I realized the other day that I hadn’t downloaded any new music since the beginning of November. Yikes! No wonder my days were feeling stale and uninspired. So here’s what I’ve grabbed as the first batch of new(ish) music for 2006:

  • Arcade Fire – Funeral. My cousin Cameron recommended these guys. I’ve listened to the album once so far, and am not sure what to make of it. It might grow.
  • Fischerspooner – Odyssey. I’d heard a couple of tracks from this last year. Smart and funky electro.
  • KT Tunstall – Eye To The Telescope. The sheer weight of excellent songs from the album meant I had to get the whole thing. Smooth and sweet wrapped around a nugget of rock.
  • Mos Def & Talib Kweli – Black Star. Going back to 1998 for this one. Talib Kweli showed up on a bunch of my favourite tunes from last year (collaborating with MF Doom and Kanye West), and according to my sources, Black Star was a good place to start getting some more of him. It’s rich and sumptuous hip-hop–the good stuff.
  • Stevie Wonder – A Time To Love. I saw that Spence has listed this as one of his records of 2005. I haven’t listened to much of Stevie Wonder’s recent material, but if this is anything to go by, I’m going to have to dive into that back catalogue. It’s lush.
  • System Of A Down – Hypnotize. The second part of their 2005 diptych. It hasn’t caught my ear as quickly as Mezmerize did, though.
  • The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan. It’s got a lighter touch than Elephant, but offers another excellent helping of stripped-down blues rock.

Mmmm. It’s a great start to the year.

2005 in review: Games

In terms of games, 2005 was quite a telling year, in terms of illustrating the types of game I play most:

Let’s see…that would be four cartoonish “kids” games, one silly extreme sports title, and a story-based first person shooter. Picking a favourite is easy–Ratchet: Gladiator.

In its latest incarnation, R&C has finally become what is has been been evolving into since the first game: the perfect three-dimensional translation of an old school shoot-em-up. You’ve got your power-ups, your health packs, ever-increasing firepower, complex enemy attack patterns, and tough boss battles. The “levels” are linked by a story that is every bit as fun as the three previous games, but the platforming element is gone, and what is left is distilled essence of manic combat. The amount of explosive graphic detail the game engine renders without any slowdown whatsoever is mind-blowing. The controls are perfectly tuned, providing a sensation of fluidity and total immersion in the moment. Psychologically, the game provides quick bursts of action, peppered with small yet significant rewards at every turn. It has the “just one more” factor down to a T. I love this game.

At the other extreme of my game-playing lay Half-Life 2 on the PC. I enjoyed it, but I can’t say that it was a life-altering experience. It had some intense moments, and many thrilling and memorable sequences, but is it a game I would ever go back to? No. I am simply not an FPS kind of guy any more.

Nor am I a PC gamer any more. I appreciate that the PC is going to continue offering the best graphics of any platform, but that doesn’t really interest me. I’ll choose a fun, bright, cartoonish world over a perfectly rendered environment any day. I want simple gameplay. I don’t generally enjoy realistic violence. (Cartoon violence is a different matter, and more is generally better.) Bring on the Revolution.

In fact, I’ve even got to the point where I’m considering selling my XBox. The only games I have for it right now are Halo, Halo 2, and Burnout 3. The Burnout series is cross-platform, so I could get it on the PS2 or the Cube if I wanted to play it again. Halo was excellent, and it’s a game I might well go back to. Halo 2 I never finished, and, to be honest, I’m not sure I ever will. (I got bogged down on the levels where I had to play as the aliens, and I got bored of having to hack through the Flood again. I’ve been keeping it around on an “I know I should play this, but…” basis.) I know of no XBox-only titles currently available or in development that interest me. Given that I will probably buy myself an XBox 360 at some point in the future (“it’s the sound of…inevitability”), I’ll be able to play these games in backwards-compatibility mode should I ever feel the need.

(Yeah, I think that’s decided. The XBox goes. I can use the money from selling it to fund some games I am really looking forward to, all of which are due to land in February: We Love Katamari, Shadow Of The Colossus, and Psychonauts.)

Finally, my 2005 games roundup would not be complete without mentioning a non-videogame highlight, namely Poker. I bought myself a set of poker chips at the beginning of the year, and I’ve been getting together with a small gang of buddies every now and then for an evening of Hold’em, booze, junk food, and much hilarity. I was playing on-line for a while earlier in the year, and according to my statistics spreadsheet, I managed to get over 50 hours of raked hands and 100 tournaments out of my initial $50 stake before going bust. Not bad. I haven’t reloaded yet, because I found it was swallowing too much time in the evenings. Our gang has been talking about a real-life casino trip for a while, and maybe we’ll make that happen in 2006.

2005 in review: Books

2005 was an excellent reading year. In terms of quantity, I got through 45 books, which is more than I have read in a single year in a long time. The quality was good, too, with only four books falling below my standards for “entertaining”. But best of all was the fact that I found three authors who have gone straight on to my list of favourites.

John Scalzi - Old Man's WarWhile we were on holiday in Boston in February, Keith took us to a small SF bookstore in Cambridge (Pandemonium Books), where I bought a copy of John Scalzi‘s novel Old Man’s War. I had been reading Scalzi’s blog for a while, so I knew the book was out and that it had been getting good reviews. I cracked it open while we were still in Boston, and I finished it in about a day. It is fantastic.

John Scalzi - Agent To The StarsWhen Subterranean Press did a special edition of his book Agent To The Stars later in the year, I got a copy of that, too, and it is equally good. These two books are easily the most entertaining science fiction I’ve read since Lois McMaster Bujold’s early Miles Vorkosigan novels. They feature solid ideas, warm characters you can get really involved with, and fast-moving plots. Scalzi’s writing style is simple and perfectly unobtrusive. I never felt like I was wading through lovingly crafted yet unnecessary descriptions, or page count padding. He just gets on with the story. I love these books, and am eagerly awaiting The Ghost Brigades, which is due in February.

Also while we were in Boston, I read Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre. Many people had recommended Brookmyre to me, but it took me until this year to read anything by him. I think I’ve made up for that by guzzling down seven of his novels since then. He writes satirical, wickedly anti-establishment thrillers, set mostly in Scotland. (Not The End Of The World takes place in L.A., but features a Scottish protagonist.)

Christopher Brookmyre - Quite Ugly One MorningIn his Jack Parlabane series (Quite Ugly One Morning, Country Of The Blind, Boiling A Frog, and Be My Enemy) he takes gleeful aim at corporate greed, political corruption, and religious hypocrisy. The Angelique de Xavia series (A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, and The Sacred Art Of Stealing) are strongly plotted crime capers, full of twists, black humour, and pop culture references. They are all steeped in Scottish nature, culture, and language. If you’re not Scottish, you might not get all of the jokes–or even understand what some of the characters are saying, fooaltiyeman–but I recommend them very highly nevertheless.

Neal Asher - GridlinkedLast up is Neal Asher, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing via email back in June. Neal Asher is an “action movie” kind of storyteller. Situations are Desperate, Heroes are Tough, and Stuff goes Boom. A lot. My favourite books of his are the Ian Cormac series (Gridlinked, The Line Of Polity, and Brass Man), a set of stories about a secret agent dealing with psychotic criminals and cryptic alien entities in a far-future setting. You want tense SF thrillers? Look no further.

But those aren’t all the books I enjoyed in 2005. Also of particular note were Market Forces by Richard Morgan, the Coyote books (Coyote and Coyote Rising) by Allen Steele, the Hammered series (Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired, which I have yet to read) by Elizabeth Bear, and two Prey books (Hidden Prey and Broken Prey by John Sandford. I keep reading stuff by Charlie Stross, and I keep wanting to like it…but it the books of his I’ve read this year (Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise, and Accelerando) have just failed to set me alight. I think I’ll try his Hidden Family series next. With a little less emphasis on the hard science, he might be writing characters I would find more interesting.

2005 in review: Films

I saw 78 films in 2005. Not quite the 100 I managed to catch in 2004, but still a respectable haul. However, the average rating I handed out was 3.06, which is quite significantly down from 3.23 last year. I said I needed to watch more rubbish in order to fine-tune my critical senses, and I think I’ve achieved that goal. There were some stinkers this year–three that didn’t even warrant a full star, as opposed to only one in 2004:

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Also, I only found 9 films that were worth more than 4 stars, compared to 14 in 2004:

So overall, I’d say it’s been no more than an okay year for films. I haven’t made as much use of my Screenselect membership (DVDs by post) as I thought I would–probably because I haven’t been paying much attention to my movie queue. As a result, I’ve been getting a lot of films which I’d added to my queue because of a vague inkling of a fancy, rather than because I actively wanted to see them. I think I need to spend some time just removing a bunch of titles from the 200-odd long list I’ve built up, and concentrate on picking up on some of the films I missed in the cinema throughout 2005.

Here’s the full chart.

Chart of the ratings of films I saw in 2005

So what would I pick as my top films of the year? Actually, the list above comes pretty close. Removing Adaptation and Pieces Of April because they are from previous years (and remember that although The Aviator was up at the Oscars at the beginning of this year, it didn’t get a UK release until January of 2005), my list is as follows:

  1. Crash
  2. The Aviator
  3. Batman Begins
  4. Lord Of War
  5. Wedding Crashers
  6. Kung Fu Hustle
  7. A History Of Violence
  8. Sin City
  9. Serenity
  10. Sahara

Windows security alert: WMF vulnerability

In case you haven’t come across this already, a new and highly nasty Windows security flaw has been uncovered in the last few days, and it is being actively exploited to infect Windows machines with rootkits and who knows what else. The flaw can be exploited by merely looking at a particular kind of image (a .wmf file) in Internet Explorer any browser or your mail client. It can even be activated without being viewed, if it happens to get indexed by something like Google Desktop.

I’ve been tracking news about it over on the F-Secure blog. Fortunately, there is a temporary patch available. If you’re running any form of Windows from 2000 upwards, you need to follow these instructions and install the patch right now. The patch doesn’t cover earlier versions of Windows, but the flaw is present in them, too. In fact, it has been there since Windows 3.0.

I don’t normally go into a flap about security issues, but this one has particular resonances with the short story “BLIT” by David Langford, which describes a fractal image that is “incompatible with human neural input”, and can kill you just by looking at it.

Sometimes I look forward to the day when I can access the cybersphere via a hardwired neural connection…and sometimes I just plain worry.