2007 in review: Gadget Fever

My life revolves around technology. Even the kids are massive geeks. Fiona may be fascinated by ballet and the Barbie fairytale animated films (which aren’t nearly as bad as you might think), but you know what else is pink? Her Nintendo DS Lite.

So what were the significant technological additions to my life in 2007?

  • New 80GB iPod (5G). My old one was a 20GB model, and it wasn’t enough to hold my entire music collection. Now that I work mostly from home, I don’t use the iPod nearly as much as I used to, though, and I have hardly watched any video on it at all. Mostly I use it to shuttle music around the house: we have a few sets of small portable speakers, and I plug the iPod in whenever I want some music in the kitchen or the bathroom. The bad: I have found this new iPod to be slower and more prone to crashing than the old one.
  • MacBook Pro (15″, Core Duo 2): sleek and gorgeous, it is one of the finest pieces of computing machinery I have ever used. (It’s a work laptop, so it’s not really a personal addition. But it’s a major feature on my desk and in my life, so I’m going to count it anyway.) The MBP is light and fast, and I have grown to love being able to pick it up easily and use it away from my desk. Travelling with it is great, too, apart from the way it picks up a charge when going through airport security–I regularly get a shock when I pick it up after it has gone through the scanner.
  • Crumpler Cheesy Disco bag: a good laptop deserves a good bag. The Cheesy Disco comfortably holds the MBP and accessories, as well as a book or two, papers, and all the other rubbish I carry with me. It’s too big for everyday use when all I need with me is a book, a pen, and my wallet, but it’s great for big trips.
  • Griffin Elevator notebook stand: it brings the MBP’s screen up to the same level as my main screen, which is a practical necessity for avoiding neck strain. Also, it gives me space underneath the MBP to put more desk clutter.
  • Samsung SyncMaster 2032BW 20″ monitor: It’s a good enough monitor, but not a great one. Compared to my Dell Ultrasharp, the colours are harsh and vary slightly (but noticeably) from top to bottom, the viewing angle is poor, and it lacks an ergonomic stand for changing its height or tilt. Still, it was cheap, and it gives me a THIRD MONITOR, which was reason enough for buying it. I used to be a multi-monitor skeptic, but I’m fully cured now.
  • Wacom Bamboo graphics tablet: this was a toy buy, because I had never tried a tablet before, and I just wanted one. I’m not much of an artist, but it does make fine work in Photoshop much easier and more natural. Also, it combines really well with Google SketchUp for drawing 3D models.
  • HP C5180 all-in-one printer/scanner/copier: It’s not as good a printer as our old printer, but cartridges are ahout half the price. It’s not as good a scanner as our standalone Epson Perfection, but it doesn’t take up any extra space on the desk. Being able to run off quick photocopies instead of scanning and printing is a big plus, and plugging it straight into our network with an ethernet connection instead of attaching it to an always-on computer is an even bigger plus. Overall: yay. But I will need to keep the old scanner around for occasional dedicated photo work.
  • Playstation 3. Okay, not strictly mine; it was Abi’s Christmas present. But it means that we now have a full complement of current-generation consoles around the house.
  • Roland TD-3 drum kit: total sweetness. I love playing the drums, but–to my detriment–sometimes I forget about that. For a clumsy and performance-shy amateur like me, the best feature of an electronic kit like this one is the ability to plug my iPod into the brain’s external input, and then be able to play along through a set of headphones.

There are a also a couple of software services that are worth mentioning. They’re not strictly gadgets, but I think they fit here anyway:

  • Mozy off-site backup. I have rotten luck with hard drives. Mozy ensures that I don’t have to worry about data loss any more. The initial upload takes a long time, but after that the daily run is painless. I still keep local backups for fast recovery, but I don’t feel like I have to be obsessive about them.
  • Jungle Disk. Jungle Disk is a remote storage system that uses Amazon S3 for its back-end. You can use it as a backup system like Mozy, but unlike Mozy it also gives you filesystem-level integration. This means you can map a drive to your off-site space. This is great for sharing files between different computers, and also between different people.

I’m trying to think now if there are any gadgets on the horizon in 2008. No new games consoles, unless we go retro and splash out on a Sega Mega Drive or something (not inconceivable). The biggie for which I’m going to have to put on my best puppy-dog eyes will be a new big-screen TV when we move house.

Actually, wait–we’re going to be buying a new house soon. Does a house count?

2007 in review: Books

33 books in 2007 – the same as in 2006. And although I haven’t managed to crack more than 50 books in any year since 2002 (when I started keeping notes), I keep being disappointed by this fact. Surely a book a week isn’t too hard a target? Clearly, for me, it is.

My book of the year was World War Z by Max Brooks. If you have never come across it before, it’s a…zombie novel. But don’t dismiss it out of hand because of the subject matter. The book is not framed as a traditional zombie horror story, with a band of survivors pitted against hordes of the living dead. Instead, it takes the perspective of a collection of interviews with people who survived a zombie pandemic. Their tales are often harsh and emotional, but never recounted for simple thrills. At a deeper level, it is all about some of our worst fears in the real world: political and economical collapse, global disease pandemics, terrorism, and war.

There is also an audio book version narrated by an interesting cast including Mark Hamill, John Turturro, Rob Reiner, Jürgen Prochnow, and Alan Alda. I don’t generally listen to audio books, but this one has me seriously tempted.

Other top picks from 2007:

  • Simon Singh – The Big Bang. Simon Singh is a great science writer, who excels at explaining science by telling the story of the people who made the discoveries. Here he tackles not just the Big Bang theory, but the whole history of cosmology, all in his characteristically accessible style. Simply brilliant.
  • William Gibson – Spook Country. It’s not science fiction, and not a spy novel, but it has elements of both.
  • Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics. McCloud explains the hidden language and structure of comics — all the stuff that you probably understand at some fundamental level but have never thought about consciously. It also offers fascinating insights into craftsmanship and mastery in general.
  • Peter Watts – Blindsight. SF first contact story with a disquieting horror backbone.
  • Richard Morgan – Black Man. (Published in the US as Thirteen.) Big chunky SF thriller; noirish, bleak, and brutal.

I haven’t read much in 2008 so far (4 books to date), but there’s a lot of good stuff stacked on the shelves. I doubt if I’ll hit 50 this year, either, but you never know…

2007 in review: Games

Just like films, I didn’t actually play many games in 2007. I watched plenty, and assisted Alex on a good many difficult levels and challenges; but games that I actually sat down and dedicated time to because I wanted to…not so much.

Let’s see, there was Pokémon Pearl in July, which was fun, although I haven’t finished it, and doubt if I ever will. My natural play style is slow and methodical, and I like to spend lots of time battling and upgrading my core team of Pokémon before moving on to the next area. Alex, on the other hand, wants to blast straight through as quickly as possible, and wants me to keep up. This is why my Turtwig is still only at level 40-odd, while his Empoleon has reached about a zillion. We experienced a certain amount of tension because of this.

Halo 3? Can’t see what all the fuss is about. I played it mostly out of obligation: after having played the first two, it would be rude not to complete the trilogy. I did the first two levels on Heroic difficulty, but quickly dropped back to Normal, because I just wanted to get it over with. And then was disappointed by the weak ending. Come to think of it, that’s almost exactly how I felt about Halo 2, too.

Bioshock was excellent. The underwater city of Rapture is one of the best video game environments ever: I spent the first hour or so just wandering around in awe. It’s beautiful, mysterious, full of detail, and meticulously dilapidated. As you make your way through abandoned walkways and crumbling buildings, you uncover reminders of the inhabitants’ high hopes of a better world and a better life. The story is deliberately constructed to give you a large amount of moral freedom, and the choices you make genuinely affect the way the game plays out. Some of the plot twists are a bit obvious, but overall it was a thrilling experience.

Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction is lovely, although I haven’t finished it yet. Alex and Abi are both on their second run-throughs, on challenge mode. We’ve all been big fans of the series from its beginning, and this was the first must-have game for the PS3. (In fact, we don’t even have any other games for the PS3 yet. How sad are we.) However, as many commentators have pointed out, in terms of gameplay, it doesn’t offer anything substantially different from its predecessors. But that’s okay. Sometimes you just want to cuddle up with the familiar. And it’s still really good.

Super Mario Galaxy is, of course, gorgeous and amazing. Just as with Ratchet and Clank, I haven’t finished it yet, but with the amount that Alex has played it, I feel like I have. It’s a much more forgiving game than Super Mario Sunshine. The worlds offer generous helpings of extra lives (although, annoyingly, you can’t carry them over between saves), and there are few challenges that took more than a handful of attempts. It’s a brilliant and fun game.

But without any doubt, the game of the year for me was Portal. I started playing it at about 21:30 on New Year’s Eve, and had to stop because of exhaustion at about 02:00, about three-quarters through the final level. The next day, as soon as the kids were in bed, I finished it, and immediately started back at the beginnig again–partly to hear the developers’ commentary track, and partly because it was so much damn fun.

On one level, it presents a fresh and innovative game mechanic, and exploits this with beautifully designed puzzles. This alone would make it a great game. But the script turns it into a true work of genius. It is hysterically funny, but also sinister, menacing, and melancholy. The environments you move through are simple, but the world they are set in–of which you only receive hints–is rich. It is fully connected to the Half-Life universe, but you don’t need any prior knowledge of those games to enjoy Portal. If you do know what is happening in the outside world (“when I look out there it makes me I’m glad I’m not you”), you can let your imagination run wild about how the events here hook up there.

It’s also a rare game that spawns actual catchphrases. Cake, anyone?

2007 in review: Films

Okay, let’s get the easy ones out of the way first. Watching films, being part of “having fun” kind of fell by the wayside in 2007. I only saw 29 films (a five-year low), most of those in the first four or five months of the year. I have only been to the cinema once since we moved to the Netherlands, and that was to see The Bourne Ultimatum…on a trip back to Scotland.

I don’t see the situation changing any time soon, either. I know where the nearest cinema is, but lack the motivation to get out there of an evening. (Also: National Treasure 2? Puh-leeze.) The TV set-up we have here in the house is distinctly sub-optimal, and I haven’t signed up for a DVD rental service here yet. (Compared to Lovefilm in the UK, the offerings here are expensive and primitive.) Once we move house, I would really like to get a big TV, and spend some time arranging it so that sitting down to watch a film is something to look forward to.

Of the films I saw in 2007, there are four that really stood out:

Brick seems to divide opinion; some people find it boring, and are put off by the poor sound quality – some of the dialogue is really hard to make out. I just loved its lo-fi noir vision. Primer is a low-budget no-fx gem, a mind-bending time-travel film that actually works. Following is another low-budget effort–Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut, in fact. (You may remember Nolan from bigger films such as The Prestige and Batman Begins.) It’s a cunning little thriller with a sting in the tail. Finally, The Good Shepherd is the kind of spy film I like: murky, understated, ambiguous, and backstabby.

So what am I looking forward to in 2008? To be honest, seeing anything at the cinema would be a high point of my year so far. Richard Brunton maintains a fabulous site for movie lovers over at Filmstalker.co.uk, with loads of tasty bites about what’s coming soon, but I can’t actually see anything on the horizon that screams out “must see!” yet.

(Actually, on second thoughts, a European release of My Name Is Bruce would be pretty awesome.)