Monthly Archives: January 2006

Comment blocking

I’ve noticed that the volume of off-topic and offensive comments has been rising on recently. The Hummer reviews were probably the worst area, but there were other areas of concern.

I’ve now implemented a check on each review that looks at several different indicators of abuse happening. If certain conditions are met, further comment posting to those reviews is blocked. I can see a report of all reviews where comments are blocked, and I intend to manually clean up some of these.

At the moment, only 75 reviews have their comments blocked, so it’s a tiny fraction of the total. However, I’m hoping this will be enough calm things down a little, and will improve life in the members area.

Film Recommendations

Having really enjoyed watching 8 Women last night, I thought I’d write a quick list of films that have impressed me over the last year or so:

  • 8 Women – A dark and beautifully executed comedy. Every single cast member delivered a great performance
  • Caught on a Train – Amazing that this was made in 1980. It accurately predicts the cult of the individual of the decade to come
  • Koyaanisqatsi – Has to be watched on a big screen. Just let the Philip Glass soundtrack and stunning visuals wash over you
  • Howl’s Moving Castle – Going against the grain, I actually prefer this to Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Escapist fantasy at its best
  • Downfall – Compelling and disturbing
  • Belleville Rendez-Vous – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as surreal and charming before

Reveal – an Exposé like extension for Firefox

I’ve been doing most most of my daily computing on an iMac G5 since Spring 2005. One of the features of Mac OS X that I can’t do without is Exposé. It makes Alt-Tab and the Windows task bar seem like a waste of time.

There’s already been an effort to reproduce this functionality for Firefox tabs (foXpose) , but when I tried it, it just seemed a bit too different from Mac Exposé for me to be comfy with it.

There’s now a competitor in the shape of Reveal, which maps itself to the F2 key (Exposé uses F9), and it seems to be far more similar to Mac Exposé. I’m impressed so far, and it might make me finally start to use tabs (instead of multiple windows – much better for Exposé switching) and Firefox on the Mac (while Firefox was in the 1.0 versions, I switched to Camino and haven’t gone back.

View the reviews with the most comments

I’ve just added a new feature to that allows visitors to view which reviews have received, or are receiving, the most comments. The figures and links can be viewed via links in the left column of the New Comments page. There are options for viewing details for the last week, the last month, or for all the reviews on the site.

The number of comments the site is receiving is growing quickly, and this feature will hopefully make the most active conversations easier to find.

Now the very active threads are easy to find, I’m looking into ways to improve their moderation, as some of them seem to be becoming a little unfriendly in places (despite making it through the members area).

Thoughts on my MkV Golf GTI

I’ve now owned my Volkswagen MkV Golf GTI for 6 months (purchased July 2005), so I thought I’d write a bit about the experience. Some of this content has been written by me on various forums previously, but here it is in an updated form:

It’s a Shadow Blue 5 door, with DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox), leather, Monza 18 inch alloys, xenon headlights, winter pack, multifunction wheel, parking sensors, folding & dimming mirrors, rear side airbags, Highline display, and an arm rest. My previous car was a Honda Civic Type-R, which was great, but I wanted something with a bigger range of abilities than the Civic as my next car.

The main cars I considered were the Mercedes SLK 350 and Porsche Boxster (both too expensive once you add options), Nissan 350Z (quite hard work to drive, and felt slower than it actually was), Subaru Impreza or Mitsubishi Evo (too hardcore), Audi A3 Sportback (the dealer was very unhelpful), and the Golf GTI.

First the negatives:

  • The standard stereo doesn’t sound like anything special
  • One or two of the plastic parts are poorly finished
  • I find that I don’t make much use of the arm rest – I just can’t get comfortable with it
  • DSG takes some getting used to – if you don’t quite get the accelerator position right in D mode, it either doesn’t drop a gear when you wanted it to, or it drops two gears instead of one. I’m getting tuned into this though, and the paddles are there to let you take control when you want
  • DSG does sometimes let the car roll back a little on steep hills, but it’s not a big problem, and I think I’m used to it now
  • Sport mode on the DSG box takes no prisoners. It’s great if you’ve got a quiet road to yourself, but otherwise it’s not that useful. A “brisk mode” between D and S would have been nice
  • The steering is not quite as “quick” as the Civic. The steering wheel needs to be turned a little more to get the same effect as the Civic. Not a big deal, but I would prefer the steering to be that little bit quicker. On the other hand, the Civic had a “dead spot” around straight ahead, and there’s no such issue with the GTI
  • The DSG box is so smooth that I sometimes lose track of what gear I’m in. I miss being able to tell what gear I’m just from the engine noise, or flicking my hand across to the gearstick, as I could in my Civic
  • The engine sounds a bit rough up to about 1500rpm, and a bit breathless over about 6000rpm. I miss the extra kick of the Civic’s VTEC mode
  • The GTI definitely feels slower at high speeds than the Civic. I think that it’s actually just as fast, but it just doesn’t have the sense of occasion that the Civic had when driving hard. It’s easier to accidently speed in the GTI than it was in the Civic
  • The speedometer and fuel gauge are not as readable as the ones in the Civic were. They look much better, but I can’t just quickly glance at the speedometer to check if I’m keeping to 30mph. With the fuel meter, it doesn’t matter as you have option to put the range up on the Highline display, but there’s no such option for the speed. This is a very minor point, but it would have been a nice feature
  • The auto windscreen wipers work very well, but there’s a bit of an issue with the auto lights. If you leave them on and drive under a bridge, they come on. People in front must be wondering why I’ve just turned on my headlights on a sunny day? They work much better if you turn them on and off manually, but let it automatically decide between the headlights and sidelights when it’s on
  • My car is Shadow Blue, which I absolutely love. However, it shows the dirt terribly. Significantly worse than my black Civic, which I had thought was pretty bad. Steel Grey or Reflex Silver are probably the colours to get if you hate washing your car. Despite this issue, I would still spec Shadow Blue if I was ordering the car again

Right, on to the good points:

  • The engine between 1500 and 6000rpm is wonderful. It may not have the top end kick of cars like the Civic, but there’s just huge amounts of smooth power available all the time. It also seems to be bit better on fuel than the Civic, and with a larger tank and the range meter in the Highline display, it can comfortably go a lot further between visits to the petrol station
  • The DSG gearbox is lovely to live with day to day. Whilst I’d prefer a very good manual box (such as the one in the Civic) on a fast, quiet road, the DSG is so much better the rest of the time. Coming from the Civic’s great gearbox, I still have no regrets about buying the Golf with DSG. I doubt I would buy a manual again, unless I was buying a trackday car
  • Sport mode is very useful in tight spots. It’s great to know that the car will nail those gearchanges for you. This also applies in Drive mode in a busy city centre. It’s one less thing to be concerned about. Probably makes driving 5% easier, but in tight spots, you can really notice the lighter workload. I’d be very surprised if the DSG box doesn’t contribute to the safety of the car in some small way
  • The interior is very nice. The leather seats are comfy, I like the red lights at night, and the blue instrument dials work for me. It also comes with a pretty decent set of standard equipment, and good options. It feels like they spent several times as much on the interior as they did on the Civic. Very similar to my father’s Audi A4 SE in feel, but the GTI has more toys
  • I really like the look of the GTI – “discreet performance” sums it up for me. Anyone who knows cars will recognise it and appreciate the little touches, but it doesn’t stand out in the way that cars like the Astra VXR, Impreza, and Evo do. Nothing wrong with standing out, but the GTI pretty much suits my taste perfectly
  • Unlike many other hot hatchbacks, the GTI is available with 5 doors, which makes it fantastically practical
  • I like the parking sensors. I’m not the best at parking, and the rear visibility of the GTI is not great. I can’t name a particular occasion where they saved my paint work, but I do find them reassuring
  • There are lots of hooks in the boot for shopping bags. Sounds like such a silly thing, but they’re so useful when shopping
  • The xenon lights and autodimming mirrors are wonderful. When driving on a cold, dark night, having climate, heated seats, DSG gearbox, ESP and tyre pressure monitor for safety, and autodimming mirrors and xenon lights, is very appealing
  • The fan-like spray of the windscreen washers is very good. Much better than the normal washer jets of most cars. Gives very even coverage of the screen, and doesn’t seem to use much washer fluid
  • It’s very very easy to drive. No silly turning circle like the Civic. This car is so painless to own. Lots of performance, yet it’s very relaxing to cruise around in

As an an overall package, this car has very few rivals.

  • Mk V Golf R32 – Wasn’t available when I ordered. The engine is supposed to sound great, and 4×4 would be good to have, but I’m not a fan of the extra cost and heavier fuel consumption. But the main issue is that it’s supposed to be slightly heavier to drive, and I really don’t like what they did with the styling. Still, I’m sure it would be a lovely car to own
  • BMW 130i – fantastic engine, but more expensive, and a lot less space than the GTI
  • BMW 330i Auto Touring – Ticks almost all the same boxes of performance and practicality, but it costs almost £10K more when specced up
  • Audi A3 Sportback – Very similar to the GTI. Just depends which interior, suspension setup etc you prefer. Slight worry about depreciation with the 3.2 though
  • Skoda Octavia vRS – no DSG available, and I prefer the styling of the GTI. It’s still a very nice car though, and I’d prefer one to a Mondeo ST220 or equivalent
  • Ford Focus ST – Wasn’t available when I ordered, but this is the really tough one. Don’t like the styling as much as the GTI, and no DSG, but the engine is apparently very good. Also, it can be had with 5 doors and lots of kit, and the price (in the UK) is exceptionally competitive. I suspect that very good though the GTI is, it can’t quite justify the price difference with the Focus
  • Cars like the Astra VXR, Civic Type-R, and Clio 182 are at least as quick, and are significantly cheaper, but I don’t think they have anything like the breadth of talent that the MkV Golf GTI has

In summary, whilst I still have a soft spot for the Civic, there’s no way I’d swap back. Performance, practicality and comfort seem to be similar to a BMW 330i Tourer with Auto and all the toys, but for a lot less money.

At the time of ordering, the BMW 130i, Ford Focus ST, Octavia vRS and Golf R32 weren’t available. All of these would be contenders if I was looking now, but I suspect only the Focus (which is cracking value) could really tempt me away from the GTI.

Alter Ego

I recently read an article about this C64 game from 1986 in Edge Magazine (issue 158). It’s basically a life simulator (a little like “The Sims” I guess), but it was developed by a psychology graduate student, based on research he did with hundreds of people. You play a life though from beginning to end, facing lots of social and moral choices. It’s rather like one of those choose your own story books that were popular twenty years ago, but without the dragons.

There’s now a web based port of this game available, so having found the Edge article intriguing, I played through a game. This took just over an hour, and was a very strange (and slightly unsettling) experience. Not sure I learnt anything profound (except that playing baseball while in old age is a BAD IDEA), but I thoroughly recommend the experience.

Warning: The content of the game isn’t completely work safe, so it’s probably best experienced at home.

How to Do What You Love

I’ve just read through Paul Graham’s latest essay, and as usual, I agree with 95% of it. Subconciously I think knew most of what he says already, but he does a great job of distilling the essential nature of the world into an easily digested form.

If you’ve never read any of his other essays, check them out. Particular favourites of mine are: How to Make Wealth, How to Start a Startup, What Business Can Learn from Open Source (this one had significant influence on me leaving corporate employment – there were of course, several other factors involved), and What Languages Fix (interesting and funny).

Opera 8.5 Beta for Windows Mobile

I’ve just tried out Opera’s new web browser beta for Windows Mobile 2003 and 5.0. On my Dell Axim X50v it was a revelation compared to any other mobile browser I’ve ever used. It’s pretty fast, supports VGA including landscape, and renders pages with far more features than any other mobile browser I’ve ever used.

With, it renders things as well as a desktop browser would given a tiny screen size (unfortunately the current CSS layout doesn’t degrade well for sub 800 pixel wide screens). I was especially impressed that my CSS tabbed menu system rendered correctly, and Google AdSense ads (with their heavy use of JavaScript) worked too.

Animal Crossing: Wild World

For the last month or so, playing Animal Crossing: Wild World on my Nintendo DS has been a daily activity for me.

I’d heard all about its precedessor on the GameCube, and was suitably intrigued. Basically you live a fairly mundane life, in a small village, surrounded by eccentric animals, who are deeply obsessed with fishing, insects, fossils, and furniture.

That sounds like a terrible idea for a game, but that’s rather missing the point. Animal Crossing is a strange parallel life rather than a game. You play it because surprise and delight are always just around the next corner. Perhaps the best way to illustrate my point is a few examples:

  • The sky takes up the top screen of the DS. You can see clouds glide past and the constellations at night. A few weeks into the game, you suddenly see a meteor. Blink and you miss it. It’s such a surprise that I half wondered if I had really seen it
  • On New Year’s Eve, a large clock appears in front of the town hall counting down till New Year. If you have your DS on at midnight, you get to join in the celebrations and watch a fireworks display. The next morning everyone you see wishes you Happy New Year
  • Animals arrange parties for inconvenient times, and are offended if you don’t turn up. Even more worrying is the fact that you start to feel a little guilty about this

Those are just three examples of the hundreds of clever devices this game uses. If the above description intrigues you even slightly, you should seriously consider buying this game.

Trettioen Lights from IKEA

I’ve recently read that subtle lighting behind a screen can improve the perceived quality and comfort of the viewing experience. A thread on AV Forums mentioned some affordable LCD strips sold by IKEA called TRETTIOEN, which seemed like good value for £21 a set.

As I was going to IKEA anyway, I decided to pick up two sets of those lights in blue (they’re also available in green and white). One set has been stuck to the back of my main Plasma TV, and the other set is on the back of my 20 inch iMac G5 (see the photo below).

iMac G5 backlit by blue IKEA Trettioen LCD strips

So far I’m pretty impressed with the results for £21 a display. The effect is definitely similar to the backlit displays you can buy in the shops. I’m not sure whether any real difference is made to the quality of the image, but I certainly prefer the look of the both the iMac and the plasma with the backlight on, to having the backlight off.

The configuration I’ve used is one strip on each side of the screen, and two strips at the top. This seems to give a good distribution of light.