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Lego Miscreants

December 12, 2008 Leave a comment

toy_talibanMinifigforlife, who apparently are not licenced by Lego, have come up with a, dare I say it – a rather cool range of accessories of the budding Lego adventurer. However they have met with a fair amount of criticism from around the world chiefly for their ‘terrorist’ Lego man which some say bears a striking resemblance to a Taliban fighter. Ok, I would have to be blind not to see where the critics are coming from, but for such hysteria over a toy?!? I seem to recall from my childhood that I was playing with Lego Pirates and other such miscreants. Infact, I am fairly sure I once built both the ship and the island fortress in this picture. Good times ūüôā .

According to wikipedia, the Pirate range started in the late 1980s, so as you can see it is a bit late for Lego to turn around and condemn “violent” and, in their eyes, “non-family friendly” toys. Granted Lego themselves have nothing to do with this new range, but for papers like The Sun (and others, but I feel like picking on The Sun) to write headlines like “Osama Bin Lego” is simply absurd.

Of course violence and terrorism are not concepts to expose young children to, but in this Nanny state we find ourselves in, it never ceases to amaze me how people can get worked up over such petty things. I highly doubt that a child would think along such lines anyway – this is simply a fun baddie like countless others before in the varies Lego franchises. Admittedly this is the first time the Lego ‘bad guy’ has come to vaguely resemble a particular ethnic or social group before (if we don’t count pirates for a moment) but I am sure no disrespect was meant. In fact, I would challenge that such a stereo type (perhaps we should include Call of Duty 4 in this)¬† is as contrived as the pirate characters were in the first place.

Long and short of it? Stop getting so worked up over nothing – I leave you a particularly nice construction that is definitely not suitable for all ages ;).

rook-small

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Categories: News, Random, Rant Tags: , , , ,

Spore Spurrned

September 25, 2008 3 comments

Way back in 2005, Will Wright got on a stage and proclaimed the future of gaming did not have to include ultra high resolution graphic, overly flashy animations and scripted environments. He described his vision of a game which was by its very nature, procedurally generated from the textures to the very mechanics themselves.

He got a standing ovation – not just from the crowd, but from me as well which probably looked a bit peculiar to those around me, seeing as I was watching this on youtube. As time went on, gamers were tantalised further and further from videos of Robin Williams creating his own creature to more recently the Spore Creature Creator. All was not well however, unknown to the larger gaming community, storm clouds were forming behind the scenes, the weather system was called EA.

Fast forward to today, the game has been released and for the most part it lives up to Will’s original promises. It is fun, imaginative, very configurable and different. So why have I and many others not bought it?! Why is the rating for the game on Amazon so low? DRM has hit land.

DRM, or digital rights management, is a mechanism or system by which control and access to something (MP3s, DVD / Blueray video, Games etc) is restricted to predefined parameters. Despite countless examples of DRM not working companies still convinced it is their only method of protecting their products press forward with more and more limiting restrictions. Whilst I can understand a system which stops someone buying a game and then installing on ten computers belonging to their friends DRM has gone a lot further. Depending on implementation, it can install hidden software on computer systems, deny owners of legally purchased content (e.g. music) to play it on all their devices and generally inconveniences loyal, legal customers.

But thats all well I good, I hear you say, these companies are stopping people from stealing their work which they are perfectly entitled to. If that were the case, I would agree (despite my reservations.) However such is not the case, you see DRM doesn’t work. Copy protections are circumvented typically quicker than they make it to market. With a bit of know-how, anyone with a reasonable internet connection can illegally download copyrighted music, videos or games which have this copy protection entirely removed. Even more absurdly, in some cases, at a better quality than could be purchased legally! I could go on and on for a while backing up my claims, presenting examples but I am getting off topic.

So why have I yet to buy Spore? Simple, its not that I don’t want it, the converse is true, Spore uses SecureRom coupled with an activation system that allows the game to be installed three times. No more. So if you need to rebuild / reinstall your system or you buy another computer, that’s another install gone. After three installs, the game will no longer work.. that is until you buy another copy. Ludicrous huh? And Spore is not the only game to have such a draconian system, Bioshock and Mass Effect had similar ‘controls’ bundled with them. I did not buy Mass Effect for that reason, luckily I managed to buy Bioshock on steam without such restrictions.

So what is the point of all of this, have EA saved money from people not pirating their game? Quite the contrary, you see, this copy protection system EA seem to be dry humping was cracked and a completely unprotected version of Spore was released to P2P sites before the game was officially released. Turning legitimate users who paid money to buy a game, only to find they were just leasing it, are being driven to piracy sites just to install a game they legally own and others are simply not bothering to buy it, or worst still for EA and Will Wright, pirating it. DRM does not work, certainly in this case EA have lost money than they would have had they released the game with no copy protection. In fact, it made me smile today to read on slashdot that they are being sued because of this tomfoolery.

EDIT: Just found an article with EA relaxing the restrictions slightly. Now you can install the game five times and ‘deactivate’ installed copies. I know someone who installed the game on three PCs when it came out. He is still waiting on EA to de-authorise two of the copies. I will buy the game but only if I can get it without SecureRom and this activation nonsense.

EDIT 2: Ars technica as a great article on this topic, claiming that, despite EA’s stupid DRM Spore has been downloaded more than half a million times. I wonder what percentage were protest downloads?

What Morons are running this country?!?

September 7, 2008 1 comment

It seems that almost every other week there is a revelation in the United Kingdom about data going missing. From mindless fools posting unsecured data on CD/DVDs to flash drives containing military or intelligence data being left in public places. It was bad enough last year when a Government agency lost CDs containing the personal details of 25 million people, but the public was prepared to accept that such things can and do happen occasionally. But since then, more and more data appears to have been misplaced, culminating in the revelation today that a 500Gb hard drive containing details of 5000 prison officers has been lost.

What irkes me the most about all of this, is that no-one appears to have the common sense to use an off the shelf utility (I could name a variety) to encrypt this data! I can (just) understand in a ‘secure’ government environment where data is accessed continuously that encryption would not be viable*, but when the data is being transported, not to secure it somehow is criminal! I am not even talking asymmetric cryptography which takes some brains and infrastructure to set up, but how about just using a one time symmetric cryptography model purely for when the data is out of a secure environment?!?!

Data ‘Protection’ minister Michael Wills really needs to start clamping down on these rouge operators who seem to have no respect for the sanctity of personal or sensitive information or resign, I (and I am sure many others) have had enough of our country continually being a laughing stock for having data security policies which resemble a particularly effectual colander.

*although a variety of transparent encryption technologies exist.

QVC Sells your details!

September 7, 2008 Leave a comment

This post is a little bit off at a tangent (even for me) but I was extremely annoyed to discover the way QVC treats it’s customers. Someone I know has been shopping with QVC for a number of years, but disliked giving all her account details every time she called merely to clarify information about an item or stock levels.

As a result, not being able to progress past these questions without giving some type of answer, she eventually resorted to giving a similar (but false) name. Imagine her surprise when, a few weeks later, correspondence arrived from a completely different company (Wills & Co Stockbrokers) sent to this completely fictional person invented for QVC’s benefit.

Here is a copy of the letter she received:

So, to all of you who use QVC – beware, they sell your details. Note that this is QVC UK, although I should imagine QVC USA are exactly the same.

Storm Clouds

August 14, 2008 1 comment

My primary qualm with cloud computing is one of its most fatal (and fundamental) failings, reliance on a third party ‘super’ server. Whilst there is no such thing as a ‘super server’, it is in reality, a large collection of servers within a farm,¬†I don’t think the systems that power a variety of services from email, storage, social networking sites to whole online Operating Systems¬†can be thought of simply¬†as ‘vanilla’ servers. To view them in such a light dangerously understates their potential infrastructural importance.

Despite my reservations, recently I have been using more and more cloud computing services and, you know what… I get what all the fuss is about. It’s easy, simple and for each service you use, it can potentially be one less infrastructural concern to¬†think about. Great, but it (and potentially your data) is also wholly in control of a third party and their fault tolerance infrastructure.¬†Thats not to mention issues of Internet connectivity, traffic shaping and net neutrality.

It was bound to happen sooner or later, now I have¬†a perfect example to hypocritically point to, The LinkUp. I only glanced briefly at the details, but it appears the company hosted data for hundreds of thousands of paying customers. During a migration, they hit a snag and, whilst over half the data is still safe after the service resumed, it is reported that many thousands could have lost everything. What if this happens to Amazon’s S3 service or Google Mail? Cloud services are unlikely to go away and I will continue to use some of them, but I do urge anyone who has a heavy reliance¬†so such systems to seek a failsafe or separate backup form, it all boils down to the old computing concept… common sense.

Windows Media Center 2005 woes

July 23, 2008 Leave a comment

I managed to acquire, for the price of a nice lunch, a brand new Elonex media center Artisan LX a couple of days back. I was initially very excited because up to then I had still been running my first media center was really just an experiment, built from scratch containing mostly old components I had around my place. A year and a bit on, I am firmly hooked on a PC based PVR system the cornerstone of my entertainment system. It contained an Athlon 2600+ processor with 512Mb of DDR coupled with a DVB-T Hauppage tuner and an 80Gb drive for recordings running the open source MediaPortal software. So as you can see, there was plenty of room for improvement.

This was the first time I have really had a tinker with the Windows Media Center range of Operating systems that Microsoft produce and I went in with few expectations, apart from wanting at least as comparable an experience in terms of functionality and flexibility as I have enjoyed with MediaPortal.

The first thing that struck me was how fickle Windows Media Center 2005 was, even with all the roll ups (essentially what Microsoft call Service Packs for Media Center OS) installed. Wikipedia sums up the ‘capabilities’ of WMC 2005:

‘Media Center originally had a limitation of 1 analog tuner, but was raised to 2 analog tuners with Media Center 2005. With Update Rollup 1 for Media Center 2005, support for a digital tuner was added, but an analog tuner must still be present for the digital tuner to function. With Rollup 2, up to 4 TV tuners can be configured (2 analog and 2 HDTV). All the tuners must use the same source, for example they must all be off an aerial or a set-top box using the same guide data, you cannot mix Sky Digital and DVB-T for example.’

XP Media Center really shows its age here – I do not watch any analogue transmissions, so for a Media Center to require a legacy piece of hardware just to be able to access DVB (digital) seems preposterous. But that was not the worst thing! Windows Media Center 2005 is not capable of pulling EPG data OTA (over-the-air) instead requiring an overly elaborate system that relies on a permanent, always on Internet connection. This also raises some privacy concerns as ‘anonymous’ data, which is not entirely anonymous as Microsoft asks for your postcode during set up, is fed back to Microsoft which can include recording / watching trends and general EPG usage. Hitherto my media center system has not been networked. Considering it is in the opposite corner of my house, and I do not stream my recordings or have formal media shares, I never felt the need to network it. It was nice to just have a static, secure system without any security programs or periodic updates – now security monitoring of my media center has been added to my list of digital chores.

None the less, I was determined to give it a fair go, so I added a wifi adaptor, added some plug-ins and configured everything. After spending eight hours getting everything working, playing around and testing… I went back to my custom build. Not all the problems can be put squarely at Microsoft’s feet however. Elonex declared bankruptcy shortly after launching this range and the malicious part of me can see why, if this mediacenter is the sum total of their expertise.

Whilst the case looked rather nice from the outside, the hardware and the design of the internals is what really lets it down. The only element Elonex got right was the noise (or lack thereof) – the media center barely gives out a murmur when idle due to only a since fan which is housed inside the power supply. It runs at 690rpm, which draws air over the CPU heatsink (which has four heat pipes) and directly out the side of the case. However, I stressed ‘at idle’ before for a reason. When the media center does anything the incredibly noisy hard drive starts very audibly clicking and crunching away and it completely lets the machine down.

However that’s not the worst thing about this mediacenter. Due to the fact that there is only one very slow fan the airflow in the case is restricted to circulating around the motherboard tray, the processor then out the power supply. The harddrive and PCI / AGP cards are completely neglected. This point was slammed home when the harddrive consistently reported temperatures of high 50s to 62 degrees Celsius!!! Worse still, when I idled the system, that heat didn’t dissipate. The hard drive is locked into place with a pretentious plastic locking mechanism which neither improves the accessibility of the drive bay nor decreases the vibrations from the drive. There is no thermal (or thermally viable) contact between the hard drive and the case and as such, the hard drive is left smouldering away with no way to cool down predictably with next to no drop in temperature. There is a valid point that maintaining electronic components at a set temperature prolongs their life by avoiding constantly repeating thermal differentials (i.e. heating and cooling) however the fact remains that 60+ degrees centigrade is far too hot for a hard drive. Although my brief research on this did not yield any definitive threshold, most sources agree that 50-55 degrees Centigrade is about the absolute maximum recommended operating temperature.

Couple this practically zero thermal conduction with a lack of airflow and you have a recipie for a very short hard drive life. Even worse, this thermal issue was not limited to HDD, the south-bridge and GFX heatsinks were equally poorly cooled and get unpleasantly hot to the touch.

Worst of all, it is just slow. CpuID and the BIOS disagreed with each other about the exact Intel processor that powers the system. I believe it to be either an Intel Pentium 4 530 (at 3.06Ghz) or a Celeron D 345. There is no way the much older Athlon 2600+ processor with the same RAM should be out performing this setup and yet it does so without breaking a sweat.

All in all, very disappointing. A remarkable demonstration of technical ignorance on the part of Elonex. But hey, I didn’t pay for it and now I have an extra DVB-T tuner back in my original, self built machine.

Design (cosmetic) : 8/10 – Pleasing, with a nice Hi-fi look.

Design (technical) : 2/10 – Poor components poorly arranged.

Cooling : 6/10 – Great CPU and powersupply cooling, but everything else is woefully neglected.

Acoustics : 6/10 – Silent until it has to touch the harddrive, still a good effort though

Connectivity : 8/10 – Lots of connectors for digital Audio and Video

Capacity : 5/10 – 200Gb harddrive with a portion taken for recovery. I wouldn’t trust it though and by modern standards it is rather anemic.

Overall : 2/10 – Great for free, if I paid anything for it I would have been annoyed.

DoD:Source – Play for free this weekend!

July 5, 2008 1 comment

This weekend you can play Day of Defeat Source for free via Steam, it corresponds to the launch of the Palermo services across steam which greatly adds to the platform by adding unlock-able achievements for each game. So what is Day of Defeat I hear you ask? It started out as a FPS mod using the original half life engine and was set in the second world war era. What initially distinguished this game from other stand-alone games and mods of the same and similar genres at the time was how thought out it was. Rather then blindly killing the enemy, to win the round you had to capture (or destroy) strategic points as well as blindly killing the enemy. In essence, it was a slower paced Counter Strike with a lot more emphasis on teamwork and strategy.

I have not played DoD for a number of years which is surprising given the fact I have been playing it since Beta 2 and had a waypointing site dedicated to the mod. Back then it was a damn good ‘rough round the edges’ community mod with a lots of promise and bags of potential.

Beta 3.0 was released and everyone celebrated. It built on the strengths of the first betas- tweaking and balancing them as well as adding new features. For a while nothing happened, we all were content playing beta 3.0 and listening to rumours of the ever elusive beta 4.0. Then, in my opinion, it all started going wrong. The mod team struck a deal with Valve and the mod became a commercial game. Beta 4.0 was actually released as version 1.0. It was highly polished and improved, as one would expect from Valve’s backing. Unfortunately it also had a boat load of issues in particular 56k dial-up gamers (yes there still were a fair few back in 2002/2003) were hit hard with very poor gaming experiences for no tangible reason.

At this point I walked away from Day of Defeat, life was complicated at the time and I was about to start Uni so I didn’t have much time for gaming. So, today I eagerly launched DoD:Source which I had preloaded a few days earlier… and was sadly disappointed.

The game itself is largely unchanged apart from being Source-ified which is both good and bad. It was nice to know most of the maps already, despite their new and frighteningly stunning clarity, as well as the basic classes and the useful routes / camping spots etc. What irked me is that the game itself had been dumbed down somewhat. Features which, at the time, differentiated DoD from other Mods such as bleeding, slow paced objective based gameplay and side weapon differentiation were either dropped or drastically tweaked.

What I find inexcusable however is that many of the old problems still linger. Despite the servers I have played on today having between 4 and 16 players the game frequently juddered and lagged particularly during explosions. The hitbox issue, allegedly solved in Day of Defeat, also reappears with some rather odd damage and hit patterns which can be very frustrating. What is even more peculiar, the game designers have appeared to have focused on beautifying the graphical side of the game considerably, adding odd looking ‘film grain’ effects as well as a kill cam with ‘Press F5 for snapshot’ and other useless ‘features’. Some of these additions are almost pretentious in the flashy way they are implemented especially given how inconsistent the effort appears to have been across other aspects of the game.

This is not to say the game is not fun to play and you can currently buy it for $4.99 (half price until the free play period expires) which is an absolute bargain, but I still think beta Day of Defeat 3.0 was the best version to date. I may have to fire it up with some sturmbots at some stage.

Graphics : 6.5/10 – Good but mostly thanks to the engine and sloppy in places.

Sound : 6 / 10 – Reasonable, but not earth-shattering – somehow feels less meaty than before.

Gameplay : 7 / 10 – Same classic DoD, but a little dumbed down and sadly nothing to distinguish it from other modern games.

Difficulty : 7 / 10 – Shallow learning curve and a wide range of players out there.

Overall : 66/100

Worth playing, but won’t keep you occupied for long.

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