Happy Free Comic Book Day!

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Happy Free Comic Book Day! Support your local comic book store today by heading in and seeing all of the shiny pop-culture it has to offer. If you’re not part of the “Wednesday crowd” already, today is a good chance to go see a comic book store at its busiest. Look around and bear in mind that in most large stores Wednesday mornings hold a similar kind of buzz, where you’ll meet like minded people and can chat about what’s going on in the 616.

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As the title suggests, if you turn up today, you’ll get a pick of some free comics, and often some free posters, badges, stickers etc to boot. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already too late to get into the queues for the rarer, more sought-after stuff, but most stores will stock enough to keep fans at bay til closing time.

For a list of all of the comics that’ll be free today, click here.

Personal favorites include the Skottie Young Teen Titans Go cover, Street Fighter #0, the Sonic The Hedgehog x Megaman Flip Book and the 2000AD Special.

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Dustforce – Xbox 360 review

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Dustforce has been out on the PC since 2012, but last week, it finally swept onto the Xbox Live Arcade scene, and I had to give it a go. I’d never played the “Sweep ’em up” before or, admittedly, heard of it, but seeing the Capcom label on an XBLA title again easily warranted the $9.99 price tag for me, and I feel that it was a good, safe gamble.

Reading other reviews; I’m seeing a lot of comparisons to the likes of Super Meat Boy and n+, and although it is similar, style-wise, it feels much more like its Capcom cousin, Strider. I’d hazard to guess that the developers are fans of both Strider, the Trials series and Super Meat Boy, and, most likely, perfectionists, who aren’t satisfied with merely reaching the end of a level, unless they’re absolutely sure they’ve seen everything that can be seen on it. This seems to be the major attraction to Dustforce, and if you’re an acheivement hunter, a perfectionist or a level completionist; this was built for you.

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In Dustforce, you play the part of a humble, yet ninja-move-equipped, janitor with the aim of ridding the world of dust, which is on the walls, floors, and ceilings; turning NPCs and inanimate objects into monsters and Fantasia-like foes.

Your job is to clean, as quickly and perfectly as possible. You’ll be graded on how much of the level you’ve cleansed and by how smoothly you did it. The latter, known as your “finesse” rating will be the one that pushes you forward. Your momentum and fluency in the game are harshly penalized for bad form; which will add on precious seconds and making things just feel plain clunky. This removal from the ninja side of your janitor will grate on your every time you mess up, urging you to reset over and over again…in a good way.

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It’s a very pretty game, and becomes prettier the better you play, as you skip and slide around each 2D map, eventually getting to the point where you’re relying on twitch reactions and muscle memory to fire out impressive dash-jump-attack-slide combos to weave through obstacles, before your feet lose traction on the dusty walls.

Despite it being a dynamic game, they’ve married it up with a hauntingly beautiful, minimal soundtrack and very subtle sound effects; if you were to only listen to a game of Dustforce being played, you’d think it was Fez, or something by Nintendo. This might sound ill-fitting, but it seems to help encourage your perfectionist ways. Wheras games like Trials Evolution scream hard rock into your ears with explosions and engines revving until you feel the need to put teeth-marks in your controller (it happens…), the soft backing of Dustforce really helps provide some sticking power on the tougher challenges.

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Finesse and level completion will combine at the end of each level, with notable scores earning silver and gold keys; gaining you access to tougher challenges. On top of this, consistent dusting can accumulate and grant you the ability to throw out a five-point-palm-exploding-heart-technique of a combo, smashing any threat in sight, rather rewardingly. Whatever this game set out to do, it’s your desire to turn your janitor into a ninja that’ll push you through, and much like all of the great XBLA games, will see you playing the same things over and over again in the hope of gaining those all-important S-Ranks.

It’s not the greatest platformer, or the smoothest, but the soothing movement, the cutesy, clean artwork, and the 50+, challenging, perfection-craving missions mean that, provided you’re that type of gamer, you’ll get more than your money’s worth with this one.

 

Teaching an old clock new ticks

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I came across this 1950’s Smiths Westminster mantel clock at my Grandmother’s house. She told me she’d over-wound it a few years ago and wanted it fixed. I’ve never worked on anything as pretty or precise as a clock or watch, but ever-keen; I took it on-board. The clock belonged originally to P.G. Dodd; my Great-Grandfather.

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He was presented it after serving 45 years with the Great Western Railway, which connected London with Southwest England and Wales in the 19th and early 20th century. Up until a few years ago, this clock was the closest clue my Grandma (known by the family as “Ma”, in a broad, Shropshire accent) had to knowing her Dad’s full name. Back then, of course, she would have heard him being called “Phil”, but most likely referred to him as “Father” or “Papa” or something equally, quintessentially British, I’m sure. Different time.

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Thanks to my Dad delving into ancestry.com we learned, a couple of years ago, that his full name was in-fact Philip George Dodd.

The clock itself has seen better days. The chrome is peeling, the wood is chipped and it suffers from a cracking in the lacquer; synonymous with Smiths clocks of the time. My hope is to restore it, hopefully so it looks and sounds as good as new. The clocks are quite valuable in their original state, but since this clock holds such sentimental value, keeping it alive is more important than keeping it collectible. Even so, I’m hoping to restore it using original parts and traditional techniques, in order to keep it authentic.

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My roadmap for the restoration:

  • Repair and service the clock movement
  • Find an original, Smiths winding key (it currently has a third-party replacement)
  • Clean face and hands
  • Sand and refinish case with tobacco burst
  • Restore chrome facia
  • Polish and oxidize plaque
  • Retune chime and calibrate pendulum
  • Remove the “drop” from the back door and tighten latch

It’s a pretty tall order, and virtually everything on the list is beyond my ken, at present, but hopefully I’ll get it up and running shortly.

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Opening up the back, I found the key, a pendulum, and a catalog snippet for a new clock movement…from 1996! I’m guessing Ma’ has been looking to fix this for some time! There was also a key in the back, seemingly from a different clock, but it fits this one perfect. I’d like to get a real Smiths key, complete with the maker’s mark for it though, ideally.

Thanks to some preliminary tapping, prodding and meddling, the chime can now be triggered, although the pendulum won’t maintain its tick and, as mentioned, the springs feel out of place. So, my first port of call is to remove the movement and take out the springs. From what I’ve learned so far, the springs are prone to dislocating or shearing. If it’s the former, all this may take is some wiggling to get it back in order. If it’s the latter; the hunt for an old clock spring begins…

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett – My first visit to Discworld

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My first and only experience with the Discworld series, until today, was through the point and click adventures of Discworld, Discworld II and Discworld Noir on the PlayStation, and even though I enjoyed them, I never ventured to the paperbacks.

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Fortunately, due to a newfound dependency on audiobooks to ease the weekly commutes, I’ve been visiting all of the great literary sagas that I’ve never had the chance to check out or finish; from Iain M Banks’ Culture Saga, to Stephen King’s Watchtower Series, to some of the more popular runs; like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones run, I’ll be taking advantage of them all. Today was my first ever run in with Pratchett, and my first real attempt at fantasy. Until audiobooks, anything that wasn’t non-fiction or military, or gangster related, (or both, or all) was put to one side and deemed “not for me”.

If you haven’t tried audiobooks; the fact that it pushes you to try stuff you typically wouldn’t be willing to invest time in warrants it enough. They may cost more, but the convenience more than makes up for it. If you’re strapped for cash, Audible offer 1 free credit as a trial and currently have 3 additional credits on sale at £18. A credit grants you a full download of any of their audiobooks and the thriftier buyers will notice you can pick up things like the complete works of Shakespeare and the 63 hour long 30th edition of Atlas Shrugged for a single credit; providing you with literally days of listening time in a single hit, for a fraction of the price.

Anyway! onto The Colour of Magic…

This is the first of Pratchetts books in the enormous Discworld series; which describes the events of a world, on a disc, on the back of a pack of elephants, on a turtle…which is floating through space, to a location undetermined. Discworld has now spanned 3 decades and 40 novels, snatching up awards and bundles of critical acclaim along the way.

The version that I picked up was a spritely 7 hours long and narrated by Nigel Planer, who does a great job at getting hold of all of Pratchett’s complicated, imaginary vocabulary. A semi-downside of the Nigel Planer version is that it sounds a lot like it has been ported from an old cassette version. You can hear the subtle, magnetic squeal of digital synthesis in the background and the volume, and even general mastering of the audio track varies from chapter to chapter; which can be obnoxiously jarring when you’re caught up in the story. It does, however give it the retro feel of an 80’s novel though, which is probably as close to the feeling of picking up a tattered, much-read, beloved book as you can get with an audio track…so maybe it’s something to be embraced.

As with any longstanding series, the first book comes across as a little bit wet behind the ears, which will surely buff out as the series carries on. Despite it being an introductory novel, of sorts, it actually does a great job of introducing you to the concept of Discworld and the physics, lore and jargon that surrounds it. Rather than explaining everything that’s unique to the realm of Discworld, Pratchett refreshingly describes things as though you’re one of its inhabitants and that you should already get the gist. This may sound daunting, but it actually serves the fantasy really well and makes all of the new feel much less of a struggle.

Rincewind, the main protagonist, is painted well as the last person that should be playing the hero, but someone who is unwillingly thrust into situations beyond his ken; and you’re encouraged to feast upon his misfortune throughout, with some hilarious perforations from his unwanted, scythe-wielding onlooker.

It’s a brilliant combination of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and something that clearly inspired the likes of Riyria Chronicles and the Wizard’s Choice digital gamebooks that I recently reviewed. I feel slightly guilty that I’m so late to the party…hopefully I’ll be caught up soon…39 to go!

Assassin’s Tweed

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There’s a bunch of April Fool’s jokes hopping around the Twitterverse today, but one of them has got me thinking…

Geek-Chic company, Insert Coin posted a teaser of their Assassin’s Creed “Formal Range” today, which instantly sparked the idea of a Sherlock Holmes-themed AC sequel.

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I’ll set the scene:

It’s the late 1800’s, and you’re Animus’d into the life of detective, drug addict and bare-knuckled boxer, Sherlock Holmes, who has found, through one of his investigations, the hints of Templar tomfoolery. You climb and fight your way through the smoggy, cobbled alleyways of Old London Town, collecting clues, fighting crime, and encountering some of the key characters of 19th century Britain, from Jack the Ripper, Charles DIckens, and of course, Professor James Moriarty.

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A similarly themed adventure was plotted out in the classic, Mike Mignola (creator of Hellboy) interpretation of a 19th century Batman, Gotham by Gaslight, where Bruce Wayne tracks down Jack the Ripper in one of the DC “ElseWorld” style universes. The fact that rooftop-dweller, Batman can animate such a setting proves that it’s more than fitting for an Assassin, and the cityscapes would be simply staggering.

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I must admit; I’m not too bothered (yet) about the French Revolution themed sequel in the works. Personally, like many, I was hoping for a traditional, Japanese samurai variant, but if I can’t get that, Olde London Town will do.

 

STEM + Art = STEAM

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STEM subjects are the areas that most big players in economy, education and industry consider to be the plenipotentiary, from which all other priorities should follow. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and studies in these areas are comparably well funded, well supported, and ultimately, well paid, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to get people interested in investing their own time in them.

As an Engineer that taps all 4 of the STEM roots, I may be biased, but I tend to agree with the STEM structure, and have always looked at the STEM studies as the most important. I too, often struggle to break down why I like what I do, when talking to my friends and have almost given up on talking about STEM subjects that can’t be tied in with sports or videogame culture.

It’s tough to ignore the fact that there’s a perceived lack of a conventional “human” aspect in the four pillars of STEM. There’s a stigma that these areas are cold, black-and-white, robotic and inhuman. For this reason, many will look on at the STEM studies and instantly think “that’s not for me” or “I don’t do math” or other damning thoughts to that effect. The children of STEM will always try to get across the reality that everything to do with Mathematics or Science is equally as creative, evocative and emotional as any movie, statue or painting that others would consider to be more “human” things to admire and appreciate. From Six-Flag rollercoasters and Las Vegas water fountains, to Large Hadron Colliders and lab-grown organisms, STEM ventures are the pinnacle of human endeavor, and something that everyone is involved with, whether they realize it or not.

“Art is in everything”, “Art Imitates Life” and all of those other cliche phrases have always been the cry of artists and creative types, who are determined to prove to the average man in the street that they are part of it, and to the same extent, STEM’s advocates are tortured by the knowledge that their work is used by everyone but always with a line between the creator and the user.

Joined at the hip, by the same communicative issues; a campaign has emerged, to add Art to the STEM core, creating STEAM.

The idea is that Art and Design are of equal importance to the STEM studies and that together, they can push their own boundaries and bring more people who traditionally “Aren’t into art” or “Don’t get Science” into the equation.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan, and, in a way, jealous of the Otaku culture in Japan with the likes of Otona no Kagaku, the “Science for Adults” series that encourages learning and creativity beyond the school walls.

I must admit, that I personally have been a “Don’t do Art” person, and built the same rift between myself and the creative, but the more I look at it; the fewer differences I see.

The drive to make Art and Design an essential study, paired with the rest of the STEM is championed by many big organisations and personalities and is making waves across Europe and America. The likes of StemToSteam.org and the i.am.angel Foundation, headed by superstar will.i.am have seen changes in classrooms, from Raspberry Pi and arduino workshops in schools, to the Arkyd project, which plans to grant open space telescope access to students, pushing creativity, model making and design, whilst also encouraging interests in the rest of the STEM community.

In short, art’s creativity proves itself to be a driving force in innovation, granting a whole new dimension to how people engage with the core studies.

Alone, STEM and Art have always struggled to engage, but together, we’re already seeing how great they are at amplifying each other, and breaking down the barriers between the public’s perceptions and their actual potential.

Check out RISD.edu to learn more.

The narcissism of “No Make-up Selfies” and how to actually help Cancer Research

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This week, the in-vogue Facebook post has been the “no make-up selfie”. For the 8 people who’ve evaded it; girls are nominating each other to take a selfie, without make-up, in the name of breast cancer. The campaign started thanks to a partnership between Dove and CRUK.org. Initially, the idea was to text BEAT to 70099 and donate £3 to Cancer Research and use the selfie to spread the message. In no time at all, the donation element disappeared altogether, and it merely became an excuse for people to show how great they looked without make-up.

We’ve seen stuff like this before; changing your profile picture to your favorite cartoon character for the NSPCC, revealing the color of your pants for testicular cancer and so forth. In all fairness, it’d be hard to refute how effective they are, they instantly send social media into a frenzy, but often for the wrong reasons.

Donating minimal time and money to a cause, these picture campaigns seriously undermine the hard work of the real campaigners for charities; the marathoners, the scientists, the silent donors and the canvassers. It’s loud, obnoxious, narcissistic…and gets very little done.

Many people have already noticed the gap between posting a selfie and helping Cancer Research, with some people removing their photos, others arguing their validity, and others, still, turning it into an all out gender war. I’m steering clear of my news feed as we speak, due to the selfie-gate scandal running rife.

The psychology behind it is pretty straightforward – most of us feel like we don’t do enough for charity, so when given the opportunity to do something that costs no money and takes no time to absolve the inherent guilt, many will jump at the chance. As a bonus, you get to do something vain, gratuitous and in this case, with the false impression of martyrdom.

The sad thing, is that there is so much potential behind the campaign to actually create something good and helpful.

If you feel the urge to take part, here are some ideas, in order to turn your no make-up selfie into something more constructive.

  1. Before taking the selfie, take the time to buy a Cancer Research ribbon, and wear it in the photo, solidifying your commitment by showing you have given to the charity yourself
  2. Post the selfie with a screenshot of your donation and a message of “Text BEAT to 70099 to donate to CRUK”
  3. Post the selfie with a link to Cancer Research UK (http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/)
  4. Post the selfie with guidelines on how to check yourself for cancer
  5. Post the selfie and collect sponsorship to go to work the next day make-up-less
  6. Post the selfie, and offer to run a Cancer Research marathon if it gets enough likes/shares/comments

Also, don’t forget to include the hashtag #BeatCancerSooner

Despite the negative twist, Cancer Research are seeing an increase in donations, but with your help, the message could still be kept positive and make all the more difference.

There’s a very selfish craze going on right now, disguised as Cancer Research, and there’s potential to make it something great. If you have any other ideas on how to improve it, please add them in the comments section.