera Hone Laga Hun - Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani

A pair of tracks from the upcoming Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, both dropped by Atif Aslam. They're both very different but I think I prefer the latter due to it having Alisha Chinoy on it. It seems that Bollywood is finally delivering on both the film and music fronts after a lengthy lull.

Credit to Humaira for naming the tracks.

Wednesday, November 4

The Family Click for more info

Well... It certainly wasn't the car-crash telly I was expecting. On the contrary in fact: I was quite impressed. Tonight we saw in close-up a traditional Indian family, and totally secure and unashamed in being one, not putting on any pretences or pretending to be open minded (even though they actually were).

As a show it was well made: quite "pure" and with no obvious signs of manipulation or rating boosting sleaziness. The mix of reality and interview was well paced, even though I noticed a bunch of continuity blips (Sunny's beard being one of them). Still, the programme as a whole had bags of real moments.

But for me the real talent of the show was in the Grewals. The mum (I can't help but call her auntie) is the star of course, and absolutely the rock she was described as being in the intro; she knows that making the tea doesn't make her a slave or repressed being. The dad makes a wonderful partner (if not, husband): someone who is strong in his opinion and full of honour (the good type) while making them. This quality has obviously been passed down to their kids who, although not intelligent in the obvious and classical sense (i.e. they're not the lawyers or doctors we all seem to want) know exactly where they're at more so than any "professional". Tindy although outgoing has apparently never had a girlfriend, is still a virgin and obviously proud of who he is. Sunny isn't the bragging idiot rudeboy we would automatically assign to someone who looks like that, but instead is a strong and responsible husband-to-be. Shay is just plain hot, but not at the cost of any personality; I loved little things about her like the ease with which she referred to her in-laws as mum and dad; or played with her future brother-in-law; or even stepped up when it came to dying her mum's hair or doing the dishes - all with a smile on her face, despite the situation she found herself to be in.

Maybe it's early days yet but I just can't see anything about the Grewals to cause me to even raise an eyebrow. They're real, they know what's important and are happy to stick to their principles. Most of all it's clear how content they are with their simple lives - there's no chasing status or money or careers or Status-Update-worthy social activities here. It's a rare thing being this content in my opinion.

In fact I actually miss them all a bit now. I can't wait for the next seven episodes!

Building an HTPC: A Second Go

It was last May when a friend and I first tried our hand at building an HTPC. And it wasn't that bad of a project: for £225 we built a pretty solid machine on which to watch stuff as well as manage media and the like. However over a year of use a fair few issues have arisen, both early on and more recently. These include:

  • The Antec NSK2480 case being WAY too big, especially for an MATX motherboard.
  • As something which is really a desktop, the whole build sucks up a lot of power.
  • The 250GB HD quite unsurprisingly not being nowhere near enough space in practice.
  • A change in the codec BBC use for their HD broadcasts resulting in the ATI chipset of the 780G crapping out - I had added a digital satellite card since the original build in order to watch HD satellite. Generally ATI seems a bit flaky when it comes to video decoding.
But to be honest none of these really warranted any fix other than buying a new HD and maybe a cheap Nvidia video card. However when a friend (yes, the same one as last time) pointed me to a new Nvidia ION-based ITX motherboard I must admit that I raised an eyebrow. However since at that point any new build would have to be funded by the reselling of the existing HTPC or its bits (it was too new to merely write off) it wasn't going to happen. The real deciding factor was my dad requiring a new desktop PC - a worthy use for the current components.

Standalone solutions seem to have progressed since last year - the WDTV springs to mind as a decent no-hassle media player. However I've since become used to the flexibility a Windows based HTPC affords me - time-stretching, episode and film management and watching and recording HD digital satellite

So I bought the following bits for the new build:
  • £103.24 for an ASUS AT3N7A-I NVIDIA ION with Intel Atom N330 Dual Core Processor HDMI Mini ITX Motherboard
  • £71.89 for a Samsung EcoGreen F2 1.5TB Hard Drive SATAII 32MB Cache
While I currently have on order:
  • £34.98 for a Piano Black Mini ITX Cube Case - With 300W PSU
  • £3.09 for a Xilence Red Wing 80mm Quiet Fan
The RAM I'm recycling from the old build, but 2x1GB of the cheap stuff can be had for around 25 quid (indeed that's what I bought for my dad's new build). The motherboard is now the most expensive part, but since it includes the Atom processor I wasn't too bothered. I also decided to go for a cheap-o case this time since the Antec from last time was seen to be a big (both literally and metaphorically) mistake. The cube case is bigger than it has to be - I needed something which would accommodate my digital satellite card, but without this requirement other options were available, including slimline cases and external (and hence silent) power supplies.

All the above were bought from eBuyer with the total (including RAM) coming up to a princely £237.20, although this includes a specification changing 1.5TB HD. Replacing this with the cheapest 250GB HD from eBuyer (£30) brings the total down to just under £200, so we've actually made a saving on last time.

Building was once again straightforward; even more so since the CPU was already mounted on the motherboard. The Atom itself is a step backward from the "real, grown-up" Athlon processor - it's clocked lower and is generally touted as a lightweight by design. The Nvidia ION is what makes this board ideal for HTPC usage, although this does mean that any playback software would HAVE to use assisted video card decoding (the Athlon alone was able to handle 1080p).

In practice this wasn't much of a problem. Almost every player has solutions for assisted decoding, especially since Windows 7 now comes with a codec to do this out of the box. Mediaportal and Windows 7 Media Centre (including BBC HD) each performed wonderfully with not much CPU load. Even the picture looked better putting the ATI based set up to shame.

There are still some issues though. The poor little Atom processor does show it's lack of oomph as certain points - mainly with UI usage so it's not that much of a big deal. The Asus board is pretty loud too; this despite reviews saying it would ship with a quieter fan. I suspect this is fixable with an aftermarket solution so we'll see what happens. On the whole I think I've profited from the build.

Overall I'm quite impressed by my second build. In a stroke I've managed to solve all the issues I had with my last build and at a cheaper cost (like for like). And as a bonus my dad gets a new PC... But that's probably not relevant to most of you reading.

Sunday, November 1

Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox Click for more info

In a world where CGI rules the animation roost, it's quite refreshing to see stop motion given such a platform as this. Of course there's something about Roald Dahl which makes his stories lend themselves to such a format and on the whole the film was pretty spot on in portraying the sense of dark, yet musical, fun he's most famous for.

Having said that I watched this with a bit of trepidation, mainly due to what I had seen in the trailers. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that this wasn't yet another American shallowing of a well loved book, but something which did it justice on all fronts; the plot and story were lovely and well paced, the voice-acting genius and the humour spot on. The direction - particularly when leveraging the animation style, just made the whole thing that much more perfect.

I really liked this film; it was simple and accessible, yet engaging and deep. I totally recommend it.