The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for August, 2007

Bioawed

Posted by Deliverator on 30th August 2007

I took the day off work (not hard, since I am my own boss) to finish up the advance order form for the Toronto Film Festival and hand it off to Fedex for overnight (AM) delivery to Toronto. As a result of the waiting around for the truck routine, I had my first chance to spend some quality time with Bioshock. Readers of my prior post regarding widescreen vertical field of view issues will be pleased to know that a resourceful programmer going by the handle of Racer_S has released a fov fix utility. You run the utility before running the game and can specify the vertical and horizontal field of view. The suggested fov for both values for 16:10 monitors like mine is .84. After setting the value, just launch Bioshock and then hit the * key to set the fov to what you specified in the utility. One can also adjust the fov on the fly by hitting the + and – keys on the numeric keypad. One user on the Widescreen Gaming Forum is apparently using the utility to play the game on a three display system using a Matrox Triplehead2Go screen splitting unit. 2k Games, Bioshock’s maker, has taken a lot of heat on this issue has just announced that they will release a patch to allow for native widescreen support with no vertical clipping, while simultaneously not admitting to the problem. They claim they intended that the major of PC players would be playing the game on wide screen monitors and adjusted the FOV on widescreen monitors to best fit the game dynamics. That owners of 4:3 aspect ratio monitors have a larger vertical FOV (despite the clipped widescreen fov being supposedly optimal) is so that they wouldn’t have to do letter boxing on 4:3, which be confusing and generate complaints from those users. Damned if you do/don’t indeed.

Anyways, once the FOV issues were fixed using Racer_S’s utility, I played Bioshock for a solid chunk of the day and finished off the first “big boss” of the game, a plastic surgeon gone mad in search of aesthetic perfection. My technique for him was to hack a security camera in an adjacent room, then lead him in sight of it, which causes the camera to call in a number of flying security drones. I let the security drones soften him up for a while, using my lightning bolt emitting fingertips on him from time to time to stun him, creating a stationary target for the security drones. After the good doctor had killed off the security drones, I hit him with a couple more electric blasts and then moved in for the kill using my shotgun. Simple, straightforward and efficient. I lost hardly any life and only two full bars worth of EVE in the encounter. I’ve heard some really creative ways of killing him. My favorite technique thus far is to hack the health dispenser in the rear of his surgery room (which has a few feet of water covering the floor). You light him on fire using the immolate power up, which will cause him to run into the water to put himself out. Once he reaches the water, you electrocute him using the lightning bolt power up. He will be very low on health from this, so he will run to the hacked health dispenser, which is now programmed to damage, rather than heal opponents. There is a particular elegance to the design of the game in that it encourages you to find creative ways to kill your opponents. This is not your father’s FPS with plentiful ammo and constant run and gun the only technique. The lack of resources (roughly broken into health, EVE (mana) and ammunition will have you searching every desk drawer and trashcan you come across and really encourages you to find creative ways to kill your opponents, using the environment itself wherever possible.

Speaking of the environment, it is as graphically rich as I have seen in a game, with great lighting effects used for your augmented powers, smoke, fire, water, etc. Screenshots of Bioshock gives you a little sense of the eye candy, but you really have to see it in full motion to get the full effect. The sound design really sucks you into the game and will make you sweat and shiver with lots of ambient noises and the muttering of Rapture’s deranged inhabitants. FEAR is the only recent game that comes to my mind where sound contributes as much to the feel of the overall game as in Bioshock.

Despite some major ranting in the last few days about technical issues with Bioshock, the game itself has sucked me in and I anticipate some very long nights spent in its thrawl in the next few days.

Posted in Gaming, Rants and Raves | No Comments »

Upgraded to Play Bioshock

Posted by Deliverator on 28th August 2007

As mentioned previously, I’ve been contemplating some upgrades to my current machine in order to play Bioshock and some of the forthcoming games like Crysis and Half Life 2: Episode 2 in all their eye popping glory. I went ahead and upgraded my Nvidia 6800 GTS to an Nvidia 8800 GTX with 768 MB of ram. This new card is definitely a monster. It takes up two full slots, requires two PCI Express auxilary power connectors and extends well beyond my full size motherboard’s edge. I try to keep the cable routing in my case very clean, but had to do some major revamping to shoehorn the card into place. It is hard to describe how massive this card is without seeing it. I have a very hefty Lian Li V-1000 full tower case and it barely fit! I can’t imagine the physical/logistical difficulties that people run into when trying to run SLI rigs with these massive cards.

After installing the latest “Bioshock capable” Beta drivers from Nvidia, I went ahead and downloaded and purchased Bioshock through Steam. After finishing the rather hefty download, I went to play the game and got a lovely back screen and the hard drive light flashing furiously for the next few minutes. I initially figured it was just taking a long time to load, but eventually got fed up and hit C-A-D, which revealed a lovely crash message. I searched Bioshock’s and Steam’s forums and found several hundred other people complaining of the same problem, but no immediate solutions. I went ahead and ran a number of graphically intensive games and benchmarks just to ensure it wasn’t a card/driver issue with the video card, updated the drivers for every device in my system, etc. Finally, I went to Microsoft’s website and downloaded the latest redistributable copy of Direct-X. Turns out the Bioshock needs some updated Direct-X 10 components and not just the ones that came with Vista. Bioshock’s makers don’t bother to tell you this in the game documentation or ensure that you have the required components by bundling the latest version of DX with the game (as has been done by many other game makers in the past) and Microsoft hasn’t rolled the updates out over Windows Update or make people aware that Direct X has been updated. Way to go guys! Virtually every DX 9 title runs significantly slower on Vista than XP and Direct X 10 titles are few and far between and seem to add little in the way of compelling eye candy over their DX 9 modes/counterparts. Not a great start for DX 10 gaming, imo.

I finally got the game to launch and tested it enough to ensure that it plays well on my computer, but I was dismayed to learn of a few issues while browsing the Bioshock forums. It appears that Bioshock doesn’t currently properly support widescreen monitors. To see the full intended field of view, you need to play on a 4:3 aspect ratio monitor. If you play it on a widescreen monitor, the game clips the top and bottom off what you would see on a 4:3 monitor, so you actually see LESS of your environment by playing on a widescreen monitor…you just see it bigger. These two issues really pissed me off, as pretty much every major title in recent years has had proper widescreen support and any halfway decent QA process should have caught the widespread “black screen” crashes. There are a lot of people that are speculating the Bioshock was rushed to market in order snatch $50 out of gamer’s wallets before Halo 3 hits stores.

I also went ahead and ordered an AMD Opteron 185. The 185 is a dual core 2.6 GHZ with 1 MB of ram per core. From what I have been able to find out, this is the fastest CPU on the market which will work with my current motherboard. Although much faster Intel cpus are available at a similar price, I would have to upgrade my motherboard and play the reinstall dance, which I really have no desire to do in the near future. Between the 8800 GTX and the Opteron, I should be able to squeeze another few years of gaming life out of my box.

Posted in Gaming, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

How did you spend your summer vacation?

Posted by Deliverator on 20th August 2007

DIY Segway Scooter!

A group of high schoolers who participate in FIRST got together this summer and built their own D.I.Y. Segway scooter! Many of the building blocks of their design are straight out of the annual kit of parts given to all FIRST teams. There is extensive documentation and source code available on their site (linked above) and they put out a hilarious spoof video about their exploits. Long live the Retro Encabulator!

Posted in Titan Robotics Club | No Comments »

Games that make you want to upgrade.

Posted by Deliverator on 19th August 2007

It has been quite a while since a game came out that made me want to upgrade my computer to better experience the game. The last game to motivate an upgrade was Half Life 2 and my system has remained relatively unchanged since that time. My current main gaming computer is a dual core Athlon 64 3800+ with 3 GB of low latency memory, a Nvidia 6800 GS graphics card on a Asus A8N32 Sli Deluxe (socket 939) motherboard. I am also unfortunately running off onboard audio due to Creative Lab’s lack of support for my SB Live 5.1 Platinum under Vista. Two games are coming out in the near future that make me want to upgrade my system to experience them properly. The first is Bioshock which has built an incredible amount of buzz around it and is receiving unparalleled ratings from various game publications. The second is Crysis, a quasi sequel to Far Cry, a game which really raised the stakes when it came to creating vast outdoor environments and less rigorously scripted gameplay. Both games have substantially higher realistic system requirements than my current system is capable of handling. My system meets minimum requirements to be sure, but “minimum system requirements” tend to be a joke on games like these which would lead to a very unsatisfactory gaming experience. I am not opposed to some upgrades in order to play these games at their best, but really don’t want to spend the time and effort to completely overhaul my system.

My current thought is to upgrade my processor and leave my motherboard alone. Intel currently has the performance lead by quite a bit, but moving over to an Intel based platform would require quite an overhaul. AMD has moved away from Socket 939 for their dual core offerings and moved to the AM2 platform. AMD has basically discontinued production of Athlon X2’s on the 939 platform, which makes it difficult to simply plop in a higher clocked version of what I have in there now. I did find that I can still get a few Opteron processors that are socket 939 compatible and that my board is listed as supporting. The best I could get would be a dual core Opteron model 185, which has two cores clocked at 2.6 GHZ with 1 MB of L2 cache each. This would be a nice improvement over my existing dual core processor which is clocked at 2 GHZ with a smaller cache size per core. It looks like a retail boxed version of the Opteron would run me around $300 with a OEM version running maybe $250-260.

I would also upgrade my video card at the same time to something in the Nvidia Geforce 8 series. I would like to be able to play these two titles comfortably on my 22″ monitor at its native resolution of 1680×1050 with a decent amount of eye candy turned on. Hopefully I won’t have to buy one of the higher end cards in the series to accomplish this or move to a two card SLI system. The top of the line 8800 GTX card with 768 MB of ram runs a rather pricey $600, while a lower end GTS model with 320 MB of ram is almost half that price. Running two cards in an SLI configuration might also be beyond my current power supply’s 500W capacity. My UPS monitor agents tell me I am currently using about 235W of power, but that is essentially at idle. With a faster video card and CPU thrown into the mix, I expect to be pushing several hundred watts beyond my current usage.

At the same time, I have been meaning to find a replacement sound card for quite some time. My current onboard sound card has very poor sound isolation, which means I can hear things like hard disk activity noises being amplified when the volume is cranked up. I would like to find something with good Vista support that also has an integrated headphone amp and 1/4″ outputs. I didn’t have much luck finding such a beast last time I looked and would rather avoid a Creative Labs solution if I can at all help it. I have been burned by Creative Labs one too many times.

If anyone has any thoughts on the matter, I would love to hear from you.

Posted in Gaming | 2 Comments »

Worst Movie Evah!

Posted by Deliverator on 10th August 2007

The #1 worst movie of all time according to IMDB is Bratz and you can catch it live in theaters this weekend! At the time of this writing, Bratz has a staggeringly low 1.1 rating. Strangely, there appears to be a second entry for the same movie at IMDB, which has managed a much more respectable #43 place on the list, sandwiched between such classics as ED (about a monkey which plays baseball with Matt Leblanc), Kazaam (Shaq as a genie) and Baby Geniuses (the title says it all). The film isn’t fairing much better at Rottentomatoes, garnering a 9% rating from critics. Sadly, given this film’s target audience and the amazing power of whiny children, a whole lot of adults are going to be bodily hauled to seeing this film this weekend, so in terms of gross ticket sales, this film might actually be a success. If you are just examining financial considerations, even with relatively low gross ticket sales, given the film’s likely rock bottom production costs, this movie will probably do alright and won’t be making anyone’s worst box office bombs list. The undisputed worst bombing movie of all time (in terms of gross ticket sales) remains Zyzzyx Road staring Katherine Heigl, which earned $30 nationwide at the boxoffice (granted it was only released in one theater). Katherine Heigl of course went to star in one of the top grossing movies IN THE SAME year, Knocked Up. This is all by way of saying the movie industry is kinda fucked up.

Posted in Media, Movies, Rants and Raves | No Comments »

Are you depressed by the present state of the world? Try TED

Posted by Deliverator on 10th August 2007

Do you, like me, look at the news and are dismayed by man’s inhumanity to man, see signs of the apocalypse everywhere and feel that the future of man is not very bright? Before resorting to Prosac, going postal, etc. I highly suggest you watch the talks from the annual TED conference. The TED conference basically attempts to answer the age old question of “what happens when you get the greatest minds on earth into the same room?” You can watch the results on Youtube or as a significantly higher quality video podcast using Miro or some other video podcasting client which people seem to like for some lack of reason.

Posted in General | No Comments »

Is Paypal more secure than your bank?

Posted by Deliverator on 10th August 2007

Paypal recently started offering RSA based security tokens for the low low price of $5. For this price, you get a small plastic keyfob with a tiny lcd screen and a single button. Inside is a highly accurate digital clock and a crypto chip. When you press the button, the keyfob feeds the present time and a unique number specific to the particular keyfob issued to you into the crypto chip and out pops a six digit number. Every 30 seconds or so the number changes. In a server at Paypal the same algorithm is running and generating the exact same six digit number. You type the number on your keyfob in along with your usual login information to get access to Paypal (or eBay). If you aren’t in possession of the keyfob as well as having the username and password, it is mighty hard to get access to your accounts. The server also keeps track of recent past generated numbers and numbers for the immediate future, so if the clock in your keyfob is off by a bit, the server will still accept the number. If your number was off by a few cycles, the server will note it and figure out if your clock is drifting in one direction or another and create a fudge factor to keep its internal accounting and your keyfob in lock step.

This combination of something you know (username and password) with something you have is one form of two factor authentication and is one of the better mechanisms for assuring identity imo. Another common type of two factor authentication is biometrics (something you are). You see this type of authentication used a lot in action movies, usually accompanied by stolen fingers and eyeballs impaled on ballpoint pens. I’ll take a plastic keyfob and happily give it up to anyone who asks at knifepoint to “can you spare a finger?” anyday.

While RSA security tokens aren’t perfect, they are a fair sight better than the means most major banks are using to provide the appearance of security. Federal regulators recently started requiring banks to provide two factor authentication for online banking. So, did major banks like Bank of America go out and hire the best security experts in the world to implement robust two factor security? No, they went and implemented deeply flawed systems like Sitekey, which provide the appearance of security to the average clueless user, yet rely on the same uncomprehending user’s limited understanding of the system to make the system even somewhat effective. One study conducted by MIT and Harvard revealed that 92% of computer users did not understand the system well enough to make it effective. Another site shows that even if a user understands how the system is supposed to work, it is still possible to create a fully automated man in the middle attack against the technology itself.

While RSA security fobs are also subject to man in the middle attacks, at least it isn’t difficult to understand how to use the system. You press the button and enter the number. It is important that users of an online banking system understand mutual authentication to avoid man in the middle attacks and banks are presently doing a miserable job on the whole “educating users” thing. IMO, basic security tips like “check to make sure you see a lock in your browser” and “don’t click on a link to website if it arrives in your email box, as it could be a pretender” are a lot easier to understand for the average user. Whether the average computer user will ever grok checking ssl certificates and certificate authorities is another thing, but banks need to provide better, more robust and user proof systems, while simultaneously making a better effect to educate end users. As it stands, Paypal is doing a far better job at this than my bank (and no, I am not using Bank of America).

Posted in General, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Hate Spam? Blame the rest of the world

Posted by Deliverator on 1st August 2007

I’ve been struggling with possibly closing my longstanding speakeasy.org email addresses. The volume of spam has just reached a annoyingly high threshold and has pushed me into solution seeking/decision making mode. I have been using speakeasy as my personal email host for many, many years and extricating myself from their grasp would not be pleasant. Vendor Lock-in sucks! ISP provided email accounts are one of the classic examples of vendor lock-in. Historically, it costs an ISP almost nothing on a per-customer basis to provide basic email services, yet dependence on a particular email address makes customers extremely reluctant to leave, almost irregardless of how badly other ISP services are being provided. These days, it is trivial for even Joe average DSL user to register a domain name and arrange for 3rd party email hosting. If you don’t like the service you are getting from a particular ISP, you can easily switch hosting for you domain’s email to any one of literally hundreds of extremely cost and feature competitive email service providers, without loosing your email addresses or indeed any email sent during the transition between providers.

I have been advocating domain based email to my clients for years and I’ve had a number of domains registered to me (no, I won’t tell you all of them) for ages and have been gradually extricating myself from my old speakeasy.org accounts. My guess is it would still take several man-days worth of effort to completely cut the chord and even then, I would still have to maintain the accounts for a while longer to ensure nothing too important had slipped my mind.

I am extremely reluctant to cut the chord, though, as Speakeasy has proven itself exceedingly reliable as a mail host over the years and has generally had a strong history of user-favorable policies and useage agreements. Unfortunately, their SPAM filtering technology hasn’t kept up with the times and their recent acquisition by Best Buy , a company I deplore, has made me reluctant to continue doing business with them. Their webmail interface is also extremely crude compared to modern, highly dynamic web email clients. They attempted a webmail system upgrade earlier this year with great fanfare and then quietly rolled it back several days later with little explanation and there has been zero progress towards a better system since then.

Speakeasy’s existing SPAM filtering solution, while using the excellent and powerful SpamAssassin for flagging down spam, is next to useless, as next to none of its functionality is exposed to customers. Speakeasy literally gives you a “stronger or weaker” filtering slider bar and the option to either toss flagged messages into a folder for review or to add a header to the subject line. I find that at any “strength” level necessary to correctly flag a significant percentage of incoming spam, I get an equally high level of false positives, aka inappropriate flagging of good, desired messages as spam. The only other functionality their spam filter provides is to whitelist specific email addresses as known good and to blacklist email addresses. Unfortunately, most spam these days uses false “from:” headers, so this blacklist functionality is next to useless. In the end, I pretty much have Speakeasy filter nothing and I do all my filtering on the client end using an excellent, highly configurable filtering system called Spamato. Using mostly the stock plugin options, Spamato manages to filter out almost all the spam I receive while having an extremely low false positive rate. Still, I cannot afford to miss important messages, so I usually give the “flagged as spam” list a quick once over before finally consigning the messages to the trash. This final review process used to be relatively quick, but these days I am receiving many hundreds of spam messages a day and even that quick glance eats up a lot of my time.

There are a lot of potential solutions short of canceling my Speakeasy email accounts. I could forward all my email through one of my external filtering services to weed out the most egregious spam before it ever arrives in my Inbox. I could refine my Spamato filters still further. I could just accept that every once in a while an important email will go unread. Or, I could simply BLOCK THE WORLD…muhahah!.

For a number of years, unknown to most users, ISPs in the US and some other areas of the world with pro-active sys admins have quietly been making it very difficult to send spam emails through their servers. Techniques like Domain Keys and Sender Policy Framework and variously effective user authentication measures have made it very difficult for spammers to send out emails using outbound mail servers within the US. While a lot of spam is generated in the US by residential computer users whose computers are infected by malware/viruses which turn them into unwitting botnet zombies, very little spam is being sent through servers within the US. Most of spam zombies have to rely on poorly administered (or conspiring) mail servers outside of the US to do their dirty work. To give you an idea, here is a list of the originating domains for the last 20 or so spam emails I have received:

zachem.com.pl
thn.ne.jp
fctv.ne.jp
wplus.ru
ttnet.net.tr
163data.com.cn
alshamil.net.ae
ocn.ne.jp
rp80.se
alicedsl.de
tm.net.my
vsnl.net.in
ewe-ip-backbone.de
inetia.pl
ttnet.net.tr
speedy.net.pe
ocn.ne.jp
konin.mm.pl
ufacom.ru
plus.com
albacom.net
shawcable.net
t-dialin.net

every last one of those domains lies outside of the US. For now, I am going to keep my Speakeasy accounts and simply discard all email sight unseen from the French, Italians, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, etc.

The eminently quoteable W.C. Fields said it best, “I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally.”

Posted in General, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »