Thursday, October 29, 2009


I thought that my water lilies were dead, but recently they put out new leaves and now they've started flowering.

No thanks to the goldfish, who are a bunch of deviant psychopaths. Always with the gnawing on tender new shoots and buds. When they're not trying to kill each other.

I blame their parents. I doubt their mothers breast fed.


My head hurts, I'm having trouble focusing my eyes, and I think I'm developing carpal tunnel syndrome. This is what happens when I get addicted to a computer game and lack the self-restraint to limit my exposure.

The game in question is Gothic 3. It's your basic quest-based fantasy game, in which you wander around a world full of castles and ogres, collecting gold and artifacts, upgrading your weaponry and skills where possible, helping the occasional friend and smiting your many enemies. I haven't played the first two games in this series, but I seem to have picked up the basic gist of things anyway.

Call me shallow, but one of the things I'm really enjoying is the simple beauty of the world. Whoever designed the graphics for this game is a genius and a true artist. The meadows are sparsely scattered with wildflowers, providing tiny bursts of bright colour, but occasionally you'll wander into a dell or a hillside that's thick with them, just as it would be in nature. The landscape slowly evolves as you walk along, going from wild meadow to deciduous forest so gradually that you barely notice. As the sun goes down it turns the landscape golden and the sky sinks from blue to purple to black. The stars twinkle and the light of the full moon ripples in the water. The next morning as the sun rises it turns the sky a pale orange, and birds begin singing in the trees to herald the dawn. It is completely enchanting.

Unfortunately it's unwise to give in to temptation and run through a field of sunlit wildflowers like some medieval Maria Von Trapp, since it's pretty much guaranteed that there's a pack of wolves lurking in there. Virtually everything wants to kill you and is easily capable of doing so. Step beyond the gates of any town or village and you'll be attacked before you can say, "Is that a boulder or a drowsy troll?" On the plus side, unlike certain games (yes, Bioshock, I am looking at you) the enemies in Gothic 3 do not respawn or repopulate: once you clear all of the danger out of an area, you can galavant around it with impunity.

I've barely scratched the surface of the game and already I've fought at least twenty five different monsters and wild animals, all lavishly rendered with their own mechanics of movement. All of them are dangerous; even the dodo-like Scavenger can kill you if you drop your guard. At this early stage there are whole areas that I've had to avoid because there are creatures there who will kill me within seconds. The only way to deal with them is to turn around and run like hell, hopefully without colliding into their mates in the process. Eventually I'll have the weapons, the skills and the armour to come back and clear them out, but it will take a while.

Experience points are pretty easy to come by, but experience is worth jack squat without gold. Gold IS hard to come by, at least in the quantities you need to properly equip yourself. If you kill a monster with a weapon, then take their weapon, you'll find it's usually worth between 5 and 15 gold pieces. By contrast, a set of heavy armour costs 70,000 gold pieces. I like slaughtering goblins as much as the next guy, but do I really need to kill 14,000 of them just to get some decent armour?

It doesn't help that the trading system is badly designed. You can't just stroll up to a bloke in the pub and offer to sell him your Magic Sword of Awesomeness for 500 gold pieces. You can only trade. If you need gold, you must put all of his gold on one side of the ledger, then hunt through your inventory finding enough gold, weapons, spell scrolls, rare herbs, random pieces of hardware and the occasional lute to match that amount. So I often seem to find myself in the position of needing 1000 gold pieces, having 800 in gold and 2000 worth of spare stuff, and not being able to buy what I want because everyone I meet has a minimum of 5000, which is 2200 more than I can raise. It's rather dispiriting to go into a town and discover that every single person there is way richer than me.

The internet tells me that Gothic 3 is widely reviled. Apparently the earliest versions of the game, released in 2006, were more bug-infested than a picnic in a swamp, and the lush graphics taxed ordinary computers beyond their limits. Now that the bugs appear to have been fixed, and my reasonably high-end 2008 computer is hosting the game, these faults are no longer relevant. True, the voice acting is mediocre, the combat design is primitive, the quests occasionally contradict each other and the game momentarily but jarringly pauses to refresh the scenery if you run in any direction for more than a couple of seconds. But it looks beautiful, it's fun to play, and hey, everyone likes being able to spend an evening or two butchering their way across a fantasy ecosystem.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


On Saturday morning I drove down to one of my local JB HiFis (there are several in my area, and they are multiplying - it's like a zombie apocalypse of audiovisual retail) to spend a voucher I got for my birthday. I ended up buying two CDs:

1. 'Worldwide Underground' by Erykah Badu

On the face of it, there's no reason why I would want to buy one of Erykah Badu's albums. The woman should, by all rights, be a laughingstock.

Let's start with her name. In her late teens the then Erica Wright changed her name to Erykah Badu in order to reject her "slave name" - apparently being called "Erica" is an unacceptable concession to The Man. Given that she was born in 1971, four or five generations after the abolition of slavery, it's a little hard to see her rationale, but we allow a certain amount of eccentricity in our musicians.

Then there's her lfestyle. Erykah identifies strongly with the black ghetto experience. This explains why she has three children, all with ridiculous names (Seven, Puma and Mars), by three different babydaddys, none of whom has a proper job. All she needs is bad hair extensions, garishly painted acrylic fingernails and an ass the size of a minivan and she could fit into South Central Chicago like a kosher canape at a Bar Mitzvah.

Erykah is also prone to spouting worrisome soundbites. When asked why she had stopped wearing her trademark African headwraps on stage, Erykah replied, "Art is my religion. You don't see the head wraps anymore because I am the head wrap." Which rather speaks for itself.

Wikipedia also notes the following quote: "I try to be as honest as I can. Being humble is so 2007". I can see where one might get such an attitude, if one spent most of one's time hanging out with (and being impregnated by) rappers, a group not noted for their discreet modesty. Oddly enough I don't recall a sudden breakout of humility among the rapping classes in 2007, but it could be that I'm just out of touch.

So the woman is tacky and yet pretentious, given to laughable pronouncements, and somewhere between Britney Spears and Ike Turner in terms of family role modelling. Why on earth would I buy one of her albums?

The simple, mitigating truth is that for all her personal faults she is enormously talented. Her music is a blend of modern urban R&B and retro 70s soul, including samples from old blaxploitation trailers. It's complex yet smooth, standing out in a black music landscape dominated by interchangable songs in which a diva crams a dozen notes into every phrase while some guy goes "Uh huh" and "Oh yeah" in the background. Her music is authoritative and sophisticated where the majority of the black urban music scene is just thuggish and gaudy. And in the proud tradition of my people, I am appropriating her music and intend to play it at my next dinner party. If she knew she'd probably have an anuerism.

2. 'Music for an Accelerated Culture' by Hadouken!

It's fitting that I discovered Hadouken! after one of their songs was used as the soundtrack for a YouTube video - they are the embodiment of everything Gen Y holds dear. In the first listen through alone, I picked up references to skinny jeans, mp3s, Playstations and MySpace. Throw in some emo hair and you could create a Gen Y-er from scratch just from their lyrics.

According to Wikipedia, Bebo, MySpace etc they have a guitarist, a drummer and a bass player, but frankly all I can hear is vocals and synths. They feature crisp, aggressive electronics with lots of shouty, chanty singing. I'm reminded of The Klaxons, even though Hadouken! are supposed to be "grindie" while The Klaxons are supposed to be "new rave". So much for any hopes I had for a career with the New Musical Express.

On the other hand, iTunes classifies them as "emo", JB HiFi had their CD in the "dance" section, and Bebo classes them as "garage/new wave/electro". So it's hard not to get the sneaking suspicion that none of these people know what they're talking about!

I realise that the facebook generation are prone to babbling on about themselves like there's no tomorrow, but even so Hadouken! seems to have a remarkably solipsistic streak. Take the main line from the chorus of the first track:

Welcome to our world / we are the wasted youth / and we are the future

Of course you are, poppets. Have a juice box.

To be honest the whole Gen Y thing is laid on so thick that one is tempted to think that there's a 50 year old svengali behind the scenes, rather hamfistedly attempting to play to the tastes of cashed-up 20 year olds. But whatever. I like it because it's good to listen to cranked up too loud while driving too fast, even though I look like a nit because I have a convertible and am far too old.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


While noodling around an online bookstore the other day, I made a rather unsettling discovery. It concerned Mr Darcy, the romantic foil in Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice'.

When she first wrote the character, Jane Austen could not have anticipated that he would eventually become a cipher for the romantic longings of a billion women across the planet. I suppose he is an archetype of the man with great potential who needs only the attentions of a perceptive woman to realise them. Mr Darcy was, after all, a boorish snob until Elizabeth Bennet cracked his hard shell. Once he saw the error of his ways he became the ideal man. It makes him a beacon of hope for every woman who looked at her lazy, flabby, inattentive boyfriend and thought, 'I can make him change!"

When characters become icons, it's inevitable that they will attract parasites. As such there is any number of knuckleheaded modern "sequels" to Jane Austen's masterpiece. Some are straight sequels, approaching the continuation of his life much as Austen herself would have. Many, however, use Mr Darcy as a springboard to explore issues and topics that only besot the modern woman. Obviously there is a market out there for novels about Mr Darcy + That Thing That's Really Popular With the Ladies Right Now. You'd already know about Mr Darcy + body image issues, otherwise known as 'Bridget Jones' Diary'. And perhaps you've heard of Mr Darcy + cake, in the form of 'Tea With The Bennets of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - An Anthology Of Recipes'? But did you know about Mr Darcy + 'Twilight' , also known as 'Mr Darcy, Vampyre' and 'Vampire Darcy's Desire'?

Of course you didn't. You are a sensible person. But as you can see these things do exist, and they are proliferating. No doubt somewhere out there someone is writing a novel about Mr Darcy meeting Andre Rieu.

I'd like to get in on this cash cow myself, and pen a few of my own "Mr Darcy meets the things the average Oprah audience member identifies with and dreams about" novels. Here are some of my plot scenarios:

- Mr Darcy flees the strict social conventions and stifling repression of Georgian England to find love with a woman he met while going through the half price sale bin at Bed Bath & Beyond.

- Mr Darcy falls in love with a lonely housewife after he buys some of her adorable handmade frog-shaped oven mitts off

- Mr Darcy begins a new career as a chocolatier, with a magic receipe that makes chocolate calorie-free and able to erase cellulite and stretch marks.

- Mr Darcy reads 'The Secret', at the same time that plus-sized Minnesota singleton Lori-Jean Splatt reads it, and they achieve a magical connection across the centuries as they both visualise each other as their perfect match.

- Mr Darcy opens a shelter for homeless kitties. But their antics with balls of string cannot fill the hole in his heart, a hole that can only be filled by a codependent cat haven volunteer named Karen Kovlowski.

- Mr Darcy opens a darling little cupcake shop, which somehow does a roaring trade despite the fact that he spends all his time wooing the local passive-aggressive dental receptionist.

- Mr Darcy discovers that his great uncle, Antonio da Vinci, created a fiendish code that explains how the Catholic church controls the world, with the help of the Freemasons and possibly some Rotarians. It's up to Mr Darcy and his bookish but beautiful assistant Britney-Ann to thwart their plot to destroy the world's supply of cheesecakes.

- Mr Darcy hangs out around some designer shoes and watches a Martha Stewart marathon with the cast of 'High School Musical'. And then he does some scrapbooking. With a unicorn.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


AAMI Insurance has made some annoying, vaguely offensive commercials in the past. However I love their current campaign, for a variety of reasons:

Reason 1. The acknowledgment, rarely if ever publicly made, that swans aren't nice creatures: they're vicious, aggressive and very stupid birds. With beady, beady eyes.

Reason 2. The cute kid who starts off finding the swan attack all very hilarious, until one sticks its head in the window and makes him cry. Ha!

And, in the follow up commercial...

Reason 3. The woman who blames it all on global warming, with the implication that this is something that ignorant people fall back on when they can't explain a phenomenon.

Swans are bastards. Cute kids are annoying. Global warming is a fad. These are pretty subversive ideas for an insurance commercial.