matthewpennell.com
A blog of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote

Monday, 25 November 2019

Why is there no physical social media? Updating your current status online, across myriad platforms, has become such an intrinsic part of modern life but I find it curious that nobody yet seems to be interested in bringing that information offline and into the physical world.

Why are there no badges that reflect your current mood, or hats that display the song you’re currently listening to? We have digital photo frames in our homes, but no digital photos on tote bags or car windows. And people will decorate their avatars with in memoriam frames or political protest banners, but very few are willing to wear any visible indication of sentiment or belief beyond an occasional red poppy.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Since Phase 2 of World of Warcraft Classic launched last week, bringing with it the PvP honour system, levelling has become rather more challenging. My priest is level 51, which puts me square in the sights of every level 60 player looking for some easy points while we wait for the actual PvP battlegrounds to be released; in the space of a few days, the game went from generally fun to at times boringly frustrating.

So, to avoid the non-stop roaming gank squads, I’ve picked up a new game to play for a couple of weeks. Batman: Arkham Knight is the fourth and final game in the series released by Rocksteady, and brings back just about all of the heroes and villains that featured in the previous installments (Arkham Asylum, Arkham City and Arkham Origins) while changing little of the gameplay fundamentals that garnered all the games generally positive reviews. Even better, it was free; one of the better Epic Store giveaways — they actually gave away all the Arkhamverse games, plus all of the LEGO Batman games, in a single week!

I was a little unsure whether my iMac Windows partition would be able to handle running such a graphically intensive game, particularly when the hand-to-hand combat can sometimes require decent reflexes, but it actually runs fairly smoothly, albeit at a slimmed down 1600×900 resolution instead of the native 2560×1440. Again, 2015 seems to be the most recent vintage of game that I am able to comfortably play, but with such a wealth of options being given away for free, I can hardly complain.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Since 2007, all of my computing has been done on a Mac, both at work and at home. The smooth user experience of OSX (or MacOS, as it’s now known) was, and still is, light-years beyond whatever Windows can offer, and I have never regretted leaving behind that never-ending cycle of updates, patches and virus warnings.

Of course, every silver lining has a cloud, and going Mac-only obviously leaves a significant PC-shaped hole in one’s ability to play the latest games. The situation now isn’t as bad as it used to be, of course; nowadays many games are available on Mac, including just about every new indie title (my guess would be that standardised development platforms like Unity and Unreal can take the credit for this), but it’s still true that you’re unlikely to be playing the latest open-world sim or first-person shooter on a Mac, even via Boot Camp. My 2013 iMac can just about manage to run 2015’s Witcher 3, but anything released more recently is beyond its capabilities.

However, one upcoming game has me seriously considering making the switch back to Windows, and splashing out on the kind of graphics card that needs its own air-conditioning unit. The revamped Microsoft Flight Simulator, due out in 2020, looks AMAZING — just take a look at this:

That’s high-definition satellite imagery sourced from their Bing Maps service, together with live weather data, all streamed from the cloud to your PC or Xbox.

I remember playing the original Flight Simulator back when I bought my first ever PC, probably around 1999-2000. I don’t remember which version I owned, but I do remember spending hours simply following the tutorials as I practiced taking off, circling the runway, and landing my little twin-engine plane back at SeaTac airport. You wouldn’t have thought that following simple instructions could be such an enjoyable gaming experience, but I guess the 37 years that MSFS has been going proves you very wrong.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

When I’m driving, if I don’t have one Spotify playlist or another plugged in, I’m a BBC Radio 4 kinda guy. Whether it’s Today during my morning commute, or PM in the evenings, I enjoy the more in-depth news journalism they offer over the banter- and personality-driven Radios 1 or 2. Or, in the very early mornings, when they broadcast the BBC World Service, there’s the possibility of catching a programme on any number of extraordinary, eye-opening topics.

But this week, for a change — or perhaps because there’s only so much Brexit-related election coverage one can stomach — I instead tuned into Radio 3, the BBC’s classical music station, and enjoyed several hours of news-free, politics-free music. It helped that they just so happened to be playing some of my favourite pieces of music, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite among them, but it’s nice to switch off your awareness of the world’s problems for a little while, and just enjoy beauty. I really must make the effort to listen to more classical music.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Today’s new discovery is Seth James DeMoor’s YouTube channel, a near-daily vlog dedicated to running. Like (it seems) all Americans on YouTube, his relentless enthusiasm can sometimes grate a little, but he seems to genuinely have a passion for the subject, and in among the product placement there are some good videos on technique and training.

To be honest, I warmed to him even more when I found that he recently ran his first-ever marathon in Amsterdam, also the location of my own first (and only) marathon race, back in 2011. I think I’ve even stayed in the hotel where he filmed his preparations, and it was decidedly odd watching someone do basically the same things that I’ve done countless times over the intervening years — running through the dark, deserted streets of central Amsterdam in the wind and the rain.

I’m planning to return and run the Amsterdam marathon again in 2021; it will be the 10-year anniversary of my first attempt, I feel in the best shape (and running the fastest) that I’ve been for years, and I am determined to break the four-hour barrier that I so narrowly missed last time.

Monday, 11 November 2019

It’s tempting to compare Stan & Ollie, the Laurel and Hardy biopic starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, to Richard Attenborough’s 1992 film Chaplin, but that would be unfair. The former doesn’t come close to the latter’s scope and scale, and — despite the incredible latex effects work that transforms John C. Reilly into a virtual facsimile of Oliver Hardy — Stan & Ollie never really felt like it was going to be Oscar-baiting material.

But it is a lovely, warm, occasionally moving film about the difficulties of professional friendships and the struggle to stay relevant in a changing world. It seems very strange to think that the time in which it takes place is only a generation removed from my own; my parents, had they been only a decade or so older, could have been in those meagre theatre audiences, a witness to the final shows of two living legends.

It also brought to mind the chapter entitled “Modern Times” from Alan Moore’s behemoth novel Jerusalem, wherein a young and unknown Charlie Chaplin, waiting to go on stage in Northampton, considers his place in the world and whether it’s possible for one to escape one’s origins. It’s the mirror-image to Stan & Ollie’s swansong; or perhaps poses a question that this film attempts to answer.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

The weather has changed in the last week or so. From late October’s balmy, near t-shirt weather, with temperatures in the mid-teens, early November seems to have decided that it’s about time for winter, and it has reminded me how much I genuinely enjoy running in the wind and rain.

There’s something primal about being exposed to the elements with what feels like only the heat from your own muscles keeping you alive in the face of the driving, icy rain, as the water runs down your face and plasters your thin shirt to your frozen chest. Somehow you can run faster, further than normal, those few degrees making the difference between breathless sweating effort and magical, effortless, flowing speed.

Friday, 8 November 2019

As an enthusiastic music buyer, almost all of the albums in my collection were purchased for one specific reason — because I liked the band or artist, and wanted to own their work. In most cases, I can pinpoint the moment that led me to pick up a favourite album, or turned me on to a new artist — the worn-out Queen tape that my parents would listen to on long car journeys; the Prince album that my first girlfriend would play all the time; the support band that a friend told me I “probably wouldn’t like” but would become my favourite band for the next thirty years.

However, there are a very small number of CDs that came to me via other routes. There were free cover discs on magazines, of course, but I’m talking in this case about albums that I bought with no prior knowledge of either the album or the band. For example, I picked up Modified, the second album by Californian ska-punks Save Ferris, flipping though the racks in a record store on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, and I chose it purely because of the band’s movie-inspired name. It wasn’t a genre I’d ever really paid attention to before, and I can’t say it ever became a favourite, but I certainly listened to it a fair few times over the years.

My most unintentional purchase, though, has to be R.E.M’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which like a lot of people my age I acquired simply because I forgot to cancel the monthly subscription to the Britannia Music Club. BMC was a mail-order company that hooked you with an initial offer of cheap CDs for a pound, then relied on either your love of PolyGram’s back catalogue — or more often your own forgetfulness — to roll that subscription over into a stream of full-price CDs.

Although I’d obviously heard of R.E.M. before, I was never really a fan, my exposure mostly being through friends listening to throwaway pop like Shiny Happy People, but New Adventures In Hi-Fi was actually a bit of a revelation. Muddy, distorted rock songs like The Wake-Up Bomb sit alongside acoustic alt-country like the almost-spoken word track, E-Bow The Letter. Listening to it gave me a new appreciation for the band, and prompted me to go back and check out their older releases like Murmur, Fables of the Reconstruction and probably my favourite of their first few albums, Life’s Rich Pageant.

Serendipity can be weird sometimes.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

A couple of days ago, apropos of nothing, I decided to search YouTube for The Three Investigators. The books, a “juvenile detective series” from the 1960s featuring three friends who solved mysteries under the benevolent aegis of a fictionalised Alfred Hitchcock, were a favourite of mine when I was growing up (alongside their more famous literary sleuthing contemporaries, such as the Famous Five, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew), and I wondered if there existed any videos by fellow fans, or even interviews with the creators.

Instead, what I discovered was an obscure German-produced but American starring (although only ever released in Germany) feature film adaptation from 2007, The Three Investigators and the Secret of Skeleton Island. Although it looks like it diverges quite substantially from the plot of the 1966 book from which it takes its name, it was still interesting to finally see the characters of Jupiter, Pete and Bob finally made flesh. The latter was actually played by a young Cameron Monaghan, who would later go on to star as Ian Gallagher in the US remake of Shameless, as well as roles in Gotham and various other successful TV shows.

The Wikipedia entry for the book series is fascinating. Aside from the original run of books in the US, they were also either adapted or extended with new material for eager readers in Bangladesh, Lithuania, France, Italy, plus a host of other countries — none more enthusiastic than Germany, where “Die drei Fragezeichen” (“The Three Question Marks”) were first re-published, then turned into radio plays, before finally German writers began producing brand new Three Investigators books. Eventually more than 200 new stories were published, with corresponding radio dramas which the voice actors regularly toured around the country, performing in front of huge live audiences.

The Germans were apparently so mad for the series that it seeped into their popular culture in other ways; there are bands named after characters from the books (Jupiter Jones make inoffensive indie rock), and several songs by other German artists feature samples from the radio plays or narration by the original voice actors. Verrückt!

Nowadays, of course, you can watch the whole film on YouTube for free:

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Tonight I went out for dinner at the TonTon Club West, a relatively small restaurant in Amsterdam’s Westerpark that distinguishes itself through the inclusion of various coin-operated classic video games and arcade machines on its mezzanine floor. Alongside classics such as Street Fighter and Pac-Man, they also have imported Japanese machines like Dance Dance Revolution and a rhythmic drumming game (that we could neither figure out the instructions for nor hear, but was still a lot of fun), and physical games including air hockey and various electronic Whack-A-Mole derivatives.

I’ve occasionally thought that — were I ever in a position to make an enormous, risky life decision — one of the things I might want to do in the future is own and operate a video arcade. I’ve long believed that playing games is a fundamental source of enjoyment that everyone should get to experience, and that despite the prevalence of home-based entertainment nowadays there still could be a market for communal, shared, social interaction via the medium of video arcade games.

TonTon Club West