Watching Star Trek: Discovery

OK, so season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery (ST:D from now on) has started, and luckily it’s on Netflix here in Finland.

Ever since Battlestar Galactica in my childhood I have been a sucker for quality space opera -TV-shows, so of course I’m watching this! The 21st century has been so far interesting in that shows have more room to move when it comes to violence and foul language, i.e. shows these days can be as gritty as they like and handle any themes they please. Although sexuality is still somewhat of a taboo, as America is so prudent about nudity… heads may blow up and blood can flow freely but tits and penises swinging on the screen is still a no-no. Strange world we live in, that way.

But, as TV shows have gotten better and taken over movies in some regards, quality sci-fi is still hard to find as it caters to a smaller – if economically quite wealthy – audience. In recent years, The Expanse is a book series *and* TV-series I’ve been following, and it’s doing a good job. But there isn’t much else in the way of space opera, except the Star Trek spin-offs, and now The Mandalorian on Disney+. Last year Amazon had Picard as a new Star Trek -series, and it was IMO quite mediocre if enjoyable from a nostalgic perspective. But ST:D is still a better series.

When it launched, ST:D felt like a mixture of ST:TOS, ST:TNG and the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies. The production values are consistently high, this is movie level stuff. However, plot wise all the 21st century Star Trek -series have tried to a) ride on nostalgia and b) add Star Wars-y action elements to the proceedings, which has sort of diluted one of the things that made the original Star Trek and the Next Generation so influential: the emphasis on non-violent, diplomatical ways of solving problems. So yeah, ST:D is trying to be more like Star Wars, I get it, but it’s also taking away from what makes Star Trek great.

Season 1 of ST:D started off in a bland and frankly boring way, but at the end of the season there was a twist that rode on old nostalgia and did it successfully. Season 1 really mined all it could from the Mirror, Mirror -episode of ST:TOS. Season 2 was more cohesive and quite interesting – although it also rode the nostalgia wave by having Spock in it. But it also seemed to bring the template that season 3 is following now: the overarching great mystery that the crew of the Discovery tries to solve.

Finally, and hopefully in season 3 – due to events from the end of season 2 – this series is free from the burden of old Star Trek episodes, and can create some original adventures.

So far, the series has again taken the template of presenting a mystery that will probably follow us through the whole season. And, it has shaken up things in a way that makes the Star Trek universe more like the Star Wars universe.

How convenient.

Hopefully there will be more Star Trek-ky ways of solving puzzles than blasting and shooting through doors, but we’ll see if the writers have the chops (and the courage) to write truly intelligent space opera for the 21st century…

The Playlist of 2020

A special year indeed has soon reached its end! And yeah, I made it alive too and most people I know. Safely working from home means that eating too much or slipping on the bathroom floor tiles is your worst danger, but I did also manage to get hospitalized for a few nights because of a tooth infection. That was a first, and certainly a reminder that things can go south pretty quickly.

But as I struggle with writing more stuff to get this blog (among other things) going, I’m going to at least compile some of the songs that helped me through this year here. Because music is power… and an easy way to write some content and link/embed the rest. Phew.

I Break Horses – Neon Lights

Lush, beautiful pop from Sweden that creates cinematic images and sequences in your mind if you just start listening to it. At long last ne stuff from this act, I still listen to a couple of the songs from the previous album. This is a sci-fi blast of happiness.

The Beths – Happy Unhappy

One band I stumbled across during the summer sitting in a cabin somewhere in Finland. This song somehow connected instantly.

Georgia – About Work The Dancefloor

Partying by myself during the summer to this tune was a common sight in 2020.

BT – Wildfire

A new album from master electronic producer Brian Transeau is always a small event. This time he’s gone full-on dad trance – or that’s how I’d best describe the album, but listen to this standout that is slightly derivative of his brilliant dance blast Tomahawk from a previous album, now with lyrics. And dance!

Erasure – No Point in Tripping

Wow! These guys are still around, true to their style… and this is a solid synthpop track that provides poppy energy while having that vintage analogue synth sound to it – Andy still has a great voice and Vince a knack for melodic hooks.

Future Islands – Plastic Beach

End of summer -vibes with enough energy to take you into the next spring. Also, not littering the seas with plastic is important.

Inon Zur – Liberty Lives

I spent some time playing Fallout 4 again in the spring because I was in the mood for some post-apocalyptic stuff for some reason. And wow, it was a lot better than the first time I made an effort of it. The music is really a high point of the game and this theme really makes my eyes moist every time because it’s just so heroic and… well, if you’ve played the game you know what a feeling it is taking back the Castle, what it means. We will take back our world from Covid-19 too, and you can play this theme! And cry!

Dubstar – Hygiene Strip

An early christmas present from one of the best British pop acts ever, and a nigh on perfect song to wrap up this year.

A bit high on energy and dance beats perhaps, but that’s how it is this time. Have a good end of 2020!

Gaming: No Man’s Sky

Crashed ship
A crashed fighter in the mould of Battlestar Galactica

Rewind to the 80’s

In the last 15 years or so, I haven’t really had the time and will to game as much as I’d like to. Just as is the case with quality TV series nowadays, there are more great games coming out than there is time to actually play them when you also have full time employment to take care of. Maybe I’m just lazy, but for me gaming is also more intensive and time-consuming than watching a movie or an episode of a TV show.

Elite poster
Elite poster at the Gaming museum in Tampere, Finland

I’m also a bit of a genre player – my preferred games have always been time consuming adventures, and role-playing games. And, maybe you could add a third genre as well: space trading simulator games. One of the first games I saw being played in the mid-80’s on my friend Antti’s dad’s Commodore 64 was Elite. [telegraph.co.uk] The game looked complex and hard, and had a manual longer than most games and required a keyboard map layout as well because there were so many functions.
“I’ll never learn to play that”, I thought.
Well, a couple of years later Antti and I not only completed Leisure Suit Larry [retrogames.cz] on his dad’s PC, but we also played Elite at my place all night long on my first computer, a Commodore 64 (thanks, mum!).

The freedom of piloting your own starship across a vast galaxy (or several), trading goods, fighting pirates and generally just exploring was just unbeatable. In a way, the game was really simple and repetitive but you kind of made up your own story along the road as you grinded for more money, status and new ships. So, grinding was an addictive formula back then already, Elite might actually be one of the first grinding games.

After Elite, no space simulator really offered the same thrills – there were many attempts like Federation of Free Traders or the actual Elite-sequel Frontier, but they were either too ambitious for the computers of their time or just didn’t work. There were some smaller great space adventures that focused more on the story though in the 80’s-90’s; some of the the ones I loved were Warhead [lemonamiga.com] on the Amiga and Star Control 2 [wikpedia.com] on PC, one of the best space adventure games ever in an semi-open world, which emphasized the importance of great visuals and music as well.

The casual thrills of exploring unknown planets

Tourist photo of wildlife
Some alien life on an arid planet

Fast-forward to 2017, a year after No Man’s Sky was released and had caught my radar. The game had a rocky launch and it seemed like yet another failed “Elite-killer” (as the Finnish gaming press used to title all games seeking to become the next Elite, always in vain), but significant updates had supposedly improved things and it was on sale on Steam, so I thought: “What the hell, looks good, let’s give this a go”.

Turns out the game offers the same thrills as Elite did in the 80’s. The basic idea is the same but there is just more of everything. Also, you can land on planets and explore them; the first time you repair your ship and head out into space and land on the next planet or moon in the solar system is magical.

Flyby
Ships flying over my head
Jump drive
Jumping to a planet

Besides the freedom of a huge sandbox a lot of the appeal of the game lies in the excellent, colorful graphics and the phenomenal soundtrack by 65daysofstatic. Even people who find the game boring have said good things about the soundtrack, and I bought the soundtrack after short while; the music really is great and adds to the game in so many ways.

Yeah, the game has some adventure in form of a story as well, but it isn’t very deep although there are some good points. Just like the retro-art graphics, the story is more Star Trek or 70’s psychedelic sci-fi than some Star Wars-style epic space opera. This is fitting, and anyhow, the story is mostly just an extended tutorial; exploring and grinding for money and new ships and building your own bases on several worlds is the core of the game. No Man’s Sky is also pleasingly non-violent; you can pretty much avoid combat if you want to, and gaining money by scanning flora and fauna instead of killing them pleases my former biologist self.

Nada and Polo
Nada and Polo, some of the only recurring characters in the game
Exotic ship and my 48-slot cargo vessel
My ugly but large freighter and an exotic “Angry Birds”-ship (those are more rare)

So, another grinding & building game at heart, I still find No Man’s Sky addictive after 200+ hours because you can simply play it a bit at a time, casually. Come home from work, drop into the cockpit of your spaceship, explore an unknown world, go to the next solar system, send your frigates on missions to collect money and stop playing after an hour in order to make dinner. It does become repetitive during the endgame when you can see the patterns of how everything goes, despite being a huge sandbox there is not enough real variation on the worlds in order to surprise you very much. That, and the lackluster trading aspect still leave lots of room for improvement.

Currently I’m just searching for the perfect planet to build my final base on, as I already have pretty much everything the game offers in terms of spaceships etc. But just spending an hour listening to the soundtrack and enjoying the scenery after warping to the next solar system is a soothing experience.

Interestingly enough, the game is still being developed and this summer a new major update comes along adding multiplayer and Virtual Reality (VR) -headset support, so the game is certainly one of the best supported games ever considering all the updates are free.

Finally, just listen to two of the achingly beautiful pieces found in the game and you’ll perhaps get something interesting out of the game even if you never play it yourself…

Quick gadget reviews vol. 1: Earworms

So, being somewhat of a gadget freak I’m always trying to find the right equipment that improves my life quality in some way. Might as well share my thoughts on said gadgets here.

Bowers & Wilkins PX

Bowers & Wilkins PX

In December 2017 I finally caved in and bought a pair of bluetooth headphones. I was curious about the active noise cancellation (ANC) that was just becoming popular, and the sound quality of wireless headphones seemed to have reached an acceptable level. Also, my wired Denon AH-MM200 – which I really liked – broke down for the nth time because of a design flaw. No wonder they were being sold at a serious discount.

I already drooled at the vintage luxury look of the previous Bowers & Wilkins portable headphones, and now they had a new wireless model out with noise cancellation. The early reviews seemed encouraging, and the feature set was really complete and future proof. The PX model then became my Christmas present to my self; expensive at 399€ sure but good headphones are important to me and I was done with bad ones.

So, how are they now in the summer of 2019? Well, they are still going strong and in constant use of course, and the sound quality is really good – music sounds just pleasingly right. Noise cancellation (or reduction would be a more apt term) is also pretty fun to have, and a major reason for buying these as they’re great for office work. They do have one considerable flaw though: if you use glasses, the hard leather ear cups can’t make a complete seal which leads to poorer bass levels and the ANC looses some effect as well as the sound leaks. No matter what rims I’m wearing, thick or thin, the problem persists. They sound really good only when not wearing anything (underwear excluded). Also, when wearing hats, the sensors which automatically pause or unpause the music if they sense you are taking the headphones off are also a bit fiddly.

Hats and glasses are not friends of the PX...

Comfort is also not the strongest point of these pretty large and heavy headphones, many have stated that the headband is uncomfortable so I guess the design was only tested on people with average-sized heads who don’t use glasses or hats. Looks-wise they are also a bit more bland and generic than the vintage sports car looking P5’s, for example. I can never be sure if I’m putting them on backwards or the right way, something about the phones design is just awkward. The materials are pure quality though, and battery life is good.

Bottom line: if a more natural level of sound quality is important to you than what Sony, Bose or Beats are offering, these are still pretty good headphones that can compete with 2019 models. Only thing is, if you wear glasses they aren’t the best of cans. Also these are a bit bulky when traveling and the supplied carrying pouch is not very good. Add in the fact that the ANC is not of the strongest caliber means that frequent flyers etc. might want something that travels more easily. Try before you buy is a must with these.

The Good
+ Sound quality
+ Technically feature complete with ANC, USB-C, aptX HD, mics for audio calls and more
+ Build quality
+ Battery life

The Bad
– Comfort
– Glasses break isolation and impact both the sound and the ANC-effect
– ANC not as strong as with other manufacturers
– Bulky when traveling

Verdict: 4/5

Link to official product info: https://www.bowerswilkins.com/en-gb/headphones/px

Xiaomi Mi Headphones Pro

Xiaomi Mi Headphones Pro

Despite the B&W PX’s above, at heart I’m still a total cheapskate who wants luxury at bargain prices. So it is only natural that I’ve also been looking at the cheap stuff from China that promises a lot of bang for less buck. Aptly called “chi-fi” when it comes to music gear, I wanted to see if 20 € gets you quality earbuds that rival 200€ stuff so I ordered the Mi Headphone Pro -earbuds from Aliexpress.com, because I did need (another) set of earbuds for my Huawei M3 -tablet, which cannot use Bluetooth and Wifi at the same time due to a design flaw (<– most products have one, the term was mentioned in the PX review above as well).

Cheap in-ear phones usually have a bit of a muffled sound that leave you wanting more detail, even if they usually perform better than cheap on-ear phones. The Mi Pro:s promise a clearer “HD-sound”, and certainly you can hear more detail with them than usual and the sense of space (= soundstage) in music is pretty good too. But the sound wasn’t quite the “200€ sound for 20€” that I was hoping for; bass is a bit too subdued and there is an underlying cheap & dirty undertone in the clarity. The worst thing is, that the sound is simply not very fun – but it might also be that the PX’s have slightly spoiled me there; it might be you have to use these for a long time to get used to the different sound. Maybe these are best suited for jazz or classical music, but pop and techno isn’t that great to listen to with these. Still, they *are* good for the low price (20€ when on sale incl. postage), quite comfortable and solidly built of metal so I’ll be using them anyhow; out in the traffic the sound is actually fine but it is when you’re alone in a quiet place when the sound simply reveals its unfuniness.

You get quality-wise maybe a 60€ pair of earbuds for 20€ when buying these, so like all Mi products this is still a good deal.

The Good
+ Clear sound
+ Excellent build quality
+ Value for money

The Bad
– Sound signature not very fun for music listening
– Rubbery wires aren’t the worst tangling ever, but they tangle irritatingly still

Verdict: 3/5

Link to official product info: https://www.mi.com/global/headphonespro/

Summer vacation 2019

Fuck yeah! I love summertime.

Especially now, when I have spent 15 years in my dear employer’s service and get an extra 8 days off on top of the 30 I already had. Still, I’m just taking the usual 5 weeks of leave during the summer but the extra days (weeks!) will come in handy when it gets dark and gloomy (80% of the time in Finland). 5 weeks of summer holidays is still plenty to feel some part of that quaint sense of freedom you had as a kid, and for me it always feels like you live through each winter just to reach this point again when life is casual and easy.

Summer here in the northern hemisphere just has so many more possibilities – it’s easier to dress when going out (and much nicer to look at girls too), the days are long and usually not too hot either, so even if you sleep late it doesn’t mean that you wasted all daylight time. You can go out 20-21 o’clock and it’s still light. So much more comfortable to go for a run.

Basically, this is the time when I recharge my batteries but also reflect on what I should be doing. And, apart from the usual business of keeping in contact with friends and family – which is not always easy when you are a introvert who likes being home a lot – I definitely want to start writing more and making some music again.

Iskelmä festivaali, Himos (Jämsä)
Iskelmä festivaali, Himos (Jämsä)

This summer I’ve already visited one music festival (Iskelmä Festivaali in Himos, Jämsä) with a group of friends, where I had a great time, and Finncon in Jyväskylä in order to get some inspiration for writing/continuing my sci-fi project again. More on those later.

Mom's husband doing woodwork
Mom’s husband doing woodwork

I spent some time with my mom and her husband at their cottage in Mänttä-Vilppula. Got to pile some wood too in the shack, of course, reminding me that I have that kind of work before me at my own cottage as well.

Mom is baking
Mom is baking

Yeah, my own little retreat near home is almost finished and I just need to connect the solar panel installed this year with a battery and do some wiring so I can recharge equipment, have some lights and run a small 12V refrigerator while there.

So, summer has reached its midpoint now and it has already been pretty great – I feel inspired and happy, which is basically already a pretty good achievment. As Finns say when they have it good: “It’s only downhill from here on…”, so let’s see what happens next!

Trying out Orange Long Drink - not so great...
Trying out Orange Long Drink in Jyväskylä – not so great…