Goodbye, Virgin Media

  on November 29th, 2007

Sky HDVirgin Media has crossed me for the last time! I must say goodbye to their TV service and their TV Drive (aka V+) box and its High Definition goodness. It’s, sadly, hello HM Murdoch and your Sky HD box.

The final straw for Virgin came last night as I got home and opened up my latest bill from them. The first thing I checked was that they had, finally, reimbursed me for my recent telephone outage (of the best part of a month, no less). Sure enough, they had deducted about £12 off the bill to cover that. How much does that drop my monthly payment, I wondered idly. Huh, it’s gone up, not down? How can that be? They’d broken out my component costs – telephone, broadband, TV subscription, TV Drive box. What had happened to the deal I negotiated when I took on the TV package that lumped them all together?

Turns out it wasn’t a mistake brought about by my discount, as I originally assumed, but instead the deal I negotiated only lasted a year. Shame they didn’t tell me that when I signed up! I wasn’t particularly happy with that deal I already had – I sure as hell am not paying even more for their service – especially as it has deteriorated considerably over the last year rather than improved.

Some of Virgin’s recent transgressions:

  • Leaving me without a telephone service for about four weeks (not to mention the hoops I had to jump through to get it restored at all…) Apparently someone had randomly unplugged my phone at the local junction box. I know I’m not the only person to suffer from that problem…
  • A while back there was a national TV Drive outage. They sent a letter out apologising and offering us all a free Pay Per View movie, of our choice. Automatically taken off our next bill, they claimed. It wasn’t. I couldn’t even be bothered to fight that one – they never got another PPV penny out of me.
  • Loss of TV channels. I start up a 12 month contract and by the end of it I’ve lost major channels without any change in the monthly charges. Yes, I’m partly talking about the Sky channels. More importantly, I’m talking about ITV HD. When I signed up they had two HD channels. Both were, admittedly, trial channels – BBC HD and ITV HD. Nonetheless, I was led to believe (in very vague terms) that they expected to add more HD channels over the coming year (i.e. 2007). Instead we now have only one – BBC HD. HD was the main driving factor for the TV Drive and the Virgin (or Telewest, as was) TV package. That was unacceptable.

To be honest, I came so close to dumping Virgin entirely after my recent telephone problems – customer service like that deserves severe punishment. Only laziness kept me with them. There’s still an inertia there from me, even now. Virgin will retain my custom for the telephone and broadband, for the time being. I am seriously considering moving my phone back to BT and trying out for ADSL again (I’ve so far failed three times to get ADSL due to distance from the telephone exchange, that’s when Telewest finally provided broadband in my area – it was ISDN up until then.) The hassle of attempting to retain my phone number and the inferior offering of ADSL to cable broadband will keep me as a reduced Virgin customer until at least next year.

I’m not alone, either. Elsewhere on this blog and in the Staggering Stories Musings, you will hear the horror stories Tony has to tell of Virgin Media (and his trouble with them isn’t entirely over yet, as I understand it). I know my parents are considering dumping them, too. It’s a small sampling but, including myself, that must be over 50% of the people I know who are Virgin customers are either dumping Virgin or are seriously considering it. Word of mouth gets around and this particular Virgin is leaving a sour taste in many mouths indeed!

To the future, then. I have bought a Sky HD+ box off eBay (apparently an authorised Sky reseller, certainly the AV forums have generally positive noises about the reseller in question). It was an ouch moment. I hadn’t expected to be having to pay out for a Sky digibox (the TV Drive/V+ is rented, Virgin have already set a date to pick it up, just after Christmas). £265, including a new quad LNB (the active bit of a Sky dish – my existing one doesn’t have enough outputs) and extra coax cabling. Bad time of year for that sort of expense. It should repay itself soon enough though…

From my investigations I should be able to slot in my existing Freesat card and, hey presto, I will have access to all the Free to Air and Free to View channels – including BBC HD. In practice I will need to call Sky to link my card to the new box but that should be it. In truth all I really care about, at least right now, is getting the normal ‘terrestrial’ channels (suitably upscaled to 1080i) and BBC HD. I don’t need a subscription for any of those. Why have I been paying Virgin all this time, like a sucker? I lived for a good year or two with just Freesat before I got my new TV a year ago. HD and upscaling were the only reasons I went with Virgin TV in the first place. With talk of ITV HD making a return and Channel 4 HD turning up shortly, all Free to Air or Free to View – I will have plenty of good TV available (and without a subscription, as it should be – I pay my TV Licence, damn it!)

The only fly in the ointment with this free Sky business (trying desperately to ignore the up front cost of a HD box) is the loss of my TiVo. My TiVo was replaced by the TV Drive and its PVR (personal video recorder, aka digital video recorder – DVR) capabilities. TiVo used to cost me £10 a month for the subscription, but couldn’t support HD. Enabling the PVR features on my Sky HD box will cost me the same. So, Sky will get £10 out of me a month, after all. Heck of a lot less than Virgin were charging me for their TV package. Effectively I’ve got myself a HD TiVo with a built in Sky HD tuner. Not a bad deal.

I’m sure I will one day return to Virgin for their TV service, spitting blood over a series of slights from Sky. They’re both about as bad as one another. Right now, though, Virgin have passed my wrath threshold. So, it’s good riddance Virgin Media TV!

It’s a shame – I used to be so impressed by Telewest at one time…



Staggering Stories Podcast #9: The [BLANK]s of Death

  on November 25th, 2007

Show summary: Andy Simpkins, Adam J Purcell, Fake Keith and Tony Gallichan talk about Doctor Who: The Robots of Death, the World of Warcraft MMORPG, the Dalek Masterplan play and a variety of other stuff, specifically:

  • 00.10 – intro and theme tune
  • 00.42 — Greetings, yes?
  • 02.25 — WARNING! This podcast kills!!!
  • 04.17 — Where is Keith?
  • 05.08 — The Sauce [blank]
  • 09.48 – World of Warcraft – now with added adverts!
  • 37.06 — The [blank] Game…
  • 39.55 – Doctor Who – The Robots Of Death
  • 55.10 – History Today – The Dalek Masterplan play and Mini Con
  • 71.47 — Scenery madness – cue cliffhanger!
  • 71.53 – Letters and viewer feedback. Hit us yourself at
  • 75.51 – Goodbyyeeeeeeeee!!!
  • 76.11 — End theme, disclaimer, copyright, etc.

Vital Links:



Portal: Where’s my Cake?!

  on November 17th, 2007

Portal - looking at yourself, sidewaysI’ve just finished the fantastic PC game Portal. One of the best games I’ve played in a very long time – I highly recommend it to all. It’s basically a puzzle game where you play a test subject who has to use an innovative ‘Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device’ (aka the ‘portal gun’) to step from one part of a level to another (or move objects past barriers). That’s not a great description, you really have to play it to fully understand.

The physics of the game are what makes it special. That and the dark sense of humour that pervades it. I don’t want to spoil the ending, it’s definitely worth seeing unprepared, but if you find yourself stuck on a puzzle don’t give up – the ending is funny enough to keep trying!

Just to explain the game concept a bit more, you can think of the Stargates from SG1 or the Jump Gates from Babylon 5. Basically you have two portals that you can cast onto walls, floors or ceilings (with deliberate exceptions). Go into one and you come out of the other. Unlike the Stargates or Jump Gates, you can actually see through the portals. So, if you put two portals on opposite walls you will be able to look into one and see your own back. In fact you will be able to chase yourself through an infinitely recursive series of portals – like looking into a mirror with another mirror behind you.

The physics get fun too. Imagine casting a portal onto the floor and another onto the ceiling directly above. Step into the portal on the floor and you fall through the portal above you and then into the portal on the floor and then through the ceiling… Yes, you can fall forever! Other interesting effects happen when you cast onto a wall and the floor, for example. You can look through either portal and the world you see beyond will be at a right angle!

It’s not often that a truly innovative game comes along these days, especially not one done so well. It might be a little short but it is pretty cheap to make up for that. I bought it as part of The Orange Box (Valve’s amazing pack of AAA titles, Half Life 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal) for £25 from Sainsbury’s (more normally £30 or £35). I bought it mainly for Portal, I heard such great things about it – clearly I wasn’t disappointed. You can also buy Portal on its own for $19.99 (plus VAT for us Brits, taking to about £12, probably) on Steam.

Yes, this sounds like an advert! Not many games are good enough to make me recommend them so strongly. I’m afraid there doesn’t appear to be a demo for Portal but Steam does have a Trailer.

My only reservation is: who got my cake?



Staggering Stories Podcast #8: Zen and the Art of Podcasting

  on November 11th, 2007

For 12 November 2007 (recorded 24 October 2007)

Show summary: Andy Simpkins, Adam J Purcell, Fake Keith, Tony Gallichan and special guest Alistair Lock talk about Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen, the life and times of Alistair Lock, and a variety of other stuff, specifically:

  • 00.00 – Intro and theme tune
  • 00.33 — Greetings, yes?
  • 00.57 — Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert! Or something..
  • 01.27 — Where is Keith?
  • 02.06 – Doctor Who – The Tomb of the Cybermen.
  • 02.27 — Crumbly’s ‘Troughton in rubber’ fetish resurfaces…
  • 04.18 — Naughty, devious Troughton! Part 1
  • 04.52 — Fake Keith’s brain/mouth interface problems
  • 05.50 — Kleig as played…Art Malik….um…
  • 06.40 — All hail the Cyber-Controller, all hail!
  • 07.10 — Super Mario Cybermen
  • 07.29 — Cyberman interior decorating and it’s relationship to Pink Floyd albums…um..yes…er..
  • 08.36 — History Today – Whence Tomb…?
  • 10.42 — Release the Pertwee Thing!
  • 12.00 — Look, Father Christmas DOES exist…ok? (legal ‘covering of back’ covered)
  • 12.15 — The Cult of Salvador Dalek’s Eyeball….worrying, frankly…
  • 13.48 — Fake Keith, sexism and Tomb. Nothing to worry her pretty, little head over…
  • 15.37 — Troughton the mass murderer!
  • 17.56 — Poor bloody Cybermen…
  • 19.46 — Bad Disney, naughty Disney, in your bed!!!
  • 21.20 — Naughty, devious Troughton! Part 2
  • 21.45 — Fake Keith decides that Adam is, apparently, clever…with hilarious concequences…..
  • 23.12 — £50 to the first person to explain the new currency of….The Future!
  • 26.34 — Next episode Robots of Death – Cue Cliffhanger!
  • 26.45 – Alistair Lock – the man voices…oh dear…
  • 28.02 — History Today – Inside Alistair.
  • 31.38 — Alistair makes the mistake of thinking we might actually know what we’re doing with this interviewing lark..
  • 35.40 — Salvador and Clementine
  • 36.50 — Audio Visuals
  • 38.10 — Sonic Waves
  • 38.45 — Takeover Bid and Planet Without a Home
  • 41.00 — Kaldor City, Travis – The Final Act and Logic of Empire – no Terrible Aspect though…phew!
  • 46.36 — Big Finish
  • 47.50 — Ronnie Hazelhurst – he wrote all the Beatles’ tracks, you know…
  • 48.16 — Blake’s Seven – the New Adventures…sort…yes.
  • 52.30 — City on the Edge….somewhere…
  • 55.30 — Look, it needs a Tarrant..any Tarrant, just include one, ok?
  • 58.53 — Incredibly obvious outro to Alistair’s segment….
  • 59.02 – Letters and viewer feedback. Hit us yourself at
  • 64.30 – Goodbyeeeeeee!!
  • 64.39 — *End theme, disclaimer, copyright, etc.
  • 65.10 — extra goodies including a ‘New Blake’s Seven’ exclusive!!!

Vital Links:



The New Computer – “Wanna turn up the heat?”

  on November 8th, 2007

Firebat - The New ComputerFirebat is under construction as I type. Firebat? Yes, that’s the name of my shiny new computer. My first new desktop machine in a good four years or so (Mac Mini not counting, as that’s really just a web terminal in the living room and a chance to play with PowerPC based Linux).

Why Firebat? I try to name my computers after things from some of my favourite old computer games. First there was my Atari ST, named Benson – after the sarcastic computer from Paul Woakes’ amazing Mercenary games of the era. Then came the Atari Falcon, named Benson 2, aka Benson Junior. My first PC, in about 1997, named Benson 3 – can you see a theme here? Benson 3 is still in use today, as my IPCop firewall, but now named Jameson, after Commander Jameson from Elite. Benson 4 was originally a Pentium 2 machine, my first home built machine, but has seen so many upgrades over the years that about the only remaining original parts are the case and floppy drive (and name!) Benson 4, aka B4, is still in good use as my secondary desktop machine and also running Ubuntu Studio to record the podcasts. Benson 5 is, for this second at least, my primary desktop. B5 is the last of the Benson computers. That’s for no other reason than as a reference to Babylon 5 – the last of the Babylon stations. My two laptops are named after Myst objects, the latest being called Kormahn. Finally, my home server is called Threepwood, after Guybrush from the Monkey Island series. There are other machines but they have boring names like Mac Mini and Zaurus. Yes, my electricity bill can be a little high…

I still haven’t explained Firebat, though, have I? I needed another classic game from my past. Something I spent far too much time playing. There are a good few but not many suggested a decent name for a computer. Populous? Civilisation? Quake? Diablo 2? Hardwar? Evil Genius? Black and White? Tomb Raider? None of those leapt out at me as a source for the name. I didn’t want to call my computer Lara Croft! How about Warcraft 2 or 3? Nah, I wanted something more Sci-Fi. StarCraft! Of course! Kerrigan? Protoss? No. Firebat – yes. A silly sounding name but I took an instant shine to it!

So, Firebat is still installing. Windows XP – this is as much, if not more, a gaming machine than anything else. I considered Vista but there appears little or no benefit to DirectX 10 right now, the only possible reason to consider the appalling bloat that is Longhorn. I’ve also got Fedora 8 being torrented down right now, another few hours to go. Coincidentally, Fedora 8 was just released today – perfect timing for dual booting on Firebat.

For the statistics interested people out there, this new machine is running an MSI P35 Neo motherboard, an Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 CPU, 2GB of DDR2 800Mhz RAM, a 500GB SATA HDD and (my favourite bit) a BFG nVidia 8800 GT OC (512MB). I wasn’t sure if that graphics card would hold up the order a few weeks as these new 8800 GT cards are THE card of the moment, high end performance for mid range price. They are selling out quicker than they get in stock at the moment. I got very lucky! I look forward to testing this machine with 3DMark and the like. It should put B5 to shame!

I should also point out that this machine being bought/constructed was not influenced by the Dunn’s recent purchase of a new machine. Really. I just got fed up with B5 freezing up two or three times an evening while I was playing World of Warcraft. Probably just an underpowered PSU, given all the drives I’ve got inside it now, but it was time for an upgrade anyway! Once Firebat is up and running I may fiddle around with B5 and may well end up fixing it. In the meantime I’ll have something a little speedier and, hopefully, rather more stable!

“Need a light?”