You know when grown-ups tell you everything's going to be fine, and you think they're probably lying to make you feel better?
Everything's going to be fine.

Friday, November 21



A wombat for Susie:

As I was walking up Martin Place* on the way to work, I passed a little girl, about five or six years old, holding on to mummy with one hand, and clutching a toy wombat in the other.

Other than that... I got the credit notes to match up! (Mostly.) Yay!

I got a copy of Keith Laumer's A Plague of Demons. Yay!

I got volume 14 of the Oh! My Goddess!** manga.*** Yay! Now I can finally read volumes 15 and 16, which I already had. Someone explain to me, by the way, why there are now 78 episodes of You're Under Arrest and only 5 of the far more entertaining series from the same author?

Also, new volumes of Noir (as seen on USS Clueless), Cardcaptor Sakura, Tiny Snow Fairy Sugar****, Onegai Teacher, um... (Ducks downstairs.) Chobits and Mahoromatic.

And since someone decided this year is 1995 part two for computer games, Warlords IV. There goes my weekend...

* Which you've seen in the original Matrix - the scene with the Marilyn Monroe type in the red dress - only it was dug up and rebuilt for the Olympics and doesn't look like that any more. One of the features of the new Martin Place is a fountain built into the paving stones, that periodically sprays a fine mist on anyone who might be standing in the wrong place.

** "Ah! My Goddess!" - the manga*** was named before someone pointed out the obvious pun in English. The Japanese title is Aa! Megami-sama!. Which translates to, well, Ah! My Goddess!

*** Comic book. In thise case, a nicely printed, small format collection, or "graphic novel".

**** Cute. Phear.

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Thursday, November 20


Space Aliens R Us

There are many candidates for the second-best computer game of all time.

Railroad Tycoon. Fallout. Populous. Elite. Planescape: Torment. Sim City. Master of Magic. Civilization. Empire. Nethack. Baldur's Gate. Marble Madness. Syndicate. Dune 2.

But there's only one choice for the best: X-Com, also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown.

In UFO, you run the agency that is responsible for tracking, well, UFOs. When the things start actually landing and causing havoc, you have to take a squad of poorly-equipped, ill-trained troops to the site to deal with the problem.

So, it's a squad-level tactical game, right? Those are a dime a dozen. There are even plenty of good ones - Fallout Tactics is one I like.

Well, yes. And no.

In most such games, your squad is limited in size for entirely practical reasons. In Fallout Tactics you have a squad of six. That's pretty common.

In UFO, your squad is limited too - but it's not arbitrary. You can only have so many troopers because that's all that will fit on the plane you use to fly them out to the UFO site. Which would just be a neat explanation for the limit, if it weren't for the fact that in the game, you can actually buy (or even build) bigger and better aircraft - and if you do, you can have a larger team on the ground. In the late stages of the game, you can field a couple of dozen troops on a single mission if you choose.

Even better, this is not necessarily a good thing. The aliens, you see, have mind-control powers. If you have two dozen troops on the ground, there's sure to be one weak-willed individual who gets taken over. And it's usually the guy with the grenade launcher. You can lose more soldiers that way than from the aliens' ray guns, or the brain-suckers.

In Fallout Tactics, after every mission you return to base. There, you can sell any excess goodies you, uh, liberated during the mission to the quartermaster. And you can buy the equipment you need for your next mission.

Um, hang on. I'm supposed to pay for my equipment. And - I'm not getting paid for this? And you get to pick the operations and do the planning? If this wasn't a game, I suspect you'd have some difficulty finding new recruits.

No such nonsense in UFO. You have a base to return to between missions, sure. You build that base yourself. You design it to your own liking. It's your centre of operations: aircraft hangars, dorms for your troops, labs for your scientists, workshops for your engineers.

Want multiple bases? Fine. If you have the cash, you can buy land for a new base. You get to choose the location. You get to lay it out just the way you want. You get to hire the new staff.

When your squad returns with captured alien gizmos, you don't sell them: You give them to your scientists. They can investigate the devices (and likewise any captured aliens or alien remains) and improve your knowledge. And that can give you better equipment designs, which your engineers can then build. Get your own alien zap guns! Build your own UFO, even!

More: Your base isn't just an operations centre. If the aliens catch on, they can conduct a raid right in your base. (And you're in deep trouble if you lose that fight.)

And where does your money come from? Well, various nations are contributing funds to your operation. If they're not happy with your performance, they will reduce or cut off the funding. If you concentrate your activities in one part of the world, the other parts will get unhappy. If you try to cover every continent, your forces will be stretched thin.

If you spot a UFO over Canada and send out your only chase plane, you can't do much if another UFO is sighted in Brazil. And if the one in Brazil lands and attacks the populace, and the one in Canada puts on a burst of speed and escapes (in the early stages game, most of the UFOs can outrun the fastest human aircraft, making these chases difficult), it doesn't look good on your record.

What if you could attack the UFOs in the air, rather than just chasing them? Go for it. If you have one of the better combat planes (which aren't necessarily the best for carrying your troops on missions), you can try your luck at shooting the things out of the sky. If you succeed, you end up sending your squad out to a crashed UFO, with most of the aliens already dead.

In Tropico 2: Pirate Cove, you run the pirate island. You build ships and hire pirate captains and send them out and... They get sunk. You don't get to see this. You don't see the pirate action at all. The ships go out. The ships come back. Or not. It's like half the game is missing. Sure, it's fun building and running a pirate island, but where's the rest of the game?

It's not like this in UFO. It's all there: squad-level combat. Nursing your favourite troops through dangerous missions because their skills improve with experience. Hiring new recruits. Building and defending your bases. The R&D track - indeed, multiple R&D tracks: Should you research the aliens themselves first, or their weapons? The strategy: Where to build your bases to best cover the world. What to look for in recruits. Where to best spend your money. Which UFOs to chase after, and which to let go. Even the political: If you don't keep the funding nations happy, there goes your cash stream.

The designers of UFO thought the game through from start to finish. Everything that should be there is there. Nothing is fixed arbitrarily; there are no predefined missions (though the game has a limited number of designs for combat sites, so you will see repeats after a while). And then there are the grace notes: The aliens are, as it turns out, cattle mutilators, and you will find the remains of their handiwork. There are the obligatory leaping brain-eaters. There are the aliens, too, in all their various guises. And at the end of the game - assuming you survive - you can build a spaceship and take the battle to the enemy in their base on Mars.

The classic original spawned a variety of sequels and spin-offs, but none of them are as good. In Terror from the Deep, you are fighting an underwater menace. Which would be a great expansion for the original, but is not a significant new game in itself. In Apocalypse, the political aspect of the game is expanded - you even have some humans co-operating with the aliens - but gameplay is now restricted to a single city. It's nice having your little squad cars running around, and raiding the offices of suspected collaborators. It would be wonderful if that were an expansion to the original game. Raid the offices of, say, Aidemydni, and find out that they really are a bunch of translunar chiroptera rather than just acting that way.

The graphics of the original game aren't up to today's standards, of course. But the gameplay is years ahead of almost everything that reached the shelves in 2003. It's simply better designed, and it's more fun to play.

This is why it's always important to study the classics.

Update: There's an interesting interview with one of the designers of the X-Com game that never was, Genesis, here. With pictures and everything.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 09:55 AM | Comments (2) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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Wednesday, November 19


The Pixies Strike Back

I'm not the only one to suffer from a series of major computer conniptions. Brian Tiemann of Peeve Farm has his own tale of woe. Of course, he also has a Dual-G5 Mac and a 22" cinema display, so I can't feel too sorry for him...

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 02:05 AM | Comments (1) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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Tuesday, November 18


Avast Ye!

Oh, better far to live and die

Under the brave black flag I fly,

Than play a sanctimonious part

With a pirate head and a pirate heart.

Away to the cheating world go you,

Where pirates all are well-to-do;

But I'll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.

    For I am a Pirate King!

Yes, I've finally got around to installing Tropico 2: Pirate Cove. I think I liked the original game better, but being a Pirate King is still
And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a Pirate King!
Um, fun.

Except... The original game required a 200MHz Pentium II or better. This one requires a 500MHz Pentium III or Athlon, and recommends a 2GHz Pentium 4. Which, right now, I don't have. And yes, it gets kind of sluggish on my current system.

In fact, the original game is kind of sluggish too - though it ran just fine back when I was running Windows Me. XP seems to take a fair bite out of overall system performance... On the other hand, it has an average uptime measured in weeks rather than hours. Swings, roundabouts, and roller coasters.

When I sally forth to seek my prey
I help myself in a royal way.
I sink a few more ships, it's true,
Than a well-bred monarch ought to do;
But many a king on a first-class throne,
If he wants to call his crown his own,
Must manage somehow to get through
More dirty work than e'er I do,

    For I am a Pirate King!

And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a Pirate King!

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Minus Threeth Normal Form

A list. In a string. In a field. In a table. In a relational database. With seventy-four million records.

A line-feed delimited list. Containing entries that are themselves lists. With data-dependent delimiters. Wonderful delimiters, like " --> ", for example. It's as if Codd had never lived.

You're not supposed to have to write parsers to pull data out of a database. That's the whole [bad word] point of [bad word] databases.

Mind you, the people responsible have been sacked. That's why I get to work on it.

Well, at least it's not nibble-aligned.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 02:25 AM | Comments (6) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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Monday, November 17



One of the few things that is working flawlessly is my new DVD writer - the Pioneer 106. A good thing too, as I am now burning my 103rd DVD. I've had two coasters so far - one my fault: There's a thin plastic protective film at the bottom of the stack of DVDs, and it don't work so good if you put that in the DVD writer along with the blank disk - and one Windows' fault: It decided to lock up completely in the middle of writing a disk.

And it's amazing what you'll find, sifting through a terabyte of stuff collected over seven years. Look, it's the Apollo Launch version of Fly Me To The Moon from Evangelion! I thought I'd lost that in the great File Corruption Scandal of '02.

Yes, an eight-minute dance mix of Fly Me To The Moon. Well, I like it, anyway. Kiss me please!

You are all I long for,
All I worsip and adore.


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Sunday, November 16


Double Dang

/dev/hda in my little Linux firewall/gateway/server box is dying as I type.

Gotta be the heat. 36C here in Sydney today. Don't think it liked that much.

Fortunately, it's mirrored. Um, was mirrored. Sigh.

It's not dead, mind you; two of the partitions - /usr and, uh, /pixy - have been failed out on one side of the mirror. The other partitions - /, /home, /var and so on - seem happy enough. It may be just a bad sector or two. In fact, I suspect that the same thing happened to the other drives, and once I finish backing everything up I'll be able to confirm that.

Except for the new Maxtor drive, which simply would not format, and has been sent back under warranty.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 07:22 AM | Comments (2) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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I still don't have NAT working, so I've decided to plug the modem straight into the Linux server rather than the router. Only, the Linux server only had one ethernet port, and it doesn't like the Netgear 511 that I gave it. And all my spare 510s are in the firewall at work.

Let's see what's in the parts bin... A D-Link 530TX, and a 3Com 905C. Well, one of those should work. Init 0...

Update: Pixy's tip of the day: If your Linux box doesn't want to recognise a new network card, try yanking out the old one first. Then, after booting with no network cards at all, shut down and put both cards in together.

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Saturday, November 15



My Netgear router is now curled up peacefully on the rug next to my D-Link modem. Awwww. How sweet.

Yay! Internet access everywhere! Pity I wiped the router settings and NAT doesn't work anymore!

But that's easy to fix.

Update: Err, no it's not.

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Friday, November 14



Mozilla 1.6a is out.

It's good.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 02:11 PM | No Comments | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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