Working title. What? I need a working title?

Something a bit different today. Thanks to some creative thinking from an over active imagination I’ve started writing a science fiction story. Some background: It’s now 2158 and humanity has started colonising the stars. It’s also 2 years since the city of Los Angeles disappeared into the Pacific ocean after the largest earthquake ever recorded in history. One of the few survivors from that earthquake has joined the “space marines” with a hope of qualifying for a life on another planet. This excerpt is from approximately a quarter of the way into the story and has Private James Parr meeting his fellow marines for the first time.

James entered the barracks that would be his metaphorical new home for the next 5 years. Training was over, he was now a US Marine, Exo-terrestrial division.

As he walked into the room he looked around. Twelve bunks lined the walls of the room, it wasn’t hard to tell which one was going to be his. As he walked over to his bunk the other marines nodded greeting until he got to a heavy built Lance Corporal with the name Blake across his breast pocket. His skin was as black as ebony and his imposing bulk towered over James until his face cracked open into a huge smile.

“Welcome to the Fifth, Private” he grinned at James. “This will be your new hell away from hell.” The grin never left his face and James found himself instantly warming to the huge man in front of him. Almost at once the rest of the squad stood up and faced the door. James turned to see a woman dressed in a Corporal’s uniform enter the room. Dropping his kit bag straight on his foot he clumsily raised a salute before she gestured for him with a gloved hand to relax.

“At ease Private, I may be in charge of this sorry bunch but I’m still one of you. You’ll forgive me if I don’t shake your hand but something tells me I don’t need your pain.” Looking at the other men and women in the room she turned to leave. “Give him a proper welcome, we leave for the Swarzenegger tomorrow morning.”

James turned to the Lance Corporal. “The Swarzenegger? I thought he was an early 21st Century actor?”

Lance Corporal Blake looked at James with a wry grin on his face. “USS Swarzenegger, the newest starship in the fleet. Well okay, the only starship in the fleet. Named after President Matthew Swarzenegger, the actor’s grandson.” He picked up James’ kitbag and indicated towards his bunk. “Well you’ve met Corporal ‘Psycho’, time for you to meet the rest of us grunts. You can call me ‘Rhino’”

James looked confused for a moment. “Why’s she called Psycho?”

“Well it’s not for her charming bedside manner. Did you notice the gloves she was wearing?” James nodded that he had. “She’s a Psyker, every squad has one. Gives the marines that extra edge.”

This only served to confuse James more. “I’ve never heard of Psykers, what’s so special about them?”

“Oh good lord! Where the fuck have you been? She’s a telepath, you never tested for Latency?” Rhino stopped and looked more closely at James as he shook his head. “Oh shit, Quaker?” James just nodded. “Man, genuinely sorry to hear that. Lost some good friends in L A that day. And yeah, don’t ever shake her hand unless you want a head full of pain.”

Rhino introduced him to the rest of the squad. He was part of a team of four led by Rhino, along with Private ‘Ace’ Jones and Private First Class ‘Scotty’ McKenzie. By the end of the day the nickname ‘Quaker’ had stuck.

Liars and thieves? The reality of benefits in the UK

First, for legal reasons I cannot disclose where I used to work. In December, through reasons not entirely in my control I entered the realm of the unemployed. At first it was a bit of a relief, it gave me the first real break in 4 years after effectively being on call 24/7/365 for 4 years. Even when I was supposed to be on holiday part of me was at work due to being the only IT person in a company of over 200. The first thing I had to do was sign on, and for once this was a simple straightforward process. The DWP now allows you to make your claim online. It’s not the most straightforward of processes, but infinitely better than trying to apply over the phone. Another surprise, interview at the job centre was the following week, rather than the old “sometime in the next month”. Expectations were high, maybe after years of red tape and bureaucracy the new government had improved the lot of the newly unemployed? Housing benefit was applied for as part of the process, all centralised and for once the council agreed to pay housing and council tax benefits. As it was December another welcome surprise was the rebate from the council tax, incredibly useful given the now tightened budget over Xmas. Direct debits were cancelled where none essential accounts were concerned, a conscious decision meaning my now recovered credit rating takes a terminal hit again, but a quick budget shows that we just have enough to manage.

Then comes the end of January, and due to how I became unemployed the DWP informs me I no longer qualify until April. That means no money for food or heating for another 2 months [1]. This is despite full disclosure of the circumstances and recognition that it was out of my control. Rather than now being forced to choose between turning the heating down a bit or eating plainer foods (my time at University has shown me how to eat quite well for next to nothing) I’m actually forced to make the choice of having no heating and not eating anything at all. The only way to ensure my family has both a home to live in and food and heating is to walk out of the door and make myself intentionally homeless. A quick emergency meeting with the DWP and I’m told I qualify for crisis payments due to having a wife and 2 teenage daughters. Of 40%. Yes, I’m now informed I’m expected to feed, clothe, heat and house a family of 4 on 40% of the amount the government declares the minimum needed to live on. So now my option is do I feed my family or turn off the heating and electricity. My only saving graces in all this is that my eldest daughter is soon to be 17, so the new bedroom tax will not affect us. And by being generally in good health I’m not claiming DLA so I don’t have to deal with ATOS. And that’s really the big issue, all of these policies brought together and the way the unemployed and disabled have been demonised by this government and by the media.

It’s very discouraging after over 20 years of working and paying my NI that I am considered worthless now by the very government that is supposed to be helping me. The unemployed and disabled are labelled “lying, thieving bastards” by the people who are meant to help, while those very people who are meant to help take tax payers money for doing nothing. A government that lives a life of excess and luxury at taxpayers expense is guilty of forcing the poorest in this country into ever deeper poverty. Families who are declared as “under-occupying” homes because disabled children need their own rooms are seeing their benefits reduced. Disabled people who need mobility payments to ensure their independence are having those payments reduced or even taken away because they can walk 20 metres, but not 21 metres. People who are losing their jobs because the government has decided employers should be able to fire anyone they want and then hire cheaper foreign labour are finding themselves losing everything, their families, their homes and even their lives. This is the reality of living on benefits in this country. The myth of scroungers living a life of luxury, with plasma TVs, cars and exotic holidays is exactly that, a myth. For those who receive just the benefits they are entitled to it’s not enough. High profile media campaigns targeting the minority who abuse the system do nothing to help those caught in the benefits trap. Billions spent getting the long term unemployed into work do nothing when there are no jobs available and government policies are forcing more people into unemployment. Forcing the unemployed to work in jobs that pay less than the benefits they lose is immoral.

The unemployed do not need hitting with big sticks to find work, they need genuine training. They need real work experience programs that actually pay them, not providing free labour for large multinational corporations. They need the opportunity for education, without the fear that they are going to leave university with crippling debt, regardless of age. The unemployed need the opportunities to prove their worth in a workforce that has been indoctrinated into believing that the unemployed are simply the scum of the earth. The most valuable thing a person can have is their own self worth. Without that they have nothing left to lose.

[1] For those wondering why I can still afford to write this blog given the financial situation this government has put me in the answer is simple. My next electricity bill is due on March 1st. [2]

[2] I’ve never been out of work longer than 2 months thanks to working in a high demand industry. I fully expect to be gainfully employed before this date. There’s also the matter of why I can’t disclose my previous employer’s details 😉

When space marines go to war

“Dronvire of Rigel Four in the lead, closely followed by Costigan, Northrop, Kinnison the Younger, and a platoon of armed and armored Space Marines!” – E E Doc Smith, First Lensman, 1950

Corporate bullying is usually the prerogative of the big American media corporations. While trademarks are important it is also important that they are used correctly. Warner Brothers famously sued a young girl when Harry Potter first came out for having a fan-site. In no way was the site intended to generate revenue from the Harry Potter franchise and eventually Warner Brother’s backed down, but only after the PR nightmare that ensued, both in the UK and America. Had the website been a commercial venture intended to create revenue the result would have been different, and quite rightly so. Trademark law extends further than the internet however. One area where it’s always been much harder to apply trademarks has been the written word. You cannot go into a book shop today without seeing shelves full of vampire and werewolf stories. The reason for this is because vampires and werewolves are not trademarkable. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in the C19th there was already a rich cultural history of vampire stories. Elves, dwarves and orcs are a staple of the fantasy genre coming as they do from mythology. You will only find hobbits in Tolkein’s Middle Earth. This however is not trademark law, but copyright law. There is nothing to stop me from creating a world filled with elves, fairies, angels, vampires or werewolves. Due to the limitations on copyright I can even write a vampire novel and call the main protaganist Dracula. But the moment I call my race of short hairy footed men hobbits or call my old grey haired wizard Gandalf I’m crossing a line as these are characters inextricably linked to one specific fantasy world.

In December 2012 Games Workshop forced Amazon to remove a novella by the author M C A Hogarth titled Spots the Space Marine claiming trademark infringement. It’s ironic given that Games Workshop started out creating a role playing game that borrowed so heavily from the works of Tolkein that they now feel obliged to defend the term “Space Marine”. In the world of board games and role playing there is only one Space Marine, that of the Warhammer 40K universe. And quite rightly Games Workshop must protect it’s gaming trademarks. Were I to create a game centred around a squad of soldiers flying around the universe killing aliens I would have to name it something else due to the real confusion having another role playing game called “Space Marines” could cause. It’s the same reason I cannot create a new board game called Monopoly, it already exists and is uniquely associated with buying and selling property while making your family and friends bankrupt in the process. And this is what is important, can my name for a game cause confusion, would people buy my game thinking it was something to do with the Warhammer 40K universe? The answer is yes, but only if what I am creating is a role playing game.

The term Space Marine in science fiction is so generic there can be no confusion. It’s the same reason you cannot trademark the words dragon or elf, it’s a science fiction trope. It is literally the idea of taking the US Marine corp and moving them into the science fiction setting. What else are they but Space Marines? Heinlen’s Starship Troopers, Haldeman’s The Forever War and E E Doc Smith’s Lensman series all use the idea of elite military forces in space. The film Aliens introduces us the the Colonial Marine Corp. The idea of a Space Marine is as generic to science fiction as an elf is to fantasy. One of the first uses in science fiction is the short story Captain Brink of the Space Marines by Bob Olsen, written in the 1930’s. Were I to see a book with the title “Space Marines” my first thought is to the authors above and not to the board and computer games of Games Workshop. It is for this same reason that the Dragonlance novels based on the Dungeon’s and Dragons board game clearly state on them that they are based on the game. Otherwise they are just another generic fantasy novel.

It is for these reasons that Games Workshop cannot claim trademark infringement for the use of Space Marine in a work of fiction. In fact the term is so generic it has already been used as a movie title resulting in Games Workshop’s own movie being titled Ultramarines instead. Given the internet’s ubiquity and the speed that causes can gain pace via social media it remains to be seen if they will back down quickly or if they will risk a PR nightmare such as recently caused by Applebee’s sacking of a waitress for embarrassing one of their more bigoted customers.

M C A Hogarth’s blog can be found here

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Update (Feb 8th, 2013) : First, a big thank you to all of you who are visiting this blog, It’s relatively new and the response has been fantastic (okay, not huge, but this post already has the most views of any post I’ve made). In a strange way I must also thank Games Workshop, as a result of this PR farce they have highlighted everything that is wrong with the way trademarks are being enforced. Some news, while I’m yet to see anything from Games Workshop other than “no comment” it would appear Amazon have seen the light and realised their claim is baseless. Spots the Space Marine is back on Amazon’s website here

In love with the gun

It has often been said that America has a gun culture. Some would go as far as to say that America has a love affair with the gun. Recently though this gun culture has been highlighted and criticised on a worldwide scale due to what is an almost entirely American phenomenon, that of school shootings. To put this in perspective in the last 100 years Canada recorded 10 incidents of shootings at schools, with 26 fatalities. In the month of January this year alone America has recorded 8 shootings in schools with 5 fatalities. That is within a single month. For the year of 2012 this rises to 10 shooting incidents and a staggering 41 fatalities, more than the whole of Canada over the last 100 years. Since January 2000, just 8 months after the infamous Columbine shootings, there have been 63 shooting incidents, 138 fatalities and 131 woundings. The most telling statistic is that in almost every case the assailant was another pupil at the school, sometimes as young as 13.

Given then that the majority of incidents are not the random events such as the Newtown shootings in December 2012, where the assailant had no direct link to the school at that time it is therefore telling that the NRA’s response to school shootings is to advocate more guns in schools. In fact there are even some that issue permits to pupils to allow them to carry concealed weapons, notably the University of Utah. Several schools have also taken to hiring armed guards, with one school making the news when the retired police officer that they had hired famously left his pistol unattended in the rest room. Advocates of the armed school often cite the lower incidence of gun violence in other countries where teachers are allowed to openly carry weapons, such as in Israel. However, this argument is flawed by the simple facts that due to military training that almost every Israeli citizen receives by serving in the IDF every teacher carrying a weapon not only has had extensive training in handling firearms, but almost every person owning a firearm has received training on how to maintain and keep firearms safe and out of their children’s hands. Something America clearly seems incapable of doing.

To help understand this culture I have enlisted the help of one of my friends in America, ex US Marine Scott Floyd.

1. You served as a US Marine. What rank were you when you left?

I was a Marine for twenty years. I got out as a Gunnery Sergeant, E7.

2. Given your military training and background would you consider yourself pro gun ownership?

Even without it I would still be pro gun ownership.

3. Would you consider America’s obsession with the gun to be a healthy or harmful one?

I don’t consider all American’s to be obsessed with guns. I own five firearms, but I am not obsessed with them. Some people are, it’s like a hobby. Some people like stamps, some like coins, some like guns. If someone is obsessed with guns and likes to hunt or target shoot, I would not consider it harmful in any way.

4. The NRA used to be pro gun control, at least to a degree. Since December 2012 their rhetoric would certainly seem to suggest that the answer to gun violence is more widespread gun ownership. Is the NRA right in your opinion?

I believe they are right to an extent. If you plan on going on a shooting spree, are you going to choose a place where you suspect people are armed or unarmed? If there is a psychopath threatening you or your family with a gun, you better have a gun. Would you rob someone’s house if you knew they had a gun? Probably not. You would choose a softer target.

5. Most gun related violence in America is crime related, with guns being the weapon of choice in robberies and gang related crime. Many of the gun controls being advocated are aimed at making it harder for criminals to obtain guns, such as a ban on unregistered sales at weapons conventions. Should all gun sales be registered?

Handguns and assault weapons are registered I believe. You can still go into a Walmart and purchase a .22 or a shotgun with just an ID saying you are of age. The majority or crimes that are committed with firearms are not the ones purchased at Walmart. Criminals will use guns for violence or crime that are usually stolen so the weapon cannot be traced to them. So no I do not believe you should have to register your shotgun for rabbit hunting.

6. It is estimated that there are more guns in private ownership in America than there are people living in America. Given how prevalent gun ownership is and the protections the constitution affords American citizens do you think the gun lobbyists arugument that gun control is about removing guns from private ownership is a valid one?

No I do not. I hope I understand this question correctly. If guns are lawfully removed from private ownership, then who will have these weapons? Criminals and Law Enforcement. We all know that when you need a cop, they are never there, so you have to protect yourself. Otherwise the cops will be photographing your corpse and interviewing your raped wife. Removing firearms from private citizens would start a crime spree unlike this country has never seen.

7. Many of the most famous gun related crimes in the last century have been committed by the mentally ill. In the last few weeks we have seen a school bus driver murdered and a child kidnapped as well as a decorated war veteran murdered by another ex-soldier who was being treated for PTSD. Should part of gun ownership be proof that you are mentally stable enough to own a gun?

Well, it is. Before you purchase a handgun, you have to obtain a permit. To get this permit you have to go down to the police station for a background check, fingerprints, etc. Then after you get the permit you have to wait a certain amount of time before you can make a purchase. Mentally ill people do not go through that process. They will steal, borrow, or obtain their weapons any way they can. I have never heard of a case where a mentally ill person committed a crime with his own legally owned gun

8. School shootings are almost always perpetrated by one or more students from the school. Should more be done to ensure children have no access to weapons outside a controlled environment?

Of course. In my state you can serve between 5 and 10 years in prison if you store a firearm within access of a child. The parents are just as guilty if their child commits a tragedy with their parents gun.

9. What, in your own opinion, is the one thing that America can do to help reduce the incidents of gun violence within its educational establishments?

We have had metal detectors and armed guards in schools for years. It may sound far fetched, but I have heard suggestions to arm the teachers. I can see this. We certainly can’t arm the students. If teachers are armed and some kid brings a gun to school and starts shooting. A shot from a teacher’s gun can end the killings and possibly save lives that might have been lost. In all school shootings, by the time the police arrive, it’s too late. Arming the teachers may not be the best idea, but no city has enough cops to guard schools, nor is there any money in the budget to hire enough security guards. The teachers are already there, and underpaid. Pay them a bonus for being armed?

When I decided to write this article I started looking at the gun culture in America from a British standpoint. Gun control is almost a none issue here because so few people actually have them. It’s seen almost as an upper class pastime, played out at weekends by the idle rich or by farmers supplementing the pot with pheasant and rabbit. It’s quick and easy for those who sit this side of the pond to state the answer is to remove guns from those that abuse them. What I’ve found is that the argument for gun control is flawed. In almost every case where gun control has been advocated it has been as a direct response to a shooting in a school. The guns used have been legally owned and even with stricter gun controls in place would most likely not have been prevented. Instead we have a media hysteria polarised between two camps, one saying we need to remove guns from private ownership and another saying we need to arm everyone who isn’t a criminal. What is not discussed are the facts. Statistically you are still more likely to die from being shot if you own a gun. This is simple logic, when someone robs your house, they don’t know what weapons you own. If they find any, you have armed them, and knowing you have one gun they are more likely to shoot first than find out if you have any others. Arming the entire nation is not an option, but in a nation where every burglar could be armed it is also hard to argue against owning a weapon for self defence. The flaw in owning a weapon for defence though is what happens when you shoot the wrong person. Only last year a home owner, believing he was protecting his family’s property, shot and fatally injured his own son when mistaking him for a burglar. Even in self defence it must be seen as a last resort.

Arming teachers cannot be the answer either, in doing that you are asking that teacher to make the impossible choice. You are asking them to be prepared to shoot and kill a child, one who for years they may have been teaching. Since January 2000 over half the school shootings in America have been committed by children under the age of 16, the youngest being aged just 6 years of age. In almost every case the assailant has been male. No amount of gun control will prevent the parents of these children from owning a gun. Instead of advocating stronger controls that will do nothing to limit the number of weapons that are already in private ownership what I believe is needed is stronger controls on storage. Quite simply no weapon should ever be accessible to someone who is not the permitted owner of the weapon. Nothing can be done to prevent the next Columbine or Newtown without first ensuring weapons are properly controlled in the home. Any parent who allows through their own carelessness a child to gain access to their own weapons is in effect culpable for the actions of that child. And any parent who allows their child to possess a gun must also be ultimately responsible for that child’s actions.

Review: Saving Gabriel

I was lucky enough to beta read this book for the author Zoe E. Whitten. Unusually for myself this is a short urban fantasy set in the USA. I say unusually as my personal reading choice tends towards either science fiction or epic fantasy (and when I say epic I mean book series that make Lord Of The Rings look like a novella). Eager to help out and track down the elusive spelling mistakes and grammatical errors left in the beta copy like easter eggs waiting to be found I printed off the story and set to with marker pen in hand. Thankfully what I had was well written without too many mistakes and I soon found myself drawn into Zoe’s world of alternative end of days fiction.

The Gabriel in the title is a fallen angel, thrown out of Heaven on a technicality and rather than brood on his predicament he sets forward to continue his role as guardian angel to Rosalinda, a girl of unusual inner strength and resolve. It soon becomes clear that her life is in danger as the fallen host take a personal interest in her. What ensues is a fight not only for Rosalinda’s life, but for her soul and the very future of Heaven itself. Love will be found, lost and found again as friendships are betrayed, Heaven is rejected and redemption is found.

Anyone looking for a fresh take on the modern urban fantasy would do well to try Saving Gabriel, its modern take on alternative biblical history a welcome change from the gluttonous feast of vampire stories. It’s easy style of writing, taking the point of view of the main two protagonists, keeps the reader interested while never feeling bogged down. And in common with many of Zoe’s other novellas I’m certain there’s still more to come in the future. A nice and solid 9 out of 10.

Saving Gabriel by Zoe E. Whitten is available now from Amazon , Kobo and Gumroad.

Silencing Demons

Two days ago I heard that a good friend of mine had recently passed away. The medium of discovery was Facebook, but once the milk ran out and a trip to the shops was in order it became clear that, locally at least, his death was a much bigger story than just a few friends passing condolences on a social website. It was front page news in the local paper.

Like so many highly creative individuals he was tormented by his demons, but we connected on that basic level of shared loves and experiences. A respected artist, engineer and actor with a love of festivals and loud music he was always there to help others, but alas always the last to ask help for himself. In all the time I knew him he was a kind gentle soul, but I knew beneath that shell lay a darker soul trapped and waiting. Depression and bouts of violent psychosis were a constant battle for him resulting in regular stays in hospital until finally in the last few years he was homeless. Even then he worked hard helping those around him and raising money for charity until finally, over New Years, at Beachy Head he finally silenced his demons.

The biggest indictment of the Big Society is not that he finally made the decision to end his own life, it’s sad to say that for those who truly are at their lowest ebb ways and means will be found. The big indictment is that no one noticed for nearly a month. His lifestyle is partly to blame here, he was well known to pack a bag, grab his passport and take off for Europe at the drop of a hat. With friends throughout the country he would move around to where he felt most comfortable with himself. I’d like to think that on the day he disappeared whoever knew him would have informed the police of his disappearance at least. At the very least there should have been regular contact with someone from social services, but it seems social workers don’t help the homeless, many of whom are homeless due to their mental health. Knowing he was a high suicide risk and in the vicinity of Beachy Head it’s not a large leap of faith to consider the possibility, but it would seem no effort at all was made to trace him. Instead his body was found a month later, after the police were searching the cliffs for the wreckage of a car that had been driven over the edge of the cliff.

The Big Society does not mean we get to pick and choose who we look out for. Cameron’s Big Society seems to be about looking after everyone except those that need it, the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the old and the disabled. The most vulnerable in society who need the Big Society instead are pilloried by government. It does not mean that our police services ignore those who are vulnerable, the homeless need protecting more than the housed. While I know there was nothing that could have been done to prevent a friend’s death I still cannot shake that feeling that he has been let down somehow. By a government that has actively made the poor poorer. By a police service that couldn’t care about another homeless person going missing. By a health service that has done nothing to stay in contact and counsel the mentally ill. By a society that sees the mentally ill and homeless as something to ignore at best, or to be ridiculed at worst. By friends who didn’t miss him till it was too late. And by myself, for not being a better friend when needed most.

A marriage made in Heaven or Hell?

If ever there was a marriage made in Hell it has to be Microsoft and Apple, right? And yet it may surprise many just how compatible the products of these 2 companies actually are.

When I’m not getting annoyed at the petty politics of the UK and the rest of the world I am at heart a geek. I hacked my first computer game when I was 10 or 11, a text adventure written for the Sinclair ZX81. I created my first website back in 1995 and ran my first online business back in 1996. One thing that has not changed in the years since is my love of gaming and music. My home setup is one that works well both for a simple bedroom setup, or as in my case for my living room. And it’s a lot cheaper to make than people might think.

My main media player is my XBox 360. However, being an old and creaky model there’s no way it can hold just over 40 year’s worth of music collecting. And after so many years of computing what do I do with the old PC that’s now no good for gaming? Why not stream my music from the PC to the XBox? Luckily over the years I’ve made it a habit to rip all my music to MP3, even before Apple brought out it’s first iPod, so I’m spared the pain of attempting to rip 2000 CDs to my computer.

iTunes is a great application for keeping my music organised, but unfortunately is not recognised by the XBox as a valid source of streaming music or video. So in a moment of Microsoft/Apple Hell I need to find an alternative. Thankfully Microsoft has a free solution in the form of Zune. A quick download, install and change of settings and it’s soon imported my iTunes music library ready to stream. Before switching to the XBox there’s still one last thing to do. Hidden in the Zune settings there’s an option to allow other devices to access your music library. Handily there’s a tick box for all available XBoxes and in next to no time 40 years of music is streaming across the network to mine and my daughter’s XBox upstairs.

You may ask why go to all that trouble when I could just play the music straight from the computer? The answer is sound quality. My setup at home is actually quite simple. A cheap 42″ 3D TV (it’s a rebranded Celsus, courtesy of a phone deal). Picture quality is remarkably good for such a cheap TV with a surprisingly generous array of connections on the back. The old PC has a VGA out (10 year old graphics card that keeps soldiering on despite the cooling fan having fallen off the card years ago) which plugs straight into the TV. Sound is then ported to the TV from the headphone/speaker jack on the soundcard. While the sound is reasonable it lacks the punch of a dedicated speaker system. This is where the XBox (and my love of gaming) comes in. The Xbox is also plugged into the TV using the HD cable that comes supplied with it (the one with half a dozen coloured cables that plug into the TV’s component AV slots). As my old surround sound system decided to die when we had a power cut a few years ago sound production duties have been replaced by a Logitech 5.1 surround sound system. As the XBox also doubles as a DVD player this also enables us to watch movies with the surround sound (but not currently regular TV as the Digital Receiver plugs straight into the TV by HDMI, more on this later). The result is that streamed music now gets converted by the XBox and output to all speakers giving a much louder and punchier response. And Gears Of War 3 takes on a whole new level of gaming when viewed in 3D with surround sound.

So far of course there’s been no Apple in this mix, everything to this point has been achieved by Microsoft and 3rd party hardware. So this is where Apple and Microsoft make their match in Heaven. It’s all very well having the PC connected to the same screen as the XBox and TV Receiver, but what if you really need to make changes to something on the PC while the kids have decided now is the only time they can watch Hannah Montana. This is where we introduce PocketCloud, an iPhone and iPad app that allows you to login to your PC remotely while on the same network. Using this you have full access to all the programs and files on your PC. If you only wish to access files on your PC, such as photos and PDF documents there’s always FileBrowser instead.

And the Apple/Microsoft Heaven doesn’t just stop at your PC. There are also apps for the iPhone and iPad that will allow you to connect to your XBox remotely. Want to control your music remotely while it’s playing on the XBox? Microsoft have provided the ultimate free app for allowing this with SmartGlass. The only drawback is that it will require an XBox Live account and your XBox must already be turned on and logged in, but that’s it. Instant control via phone or iPad from anywhere in the house over wifi. Friends over and want to listen to whatever music is on their iPod, iPhone or iPad? There’s even an app for that. Download AirMusic and you’ll soon be streaming direct from your Apple device of choice to the XBox.

The above is of course quite a simple setup, done more for the low cost than for elegance. A couple of simple upgrades would improve your gaming and media pleasure at relatively low costs. The simplest upgrade is to switch out the speakers. Hard to come by nowadays, but there are surround sound systems with multiple inputs. The original surround sound speakers that I had till the power cut had stereo, coax and optical inputs, allowing me to connect 3 systems at once and switch between them. Much the same can also be done now with a HDMI receiver that combines multiple HDMI inputs with HDMI out and optical out, allowing the receiver to switch between inputs and output to a standard home theatre system. Again, this is a relatively inexpensive way to upgrade. If you’re lucky and have a slightly more expensive TV you may even find that the TV itself has an optical out for plugging direct into a home theatre, but be aware that not all output the full Dolby 5.1 (my old Samsung TV only output stereo through the optical out). If budget allows a lot of higher end Blu-Ray home theatre kits also come complete with multiple HDMI inputs allowing for much the same effect.

Should you be able to upgrade your listening pleasure using the ideas above (and having swapped out the old VGA card for a nice shiny new HDMI graphics card) you can then go for the other option of listening to your music using your PC again (leaving your XBox relegated back to gaming duties). Again, there’s an app available for this, simply download Apple’s Remote for iPhone or iPad and gain direct control of your PC’s iTunes library, even being able to choose songs to be played using iTunes Auto DJ feature.