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Demon’s Souls PS5 Early Review Impressions


GameSpot’s full Demon’s Souls review for PlayStation 5 is now available to read. You can get a comprehensive analysis of Bluepoint’s ambitious remake effort there, along with detailed thoughts of what we think of it.

Demon’s Souls on PS5 is a sight to behold. It feels somewhat reductive to focus on how pretty it looks, but having played a handful of hours, it’s currently what commands my attention the most. As people around the world invest in expensive new consoles, it’s incredibly validating to play a game that is clearly taking a stride forward, so forgive me if I sound a bit superficial–but good grief is it pretty.

In Demon’s Souls, The Nexus serves as a sort of prison for the wayward souls of those who hunt monsters invading the kingdom of Boletaria. It’s the first in a long line of From Software hub locations where the player can seek solace from the ruthlessness of the world around them. To me, however, the PS3 version of The Nexus had an ominous quality and, although it was certainly a safe harbor, it also had frailty to it–like a faint glimmer of light in an endless void of encroaching darkness.

Arriving to the PS5 version of The Nexus, however, was genuinely overwhelming. Admittedly, some of that can be attributed to intense nostalgia for a game that sparked an obsession with the sub-genre it pioneered, but to chalk it up to just that would disregard the amount of work Bluepoint has done to bring Demon’s Souls to life the way From Software originally envisioned it. And that, I think, is what seems to be the underlying goal of this remake: Take the vision for Demon’s Souls, stay true to it, and express it in a way that From Software couldn’t back in 2009. And though I’m still quite early in the game, it currently feels like Bluepoint has been successful in this regard.

The Nexus is now far more striking, and the thoughts and feelings it was intended to impart are more keenly delivered. It’s like a forgotten place of worship, where the only congregation that remains is doomed to be a bulwark against an unstoppable tide of evil. And yet, returning to it is comforting. It’s melancholic, but also hopeful, giving you the solace and calm needed to gather yourself and venture out once more. This isn’t just achieved through the technical work undertaken by Bluepoint, such as higher-resolution textures, detailed models, and some nice lighting. There’s also the studio’s own artistic expression at work, and many of the flourishes in the game are Bluepoint’s own. Crucially, thus far these haven’t upstaged or upended what From Software laid out, which speaks to the understanding the studio clearly has for the vision.

Yes, the bundles of candles scattered around The Nexus emanate pleasing pockets of light thanks to the power of the PS5, but Bluepoint has also rebuilt and redesigned parts of The Nexus to lean into its purpose. The candles are deliberately placed so that, amidst the strange otherworldly quality the environment has, there’s also a warmness radiating from it. Towering statues of saintly figures are bathed in brilliant light and, accompanied by a new version of The Nexus’ theme, with its somber guitar, soft violin, and soothing choir, the familiar hub can be a place that is genuinely moving to be in.

That feeling of Bluepoint bringing out the finer details on a picture painted by From Software extends to the way it plays too. On the one hand, Demon’s Souls on PS5 is what it has always been, to the point where my experience with the original meant I could get off to a confident start (though not always a successful one; this is a Souls game, after all). On the other hand, tweaks, changes, and in some cases, new additions also make it feel distinct. My faint memory of enemy placements meant that some of that element of surprise–and the more devious tricks the game pulls on you–doesn’t land as hard. However, that hasn’t made the game any less enjoyable to play.

Demon’s Souls always felt like a slower-paced game than the others in the lineage. It demanded more consideration (and was a bit more punishing of mistakes), and it required precision in movement as well as timing. That is very much still the case, but Bluepoint has elevated the moment-to-moment experience by giving a sense of heft to everything. From walking to running to rolling, there’s a real feeling of exertion created by stunning animations, rich audio, and the physics governing it all. Even though I’ve played this game before, and completed every Souls game that followed it, playing this reminds me of that feeling of trying to push a boulder uphill that I first had when I played the original Demon’s Souls on PS3.

Gallery

The combat still feels deliberate, as it was in the original, but Bluepoint has vastly improved the feedback you get, which makes connecting a sword with the armor of an enemy knight, or the flesh of a wandering warrior, incredibly impactful. The booming sound that arises when you perfectly time a swing of your shield to parry an incoming attack, and the subsequent thrust of the sword delivered with such ferocity that the enemy is lifted into the air and slammed into the ground made me wince the first time I did it. To top it off, the DualSense’s subtle vibrations during all of this made each subsequent parry and riposte attack as satisfying.

There’s much more to say about Demon’s Souls for PS5, but that can wait for the full review. I am eager to get back to playing it, and that should say a lot. Early signs are good for the game. At this point, we’ve come to expect Bluepoint to put out top-notch remakes, but this is a game that feels like the studio is flexing its own creative muscles too, and as I venture deeper into Boletaria I’m excited to see what else it has in store.

Now Playing: Demon’s Souls First 16 Minutes On PS5 (Performance Mode)





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Serena by Lutron Smart Wood Blinds review: Pretty and expensive


Lutron makes one of our favorite motorized shades, but the company also offers motorized blinds. What’s the difference? Window blinds are considered “hard” window coverings because they consist of slats—wooden, in this case—that drop down from the top of the window (or that slide left or right, in the case of vertical blinds).

The motor mounted in the headrail of the Serena blinds tilts the 2-inch slats for privacy and light control. The accumulated weight of the slats, however, makes them too heavy for the motor to lift—even though Lutron fabricates the slats from a soft, fine-grained timber called North American basswood. If you want to fully expose the window, you will need to lift the blinds by hand and pull them back down to close.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best smart shades and blinds, where you’ll find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.

The upside is that tilting the slats from their closed position to allow maximum light into the room takes just a couple of seconds, versus 20 to 30 seconds to lift or roll up a fabric shade. The tilted slats in a blind can be adjusted to allow more light into the room than even a light-filtering shade, and they won’t entirely block your view out. Also, you can tilt the slats even if the blinds are partially lifted.

Lutron

Each of Lutron’s smart wood blinds can respond independently based on the time of day and the window’s exposure to the sun.

Lutron sells its Serena product line through custom installers who will take all the anxiety out of accurately measuring your windows and installing its products, or you can purchase them direct and install them yourself. We took the latter approach for this review. You can order single blinds in widths from 20 to 72 inches and in lengths up to 72 inches. The blinds are made to order, and it takes about two weeks for them to arrive at your home.

Styles and power options

Serena Smart Wood Blinds are available in four stained finishes (dark walnut, light oak, red mahogany, or walnut) and four painted finishes (arctic white, mist grey, soft white, or stone grey). Whether you choose an inside or outside mount (I went with the former), the blinds come with your choice of two valance styles that cover the headrail. The valances come in the same finish as the blinds, but one is slightly more ornate than the other. If you have very large windows or windows that are close together, you can mount two shades under a single valance (in widths from 40 to 96 inches).

Lutron offers these shades with battery (four D cells) or hardwired power options, the latter being either a $40 wall wart attached to a 15-foot cord for each shade, or a professionally installed Lutron Power Panel. The Power Panel can support multiple blinds and shades, but it costs $800, plus installation. I chose the battery option, as I believe most DIYers will. I ordered a pair for matching windows because I wanted to see if they would open and close in sync. They don’t quite manage that trick, but the delay hasn’t proven to be a bother because the transitions happen so quickly.

serena wood blind battery compartment Michael Brown / IDG

Serena Smart Wood Blinds operate on four D cell batteries mounted in the front of the headrail.

As with Lutron’s Serena motorized honeycomb shades, the batteries for its Serena wood blinds install in the front of the headrail. But rather than tilting the headrail down to expose the battery compartment, as you do with its shades, you slide the front of the valance down when you need to replace the batteries in the wood blinds. Battery life will, of course, depend on how often you adjust the tilt of the blinds, but I can report that the batteries in the company’s smart shade are still running strong after a year’s use with typically two operations (open at sunrise, close at sunset) per day. Having the battery compartment in the front of the headrail means there’s not much to see when viewed from outside the window, which is a good thing.

Control options

This is a good time to discuss control options. I’d say the simplest solution is to use Lutron’s Caséta smartphone app, but that depends on the presence of the Caséta Smart Bridge ($80), which I’ll get to in a moment. A less-expensive alternative is Lutron’s wafer-thin five-button Wood Blinds Pico remote, a $25 option with dedicated square buttons at the top and bottom for tilting the shade slats open and closed, respectively, triangular tilt-up and tilt-down buttons in the middle of the remote that adjust the tilt of the shades as long as you hold them down (until they reach their limits, that is), and a round “favorites” button in the middle of the remote that memorizes your preferred tilt position.



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Review: Soul man Bramblett gives average folks a voice | Entertainment




This cover image released by New West Records shows “Pine Needle Fire” by Randall Bramblett.




On “Pine Needle Fire,” Georgia soul man Randall Bramblett’s warm, weathered tenor gives voice to average folks who are hanging on, and he provides a beat to keep them going.

Bramblett laments mortality, the rat race, co-dependency and misplaced passion. His solution? Dance those blues away.

Nearly everything comes with an irresistible groove, as has been the case for most of Bramblett’s 45-year recording career. He and his crack crew of studio musicians do swampy, sweaty, Southern-fried funk, and like a great bar band they’re both loose and tight, while riding a gospel undercurrent. The chorus to the opening tune, “Some Poor Soul,” echoes “Amazing Grace,” and there are several songs of secular inspiration.

Nick Johnson contributes stinging guitar, and horns — including Bramblett’s tenor sax — add momentum. The result is a succession of toe-tappers and hip-shakers with singalong chorus.

“Built to Last” lives up to its title, thanks to a six-note rock riff as its foundation. “Rocket to Nowhere” swings with Steely Dan-style syncopation, references “Kid Charlemagne” and serves up a Fagen-esque aside: “At least they didn’t look in the glove compartment.”

Imagine a world where musicians play concerts: These songs would have folks on their feet.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.



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Review: Tiger Sugar Boba is all flair and no flavor


Courtesy Bellaire Food Street

By
Mainavi Reddy
   
11/10/20 11:51pm

3 out of 5 stars

As I soaked in the shadows of the Bellaire strip mall in line, not within sight of the already famous Taiwanese boba shop for hours, frantic thoughts raced through my mind: Shouldn’t I be studying for my midterms? Could my lactose-intolerant body handle this distinctly dairy experience? Isn’t it a little early for the DJ to be blasting Kesha and Pitbull? As neither a boba connoisseur nor line enthusiast, the grand opening of Tiger Sugar was nonetheless a very interesting experience. Frankly, Tiger Sugar undeniably delivered on the aesthetic front, but lacked depth of flavor and choices.  

This past Saturday was Tiger Sugar’s grand opening in Bellaire, a highly anticipated event thanks to the power of TikTok. Tiger Sugar has, according to both customers and my own personal For You page, dominated social media food accounts since its opening in North Texas months ago. The picturesque brown sugar syrup stripes, creamy boba ice cream bars and, most importantly, free merch drew hundreds of people to Bellaire’s Chinatown. As a first time visitor to Bellaire Boulevard, I had little time to truly survey the massive options because of the sheer scale of the grand opening, with the socially distanced line stretching down the sidewalk and up the floors of the parking garage.



Despite the long lines and Houston heat, customers remained optimistic about trying Tiger Sugar’s world-famous drinks. The presence of DJs and employees congratulating persevering customers kept the environment festive. I was able to speak with some of the employees about the intensive training they had undergone to prepare for the increased traffic during the shop’s first few weeks of operation. However, they would not spill their secrets about the eight-hour boba preparation rituals.

I ordered the original brown sugar bubble tea with fresh cream and a unique tiger stripe design. When ordering, I noticed that unfortunately for my fellow vegan and lactose averse friends, the menu did not offer any alternative milk options — big L for the digestive system. 

The drink as a whole felt a little lacking in flavor. The brown sugar syrup was sweeter than I preferred, and the shop did not offer sweetness adjustments. One of the strongest aspects of the drink was the presentation. While a little too sweet and rich for my liking, it did have a unique brown soiree flavor and delivered on the Instagram aesthetic front.

Tiger Sugar visually differed from many of the cutesy boba shops I’ve been to in the past. Its interior design was sleek and minimal, reinforcing both the small menu and the drink’s relative simplicity. 

The subsequent pain and pleasure of drinking a rich, creamy and immediately filling drink is the best way to describe my experience. The richness was better suited for their signature boba ice cream bars, which I must say were nothing short of immaculate and a year-round necessity in Houston. I did find that the intensive praise of employees and customers of the boba was warranted — however, the lack of alternative options and variety on the menu made me feel as though this boba shop is yet to completely earn its stripes. 






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Proposal to Expand Brooklyn’s ACME Smoked Fish Factory Begins Public Review Process


Greenpoint’s iconic ACME Smoked Fish Factory has now entered a mandatory public review process known as ULURP or the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. This phase is a major step forward for the expansion which required zoning text amendments, an environmental assessment statement, and initial approvals from the Department of City Planning.

Located in north Brooklyn at 30 Gen Street, Acme Smoked Fish dates back over four generations and is today the leading producers of smoked and pickled fish. To accommodate its growing operations, the proposed expansion spans 654,300 square feet. This includes 109,300 square feet of additional processing area, 545,000 square feet of office and retail area, and a partially covered outdoor terrace spanning 21,400 square feet.

In addition to ACME’s facilities, the proposals outline the anticipated creation of up to 2,000 jobs.

“When investment and jobs are needed in New York City more than ever, a project like this signals that the City is open for business and that we are turning a corner in our recovery,” said vice president and director of investments at Rubenstein Partners Jeff Fronek, whose company is leading the redevelopment and expansion of ACME Smoked Fish. “Add to that the preservation of manufacturing space at the site, a partner in ACME that is so conscious of its role in the community, and we truly have the best and most innovative project to launch Greenpoint’s economic recovery.”

As the project’s executive architect, Gensler’s design of the structure is meant to evoke the heavy manufacturing and industrial history of Greenpoint. In this regard the overall structure and its expanded volumes resemble stacked boxes that will be constructed of red brick, black steel, and a glass-enclosed volume at the apex of the building. The project team has also designed a dramatic public plaza and entryway with seating, light landscaping, and mural artwork.

Rendering of the new ACME Smoked Fish industrial center

Rendering of entry plaza at the new ACME Smoked Fish industrial center

Rubenstein Partners has not released a final construction timeline for the project, but it is anticipated that work will begin in the first half of 2021.

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USC escapes, Oregon rolls and WSU pulls an upset


A recap of the Pac-12 action from Week One …

Theme of the Week: Favorites do favorite things

Division favorites Oregon and USC took the first of six steps toward a championship game collision. The Ducks rolled outmanned Stanford, while USC went to the wire against Arizona State. (Reminder: The first College Football Playoff rankings will be released Nov. 24.)

Theme of the Season: Disruption

The conference took a series of COVID-19 hits before the first games were played, with Cal forced into a cancellation (against Washington) on Thursday, Utah doing the same (against Arizona) on Friday and Stanford announcing on Saturday that starting quarterback Davis Mills was being held out (at Oregon). The triple whammy was a brutally stark reminder that for all the testing and safety protocols in place, the season is fragile.

Game of the Week: USC 28, Arizona State 27

It delivered exactly what the conference needed for the ‘Big Noon’ audience: The appearance of an upset that morphed into a dramatic comeback as the Trojans scored two touchdowns, and recovered an onside kick, in the final three minutes. Reasonable chance this holds up as the game of the season.

Coach of the Week: Washington State’s Nick Rolovich

The Cougars looked like they had been playing for weeks (only five penalties and one turnover) under the leadership of a long-tenured coach with a veteran quarterback in charge and their best player in uniform … when the opposite was true on every front. No spring ball, new coach, rookie QB, no Max Borghi. A sterling performance all around.

Coordinator of the Week/Offense: Colorado’s Darrin Chiaverini

Sure, the Buffaloes benefitted greatly from four UCLA turnovers, but that tells a sliver of the story. They had three long touchdown drives, gained 525 yards, committed no turnovers, scored touchdowns on six-of-seven red-zone chances — and did it all with a new quarterback, new tailback and retooled receiving corps.

Coordinator of the Week/Defense: Arizona State’s Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce

The co-coordinators devised a zone-heavy approach that contained USC’s playmakers for 57 minutes and managed to generate pressure on Kedon Slovis. The Devils were tougher at the line of scrimmage, opportunistic and ready for everything USC attempted. In end the end, the Trojans got lucky on one play (the deflected touchdown) and made a phenomenal pass-and-catch on the other (winning touchdown).

Play of the Week: USC’s game-winning touchdown

An easy call: Fourth down at the 21, game on the line, 80 seconds left, and Slovis tossed a perfect seam pass to Drake London, who was so well covered he needed to make a sensational catch. The touchdown ultimately could determine the South and elevate the Trojans to the role of playoff contender. Not sure it qualifies as the revenge of the ‘Jael Mary’, but it’s close.

Offensive Player of the Week: USC receiver Drake London

Several good candidates, including WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura, Colorado tailback Jarek Broussard and Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough. But London made the play of the week — the last-minute touchdown catch — as part of his eight receptions and 125 yards. He was the best player on the field in the most consequential game of the day.

Defensive Player of the Week: ASU linebacker Merlin Robertson

The junior recorded 10 tackles against USC and was involved in two takeaways with a fumble recovery and interception. We considered his teammate, defensive lineman Jermayne Lole, but ultimately picked Robertson because of his role in the turnovers.

Johnson and Johnson of the Week: Oregon’s DJ and Johnny.

The receiver/tight end tandem (no relation) combined for nine catches for 115 yards — half of Oregon’s team total in each category. The Ducks need options in the passing game for Shough to prevent opponents from loading up against the run.

Debut of the Week: Colorado tailback Jarek Broussard

The sophomore from Dallas was a redshirt in 2018 and suffered a season-ending injury in 2019, thus making Saturday his first game in 27 months on campus. And it was some debut: 187 yards, three touchdowns, plus two receptions. Broussard was a Mike MacIntyre recruit who had limited interest from Power Five programs.

Freshman of the Week: WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura 

Named the starter last week, de Laura played with efficiency and poise. He threw for two touchdowns, ran for another and operated the run-and-shoot like he had been running it for years. His future is bright, but we’ll be curious to see how he performs the rest of this season, once opponents get a feel for WSU’s playbook.

Cardboard Cutouts of the Week: Oregon

The Animal House characters in Autzen Stadium were sheer brilliance.

Stat of the Week: 348

Combined rushing yards by four quarterbacks: WSU’s de Laura (43), UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson (109), ASU’s Jayden Daniels (111) and Oregon’s Tyler Shough (85).

Controversial Call of the Week: None

It was a relatively smooth opening day for Pac-12 officials, both on the field and in the replay booth

Worst start: UCLA

This will come as a complete and utter shock to anyone who has watched the Bruins stumble and bumble for two years, but they were not ready to play. Their first-half possessions, in order: fumble, interception, punt, touchdown, fumble, fumble, punt. Midway through the second quarter, they were down 35-7 in Boulder.





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Live Stream Review: GWAR Performs Live Show To Celebrate 30th Anniversary of Scumdogs of the Universe



Live Stream Review: GWAR Performs Live Show To Celebrate 30th Anniversary of Scumdogs of the Universe







Remixed and remastered, satirical heavy metal band GWAR have made their return from the intergalactic world. The otherworldly group put on a performative, distinctive experience for their fans with a live stream show on Friday following the re-issue of the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Scumdogs of the Universe album. Released in 1990, Scumdogs is the groundbreaking conceptual record that secured GWAR a definitive spot as a pop culture commodity, separating the band from other metal albums of the early ’90s.  

The first song of the show is the quick-tempo, record opener “The Salaminizer.” As the initial notes sound, band manager and quirky, comical host Sleazy P. Martini drags the “lucky contest winner” onstage, a figure in a Brockie t-shirt who gets his prop head cut off by lead singer Blothar the Berserker and guest backing vocalist Slymenstra Hymen. “Here’s a little something from a god to a slave/ I never should have been let out the fucking microwave!” Blothar chants as blood gushes about the stage. His voice is raspy and thicker in comparison with Oderus; nevertheless, the lead singer brings a hardcore energy to GWAR’s remixed sound. 

Balsac The Jaws O’ Death, a day-one band member, demands mesmerized attention in “The Years Without Light,” an electric track that gives the audience a close-up view of the guitarist’s skilled hands gliding across the neck of his guitar. The track ends on its highest note before cutting off abruptly. Guest performer and long-time GWAR star Sexecutioner, a nearly-nude creature dressed in a black g-string and not much else, takes the stage for his spotlight moment, “Sexecutioner.” The song is over-the-top and filled with phrases that cleverly play off its title, such as, “Sexcellent!” “Sexcuse me?” and, “Sexecuting you!” Slymenstra aids with backing vocals, mimicking Sexecutioner’s lines across the bridge in a kinky, dramatized ensemble. 

With each Scumdogs track a new character seems to appear out of thin air. Leading into “Black and Huge” is the Redneck from Hell, a comical character who taunts the band for all-American song covers. The Bad Biker Bitch, a nagging “groupie” who attempts to steal the spotlight more than once, gets her plastic chest sawed off by Balsac halfway through “Vlad The Impaler.” Blood spews across the stage out of the Bad Biker Bitch, whose downfall adds to the hilarity of the performance. 

A big vaccine prop is brought onstage by Sexecutioner for “Death Pod,” an intimidating song with a rocky baseline and hard, head-banging drums from Jizmak Da Gusha, who makes the instrument look effortless. “Maggots” is a thrash metal song with high-tempo beats echoing off the phrase, “Maggots! Maggots!/ Maggots are falling like rain!” Enter Slymenstra, with her hollow, echoed backing vocals that add a sense of depth and a siren-like howling to the song. Balsac and guitarist Pustulus Maximus stand side-by-side on a raised platform for dueling solos, sewing up the track with a speedy outro. The two-chord ending is played live in addition to the remixed track on the album.

“Love Surgery” is intimidating and forceful. Blothar’s masked face peers out at the audience behind his pig snout and glaring yellow eyes. The drums and bass take over in this one, with Blothar’s vocals lower than the original Scumdogs recording. Horror of Yig” stands alone in comparison with the style of the record. The outro guitar solo is high, with a bluesy, bouncy guitar riff and celtic music as the intro and outro; the track is quirky and eccentric. Slymenstra Hymen is the real fixation of the performance as she stands onstage yelling flame throwers, setting a fire pit ablaze. 

Blothar dedicates “King Queen” to the man who first stood in his place, “the great Oderus Urungus!” And, a fan-demand closer at GWAR shows, “Sick of You” is the rock ‘n’ roll rhythm and sound that brings Scumdogs full-circle; the guitars’ bridge fades out and in, differing from the original, less dynamic recording. Blothar’s voice drastically fluctuates for this track as he switches between his natural rasp and a nasally, clear tone that chants, “I’m sick of your voice/ Sick of your face/ Sick of your choices/ Sick of your name.” 

A GWAR show isn’t a GWAR experience without an onstage battle between the band and their nemeses, the Destructos. Sawborg and Bozo Destructo make a fiery albeit aggravating duo in “The Private Pain of Sawborg and Bozo Destructo,” while the supreme Techno Destructo takes on, “The Private Pain of Techno Destructo” on his lonesome. All Destructos end up nearly naked and bloodied by the end of the tracks, however, as GWAR remains eternally powerful over the forces set against them. 

With the demand of an encore, the band returns to perform “U Ain’t Shit” and “Cool Place to Park,” two fast-paced, zestful tracks that feel ahead of their birth in the early ’90s. The final song of the show is performed by the kinky, warped Sleazy P. Martini. “Slaughterama” is a comical act that attacks the existence of happies, Joan Rivers and Nazi Skinheads alike. “We’ve killed everybody worth killing!” Sleazy P. Martini announces while the band cheers, proud to have achieved their ultimate goal. 

The stage is left burnt and bloodied, with no object left unbroken or undone. If there’s one thing GWAR has mastered, it’s a knack for leaving their mark. After over 30 years of GWAR, the band is as transcendent as ever. A record intended to be more than just listened to, Scumdogs of the Universe takes fans to a desired reality beyond the scope of life as people know it. Though the band members may differ from the original lineup of the ’90s, especially after losing lead singer Oderus Urungus to an overdose in recent years, the re-issue of Scumdogs of the Universe is flawlessly remastered and a finite testament to GWAR’s legacy.

Set List:

The Salaminizer

The Years Without Light

Love Surgery

Horror of Yig

Sick of You

The Private Pain of Sawborg and Bozo Destructo

The Private Pain of Techno Destructo

Encore:

Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna






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The Day – Review: Cory Doctorow’s ‘Attack Surface’ is a riveting techno-thriller



“Attack Surface”

By Cory Doctorow

Tor. 384 pp. $26.99

– – –

Cory Doctorow is among the best of the current practitioners of near-future speculative fiction, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such superlative peers as Bruce Sterling, Kim Stanley Robinson, Charles Stross and Justina Robson. As with these fellow writers, he takes the chance of having his day-after-tomorrow literary forecasts superseded by swiftly mutating reality. The fallout, when it happens, does not invalidate his tales any more than post-1968 history rendered Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” less of an eternal masterpiece.

When he issued “Little Brother” in 2008, the events in that tale of adolescent monkey-wrenching and protest had a sense of plausible inevitability. Starting with an all-too-likely terrorist attack on San Francisco and segueing into an examination of the surveillance state, the book served as a vibrant model of what might soon be.

The 2013 sequel, “Homeland,” hewed to the same imaginary timeline, venturing into the Edward Snowden/Julian Assange/Chelsea Manning whistleblowers scene, again deploying logical sequelae to present events. But already Doctorow’s timeline had begun to deviate more radically from history.

Now comes “Attack Surface,” the third book in the series, and it’s plain that Doctorow’s “future history,” however many clever and insightful resonances it still maintains with current headlines, is no longer a plausible near-term guide for the world, but rather the events of a counterfactual “stub” (to employ William Gibson’s handy term for such deviant continuums). The coronavirus pandemic, not to mention the unpredictable and ever-destabilizing actions of President Trump and his opponents, have conspired to make Doctorow’s scenario an alternate history; his tale has escaped the framework of the near-future subgenre. What we enjoy instead is political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance, even if it’s no longer precisely contoured to our actual dilemmas.

The first two books in this series centered on Marcus Yallow, a naive teenager, then a wiser young man, of above-average intelligence, focused on social activism against a burgeoning police state. A peripheral but consequential figure in his circle was a woman not much older than he, named Masha Maximow. At first working for the establishment “bad guys,” she eventually had a change of heart and facilitated Marcus’s anti-authoritarian moves. Now she strides confidently onto center stage, and we plunge deeply into her life, both past and present. (Large chunks of the text involve her backstory since “Little Brother” in a kind of “Rashomon” retelling.)

Chapter 1 opens in real time and discloses Masha, our narrator, working for a Blackwater-style security firm named Xoth Intelligence. She’s in an unnamed Eastern European country she dubs “Slovstakia,” installing software for the dictator. But her sentiments are really with the rebels, and so she attempts a double game. (This thread captures real world events in Hong Kong and Belarus with eerie fidelity.) When found out, she’s fired from Xoth and flees the country, albeit well-supplied with cash.

She heads back to her native San Francisco, to crash on the couch of her childhood bestie, Tanisha, one of the main organizers in the Black-Brown Alliance, the street-fighting heir to the BLM movement. When Tanisha is arrested, Masha — now reunited with Marcus and his wife, Ange — must shift into high gear to free her friend and aid her cause. Beyond that goal, they have to work to take down Zyz, yet another of Masha’s ethically compromised ex-employers, with a lock on San Francisco’s law-enforcement outsourcing. (Both Zyz and Xoth are run by ultracompetent women, giving the triangular conflict between the two corporations and Masha a matriarchal telenovela “Game of Thrones”-“Dynasty” vibe.)

Doctorow relentlessly builds Masha’s character into a deep portrait of a damaged personality. Despite — or because of — all her gifts, she’s borderline psychopathic, as her Xoth boss Ilsa openly tells her, yet also on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of many unresolved issues. Her allegiances are shifting and often self-serving. As Doctorow says in his afterword, “This is a book about how people rationalize themselves into doing things they are ashamed of.” Despite these traits, Masha becomes a protagonist worth rooting for, and one whose inner conflicts and cognitive dissonances propel her to surprising, even heroic actions. A first-class geek, Masha also offers copious and frequent jargon-filled info dumps. Your entertainment mileage may vary on these passages.

Doctorow’s allegiances lie with the rebels and underdogs — he sketches the heroics of the protesters and the kinetic tumult of the riots with evident verve and sympathetic exegesis — but he also gives Masha good arguments for her complicity with the establishment.

Doctorow’s world might no longer map our current events, but it still charts the universal currents of the human heart and soul with precision.





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Microsoft Surface Laptop Go review: price, specs, benchmarks


Enlarge / The Surface Laptop Go is made for those who want a smaller and more affordable Surface PC.

Jeff Dunn

What is the point of a Surface device? The latest model in Microsoft’s line of Windows PCs, the Surface Laptop Go, forces buyers to confront why they want a Surface machine in the first place.

Much like the Surface Go series of two-in-one tablets, the Surface Laptop Go aims for the mainstream side of the market, with a starting price of $550. However, it does so with a more traditional clamshell design.

For that amount, the Surface Laptop Go still provides most of Microsoft’s signatures: an attractive design, high build quality, a comfortable keyboard and trackpad, a display with a taller 3:2 aspect ratio, the proprietary Surface Connect port, and so on.

But with any savings comes compromise, and the Surface Laptop Go’s trade-offs are not insignificant—especially if you want to buy its most affordable configuration.

The result is a device that’s not quite the bargain as Microsoft’s marketing might suggest but can still be a good value for those who prioritize a premium design. We’ve spent most of the past month testing it out, so let’s take a closer look.

Table of Contents

Specifications

There are three configurations available for the Surface Laptop Go, with a big divide between the entry-level model and the two higher-priced options. All three models, however, are equipped with Intel’s Core i5-1035G1, a 15W processor with four cores and eight threads based on Intel’s “Ice Lake” microarchitecture. It has a base clock speed of 1GHz, which is low but lessens power consumption, and can boost up to 3.6GHz when required. Alongside the CPU is Intel’s integrated UHD Graphics G1.

This is a 10th-generation Intel processor at a time when the chipmaker is just introducing its 11th-gen platform, and there’s no AMD Ryzen option as we saw with the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3. Still, this is a solid CPU for this type of ultra-portable device, one that is generally more capable than the Y-series chips found in the Surface Go 2. Having Ice Lake also means support for Wi-Fi 6 via Intel’s AX201 module. That’s good for the Surface Laptop Go’s long-term viability, as is the notebook’s Bluetooth 5.0 support.

Also the same with each model is the 12.4-inch touch display. Like other Surface laptops, this panel has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which makes it physically taller than typical 16:9 notebook displays. This makes it easier to fit more of a webpage or Word document on the screen at once, though you lose some width for placing multiple windows side by side.

Specs at a glance: Microsoft Surface Laptop Go
Screen 1536×1024 at 12.4 inches, 3:2 aspect ratio, 10-point multi-touch
OS Windows 10 Home in S mode
CPU 1GHz 4-core/8-thread Intel Core i5-1035G1 (3.6GHz Turbo) with 6MB cache
RAM 4GB or 8GB LPDDR4x
GPU Intel UHD Graphics G1
HDD 64GB eMMC
128GB SSD or 256GB NVMe SSD
Networking Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.0
Ports USB-A, USB Type-C, Surface Connect, 3.5mm headphone
Size 10.95×8.10×0.62 inches (278.18×205.67×15.69mm)
Weight 2.45 lbs (1.11kg)
Warranty 1-year limited hardware warranty
Price as reviewed $899.99
Other perks 720p front-facing camera, dual far-field stereo mics, omnisonic speakers with Dolby Atmos

Of note is the display’s 1536×1024 resolution, which equates to a pixel density of 148 pixels per inch (PPI). That’s a step below the sharpness of the Surface Laptop 3’s 200 PPI display and a smidge behind what you’d get from a common 13.3-inch 1080p panel. The drop-off is not massive in practice, but text isn’t quite as crisp as it could be. On the plus side, this is still a 10-point touch display, which isn’t a given for a mid-priced Windows laptop. Above the display is a 720p webcam with an f/2.0 aperture.

Where things really get hairy is Microsoft’s storage and memory options. The base configuration only offers 4GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC storage, which is a tough sell even at $550. In an October briefing, a Microsoft representative said this model is aimed at users who largely work with Web- and cloud-based applications. Reading between the lines, this version makes more sense when viewed as a Chromebook alternative.

We have not tested the entry-level configuration, so we can’t give a definitive judgment on how well it performs in practice. But our experience with similar-powered Windows machines would strongly suggest a middling experience even if we did stick to lightweight tasks. I’d go so far as to say eMMC is indefensible in any PC around this price; there are smartphones with faster UFS storage that can be found for less. That there is only 64GB of space makes it worse.

The upper two configurations are more appealing. For $700, you step up to 8GB of LPDDR4x RAM and a “real” 128GB NVMe solid state drive. For $900, you get a 256GB SSD. This was the model used for our review.

Between the two, the middle configuration should be the best value. You have to be able to get by with 128GB of space—we really wish each model had more room by default—but the $900 model is pricey enough to warrant comparison to more fully featured notebooks like Dell’s XPS 13 or Microsoft’s own Surface Laptop 3. For most of the casual users Microsoft wants to attract, the $700 model hits the sweet spot: it’s not hamstrung by eMMC or 4GB of RAM but still costs less than most premium Ultrabooks.

Design

The most appealing bits of the Surface Laptop Go are its look and feel. It is unusually svelte and well-built for a laptop in its price range. Like the Surface Laptop 3, it has an elegant, uncomplicated design, with curved, flowing edges and few visual frills outside of a chrome Microsoft logo on the center of the lid.

The lid and the deck surrounding the keyboard and trackpad are made of an aluminum that’s smooth and cool to the touch. Nothing about it creaks or flexes when pressed. The chassis is almost entirely sealed, save for a thin grille for airflow that is recessed below the display hinge. The lid can easily be opened with one finger, which is great. The bottom cover, meanwhile, is made of a polycarbonate resin that isn’t quite as premium but still has a soft feel that doesn’t come off as cheap.

The whole package certainly fits into the ultraportable category: it measures less than 11 inches wide, just over 0.6 inches thin, and 2.45 pounds in total. This supreme portability would be more of a selling point in a world that wasn’t constrained by a global pandemic, but the Surface Laptop Go won’t be a burden to lug around in any setting.

Microsoft sells the Surface Laptop Go in three finishes: Ice Blue, Platinum, and Sandstone. I’ve enjoyed the gray-blue color of my Ice Blue loaner unit, but each model benefits from having the colors of the keyboard and trackpad lightly contrast with the darker finish of the deck. To my eyes at least, it creates a more thoughtful and coherent design than simply plopping black or gray keys on whatever finish you pick at checkout.

Keyboard, trackpad, and speakers

Microsoft has consistently equipped its Surface PCs with excellent keyboards, and, from a typing-quality standpoint, it has continued the trend here. The Surface Laptop Go doesn’t have the luxurious travel of the larger Surface Book 3—it’s 1.3mm here, versus 1.55mm on the Book 3—but the chiclet-style keys are wonderfully bouncy and responsive, especially compared to other notebooks this thin. Don’t expect any butterfly-MacBook-style concerns over tactility here. Each key has an appropriate amount of space between them, too, so I had few issues with accidental button presses.

Likewise, the trackpad yields few complaints from a responsiveness standpoint. It’s generous but not oversized, with accurate and predictable tracking aided by Microsoft’s Windows Precision drivers. It does well with palm rejection, and I had no problems performing multi-finger gestures. It has a large clickable surface, and while it could stand to be a little less stiff to my fingers, it has a generally sturdy feel.

The touchpad and keyboard do suffer from a few obvious cost-cutting measures, though. The former is made of mylar instead of glass, so while it’s still smooth, it presents just a bit more friction to your swipes. The latter’s issue is harder to swallow: it’s not backlit. Plenty of people may be able to look past this given the rest of the keyboard’s quality, but it would be an understandable dealbreaker for night owls or hunt-and-peck types.

Underneath the keyboard are the Surface Laptop Go’s “omnisonic” speakers. They are fine relative to their inherent spatial limitations—they don’t destroy all audio at moderate volumes, but they’re likely to distort at 100-percent volume, and they don’t produce much in the way of bass. You’ll have a better time just using headphones whenever you want to listen to something more complicated than a podcast.

Webcam

Another price-related sacrifice is the webcam. It renders colors with reasonable accuracy, but it can still get grainy, and as noted above, it’s limited to a 720p resolution. A sharper 1080p cam would be more useful in our brave, new Zoom world.

There’s also no way to sign in to the Surface Laptop Go through Windows Hello facial recognition. There is a quick and consistent fingerprint sensor baked into the power button at the top-right corner of the keyboard—but only in the $700 or $900 configurations. These tradeoffs aren’t egregious given Microsoft’s price targets, but they’re more reason to avoid the entry-level model.

Display

It’s a similar “yes, but” story with the 12.4-inch 3:2 display. As previously mentioned, it’s not quite as sharp as a true 1080p panel. You can see a slight drop-off in sharpness when you scroll through text side by side with a sharper display. But the difference is minute enough in practice that I can’t see most users having serious complaints. That said, it’s more reason to avoid the highest-end model, since sharper panels are a given on most laptops in the $900 range. At $700, though, it’s fine.

More important is that, outside of the resolution, the display’s quality is great. Microsoft color-calibrates its Surface panels to sRGB, and we measured the display as covering around 77 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut. The results are pleasantly accurate and relatively vivid colors, especially when compared to other laptops in this price range.

We measured the display’s maximum brightness, meanwhile, at nearly 330 nits. That’s not the highest we’ve seen, but it’s still above average and usable outdoors. At its lowest brightness, the panel drops all the way down to 2 nits, which is low enough to use at night without seriously disturbing anyone who may be sleeping around you. The display can utilize an auto-brightness sensor as well.

Touch controls on the display are not as quick as they’d be on a panel with a higher refresh rate, but they’re plenty responsive. At this price, merely having a 10-point touch panel at all is a plus. Similarly, the bezels surrounding the display aren’t as razor-thin as those of Dell’s XPS 13, but they’re slim enough to lend the design a higher-end look that belies the Surface Laptop Go’s approachable price.

Ports

The Surface Laptop Go’s port selection is identical across its three configurations. Each model comes with both a USB-A port and a USB Type-C port, a pairing that should cover most peripherals you may have accumulated over the years. Beyond that, there’s a 3.5mm audio jack and Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect port. The latter handles charging and supports certain Microsoft-made docks and accessories. You can also charge through the USB-C port.

As with every other Surface notebook, there’s no Thunderbolt 3 here, but that’s to be expected given the class of device and the laptop’s lower price. In all, the minimal port selection isn’t particularly objectionable, but you may need a USB-C hub to have all your bases covered.

Overall, the aesthetic and build quality of the Surface Laptop Go wouldn’t feel terribly out of place on a $1,000 laptop. It’s a nice piece of hardware, and that’s the best thing it has going for it.



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Save Me [Peacock] Review: Season 2 of Lennie James Drama is Excellent


As the series switches to Peacock, Lennie James continues his incredible twin achievements as both an observant writer and unforgettable performer.

17 months go by in between the first two seasons of “Save Me.” When the camera ducks inside The Palm Tree, the local pub frequented by so many in the series’ ensemble, most of the patrons are living their lives much the same way as they did before the events of the show’s first season. “Save Me,” which aired its opening episodes stateside on Starz before landing at its current home on Peacock, began with the disappearance of Jody, the 13-year-old daughter of Nelly (Lennie James) and Claire (Suranne Jones).

At the opening of Season 2 (stylized in the opening credits as “Save Me Too”), Jody is still missing. Nelly, much like Claire and her husband Barry, have settled into a state of perpetual anxiety, even if they’re able to mask that sadness to their respective partners.

Even with the potential arrival of a new baby among the Palm Tree faithful, there’s still a lingering tension that comes by Jody’s continued absence. Even though Nelly has found some sense of refuge in a stable relationship with Zita (Camilla Beeput), the smiles are momentary, the sense of purpose still unfulfilled.

There’s a tricky tonal balance at the heart of “Save Me,” which blends elements of a family drama, a detective series, and even a dash of a workplace comedy thrown in for good measure. All of those are handled here with the same agility found in Season 1, and these new episodes also benefit from a new perspective. Grace (Olivia Gray), the teenager who Nelly managed to free from an underage trafficking ring at the close of the first season, becomes a key part of the show’s core. After examining the kind of secondary trauma visited on all those affected by Jody’s looming absence, “Save Me Too” gives Grace a chance to explore what the first season could not.

“Save Me” allows these characters to acknowledge the weight of their grief and regret without the show being consumed by it. This certainly isn’t an easy show to watch at times, but it finds a reality in the degrees of peril that they all face that doesn’t rely on exploitation. The first two episodes of Season 2 play out in a fractured timeline that, if not consciously mirroring the disjointed sense of reality that both Grace and Jody have been subjected to, still shows how everyone involved in this is trying to process the past.

SAVE ME TOO -- Episode 201 -- Pictured: Lesley Manville as Jennifer Charles -- (Photo by: Justin Downing/Sky UK Limited/Peacock)

“Save Me Too”

Justin Downing/Sky UK Limited/Peacock

The ensemble work on “Save Me” is so strong that it’s sometimes possible to overlook that James is giving a miraculous performance, at once some of the richest and most effortless work being done anywhere on TV. At least part of that comes from his having written a majority of the series to this point, inhabiting the minds of his scene partners’ characters long before the cameras roll. So much more comes from his sense of timing. When Nelly’s rage is simmering under the surface, James knows just how much to let that anger peek through before either tamping it down or indulging it. In Nelly, “Save Me” is anchored by a man who is charming and haunted, gentle and dangerous, understanding and impulsive. James inhabits each side of those divides with astonishing vulnerability.

That same economic understanding of how to get across complicated emotions in a short amount of time is also evident in how even more intertwined everyone in this story becomes. Nelly doesn’t just interact with a couple of mates as he’s pursuing dangling leads to Jody’s whereabouts. Beginning with  bartender and Nelly’s landlady Stace (Susan Lynch) and continuing through his old flames and current confidants, the breadth of Nelly’s interactions gives the impression that he understands how much this single thing in his life has affected everyone in this web. In turn, “Save Me” strengthens the idea of how much Nelly’s ongoing search has a community at its back.

The most notable addition to Season 2 is Lesley Manville, who enters seamlessly as the wife of a man charged with facilitating the same ring that preyed on Grace. Without trying to make their pain equal, “Save Me” considers how different people can cope with a new ugly reality in their own way, either with bewilderment or denial or a renewed desire for justice. For some, it’s an odd combination of the three. Manville plays Jennifer’s stricken helplessness and eventual resolve in a way that doesn’t overpower the delicate chemistry the rest of the ensemble patiently built over the first six episodes.

Keeping everything calibrated is even harder in Season 2, with Nelly imagining Jody around different corners, Claire struggling with how much she should try to move forward, and even a shocking act of violence. Any one of those strands (or the way that they’re represented visually) has the potential to crowd out the patient character work being done in other areas. “Save Me” keeps all these fraught elements level, letting each new development flow organically from the last. The narrative tightness of the story is never at odds with its diligent pacing. That combination allows each player in this expanding world to feel like they belong.

The final chapter of “Save Me Too” is both a logical endpoint and a pathway to continuing. It’s a constant strength of this show that it’s filled with the kind of moments where other series would be content to bow out. Tidy bows and conclusions could easily abound, but “Save Me” relishes the opportunity to show these individuals in the moments after these kinds of stories usually end. If the opportunity arises to continue, it will certainly be a welcome one. If not, “Save Me” will stand as a special kind of drama that cut through crime story expectations to find the truths buried underneath.

Grade: A-

“Save Me” Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream on Peacock. Episode 1 of Season 2 is available to all subscribers, with the remainder of episodes available to Peacock Premium members.

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