April 2008 Archives

My eagerly awaited copy of GTA IV arrived at work yesterday.  I'd ordered the special edition which comes in a huge cardboard box containing a metal lockable deposit box.  Inside this is a fabric Rockstar bag, a Rockstar keyring, two keys for the deposit box, a CD of music from the game, a nice art book and of course the game itself.

My introduction to GTA was the third game on PS2.  I loved it at the time.  The first game I'd ever encountered where I could choose between ploughing through missions or just playing in the world.  Simply getting in a car and caning it around the city was fun.  I played it until I finished the main campaign missions, with the climactic battle at the dam.

Vice City had me equally hooked, though I haven't finished it by a long shot (and most probably never will).  Towards the end of my playthrough some of the missions just got too hard and annoying for me to continue with it, but I played enough to open up the entire world (including a great moment where you take over the mansion in the middle island) and had some great times.

San Andreas was where it all went wrong for me.  The main character didn't come across as interesting or likable to me.  In fact none of characters did it for me - they were just a bunch of one dimensional gangsta rap stereotypes.  The "Yo homies" style of dialogue was just laughable for all the wrong reasons.  It was as though they were trying too hard to be "down with the kids".  Also, the PS2 version I played had a really poor framerate.  I didn't bother playing past about 6%.

Back to the last night...  On a busy evening of cycling home from work in heavy rain and visiting a mortgage advisor who likes to talk (a LOT), I managed get a couple of hours of gameplay in on GTA IV.

I was worried the game may be overhyped (Halo 3), but so far this game is a massive return to form for me.  The title sequence is incredibly slick and very quickly you meet some fun and interesting characters.  Without spoiling anything I've done a few missions, been bowling on a date with a slightly creepy woman and generally just pootled around the world taking in the sights.  It hasn't been particularly violent so far either (though that won't stop the Daily Mail/Jack Thompson brigade from asserting otherwise).  The only fighting I've had to do is to protect Niko's cousin from debt collectors.

The attention to detail is incredible, right down to the interference in the car radio when your mobile phone is about to ring.

The only problem I've had so far is that dialogue is sometimes drowned out by background noise or music.  It's probably just a bug in the 5.1 sound mix (other games have had similar problems for me which have been patched), but I've turned on subtitles for now which neatly solves the problem, with the additional bonus of automatically translating to English when characters speak in another language.

Back on two wheels

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I've not done any cycling since the charity bike ride last June.  Since then my bike had festered in the shed with a flat back tyre and a dodgy crank bearing.  At the time I was driving to work (much too far to cycle) and didn't have the motivation to get the bike fixed up.

In February this year, we had a break in.  Both of our bikes were stolen from the shed.  Katherine quickly got a new bike from Halfords through the insurance company, but I decided to hold out as my workplace had recently started doing a ride2work scheme through Evans Cycles.  The scheme means you pay for your bike out of your pre-tax pay if you promise to use it to get to work, thus saving around 50% on the price.  I applied for a voucher in February and it took until last week (mid April) to arrive.  A two month wait is frankly ridiculous, but asking around a few people it would appear this is normal.

Anyway, I headed down to the bike shop and after a quick test ride I settled on a Specialized Pitch Comp FSR.  It improves over my old bike (a Saracen Vice - no longer produced) in pretty much every way.  It's much lighter, has hydraulic disk brakes (brilliant in the rain!), and the suspension is a lot more advanced - it can be adjusted from rock hard for road use, to really soft for offroad.  It feels much better when pedalling as it doesn't waste all your energy compressing the suspension rather than propelling the bike forward.

I was able to take the bike with me straight away as they had one in stock.  I rode back home from the bike shop (about four miles) which took me about half an hour.  Since then I've ridden to work and back all week (2.2 hilly miles each way) and done a few laps of Surrey Research Park (0.6 miles) in my lunch hours.

I hope to get rid of my beer belly soon!!!

Childbirth Pseudoscience

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We've attended a number of antenatal classes lately.  One major focus of these is the labour process, explaining methods of relaxing and how to help manage pain.  We were taught breathing exercises, focussing on breathing out (similar to coping techniques for an asthma attack).  Various active labour positions were shown to us, as the TV sterotype of lying on your back with legs akimbo is pretty much the worst position for childbirth.

One major benefit of these classes is that it gave me the sense that I have an active and beneficial role to play, rather than just sitting there like a lemon for hours holding Katherine's hand saying muttering vague sympathies and wondering if the bloke's role should be to pace up and down the corridor smoking cigars...

I digress.  So far, the advice given is all good common sense stuff that's well backed up physiologically.

However, some other advice about pain relief made my sceptical eyebrow raise.  The teacher at the NCT (National Childbirth Trust) class recommended arnica tablets as a pain relief (though the NHS classes made no mention of this).  I didn't think any more of it until Katherine bought some on a shopping trip with a friend.  They turn out to be a homeopathic remedy (i.e. sugar pills).  All the research I can find shows them to be nothing more than placebos as would be expected if you think about it (for example - http://archsurg.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/133/11/1187).  Now you might think that a placebo has a strong effect (and indeed it is), but at over £5 for a small tub of tablets it's just a plain rip off.  I may as well give Katherine some mints.

Another method of pain relief that is on potentially dodgy scientific ground is TENS, which consists of a small machine with four electrodes on wires that are placed on particular places on your back.  The machine sends pulses at certain frequencies that are said to "block" your pain transmitting nerves (though why this has no effect on other nerves with jobs such as motor or temperature sensing I have no idea).  This was recommended by both the NCT and the NHS.

The research into the effectiveness of TENS for childbirth seems inconclusive.  I'm not sure I quite believe the pain blocking theory of operation, but perhaps a better theory is that TENS performs a bit of neurological slight of hand.  The tingling sensation could be enough to distract the brain.  The human brain can only process so much information at once, so the pain is felt less strongly.

It is (to me) quite surprising given how much TENS was emphasised by the teachers as a good therapy (especially by the NHS who really should know better about clinical trials).  However, neither therapy seems to do any harm, which is why I think they're both recommended.  I guess a few good placebos are better than nothing.

I think it mostly comes down to the fact that childbirth is not a very predictable or controlled process.  It's different for everyone, lasts wildly varying lengths of time, different people have different pain thresholds, etc.  Bascially, there are far too many differences to make a good control group for a double blind trial into obstetric pain relief with good methodology.  You can't even test the same person through two labours with and without the pain relief because so many other factors will be different that the results would be meaningless.

Child Car Seats

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Our impending parenthood looms closer and closer, so we've started to buy a lot of gear in preparation.  Most of it has been fairly simple to choose, clothes (in neutral colours as we don't know the gender of the baby), stuff to wash the baby with, sleeping bags, etc.

One thing we've had to do a bit more research on is the car seat.

My first instinct was to look at these integrated travel systems where you have a car seat which easily plugs in and out of the car and onto a matching pram base.  However, once we looked into this, it seems that it's a far from ideal solution.

With these systems it seems there are far more cons than pros.  I'll list a few here that came up in our research.


  1. Convenience - it's easy to transfer baby from the car to the pram and vice versa without waking him/her up.

...and that's about it.


  1. The car seat section is going to be very small (known as a Group 0+), which means the baby will out grow it in just nine months.  After that you have to buy a new larger seat which won't fit onto the pram anyway.  We're not planning on having child No. 2 straight away, so this type of seat would then be useless up in the loft for a while.
  2. The small seats are said to be uncomfortable for babies on long journeys as the baby will be curved into a V shape for a long period.
  3. Poorer safety compared with a dedicated car child seat (particularly side impact protection).
  4. Clips holding the car seat to the pram are another thing that can break.

So in the end we decided that a dedicated car seat was the thing for us.  After reading loads of reviews and going to see the different models in a few shops, we settled upon a Britax First Class Si Ultra, which is a Group 0-1 seat that will last the baby from birth until approximately four years.  The website even has a guide to whether it will fit in your car or not (ours is too old to have an ISOFIX system so we needed to check before buying).  We got it from halfords.com which included a 10% discount.

Now we just need to research prams and cots...

After my failure to get iPlayer content working on my 360 (as detailed in my last post), I tried another route, as suggested by IainB in the comments.

I had already activated Media Sharing in the Vista network control panel, so I simply turned both machines on and went to the Media blade, selected video, then pressed X to change source and selected my PC, which appeared on the list straight away.  Then all the video content shared on my PC appeared in a list.

However, the 360 still wasn't able to play the iPlayer video content.  After hitting play, the screen faded blank for a second, and then a blade appeared with saying it couldn't play the content with a hex error number (which I forget at the moment).  It was able to view some images from my PC, though the connection kept dropping, which is odd, because the wireless network has previously been totally solid - copying data between our two PCs works flawlessly.  I haven't tried playing music over the network yet.

I also discovered that you can plug a digital camera into the 360 via a USB cable, and it can display a slideshow of the images on the camera straight away.  A really nice feature!!!

We missed an episode of Torchwood last week, so I decided to give the BBC's iPlayer a go.  I installed the software from the website easily enough and it told me to restart Firefox before it would work.  Fair enough, thinks I, so I restart the browser and navigate to the iPlayer download page and select Torchwood.  I select the download option and it then bizarrely launches an instance of Internet Explorer to do the job.

Now why on Earth would it do this?  I've seem a few websites that are totally IE dependent (anything hosted on Sharepoint for example), but the iPlayer installer specifically mentioned restarting Firefox so it makes no sense in this case.

Despite this WTF, it downloaded the program fairly quickly.  I play the first few seconds of it in Windows Media Player to check it's OK, but really what I wanted to do was to watch the program on our 32" HD screen in the living room, sat on the comfy sofa, etc, rather than watching on a 20" PC monitor on a hard chair in a small office.  Well, I have an Xbox 360 which can play back media so I thought it should be a doddle to get the two machines talking over our wireless network.  How wrong I was...

Firstly, I booted up the 360 and went to its Media Center (Note to Microsoft, it's spelt "Centre" in the UK).  It provided me with an eight digit number to type into Windows Media Center on my PC.  I have Vista Home Premium 64 on my PC, which includes Windows Media Center.  I launch this program and follow the instructions to add a "Media Extender" which apparently the 360 is from the point of view of the PC.  I enter the number and wait...

By this point, the 360 says it's downloading something, but after a minute or two it claims the connection was broken.  The PC says the same thing.  I try again with the same result.

After a bit of thought, I recall seeing a Media Sharing option in the Vista Control panel, so I switch this on (it's able to see the 360 on the network with no problems), but the 360 isn't able to see my PC.

I go through the whole Media Extender setup again and this time it seems to succeed.  The PC did complain that my wireless network wasn't going to be fast enough to stream video (surely 54Mbps is quick enough, even if shared across two devices).  The 360 now has a Media Center UI on screen, identical to the one in Vista. 

However, all is not well.  Navigating this screen results in a huge lag of a few seconds for each button press (though the background is animating smoothly).  The PC is able to navigate without any problems, even when connected to the 360.  I eventually get into the videos section and see that the Torchwood episode is indeed there.  I click play and it says it doesn't know how to play it despite it being a Windows Media format file.

At this point, we just give up and watch the episode in the office on my PC.  The image quality of iPlayer content isn't bad at all.  It's a bit fuzzier than broadcast digital TV, but my PC seems to do a much better job of smoothing out DCT macroblocks than my TV does (perhaps the difference between MPEG2 and WMV).  Also, it was a good episode!

So...  Why was this process so difficult?  Why did it fail when I tried to play the video on the 360?  Why was there so much lag navigating the Media Center UI on the 360?  Would it not have been a lot simpler for the 360 to present a shared drive to the network that I can copy videos/music/etc onto and then simply play them locally?

Answers on a postcard (or preferably in the comments box).

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from April 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

March 2008 is the previous archive.

June 2008 is the next archive.

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