Friday, 30 August 2013

"Whole Latte Love" - My Life With Coffee.

I take my coffee seriously, but not too seriously. I made my first espresso back in the summer of 1979 when I worked Saturday nights at a pizza restaurant where my Mother worked as the cook. The coffee machine was one of those old-school contraptions with a piston-lever that you had to pull down to allow the infusion to take place. The handle would slowly rise back to its starting position as the dark brown nectar of the Gods dripped thickly into the cup. To the right-hand side was the steam arm where you would hold a jug of milk to be frothed up into a hot and silky consistency.
It was a good machine to learn on because it was difficult to use. Every other machine I've used since has been a piece of cake compared to that one.
 
I worked in hospitality in various capacities throughout the '80s and '90s, but I found that I was always happiest when behind a coffee machine. I haven't worked in restaurants for about a decade, but I'm happy to say that coffee making is a skill that I haven't lost.
 
Of course, things have changed in the industry over the last ten or fifteen years. Nowadays, there are coffee-making courses run by various coffee companies, café owners talk of accreditation (whatever that is), and the corporatisation of coffee, thanks to companies like Starbucks, Gloria Jean's and Hudsons, has taken the fun and laid-back nature out of the simple act of making coffee.
 
I read an article a few years ago about the Post-War influx of Italians who came out to Australia to start new lives. A lot of them set up cafes and Espresso Bars all over Melbourne, but a great many of them settled in the inner-city suburb of Carlton which has evolved into the Italian hub of this city. There is a three block stretch of Lygon Street, from Elgin Street right over to Pelham Street which is filled with Italian restaurants, pizzerias, cafes, and other businesses. Certainly, there are other cuisines available, from Thai to Jamaican, but the Italian contingent occupies the majority of real estate in this street.
The article went on to state that, by the early 1950s, when the first of these cafes began to appear, they all housed these large, shiny stainless steel coffee machines and an engineer from the City Council had to be present at these cafes because these machines emitted steam. I can just picture the scene; some pencil-necked, bureaucratic stickler-for-details fellow watching the machine intently as a bunch of Italian waiters stand around smoking cigarettes and softly cursing him in their native tongue.
Would have been priceless to have been there.
 
By the late 1980s, this town was pretty rife with places where you could get a decent cup of coffee. And then the chain cafes started springing up. The places that had a temperature gauge sitting in the milk jug ("To ensure consistency of the milk.") and offering four or five different sizes of take-away coffee cups. Oh, and they served decaf. What the hell!
Now, not to have a dig at Starbucks, but they were one of the main proponents of temperature gauges and extra-large coffee cups.
As far as temperature went, I could always 'ensure consistency' of the milk by placing the palm of my hand against the side of the jug. When it got too hot for my hand, the milk was hot enough. None of this temperature gauge crap.
And as for different sized cups, that's always been a pet hate of mine. Three different sizes to choose from, the largest being a staggering 450ml. Were they nuts?
Who needs almost half a litre of coffee to get their day started? What, are they in a coma?
And then there were places who would charge an extra two or three bucks for an extra shot of coffee. So if you ordered a double-espresso, these places would slug you something like four bucks fifty. Bad form. That's not the way to do it.
Now, when I first started making coffees, everything was served in cups. Sometime in the mid-Eighties, I noticed places began serving some coffees in glasses. This is where the differentiation between a flat white and a caffe latte occurred. One of my favourite bosses once said to me; "Flat white is for people who can't pronounce caffe latte."
There were others who would say; "Well, no, a flat white is two thirds milk with one third coffee and no froth on top, whereas a caffe latte-" blah, blah, blah.
Sorry, I don't buy it. Once you start talking actual precise measuring, you take the fun and the romance out of coffee. It really isn't rocket science. And, after a while, you develop an eye for correct measurement anyway, so you don't have to measure everything to the nth degree.
This favourite boss of mine also said; "You know, at the end of the day, it's all just fesserie, but if it's done well, people appreciate it." Fesserie translates into drivel, claptrap or poppycock. Basically, bullshit.
And he was right. I used to tell some of my co-workers who took it all too seriously; "You know, it's really not that hard to make a decent coffee. All you need is love."
Yes, I was being facetious, but really, all that's required is that you pay a little bit of attention to what you're doing.
All this other stuff about 'extraction' and 'four-fifths of milk' ,etc is just a load of guff.  
There were a million places making wonderful coffees for four decades in this town before everybody started taking it all so seriously.

I worked at one of Carlton's most popular cafes back in 1992. I was the coffee-maker, using a three-group Faema E91. It was a fully automatic machine, but I preferred using it on manual settings. As far as modern machines went, this thing was great to use. It was a great place to work. The staff were wonderful, mainly female, all Italian, and very pretty. Yes, I know, not very PC. Who cares.


About a year later, I quit this place and started working at a small bistro around the corner on Lygon Street. I worked as a waiter, but it was the kind of place where all the staff made coffee. It was a relaxed place to work in and I stayed there for five years. They had a gorgeous copper Rancilio Z9 machine like this one;


picture taken from www.coffeesnobs.com.au

 Here's another picture showing the eagle ornament on top of the boiler. What a great machine to use. Consistent, fast and hot.

vendesi macchina caffè extralusso 1

About six years ago, my wife and I decided to buy a coffee machine for home use. After reading numerous reviews on domestic machines, we settled on the Ascaso Dream;
Dream

picture courtesy of www.ascaso.com

Made in Spain, this machine has been a little workhorse. And dig those cool, early 1960s lines!
As with many European machines, the temperature gauge stopped working some time ago, but the machine is overdue for servicing, so I'll look into getting it replaced soon.
My wife or I (whichever one of us wakes up first) will flick it on in the morning and about 20 minutes later, it's ready for action.
It has a water reservoir in the back which holds about 1.3 litres and the internal boiler ensures that there's a steady supply of hot water at the ready. The 16 bar pump is enough to force water through the ground coffee loaded into the gun. You're all set.
 
We get our coffee from a place where the staff are all too cool for school. If there's one trait that I can't stand, it's smugness. Come to think of it, there are a few traits that I can't stand, but that's another post, surely. Being smug and self-satisfied does not really work with running a café, in my opinion, so we've been looking around for another place where we can get a decent blend. They do exist, but the real trick is the fineness of the grind. If the blend is too fine, it gets clogged in the group handle and begins to burn  (or rather, roast) as the water pushes through it. If it's too coarse, the water pours through it like a tap (faucet), producing nothing more than black water. So getting the grind right is paramount to producing a good cup of coffee. And if you drink espresso, then it's even more important, since an espresso is all about the taste of pure, unadulterated coffee without the addition of milk.
 
Anyway, we finally worked out (after much purchasing of incorrectly-ground beans) that the proper grind for our machine was a grinder setting of two-point-seven. This grind setting produced the best results.
The other thing with this Ascaso machine is that you need to pack the gun to the brim in order to get a decent cup.
And so, this morning, I filled the gun (properly referred to as a group handle, but back in my day, we all called them guns) with some of a Brazil blend that I bought the other day;

 
And tamped it down flat;
 

 
Hard to really see properly in this picture, but the coffee needs to literally ooze from the spouts of the group handle. I was making myself a caffe latte, so I was using a Duralex glass. First designed in the late 1920s in France, these beautiful glasses are a staple in European households and Melbourne cafes. And they're tough. Very hard to break, but if you do, trying to pick up the broken shards is like trying to pick up an angry scorpion. I learnt long ago to use three or four paper serviettes in order to avoid getting cut.
Growing up, these glasses were what my Dad would use for drinking the wine that he used to make, while I sipped Tarax Lemonade out of them, and if I stop typing and look into the kitchen, I can see a few of them next to the sink, waiting to be washed...by me.

So, I flick the switch and about six to eight seconds later, the group handle begins to bleed coffee;
 
 
And on;



Till you get to the desired amount of liquid gold;


Looking at the photo above, you can just make out the three layers of the coffee shortly after it's poured from the gun. Black at the base, dark brown in the middle, and light brown on top. It begins to settle till you end up with this;


And, on top, it should look like this;


Depending on what blend of coffee you use, it will be in various shades of brown. From memory, I think a Kenyan and Columbian blend will produce a darker coating of crema on the surface. The stronger the coffee, the darker the surface.
The crema (translation- 'cream') comes from the oils produced by the bean. I think. I will readily admit that I'm not fully versed on the whole technical side of coffee. I just know how to make 'em.
 
Froth the milk until the palm of your hand gets hot. I will normally give the milk jug a sharp flick so that the milk mixes up a little. If left alone, the froth will tend to rise to the surface. This can produce a shoddy looking caffe latte and a pretty bad cappuccino.


 
Pour milk into the glass and the froth will separate from the milk so that you wind up with something like this;

 
Disregard my attempt at one of those stupid leaves that so many people bother with when making coffee. Some of them look so good that it's a shame to destroy them by drinking the actual coffee.
I buy coffee to drink, not to marvel at 'latte art', as they call it.
This coffee didn't turn out 100% correct if I was making it for a customer. Reason being that I think the layer of froth on top is a tad too much;


I usually aim for about the width of my little finger. But since I'm the customer, I'm not about to quibble with the result.
One teaspoon of sugar and it tasted fine, although the real test of a good cup of coffee is one where you don't have to add sugar. There was a New Zealander who used to own a hole-in-the-wall café in the city and he made the best damn coffee I've ever had. His coffees were easily drunk without needing sugar. If there is an art to making coffee, then that is an art form. Wherever you are, Peter, I hope you're doing well.

I've bought too many very, very bad coffees in my time. Those ones that taste like warm milk, with barely a hint of coffee flavour. Those ones where they've boiled the milk to within an inch of its life so that you take a first sip and scald your mouth. And then they add the further insult of taking your money for their efforts.
Never again. I've been a little more discerning in recent years and when I've gotten a bad cup of coffee, I've let them know it.
Thankfully, I don't buy as many coffees when I'm out and about.
I prefer to wait until I get home.


Thanks for reading!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Pussy Galore Is Alive And Well And Still Keeping Busy, Bless Her!

My kids wanted me to borrow a DVD entitled "Cockneys vs Zombies" for Lolly Night yesterday. Actually, I should explain what Lolly Night is. Saturday nights, we have an early-ish dinner and put on a film for the whole family to watch. Half an hour in, we give the kids a small bowl with some chocolate in it. The ideas being that this becomes a weekly ritual where we are all together, and that the kids can pig out slightly on chocolate and lollies (candy) on one night of the week. We must have started this when they kids were very young and we went through the entire Pixar movie catalogue and the Japanese Studio Ghibli anime collection, plus other kid-friendly fare.
However, as they got older, the entertainment had to mature as well, so onto the Harry Potters, Indiana Jones's, the Missions Impossible, Lord Of The Rings, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Back To The Future trilogies, Bonds 1 to 21, etc.
And so, we arrived at a point where they must have seen the trailer for this film and decided that they wanted to watch it.
The violence and language was a little more than I would have preferred for them, but I suppose this was to be expected from a film with this title. Besides, they've heard worse profanity (and they detest it) in the schoolyard over the years, and they know that the blood isn't real.
Anyway, "Cockneys vs Zombies" dealt with zombie horror film conventions in a cartoony fashion and the kids were in stitches throughout.
"The Walking Dead" it ain't. And no, they haven't seen "The Walking Dead". They'll have to wait until they're fifty.
I had some homework still to finish, so I didn't have the time to watch this film. My wife sat down with the kids and fifteen seconds later, she called out to me; "Hey T, Honor Blackman is in this."
I leapt from my chair and ran to the lounge room. However, it would be about fifteen minutes before she appeared on-screen.
Now, Honor Blackman is an actress who appeared in a Bond film (she apparently once stated that she hated the term "Bond Girl" and I'm not about to argue with her).
She starred as the improbably-named Pussy Galore in "Goldfinger" (Dir: Guy Hamilton, 1964).

picture courtesy of http://www.honorblackman.co.uk

As far as I'm concerned, she was one of the best. Gave Connery a run for his money, too, and they were well-matched in this film. Forget the fact that her character is a lesbian who is 'turned' by Bond's animal magnetism. This is more Fleming's wish-fulfilment than anything else.

And so, it was delightful to see Miss Blackman in this zombie movie;


Nice to see that she still has a sparkle in her eyes. And she was still quite spry, considering she was born on August 22nd, 1925. Her acting career began with an uncredited role in "Fame Is The Spur" back in 1947. She is perhaps most well-known for her role as Cathy Gale in the UK television series "The Avengers" from 1962 to 1964 and this was perhaps what landed her the role in "Goldfinger".  She's worked consistently ever since, in both film and television, and was part of a striking photographic campaign for Women's Aid   (www.womensaid.corg.uk) , a charity organisation aimed at putting an end to domestic violence against women and children in the UK.
More power to you, Women's Aid!



picture taken from http://jumento.blogspot.com.au/2007_01_28_archive.html

Originally commissioned for and published by http://www.womensaid.org.uk


"From first hearing about this marvellous campaign, I knew that I wanted to be involved. Domestic violence can be so easy for people to ignore, as it often happens without any witnesses and it is sometimes easier not to get involved. Yet, by publicly speaking out against domestic violence, together we can challenge attitudes towards violence in the home and show that domestic violence is a crime and not merely unacceptable."
                                                                 - Honor Blackman

Miss Blackman is also involved with Fairtrade, an organisation which helps ensure that Third World producers are adequately paid for their products.
That's commendable, to say the least. Honor indeed.

And so, Bond fan that I am, I had originally started this post to wish Sir Sean Connery a Happy 83rd Birthday for today, August 25th.


picture courtesy of www.allposters.co.uk

However, seeing that Miss Blackman's birthday was a few days ago on the 22nd, then I'd like to wish her a Happy Birthday as well.
A Double(-O) whammy!

And make no mistake, trendsetters. Pussy Galore still packs a whallop!


Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Why This Fanboy Loves The MGS Game Series So Much ; Part 1- "Metal Gear Solid"

I was sitting in the lounge room of our flat (apartment) back in 1998 watching some crap on TV when an ad for the Sony PlayStation gaming console appeared on-screen. It showed a quick montage from various games- Crash Bandicoot causing mayhem somewhere, Lara Croft jumping across a crevasse, a character from one of the Final Fantasy games waving a massive sword, and some dude wearing a bandanna and military garb standing in profile on a metal gangway, firing a FAMAS Assault Rifle at an unseen enemy.

That last image stayed in my head for some time. There was something about it that I couldn't shake. Was it his dark green combat gear topped off with a ridiculous (in my view) bandanna, which I'm fairly sure is not military-issue?
Was it the way this character stood, leaning forward slightly to absorb the recoil of his weapon as its barrel spat muzzle flare into the night?
Was it the mixture of colours in this short scene, set against a night sky, with him contrasted against grey buildings in the background with snow falling as he fires?
Was it the overall cinematic look of this scene?
I don't know. All I knew was that I wanted to find out more about this game.

 I knew nothing of console gaming and my only knowledge of this world was of the Tomb Raider games, or more precisely, the game's heroine Lara Croft.


By the time I started working at Borders in the late Nineties, Lara Croft had become a Pop Culture icon with Tomb Raider III being released that year. The Nintendo game console was doing great business with its Super Mario games and the James Bond game Goldeneye 64 had become an instant classic.
I called work one morning to say that I was feeling absolutely dreadful and wouldn't be able to go in that day. Then I promptly went down to my local video library and rented a Nintendo 64 console and the Goldeneye game.
I was in Double-O-Heaven all day.
By the time my wife got home from work at around six o'clock that evening, the lounge room stunk of sweat and cigarettes. Like some Viet Nam-era gunship.

A few months later, I learnt a little more about this game and then went out and bought a PlayStation and the Premium Pack Deluxe Edition of Metal Gear Solid.
This pack contained the game, a CD soundtrack, t-shirt, poster and dog-tags. I was all set.

Now, if you sometimes think that movies don't adequately represent real life, then games take that notion even further. But then, that's the reason why I play these games to begin with.

***THIS POST WILL CONTAIN A FEW SPOILERS. Sorry.***

The story of Metal Gear Solid  is set in 2005 and concerns our improbably-named hero, Solid Snake. Sure, it's his code name, but you still laugh the first time you hear it. An ex-operative from the FOXHOUND Special Forces unit, he's been brought out of retirement by his old commander Colonel Campbell to infiltrate a disused nuclear weapons disposal facility on an island called Shadow Moses in Alaska's Fox Archipelago.
The weapons facility has been taken over by a renegade group of genetically enhanced special forces soldiers led by Liquid Snake (did I mention the names thing?). Liquid Snake, himself a former FOXHOUND soldier, is demanding to be given the remains of Big Boss, a legendary soldier on which these enhanced soldiers are based, so that he can extract his DNA to create more super soldiers. We know nothing of Big Boss, except the fact that his body has been kept in cold storage by the US Government for some time.
If his demands are not met within 24 hours, Liquid Snake will unleash a nuclear attack on the United States using a walking battle tank/robot named Metal Gear Rex.
Snake's mission is to neutralise this threat and also to rescue a DARPA Chief and the President of ArmsTech, who were visiting this facility shortly before the uprising took place. Also imprisoned is Meryl Silverburgh, a female soldier stationed on this facility. Who also just happens to be Col. Campbell's niece.
Solid Snake stays in touch with the Colonel by using his CODEC radio which can be set to different frequencies, allowing Snake to speak with other specialists on the Colonel's staff in order to get useful tips on how to proceed with his mission, get further expository information, etc.



Now, for me, the story begins to get a little convoluted as it deals with nanomachine technology (which is what is used to enhance the battle capabilities of these soldiers), gene therapy, nuclear disarmament, etc, but it's a vast storyline that perfectly fits in with the whole grand nature of this game.

Solid Snake arrives on the island via an underwater delivery vehicle. He is unarmed and must procure weapons on-site as the game progresses. The only things he has on him when he arrives at the island is a packet of cigarettes. Why cigarettes, you ask? Well, there are certain times throughout the game when Snake has to get past infra-red sensors without setting off any alarms. When you equip his cigarettes, the smoke drifts past these sensors letting you know where they are so that you can negotiate Snake past them successfully. One catch- Snake's health meter depletes noticeably faster while he has the cigarettes equipped, just to remind us all that they are indeed bad for your health. It's a brilliant touch in a game full of brilliant touches.

There is one main element of this game that set it apart from a lot of games of its time- the use of stealth as an effective means of gameplay. While you can fight and shoot your way through the various stages of the game, it is more beneficial to sneak your way through sometimes. You (the player) are told during Snake's initial mission briefing that this is in fact a sneaking mission and this aspect of the game allows for some nail-biting moments as Snake hides in the shadows as armed guards approach. If Snake runs across snow-covered ground, a guard appears soon afterwards and says; "Who's footprints are these?", before he follows their path. If Snake runs across a metal walkway, his boots echo on the steel and a nearby guard will exclaim; "Huh? What was that noise?", before he approaches to investigate. If Snake is discovered, a large exclamation mark appears above the guard's head, accompanied by a sharp violin note before the guard raises his weapon at Snake. It is then up to you to get him to some kind of safety as all guards go on alert.

The game begins with Snake arriving at a loading dock that is patrolled by three armed guards. He needs to get to the far end of this dock to a goods elevator without being spotted. There is a map visible at all times in the top right of the screen, known as the SOLITON Radar, which shows Snake's position in relation to the enemy and you find yourself relying on this map throughout the game. The soldiers have enhanced senses of sight and hearing, so you need to step cautiously at times. Step on a puddle of water and they'll hear you.
You have the option of sneaking up behind the guards and...well, let's not tip-toe here, you can grab them from behind and break their necks by tapping the circle button on the controller repeatedly until you hear a sharp snapping sound. This is one way to get past the guards, but it's a lot more satisfying (and nerve-wracking) to try and sneak past them.
The guards' field of vision is represented on-screen by a green cone which shows how far they can see and it is up to you to keep Snake out of these. This is a third-person game, which I greatly prefer to first-person shooting games. The camera angle is positioned above and slightly behind the figure of Snake and this takes a little getting used to at first.


 
Despite the primitive (by today's standards) graphics, this is still a beautiful game to look at as you play. Sure, everything looks blocky and the character's faces lack detail, but this game makes great use of its colour palette. Much of the game uses various shades of green, blue and grey and this helps to create the world of these characters.


Yes, I know. You can barely make out the expression on his face, but it was the 20th Century when this game was made.

Metal Gear Solid is the brainchild of video game director Hideo Kojima. He had already made a couple of Metal Gear arcade games in previous years, but this new title was the first one designed for Sony's PlayStation console. In the games world, this man is like George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry. He has stated in interviews that his bloodstream is "70% movies" and this is clearly evident all throughout this game. In the opening stage on the dock, once you've successfully gotten Snake into the elevator, the main title of the game appears on-screen.

 
Just like a movie! And the fact that you play a five to thirty minute (depending on your gaming prowess) segment of the game before the title credits makes it much like a Bond movie.
By this stage, I was hooked.

The cinematic feel of this game permeates throughout. The music is mainly synthesised and it heightens the tension that you feel as you play.
The voice acting is superbly done by a wonderful voice-over cast, but I  have to single out the great David Hayter, who provides the raspy voice of Solid Snake. Hayter is well-known for his voice acting on games, but he's also an accomplished and very well-respected screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay for "X-Men", "The Scorpion King" and the highly-regarded adaptation of Alan Moore's & David Gibbons' graphic novel "Watchmen". He has just completed his directorial debut with a film called "Wolves", due out this year.
Hayter has provided the voice for Solid Snake on every game since Metal Gear Solid, but has recently been replaced (sacrilege!) by Keifer Sutherland (Oh...okay. Cool!) in the next instalment entitled Metal Gear Solid-The Phantom Pain. I suppose if you're gonna replace David Hayter, then Jack Bauer is an ideal choice.
In Sutherland's (and Hideo Kojima's) defence, the main character of this new game is Snake's father, so I suppose they were aiming for a voice that sounded similar rather than exactly like Snake's. Kojima-san's justification for this controversial decision was that, since the main character is a battle-hardened veteran in his late 40s, he wanted an actor in his late 40s to provide the voice, in the interests of realism. I would argue that realism doesn't appear very much in these games, but...

Ah well, I've already said it on Twitter, but it begs repeating. Thanks for your brilliant work, DH. You brought this character to life during your ten year run and had me caring more for him than I did for my real friends.

Of course, this game is not all sneaking around and breaking necks. Snake's got a mission to complete and there are numerous baddies out to stop him. Five of them, to be exact, aside from all the armed guards patrolling every corner of this weapons facility. In gaming parlance, the fights against main villains are referred to as Boss Battles. Snake's first Boss encounter is with an older man named Revolver Ocelot. Better get used to these weird names. They're everywhere in this game.
Ocelot is about 60 and he wears cowboy boots with spurs and carries an 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver, which he wields with a gunslinger's proficiency, spinning it 'round his index finger before slotting it back into his hip-holster. And, since game bad-guys aren't just your ordinary types, he has the ability to make bullets ricochet off any surface, thus able to shoot Snake by making bullets bounce off walls and around corners. Definitely makes for some interesting and frustrating gameplay.
However, this battle is interrupted by the arrival of the Cyborg Ninja, who slices off Ocelot's hand. The Ninja then disappears, returning to go up against Snake in a battle later on. He's a pretty cool character. I mean, who doesn't love a skin-tight outfit and a samurai sword that can cut through anything?



 This brilliant artwork was done by Yoji Shinkawa who did the concept art for these games.



Another Boss Battle occurs later in the game between Snake and this badass named Vulcan Raven. That washing-machine sized keg strapped to his back is filled with bullets, so he ain't gonna run out of ammunition anytime soon. It's a wonder he doesn't slip on all the empty shell-casings that his Gatling gun spits out.

 This is what Snake is up against. And you thought YOU had problems.

I don't want to say too much about the story. Other game writers and fans have said it better in the 15 years since MGS was released. I'll mention various aspects of this game that resonated with me the most and easily made it worth every penny.

There are some clever touches all over this game. When Snake finally meets Meryl Silverburgh, Colonel Campbell's niece, she suggests that they split up so that he can continue with his mission while she infiltrates another area of the weapons facility. Snake asks her for her CODEC radio frequency so that they can stay in contact and she replies; "The frequency number's on the case." before she runs off.
"Case? What case?!!!", I thought to myself desperately. "Snake hasn't found a case! What the hell?!"
I spent the better part of the rest of the week thinking about it until I walked into the lounge room one morning and looked at the back of the plastic case that the game came in;



                                                      (Look up. See Meryl's name? Okay, look above that.)
                                                                  "Oh, you're kidding me!"

140.15. It's as plain as the nose on your face. In an interview at the time of the game's release (which I read YEARS later), Kojima said that he wanted the game's case to be a part of the actual gameplay in some way. Sneaky bastard.

Later in the game, you find yourself up against Psycho Mantis. He has telekinetic powers, so he can throw vases and armchairs at you when you find him in a library. Not only that, but based on how you've been playing the game up until then, he will give Snake a critique of his (as in your) performance; "You're reckless" (if you've been running around shooting every guard in sight) or "You are cautious, afraid to take risks" (if you've spent the entire game sneaking around.)

And, as in all good spy stories, our hero is captured and tortured. Snake is hooked up to some huge machine and given electric shocks (I think). The way to survive this treatment is to repeatedly hit the Action Button (circle) of your PlayStation controller. Fast. In fact, very fast. Snake's health meter begins to drop as he's being tortured. Hitting the Action Button tops up his health briefly, but it soon drops. You are basically trying to empty a sinking ship with a bucket. And you're on a timer. You have to keep Snake alive long enough so that the timer runs out. It's a strenuous 30 seconds. And he goes through it three times, unless he escapes from the cell that he's being held in between torture sessions. Which I'll explain how to do a little later.
This stage also gives you the option of giving in to the torture. Doing so drastically alters the ending of the game with regard to whom of the other characters that you meet lives or dies, just to mess with the player's head a little.
 

I tried a million different ways to hit the button quickly. In the end, I placed the controller down sideways on my wife's copy of Vogue magazine sitting on my lap and then flicked my index finger back and forth at lightning speed. This tactic saved Snake's life, but the friction of the glossy magazine cover on the knuckle of my little finger left a burn scar that is still visible to this day.
But I beat the torture!

Later, there's a fantastic sniping stage between Snake and a Russian female named Sniper Wolf;



She has a habit of wearing her combat jacket zipped halfway down with nothing else on underneath...in Alaska! Remember, these games are aimed at teenage boys.
This sniping stage takes place just after Snake and Meryl arrive outside of one of the containment houses on the facility. Notice that the SOLITON radar system is jammed so that you can't tell where the enemy is. This happens whenever Snake is discovered by the enemy and has to run and hide to evade them. Without the radar, however, you might find yourself running right into an armed guard...who starts shooting at you;


It's a wonderfully staged battle and it's very atmospheric. You can hear the wind howling down this narrow pathway. Made me shiver, and I was playing the game in Summer! As Snake and Meryl take a first step down this corridor, a shot rings out and Meryl is hit in the arm and falls to the ground. Snake is pinned down and must head back inside the building to retrieve a PSG-1 sniper rifle so that he can engage Sniper Wolf in combat. As with all of the Boss Battles, Wolf's health meter is longer than Snake's, so you can't allow him to get hit too many times. Sniper Wolf gets away in this level and Snake comes up against her later in the game in a snow-covered field where she is dressed in white to better camouflage herself;


It's a difficult battle because as soon as you get her in your cross-hairs, she gets off a first shot at you.

This game is filled with little moments that make you laugh and that make you marvel at what games are (or were) capable of. Certainly, gaming has upped the ante since Metal Gear Solid was first released in 1998, but this game introduced many elements that other games have employed since. Some of the scenes are beautifully composed and staged and there are some genuinely creepy moments in the game, since you don't know what's going to happen next. Here we see Snake heading to a research lab where the Cyborg Ninja has already been.


I remember feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand on end as I approached this lab, not knowing what to expect.
It is in this stage that Snake meets Hal 'Otacon' Emmerich, a research scientist who offers Snake technical info throughout the remainder of the game. Otacon, as he prefers to be known, has managed to avoid capture by wearing a sneaking suit which renders him invisible to the guards. He gets his nickname from the Japanese term 'Otaku', which refers to somebody who's a huge fan of Japanese anime and/or manga.
When Snake is captured and tortured, Otacon appears outside his cell and gives Snake a bottle of tomato ketchup. When Snake asks just what the hell is he supposed to do with a bottle of ketchup, Otacon replies that it's all he could find.
I spent two frustrating weeks trying to get Snake out of that cell before I read in a gaming magazine that if Snake equips the ketchup bottle and lies down on the cell floor, the bottle breaks and the ketchup spreads like a pool of blood, giving the nearby guard the impression that Snake has killed himself. The guard unlocks the cell and enters. Snake then gets up and knocks out the guard before making his escape.

There's one aspect of the game that was considered silly when it was first mentioned in reviews. Snake finds a cardboard box, which he can use to hide in at times when there are guards nearby. He can crouch and sneak around while in this box.



Gamers thought it was a stupid idea. Until they played it, that is. It is one of the most nail-biting moments of the game when Snake is in the box and sitting still and a guard approaches. You expect to get discovered any second. The guard looks down at the box. A question mark appears above his head. A second later, he says; "Hmmph, it's just a box." And then he turns and walks away. At other times, he gives the box a slight kick and it disappears, revealing Snake crouched down on the ground before a volley of machine-gun fire breaks the silence and all hell breaks loose.

But it's not all fun and games. Throughout this mission, Snake is given information about nuclear deterrence, the SALT Treaty and arms proliferation that has continued to flourish since the end of The Cold War. Most gamers would tend to skip through all of this expositional dialogue because they're teenage boys, but I found it all quite interesting. I knew a little about this from my studies back in the early '80s, but it was still a kick  to be learning more about all of this from a console game, of all things.

Like all great games, just when you think it's over and you've beaten the bad guys, it ramps everything up a little and you find that Snake is still under threat. He has to go up against Metal Gear Rex, a walking battle tank which is being piloted by the main enemy of the game, Liquid Snake.
Throughout the entire game, Snake's main mission is to find this thing and insert a card key into a central computer that will effectively shut Metal Gear Rex down and render it inoperable. However, Snake is a few moves behind every other character in the story and he pretty much becomes a patsy for both the bad guys and the military that sent him on this mission to begin with. You as the player learn of the various twists in the story at the same time as Snake does.


This thing is huge and armed to the teeth with lasers, heat-seeking missiles, machine guns. And, if Snake gets too close to it, it steps on him. No fair.

And, in true confusing Japanese manga/anime fashion, we learn that both Liquid Snake and Solid Snake are actually twin brothers who were part of a gene therapy experiment from the late 1960s called 'Les Enfants Terribles' and that their DNA is identical and made up from that taken from Big Boss, the legendary soldier whose remains Liquid Snake is demanding. However, their DNA also contains the FOXDIE virus which has a 50/50 chance of killing them at any time. Just to further complicate matters.

The game contains a few more tricks up its sleeve if/when you defeat Metal Gear Rex, and it doesn't get any easier. You truly get your money's worth.

At the end of it all, the screen goes dark and one more piece of information is given concerning the fact that, despite all of the Arms Limitation Talks that took place throughout the '80s and '90s, where both superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals down to around 3,000 warheads each, they both still currently maintain over 26,000 missiles.
It was a sobering thought to leave with the player.

I played Metal Gear Solid over and over when I first got it. I tried playing it again about six months ago and found that my hands just aren't fast enough anymore to save Snake from the torture sequence. Yes, I'm getting older.
Physically, anyway.
 
The good thing with this game was that it spoiled me where other games are concerned.
Thankfully, I didn't rush out and buy up a heap of other games, thus turning my wife into what she called 'a PlayStation widow'.

Metal Gear Solid became a huge seller for the PlayStation and the development company Konami Computer Entertainment and, at the time of writing, there are rumours circulating that MGS is to be remade in an all-new version for the PlayStation 4, due for release later this year. Oh, man!
Geez, here I am, a few years shy of fifty, and I'm looking forward to a video game. Must be due to my wasted youth spent in pinball parlours.
The '80s was good for something, after all.

The world-wide success of Metal Gear Solid guaranteed that a sequel would be made. It took about four years, and it was designed for the newly-released PlayStation 2.
Metal Gear Solid 2- Sons of Liberty turned out to be another winner, but with one major gripe among Metal Gear fans, myself included.
The gameplay itself was phenomenal, as were the much sharper graphics. My main problem with this sequel, however, was the direction in which the story went. I'll say more about it when I do a write-up on it.

Hideo Kojima had proven himself to be a Golden Boy of Gaming and was given a bigger budget for the sequel. This was evident in every aspect of MGS2.  For this game, they pushed the boundaries of what the PlayStation 2 gaming engine was capable of and they hired Hollywood film composer Harry Gregson-Williams to provide a fantastic orchestral score.  It helped to further blur the line between a console game and a movie.

And that, for me, is the beauty of these games. They are like movies that you play.

Thanks for reading!


 
 


Sunday, 11 August 2013

Gimme The Keys!- A Tentative Start To Changing The Keytops Of A Royal Quiet De Luxe.

After managing to align the upper and lower case letters on my 1947 Royal QDL, I once again gave some thought to replacing the faded keytops, since they are hard to read in most light. You may recall that I wrote about this some time ago;

Keys to the Kingdom- Considering a Modification to My Royal QDL. Good or Bad Idea?

Now, I'm not here to discuss keychoppers. Much like lawyers and Real Estate agents, keychoppers are sometimes a necessary evil, especially if one is looking to replace a set of typewriter keys.
It would be the same if I had a 1967 Ford Mustang Fastback...


picture courtesy of http://mustang-ford.eu/ford_mustang_1967

...and I needed to replace a quarter-light window on the passenger-side door. If there was somebody out there junking one of these cars (the madman!) and selling off its parts, then I would deal with them.
Besides, with these keytops, I was planning to resurrect a typewriter, so if I can prevent a set of keys from becoming a pair of cuff-links or one of those stupid bracelets that don't spell out anything intelligible, then that's exactly what I was gonna do.
The seller that I bought the keytops from was selling just the already-removed keys.
And please don't give me the elephant tusk/typewriter keytop analogy. While one is an industrial engineering marvel that revolutionised office productivity and literary output throughout the 20th Century, the other is a living, breathing creature that looks like nothing else on Earth.

And so, to quote a line from a character played by the Patron Saint of Typewriters, Our Man In Hollywood, Mr. Tom Hanks, "and that's all I have to say about that."
Damn, I said I wasn't gonna discuss keychoppers.

Anyway, back on topic, looking at the keybank showed that most of them had faded (The picture below is AFTER I replaced the keytop. Thought I took a BEFORE photo, but there you go).


The only ones that appear the most legible are the D, C, V, 6, 8, and 9 keys.
I'm no expert, but I suspect that there may have been some water-entry under the glass (plastic, maybe) keytops at some point, causing discolouration.  I decided to tackle the faded letter 'U' key first.
Using the knife of a Leatherman Wave tool, I prised the metal prongs back off the key and very gently lifted the metal ring away from the keytop arm. So far, so good.
The next part would prove to be trickier. How to remove the card insert from the keytop recess. It was nestled in there since the 1940s, so I figured it was not gonna come out without a fight. My weapon of choice? A pin from a sewing kit. The idea was to push it down the side of the keytop recess and lever it out. Of course, what I hadn't figured on was the fragility of a 66 year old piece of water-damaged cardboard. My first attempt lifted a section of paper away from the card insert. Rather than curse, I figured a light dab with a Texta (Magic Marker- by the way, which of those two names is sillier?) would cover up any mishaps once the glass cover was put back in place.

And this is what I ended up with;


The card insert was definitely faded. Turning it over revealed...


...that perhaps it had had some water damage at one time. While I had the ring off, I grabbed hold of some stainless steel polish and gave the ring a rubdown. This will probably be the more time-consuming job in the long run.
Looking at the ring, I felt that I could probably bend the prongs a few times before they snap off completely. However, if I do it right, I'll only need to bend them open and closed once.


Here's the keytop recess with the card insert removed. I was thinking of a dab of glue to hold the replacement insert in place, but decided against it in case it caused a different kind of discolouration in the years to come. Besides, I reasoned that the metal ring and glass top would hold the insert firmly in place once all was said and done. Please excuse the blurry photo;


Looking at the two letter 'U' inserts, you can perhaps see that the replacement on the left is in better condition than the removed one on the right. A quick touch-up with the Texta to cover up the small tear on one edge of the card and it was ready to be fitted into the keytop recess. For this, I used a pair of tweezers and took my time lining it up so that it sat upright  and straight in the recess;


I used a pair of flat-nosed pliers to bend the prongs on the rings back into place. Not a 100% perfect job with one prong (slightly visible along the bottom edge of the key), but it's all secure and back in place;


Okay, one down, thirty-nine to go!

Having these keytops also means that I have some spares handy in case the steel does snap off and I can also replace the glass tops that are scratched and chipped.
Hopefully, this Royal with look as good as it types by the time I'm done with it.

Thanks for reading, all!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Adjusting the UPPER and lower Cases On a 1947 Royal Quiet De Luxe...As Per Ted Munk's Tutorial Post.

 
 
 
 
Here's how this Royal was typing prior to any fiddling;

 
Note how uneven the upper and lower cases were. It took me a few goes at getting it how I wanted it.
The top section of this next scan shows how I went after a few adjustments. The bottom section shows how it looked after my third or fourth attempt at adjusting it...without making note of whether I had turned the screwdriver clock-wise or anti clock-wise.
 


Onwards and upwards, teeritz! I continued on until I got a result that I was happy with. In the end, I was more amazed at how simple it was. Once you know where to start.