Year: 2014 (page 1 of 5)

Washington DC

At the start of December I was lucky enough to have a short trip out to Washington DC thanks to my companies annual awards scheme. A project I was working on was up for an award and hence our group, well half of it, was flown out to Washington DC to compete and celebrate with teams from around the globe. We didn’t take the top award but had a great time over the four days.

Day 1
An eight hour flight out to Washington was made easier as we were on premium economy (more legroom FTW) and it was an Airbus A380. It really is massive when you get up close to the plane and on take off seemed to trundle slowly along the runway before finally taking off. There is so much room on board, particularly headroom, that it made for a really smooth and easy flight. A coach from the airport and we were soon at our hotel in Washington and the biggest check in queue ever.

We were only a mile from The White House, Washington Monument etc so headed off on foot to take in the sights at night. It was colder than I expected and after a few hours a combination of tiredness, the cold and lack of food was taking effect. We eventually grabbed a pizza but not before seeing a lot of Washington. By the time I got to bed I’d been on the go for around 30 hours without sleep. Zzzzzzzzzzz.


Washington Day 1 on Flickr

Day 2
Out early and it was a gorgeous winters day in Washington. Plan was to visit a few museums and see the sights in daylight. We had around 8 hours as at night was the Awards ceremony. Managed to visit the Air and Space Museum, The Natural History Museum, The American History Museum plus a trip up the Washington Monument. All these are located around the National Mall and it was a great day. We also squeezed in a trip to Five Guys for a tasty burger.

Our awards ceremony was held in the National Portrait Gallery and it was a fantastic venue. A black tie event, we first had the longest 2 mile coach trip through rush hour traffic that took at least an hour – we really would have been quicker walking and given the number of us wearing kilts it would have been quite a sight. The whole night was fantastic with the only slight disappointment that we didn’t win being tempered by another group from Glasgow taking home a gold award. I was really pleased for them as I know a few of the team well and how much effort they’ve put in plus the impact their work has delivered. Another late night!


Washington Day 2 on Flickr

Day 3
Final day for most but not for me as I’d decided to stay an extra day to take in more of Washington. First half was really good – took in the US Capitol building including a tour, Chinatown, Union Station and then a mad dash back to the hotel marked half way point. Spotted a hawk as we walked around the city too casually tucking into some food.

One of the guys who stayed in Washington had an Airbnb in Arlington and as we wanted to see Arlington Cemetery we shared a taxi to his rental. The taxi was bizarre as the driver moaned about not knowing the street we wanted to go to, moaned about Arlington, moaned as he had to phone someone to find out the location, moaned that after the call he still didn’t know her he was going…basically moaned about everything. Even when I looked up location on Google and we guided him there he still moaned. A taxi driver with no sat nav and no map. What a cock. We then took the metro to Arlington Cemetery and arrived just as it closed – our first planning failure. We then decided to walk to the Pentagon down a cycle path next to the Potomac River and a major freeway. This wasn’t the best decision with hindsight as we got nowhere and ended up taking a very long walk to the Jefferson Memorial which was a nice reward as it was stunning at night. A trip to the White House again and then to a nice restaurant in Georgetown finished off the day.


Washington Day 3 on Flickr

Day 4
Final day and I wanted to do some shopping and also see the Space Shuttle over at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Centre. For shopping it was a quick hop on the metro to Pentagon City mall – it stops in the basement of the mall making for a really easy shopping trip. Amazingly I bought no gadgets, just some clothes at around half the UK price. It was a two hour trip out to the Udvar-Hazy Center which was close to the airport anyway. This was a lot better than the city centre air and space museum and had some great displays, topped by Discovery.

I was smiling like a fool when I saw Discovery. For many it will be Apollo or for the current generation it’s probably the Mars Landers but for me the Space Shuttle is what I fondly remember from school, watching the first launch and seeing it soar into space time and again and then the two disasters which took so many lives. There was lots to see at the Udvar-Hazy center and I enjoyed it far more than the Air and Space museum in the city centre which looked a bit tired. It was then back to the airport, a club class flight back to Heathrow and then finally a hop back to Glasgow and some pretty major jet lag.

Washington Day 4 on Flickr

Wrap Up
Washington is well worth a visit. Stay around Georgetown as there’s a great selection of shops and restaurants to suit all tastes and you are not too far from the metro which is a really easy way to get around. The museums are all good although a couple were showing their age. There’s lots to do and a lot of ground to cover so use the metro or one of the hop on/hop off tourist busses. The alternative is to walk a fair bit (which we did through choice) but you will quickly rack up the miles.

50 miles covered over four days

50 miles covered over four days

Our tours around the city meant over 50 miles were walked and blisters were gained but we did see a lot more than we would have done on a bus or especially the metro. I loved the four days and was really pleased to pack so much in, especially seeing the Space Shuttle. Achievement unlocked.

Podcasting

Podcasting has been getting some press recently, more so than normal. I first noticed it back in September when The Washington Post declared that podcasts are back and making money. I never knew they had left and the making money part wasn’t much of a surprise either. Roll forward a few months and we seem to be in the middle of a popular podcast storm.

Top Shelf from The Verge did a great video on why podcasts are so popular just now. Serial Podcast is one of the biggest podcasts in years and has succeeded in reaching new audiences. It’s also set the record for fastest podcast to 5 million downloads. It seems more and more people are not only listening to podcasts but actually producing their own. That’s not much of a surprise either as it’s fairly easy to record and publish your own podcast. I know as I’ve been podcasting since 2009.

What was more surprising was the posts recently from a few of the more notable tech podcasters and also the heat it generated on twitter. Firstly Jason Snell posted on not being intimidated to do a podcast. A lot of what Jason wrote resonated with me but unfortunately there was some heat on twitter from a few sources on technology and what gear you should be using. A sort of follow up from Marco Arment tried to move the debate on so that it focussed on the listener. I agreed with some of his points but felt it strayed into gadget snobbery again.

So after 230 episodes of DigitalOutbox what have I learned:

  • To get started you don’t need much, especially if you aren’t sure if podcasting is for you and you want to give it a go.
  • Me and Shak started with a headset with mic built in. Quality wasn’t great but it got us off and running. Use an iPhone headset as it’s good enough to get you going.
  • If you are enjoying podcasting and want to keep going after a few episodes then invest in a better mic. I use a Rode Podcaster, Chris uses a Blue Yeti and I think our audio quality is good. You can go a lot higher quality if you want but I do think it’s diminishing returns. To keep it easier, both of these are USB mic’s.
  • Get a decent set of headphones that don’t leak audio – if they do then your mic, especially the better quality ones, will pick up on the audio from your headphones.
  • Each podcaster should record audio at their end. Recording Skype and using that for the audio source causes more issues than the hardware in my opinion. Share the audio with the editor over Dropbox. Nice and easy.
  • If you’ve got a Mac then use Garageband for editing, at least to get started. Audacity is another option.
  • Editing should focus on getting everyone’s levels even and also cutting out mistakes, drop outs, phone calls – whatever gets in the way of the listener enjoying your Podcast.
  • You can also edit to remove silence, mmmm’s, eh’s and all the other little annoyances. I’ve done this a few times but must admit that I find it a bit of a chore to do so don’t often bother. It’s not a show stopper but it will be for the better if you remove them.
  • Put chapters into your podcasts. I wish more podcasters would do this so you can skip a topic that isn’t interesting you but very few do. A shame.
  • You don’t need to spend loads on hosting your podcasts if you are doing audio only. I use Dreamhost and the speeds are good enough for our podcast and there are no limits on bandwidth.
  • A 30-40 minute audio podcast will take around 2-4 hours each week to record, edit and publish not including any research time you need. A video podcast will require a lot more. Do not underestimate the step up in bandwidth, production and hosting a video podcast requires.
  • Something I’ve not done too much off is room treatment but you do want a quiet room and ideally with not too many hard surfaces around. The better the audio quality the less you need to to edit so try and make sure you don’t pick up phones, clocks and other voices while you are recording.
  • Enjoy it.

Dan Benjamin, founder of the 5by5 network has put together a great site on podcast hardware and software recommendations at The Podcast Method. Well worth a read. He also has published a really useful video on mic technique which features some great tips.

The main thing to remember is not to let the gear or the software become a barrier to entry. Give it a go and if you enjoy it you can invest at a later date once you know if it’s for you.

Now…about podcasts making money. Any tips?

Blocked

As happens every so often with the blog I’ve been quiet for a while. Busy at work, busy with other things but also 4 or 5 posts in draft that I will never finish and are stopping me from publishing more. So it’s time for some quick updates and a mass deletion of drafts.

  • I picked up an iPhone 6 and have been enjoying it so far. It is bigger but not as ridiculous as the iPhone 6+. The sculpted edges that meld with the glass are a constant joy, the plastic bits on the back to allow signals through not so much. I’m enjoying the extra battery life, the screen is gorgeous and the camera as always has improved nicely. The power button moving to the side rather than the top is more troublesome than I thought. Muscle memory always takes me to the top to switch it off but I also can’t change the volume without hitting the power button. So fecking annoying. A great phone overall.
  • iOS8 is a bit of a clusterfuck. Buggiest iOS release so far including the 8.0.1 release that removed cellular from the iPhone 6 and had to be pulled. Took a couple of days for Apple to fix but a very poor start. I had loads of wifi problems with the iPad that were finally fixed with the 8.1.1 release. HealthKit still looks to be flaky, HomeKit has delivered virtually nothing and there are still many app’s that haven’t been updated for the iPhone 6 or 6+ new screen resolutions. Only plus point is the many updated app’s now supporting widgets, extensions and touch ID. Lovely. Seen some significant changes to app’s I use daily and maybe 2015 will see some HomeKit movement…and maybe a return to AirPlay working smoothly?
  • Yosemite brought a new look and feel to the Mac alongside some nice integration with iOS devices. I went for a clean start on the iMac which thanks to Dropbox was far smoother than expected. I’ve only installed app’s I need and it has been quick and smooth in day to day operation. Annoying the iMac doesn’t support much of the handoff features but the Macbook Air does and has been quite handy. Best new feature is receiving calls and texts on any device. Really easy and convenient…but is it not beyond the wit of man (ok, Apple) that they couldn’t know which device I’m on and only ring/text that one? One change I have made is the switch to Safari and the dropping of Chrome. Better battery life on the laptop and I love the new favourites view in Safari across all my devices.
  • Plex on the Xbox One was a nice surprise and is now client of choice for my Plex library. Before the year ends I want to complete ripping all DVD’s and pack them off to the attic like I did with my cd’s a few years back. This also means I’m in the market for some external storage. No USB3 on any of my devices and firewire no longer on any new devices I may purchase pushes me to NAS or Thunderbolt. Been burnt with NAS before so edging towards a Thunderbolt drive possibly from OWC. Decisions, decisions.
  • Next year (early March) will see me switching from the Honda Civic to an Audi A3. Tested an A3 and a Mini and while both were nice the A3 was that little bit more comfortable to drive.
  • One of the teams I was working with this year saw some success in the company awards scheme, so much so I was in London at the start of November for an awards ceremony and at the start of December I’ve a few days in Washington DC for another awards ceremony. This will be my third trip to the USA and my first to Washington and while short I’m looking forward to making the most of it.
  • Haven’t been the healthiest of late which I’m putting down to work. Letting things get to me, not taking breaks like I should have seen a couple of issues snowball together. I stop for the Christmas break on December 16th and I’m looking forward to switching off. Time to think about what I’m doing and what changes I must make.
  • Final rant – why are so many game releases broken on day one. Paying £45-£55 for a game is bad enough but multi gigabyte day one patches and constant online issues sometimes weeks after launch are unacceptable. DriveClub and Halo Master Chief Collection – guilty as charged.

Splurge over, hopefully a more regular service will now resume.

Bestest Games 2014 Edition

Back in 2005 I posted my bestest games (horrible title) from the last 20 years. A couple of months back I felt it was due a refresh so here are my bestest games from the last 30 years.

Games

Flickr have stopped supporting their hover notes so instead the list is below. A few iOS games have crept onto the list as well as some 360 and PS3 updates but some classics have never really been bettered.

  1. F-Zero – 1991 SNES – An almost perfect futuristic racing game. Time trialling was a real challenge. Wasted far too long trying to shave a few hundredths of lap times. Future F-Zero’s never recaptured the magic.
  2. Portal 2 – 2011 – Xbox 360 – Follow up to Portal this was a great first person puzzle game that had a batch of single and co-op puzzles as you battled against GLaDOS.
  3. Super Mario 64 – 1996- N64 – Never been bettered. Still enjoy firing up the emulator and tackling another couple of levels as it’s such a fun game.
  4. Bioshock – 2007 – Xbox 360 – A first person shooter with an original story, stylish graphics and a way of getting in your head like no other. Loved it.
  5. Ferrari F355 Challenge – 2000 – Dreamcast – One of the hardest console racers, not just of it’s time, but across the various consoles I’ve played. Looked great at the time but it’s sobering to think how 1 car and 10 tracks were enough to satisfy everyone. Now we want double the tracks and hundreds of cars.
  6. GTA V – 2013 – Xbox 360 – Latest in the series and by far the best. Play as one of three characters, take part in heists and a truly massive world to roam around complete with multiplayer. It looks better than it should have on a 360 and I’ll probably pick up for the PS4 when it get’s re-released this year.
  7. Head Over Heels – 1987 – Amstrad CPC 464 – A cracking isometric game that I played to death. Graphics were groundbreaking at the time and it was pretty humorous too with a great soundtrack and effects.
  8. The Last Of Us – 2014 – PS4 – Action and survival game with a great story, graphics and music. Best game on PS3 and looks amazing remastered on the PS4.
  9. Ico – 2011 – PlayStation 3 – I ignored this title on the PS2 finally picking it up on the PS3. Puzzle/platformer with each room viewed from a fixed point but a camera that focuses on your character. One of those games that doesn’t appear to offer much but leaves an impression that is hard to forget.
  10. Fez – 2012 – Xbox 360 – A puzzle platformer that looks more at home on a SNES than current consoles and relies less on pixel perfecting jumping than puzzle solving at a more relaxed pace. A classic.
  11. Pro Evolution Soccer 3 – 2003 – PlayStation 2 – The best football game on a console. Local multiplayer only but it was the game of choice at the time for football fans and it was fantastic. Later versions added online but it was awful…and Fifa eventually took Pro Evo’s crown as it beefed up on gameplay and in particularly won online.
  12. Goldeneye 007 – 1997 – N64 – For me still Rare’s best game. Perfect Dark was good but always enjoyed Goldeneye more, maybe because it was first.
  13. The Secret of Monkey Island – 1991 – PC – Still my favourite Lucasarts game. It was funny, captivating and great to look at. The music was also memorable.
  14. Burnout Paradise – 2009 – Xbox 360 – Best of the Burnout series and the best open world racing game so far. Developed by Criterion it featured great challenges, a memorable soundtrack and an online party system that worked really well.
  15. Super Mario World – 1990 – SNES – My first SNES game and probably the one I played the most (behind any multi player). The level design was perfect, so many shortcuts in the game – you really could play it any way you want. When it was complete there were still coin challenges to do. A masterpiece.
  16. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – 2007 – Xbox 360 – The best Call of Duty multiplayer for me. Great maps and some innovation with games modes made it really enjoyable. Later versions just never captured me the same way that Modern Warfare managed.
  17. Forza 2 – 2007 – Xbox 360 – This was such a complete racing game. Lots of tracks and car’s so if you liked to race you were well catered for. Add to that a detailed tuning and setup option for each car which were a tinkerers delight. Finally a skinning engine that allowed for 1000 layers of graphics so artists could spend there time in that part of the game. With a marketplace to buy and sell setups and skins I had a friend who never raced but spent all his time creating amazing skins for cars….and made far more money than I ever did racing.
  18. Elite – 1985 – Amstrad CPC 464 – Space trading epic. Almost 30 years since I played this and I can still remember what a pig it was to dock all while the Blue Danube played in the background. Just bought Elite Dangerous which will hopefully recapture the magic.
  19. Tetris – 1985 – Gameboy – Has any other game sold a platform more then Tetris? The Gameboy was an essential purchase just to play this. Multiplayer at school with this (using cable to connect two machines) was amazing.
  20. SoulCalibur – 1999 – Dreamcast – The reason I bought a Dreamcast. It’s graphics remained untouched for a couple of years, it’s fight mechanics were great and it had a lot of depth for a beat em up.
  21. Halo 3 – 2007 – Xbox 360 – I love all of the Halo games but this stands out the most. First Halo release on the 360 and the graphics were great. Bungie also addressed the de-ranking issues that had plagued Halo 2, the multiplayer was deep and well supported with lots of downloadable content and it also coined the phrase ‘get out’. Probably my most played online game.
  22. Left 4 Dead 2 – 2009 – Xbox 360 – A co-op first person shooter that was one of the first to really emphasise co-op so much so that you needed friends to get you through levels and there was a great feeling if you did manage to complete a level. The amount of enemies thrown at you was mental and every so often you’d hear one of your buddies shout ‘Tank!!!’ or ‘I’ve woken the witch……run!!!!!!’.
  23. The Bards Tale – 1985 – Amstrad CPC 464 – Simple graphics but more of a text adventure, and the first role playing game I ever played – weird – I’ve hardly played one since although I completed this at the time and loved it for weeks.
  24. Unreal Tournament – 1999 – PC – Came out at the same time as Quake III Arena and spanked it’s arse. The first FPS I played online and it’s something I’ll never forget. So fast, so addictive and the follow ups just never clicked for me as much as this.
  25. Red Dead Redemption – 2010 – Xbox 360 – GTA set in the wild west, Red Dead Redemption was so much more. Lots of sub games, a great story and horses. Sunsets. Zombies!
  26. Mercenary – 1985 – Amstrad CPC 464 – I played this on the Amstrad. Graphics are awful when you look at them but the plot and adventure was great and the sense of achievement when escaping the planet was massive. The overview map is fantastic and shows you the scale of the game which was ambitious for it’s day.
  27. Fifa 12 – Xbox 360 – 2011 – Fifa has become the best football game on consoles and I could have picked almost any year, but Fifa 12 saw a big step forward in online play and the mechanics were refined more than any other yearly release too. Importantly, the online actually worked too unlike some other years which have been buggy upon release and sometimes taken 3-4 weeks to resolve.
  28. Transport Tycoon – 1994 – PC – Another Uni favourite and was a massive time sink. Loved it.
  29. Carcassonne – 2010 – iOS – A slick single or multiplayer iOS game based on the German board game. I’ve been playing this for 4 years and it’s still compelling especially with the droop feed of add-on’s released by the games developers, The Coding Monkeys.
  30. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 – 2008 – Xbox 360 – Geometry Wars was a small game available in PGR2. A year later and this full title was released. It’s a shooter which is fast paced and the screen gets very, very busy as enemies and explosions fill the screen.
  31. Super Bomberman 2 – 1994 – SNES – Golden Bomber. I knew when to stop the roulette wheel…allegedly. If theres one game where I would expect to win before I start, this is it (and Pro Evo). Still love it to this day. Wasted sooooo many hours at Uni playing this. David and his speedy boots. Those were the days.
  32. Wip3out – 2000 – PlayStation – The whole Wipeout series was great but the third edition was the best on the PlayStation. Where is Wipeout for the PS4?
  33. Madden NFL 10 – 2009 – Xbox 360 – I’ve played Madden for years from early version on the SNES right through to current consoles. Madden 10 stands out as they made a number of improvements to gameplay which has been incrementally improved since. I’m also convinced that I played this version more than previous/future versions. A great game and very deep if you give it time.
  34. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – 1998 – N64 – Fantastic design, massive play area and it was great to play Zelda in a 3D environment.
  35. Street Fighter II – 1992 – SNES – I loved it. So did Shakeel. Unfortunately for me I hardly ever won on this game – still kept coming back for more and might have thrown the odd pad or two.
  36. Super Hexagon – 2012 – iOS – A twitch game that consumed many hours on the iPhone. Simple graphics and seemingly impossible at first but then you get better, figure out patterns, and it gets faster and faster and faster. A classic.
  37. Uncharted 2 : Among Thieves – 2009 – PS3 – Stunning adventure game that looked and played great. Preferred this to Uncharted 3.
  38. Sega Rally Championship – 1995 – Sega Saturn – A great game that saw some mighty local multiplayer games between me and Shak. Had much better feel than Daytona which was another Saturn classic.
  39. Half Life 2 – 2004 – PC – A game to upgrade your PC for. I loved this more than the original. The set peices were far more involving, the use of physics blew me away. 10 years on and we still await Half Life 3.
  40. Moto GP – 2002 – Xbox – Originally a demo for Xbox Live beta testers, Moto GP was a great showcase for Live. League racing and friendships made that are still there today. This took me back to F-Zero days – time trialling has never been so addictive and frustrating. Mugelllooooooo.
  41. Super Mario Kart – 1992 – SNES – So simple yet deep. So easy yet hard. So much fun. None of the follow up’s captured the feeling from this title nor the fun.
  42. Doom – 1993 – PC – My first FPS and it was such a step forward from what had come before.
  43. Gran Turismo – 1998 – PlayStation – First of the series and arguably the best as the others that followed have added very few new idea’s. In it’s day nothing could touch it and it ate up so much time.
  44. Descent – 1995 – PC – First true 3D game. Never has flying through passageways been such good fun. Played this so much at Uni. DESCENT!!!
  45. Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter – 2006 – Xbox 360 – A first person shooter but this was far more slow paced and tactical. No game could offer gameplay like this – 8 mins of crawling around in bushes to then get shot and killed…or tens mins of sitting in a shed waiting for an attack. Online chat was legendary during this game but our group loved it. Blind siege was our online mode of choice.
  46. Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past – 1991 – SNES – One of the few console games that I’ve played through to a finish. Got the puzzle/arcade balance absolutely spot on and kept me captivated from beginning to end. A game I was sorry to finish.
  47. Command & Conquer:Red Alert – 1996 – PC – Classic strategy game. More came with better graphics but none were as much fun.
  48. Battlefield 3 – 2011 – Xbox 360 – It was a close run things but this was my favourite Battlefield and moved the FPS genre forward. It brought massive destruction to environments, there was no where safe on the map really and the vehicles were great. Battlefield 1942 back in the day was great but this was the best version of Battlefield for me.
  49. Project Gotham Racing 2 – 2003 – Xbox – The best online racer on consoles at the time. Despite the 30 fps and the dullish palette this is still my favourite online racer. Myself and David getting top 50 times in a Paris track is still a standout moment.

Windows 10

Microsoft surprised everyone by announcing a new version of Windows and calling it Windows 10. There were lots of rumours of a new version but none predicted that name. Why 10? To get away from 8, to make it sound really different, to align with Mac OS X? One rumour yesterday linked it to Windows 95 and 98.

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Windows 10 won’t be out until late 2015 but there is a technical preview available and credit to Microsoft as they’ve made it available as a downloadable iso image so it’s easy to install as a virtual machine via VirtualBox.

Windows 10

Windows 10

On first run Windows 10 shows you a desktop that looks familiar to all Windows users that bizarrely was missing from Windows 8. A desktop with a start menu that you can launch app’s from, search from and easily power down your Windows device. In fact it looks like Windows 7 with a new theme apart from one thing – tiles in the start menu. There’s a few other tweaks here and there but when you see it running you’ve got to wonder why Microsoft just didn’t update Windows 8 to have this view. That’s another year for Windows 8 users to suffer from some fundamental usability issues. But don’t worry, Windows 10 will fix it.

Task switcher in WIndows 10. Expose?

Task switcher in WIndows 10. Expose?

A couple of other changes. Firstly there’s a task switcher that brings up a view not unlike Mac’s Exposé and is pretty useful when you have lot’s of app’s and windows active. The other is search. This feels like Mac’s Spotlight or tools like Alfred or Launchbar in that when you search for something it will search against app’s, documents and internet sites. Handy and seemed to work well when testing this morning.

Search in Windows 10

Search in Windows 10

That’s about it so far from my brief play. I had to launch a command prompt just so I could confirm that cut, copy and paste finally work. Such a small change yet it got mention at the Windows 10 soft launch this week. Weird. Microsoft have a lot more to show over the coming months but the emphasis so far on enterprise is almost a plea. Don’t leave us, we know where we went wrong. Windows 10 is ambitious in that it’s planned to be one platform across all of Microsofts devices – mobile, servers, desktops, laptops, tablets, large surface devices and Xbox One. I fear compromise again which is at the root of many of the problems in Windows 8 but Windows 10 looks to be a good start on desktops and laptops at least.

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