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?
Yes.
Everything's going to be fine.

Saturday, June 21

Geek

Campbell's Condensed Geek

Neverwinter Nights, Bioware's fairly nifty multi-player Dungeons and Dragons game, is now available for Linux!:
CD-Key: You will have to purchase a copy of the game to get a valid Neverwinter Nights CD-Key. Of course, with this purchase you also get a lovely Neverwinter Nights mapkin, a spiral-bound game manual, and three plastic-coated aluminum-reinforced W1nd0z3 brand coasters.
Yay!

And Shadows of Undrentide, the first Neverwinter Nights expansion, is expected to arrive in Australia next week.

Yay!

And there's another new hardcover D&D rulebook out: Ghostwalk:

Ghostwalk contains everything needed to run a stand-alone campaign in and around the city of Manifest, or to integrate it into an existing world, including rules for playing ghost characters and advancing in the new eidolon and eidoloncer classes, several new prestige classes, over 70 new feats and 65 new spells, three complete adventures, four highly detailed encounter sites, and fourteen new monsters and templates.
That makes, what, 24 official 3rd Edition hardcover rulebooks? Not counting unofficial stuff, softcover stuff, D20 stuff...

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Geek

Internet Time

It would seem that Apple accidentally leaked the specs for their new PowerMac G5 systems, due to be officially announced on Monday.

So far, business as usual.

The interesting thing is that within hours of the accident, someone set up a CafePress store selling items that would only appeal to true geeks.

Nice specs, tho'.

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Thursday, June 12

Geek

Hackers, Old Style

Web site of the Day is the MIT Hack Gallery. As they say:
The word hack at MIT usually refers to a clever, benign, and "ethical" prank or practical joke, which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community (and sometimes even the rest of the world!). Note that this has nothing to do with computer (or phone) hacking (which we call "cracking").
Some favourites:
The Great Droid
Trogdor the Burninator in Post-It Notes
The Elevator in the Basement
The Gnome Infestation
There are many more, with pictures. There's a Best Of page too, which might be a good place to start.

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Geek

ROT F, L

This week's New Scientist notes that the Alpha Five database package (I've heard of Meta 4, but not of Alpha Five) uses the extension .sex for its files:
As a result, the template directory of this program included filenames such as: "Gift entry.sex, Invited guests.sex, Party budget.sex, Classes to instructors.sex, Classes to students.sex, Recipes.sex, People - Activities.sex, Employees.sex" and much more.
The Motorola 6809 microprocessor, as used in the Tandy Color Computer (my first computer!), had a sign extend instruction; the assembly language mnemonic for which was, reasonably enough, SEX. Sign extend extended a signed 8-bit number to a signed 16-bit number. Due to the way twos-complement arithmetic works, this involves filling the leading byte with either zeroes or ones depending on whether the number was positive or negative. Which is probably more than you wanted to know about the subject, so lets get on with story:
DEC's engineers nearly got a PDP-11 assembler that used the SEX mnemonic out the door at one time, but (for once) marketing wasn't asleep and forced a change. That wasn't the last time this happened, either. The author of "The Intel 8086 Primer", who was one of the original designers of the 8086, noted that there was originally a SEX instruction on that processor, too. He says that Intel management got cold feet and decreed that it be changed, and thus the instruction was renamed CBW and CWD (depending on what was being extended). Amusingly, the Intel 8048 (the microcontroller used in IBM PC keyboards) is also missing straight SEX but has logical-or and logical-and instructions ORL and ANL.
That's just one of about a squillion little bits of geek humour to be found in the Jargon File, including the wonderful tales Robin Hood and Friar Tuck and The Story of Mel:
A recent article devoted to the macho side of programming
made the bald and unvarnished statement:

        Real Programmers write in FORTRAN.

Maybe they do now,
in this decadent era of
Lite beer, hand calculators, and "user-friendly'' software
but back in the Good Old Days,
when the term "software'' sounded funny
and Real Computers were made out of drums and vacuum tubes,
Real Programmers wrote in machine code.
Not FORTRAN. Not RATFOR. Not, even, assembly language.
Machine Code.
Raw, unadorned, inscrutable hexadecimal numbers.
Directly.

If you are a geek, or love a geek, or just want to understand geeks better, you really need to read The Story of Mel. The jargon file describes it thus:
This is one of hackerdom's great heroic epics, free verse or no. In a few spare images it captures more about the esthetics and psychology of hacking than all the scholarly volumes on the subject put together.
And also notes that:
The original submission to the net was not in free verse, nor any approximation to it -- it was straight prose style, in non-justified paragraphs. In bouncing around the net it apparently got modified into the "free verse" form now popular. In other words, it got hacked on the net. That seems appropriate, somehow.
Go forth and read, while I scour the net for new irony.

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Wednesday, June 11

Geek

Useless Motherboard Features

The Useless Motherboard Feature of the Day Award goes to Gigabyte for their GA-7NNXP, GA-8PENXP, and GA-8KNXP. Why's that?, you ask. I'll tell you. The GA-7NNXP has four memory sockets. How many memory modules do you think you can use with it?

Wrong. Guess again. That's right, three.

Similarly, the GA-8KNXP has six memory sockets. How many can you use? Yes, that's right. Four.

The 8KNXP's problem is actually understandable: The chipset supports two channels, and each channel supports four banks of memory. A double sided module - and almost all modules are double-sided - has two banks. Which means you can only use two modules. Unless you happen to have single-sided modules lying around. There's no point in buying single-sided modules, because they have half the capacity of the double-sided ones but cost rather more than half as much.

The 7NNXP also has two channels. One channel can apparently support four banks of memory, and the other... Well, the 7NNXP (and the five other boards in the same family) is the only Nforce motherboard I've seen with four memory sockets; all the others have three. It would seem that the second channel can only support two banks. If you plug three 512MB double-sided modules into a 7NNXP, you get the expected 1.5GB, but because the memory isn't balanced across the channels, it doesn't work in dual channel mode. If you add a fourth module, you still have 1.5GB of memory - it disables one side on each of the third and fourth modules - and it still doesn't work in dual-channel mode.

Gah. What's the point? Apart from the four people in the world who happen to already have DDR400 single-sided modules that they aren't using, who needs this? And why isn't there a big notice on Gigabyte's site saying "extra memory sockets will not work for most users"?

Grumble. I'm upset mostly because these looked like really nice boards. As it stands, there's nothing really to set them apart from boards from the other manufactures like AOpen, Asus, Abit, Albatron, Asrock... Except that Gigabyte starts with a 'G'.

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Friday, June 06

Geek

An Outbreak of Sanity

I've commented before on Australia's insanely expensive internet access. At the time I mentioned Comindico, and their unlimited usage plans.

I have a problem with unlimited usage plans. First, the ISP will certainly not have enough bandwidth to allow everyone to run at full speed all the time. Comindico appear to oversell their bandwidth 30 times; in other words, they provision 1.5Mbits of bandwidth to the Internet for every 30 1.5Mbit customers they sign up. That's not unusual, by the way. In fact, many ISPs use higher ratios.

The problem is, by promoting themselves as an all-you-can-eat network, Comindico are likely to attract the big eaters. If everyone is constantly downloading as fast as they can, everyone will get 50 kilobits per second. That's dial-up speed.

And the other problem is that if you give something away for free, people don't value it. Why curb your downloads when they don't cost you anything? It's the tragedy of the commons yet again.

Which is why I was interested to note that three ISPs - Swiftel, Optraweb and CyberLink - have now announced new plans with drastically cheaper - but not free - downloads.

The plans are almost identical, so I suspect there's some sort of resale deal going on. Quick summary:

SpeedIncluded
Downloads
Monthly
Charge
Excess
per MB
Included
Uploads
IP Address
256/642GB$450.6cUnlimitedStatic
512/1286GB$650.6cUnlimitedStatic
512/5126GB$1250.6cUnlimitedStatic
1500/25610GB$1250.6cUnlimitedStatic
256/64Unlimited$75n/aUnlimitedStatic

Yes, that's zero point six cents per megabyte. Compare that to the 14.9 cents charged by my current ISP.

Also nice to see is the 512/512 SDSL plan. At first glance, this has no real advantages for the average user. But when you think about it, ADSL forces us all into the category of consumers: with limited upload rates we're permanent second-class internet citizens. SDSL means that you can run your own web server or file sharing, and give as good as you get. In fact, these plans are perfect for hobbyists or small businesses running their own web sites, as they all include a static IP address and unlimited uploads.

So, am I going to switch? Yes. Probably yes. I'd have to give up my free night-time and weekend downloads. But I think I can cope with that; after all, Buffy's over now; no more to download. And I'm probably going to switch to the 512/512 while I'm at it. Hosting providers, who needs them?

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Geek

Yes, We Have No GA-7NNXP

It's not my fault that Google keeps pointing people to Ambient Irony when they are really looking for reviews of the GA-7NNXP. And I'm not the kind of person who would stoop to using this to boost my reader count. If you are looking for a review of the GA-7NNXP, I still can't help you. But if you live in Australia, Eyo now have stock of the GA-7NNXP ($352) and the GA-7N400V Pro ($280.50). The latter board lacks Gigabit ethernet and 6-phase power, and only supports 333MHz memory and FSB, but it does include dual-channel GeForce4MX graphics.
He called his rescue racer crew
As often they'd rehearsed
And off to save the boy they flew
But who would get there first?
The GA-7NNXP, of course! With dual-channel DDR-400 memory, it flies through the benchmarks!

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Geek

Gadget File

Played with a couple of interesting gadgets recently.

On my way home from work yesterday, I noticed that my local Apple dealer had a little stall set up in the shopping mall I pass through. And, nestled between two Powerbooks, there was the new iPod, singing the siren song from the start of Pufnstuf:

Come and play with me, Jimmy
Come and play with me.
And I will take you on a trip
Far across the sea.
My name's not Jimmy, but hey, whatever. My current MP3 player is a Sony Picturebook. This has the advantage of being a full blown PC, so not only does it play music, but also Nethack, the Sims, videos, Microsoft Word... It has the major disadvantage, though, that it runs Windows XP. While XP is at least a real operating system (unlike Windows ME, which just played one on television), it is a big fat mooing cow of an operating system. A nifty gadget like the Picturebook needs a frolicking lamb-like operating system, like OS-9 or AmigaOS. But it's got Windows XP. So while it works, it's not exactly convenient if you just want to put on your headphones and listen to a tune or three.

The first thing that struck me about the iPod is how small it is. Looking at the pictures on Apple's web site don't really give you any guide to the size, so let me tell you: It's small. It's maybe one-tenth the size of my Picturebook, and the Picturebook is one of the smallest and lightest notebooks around.

Second, it looks better in real life than on the web. The finish is very clean; it's clearly a well-designed and well-constructed item.

The flea in the ointment is the controls. Apple make a big fuss about how the new controls are touch-sensitive, with no moving parts to wear out or break down. The down side of having no moving parts, though, is that you get no tactile feedback whatsoever. Is it doing something when I push here? Oh, look, the screen scrolled! How... novel.

Still tempting, though. Still very tempting.

The other gadget was somewhat larger: A dual-processor Athlon MP 2400+, kitted out with a 3Ware RAID controller and 8 Western Digital 200GB drives. Only 1GB of memory, because the supplier was out of stock of the 1GB memory modules. It came with two 512MB modules for the time being.

This is not a slow box. It's destined to house about a terabyte of archival data, and run various searches and reports. I was wondering just how long it would take Linux to format a 1.05 terabyte RAID-5 volume.

The answer is: Rather less time than it takes Windows XP to format a new 80GB drive on my home machine. This was easily the quickest Linux install I've done; I've never seen the progress meter go flickety-flickety quite like that. If you have a terabyte of data that needs a home, and a modest budget, then this sort of system is highly recommended.

From her broom broom in the sky
She watched her plans materialize
She waved her wand
The beautiful boat was gone
The skies grew dark
The sea grew rough
And the boat sailed on and on and on and on and on and on.
Not quite so impressive, though, is Red Hat's disk partitioning utility. For some unfathomable reason, rather than clicking to select the drive that a particular filesystem will live on, you have to click to turn off all the drives that you don't want it to live on. This gets tired quickly when you have eight drives in the system. No, I do not want this filesystem on /dev/sdb. No, I do not want this filesystem on /dev/sdc. No, I do not... Maybe they've improved things in version 9; I was installing 8.0, since I know that release works with the software I want to run. Red Hat 9 seems to work, but I'm not about to rebuild a terabyte of data due to some minor incompatibility.

No, I do not want this filesystem on /dev/sde. No, I do not...

With all my filesystems RAIDed, and my old-fogey habits of having separate partitions for separate things - so that when something inevitably runs amok, it doesn't trash everything in one go - with those two put together, I had about 30 partitions to create. No, I do not want this filesystem on /dev/sdg...

Oh, and you know how if you have, say, 28GB of free space on a drive, you can allocate it easily to a new partition by double-clicking on it? Don't do that.

Sigh. Reboot. Keyboard-Mouse-English-Custom-No, I do not want this filesystem on /dev/sdb...

It took me longer to get the partitions set up than it did to format 1.6TB of disk. That's good, I suppose. But I just know that my next dream will involve check boxes that just won't stay turned off. NO DAMMIT! I DO NOT WANT THIS FILESYSTEM ON /DEV/SDC!!

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Tuesday, June 03

Geek

Video Cards 'R' Us

For a couple of years it was easy to recommend a video card: just buy whatever Nvidia had in your price range. After a somewhat awkward start with the NV1, Nvidia shot to the lead of the graphics market and stayed there . Competitors like 3DFX went broke trying to catch up. Others abandoned the broader market to try to carve comfortable niches for themselves at the periphery. As the GeForce 2, 3 and 4 rolled out, Nvidia looked unstoppable.

Then something happened. ATI came from behind and started narrowing the gap very quickly indeed. Nvidia needed a new chip to show that they were still the undisputed champions of the graphics world, they needed it to be fast, and the needed it now.

What they got was the GeForce FX: late, expensive, absurdly power hungry, and not all that much faster than the previous model. Meanwhile ATI rolled on, launching new models in all directions: the 9000, the 9200, the 9500, the 9500 Pro, the 9600, the 9700, the 9700 Pro, the 9800... Of course, a 9500 Pro is faster than the 9600. Is a 9700 Pro faster than a 9800? Who knows?

Dan does. At Dansdata he delves deep into the question of which video card, without - and this is important - without bludgeoning you to death with statistics and misleading bar-graphs. (Hardware reviewers should be forced to read Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information before they are allowed anywhere near a keyboard.)

If you're not looking for a new graphics card right now (and if you shelled out for a GeForce4 4600 Ultra last year like me, I can't blame you), then you obviously need either (a) a tiny radio controlled tank, (b) a really nifty collection of nifty magnets, or (c) a kitten. Warning: Purchasing two or more of these simultaneously may prove hazardous to your continued well-being.

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Sunday, June 01

Geek

Neverwinter Update

I've been looking over the white cliffs of... no.

I've been taking closer look at the various hakpacks developed for Neverwinter Nights. At first, I thought that not that much had changed in the last few months. Then I realised that I was looking in the wrong place. Then I found the right place.

Yow. People have been busy.

I like the looks of this swamp. This strange city is cool too. Here's an alternate version of the standard dungeon. These drylands tilesets are a welcome change from the standard greenery. Drow fans will find this castle and this temple rewarding. And I quite liked this nicely decorated castle.

Here's a list of all of the general-purpose tilesets - there's 173 of them - and another list of the tilesets tied to specific adventures. There's 213 of those. The original game came with eight. There are also 58 combination tilesets, getting around the problem of only being able to use one tileset at a time, and 37 all-in-one tilesets. I'm not sure how you can have 37 different all-in-ones, but there you are.

Update: Here's a view of the Elemental Plane of Cheese. And here are some Cheese Elementals. These are Nacho Cheese Elementals:

This is what happens when you over microwave nacho cheese, and it becomes a planar vortex to the plane of cheese. Or there may be other reasons, but oh well. They Burn people to death with their boiling cheesiness!
I'm sure they do! Here's a Ninja Cow. There's also a nattily dressed Cow Wizard, but I seem to have lost it.

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