Now? You want to do this now?
I have a right to know! I'm getting married in four hundred and thirty years!

Sunday, November 30


I Laugh At Your Pathetic Computer

Tropico 2 recommends a 2GHz or faster Pentium 4.
Railroad Tycoon 3 recommends a 2GHz or faster Pentium 4 or Athlon.
The current version of Adobe Premiere* won't run because my processor doesn't support SSE.

Time to upgrade, I think. Oh look, I just happen to have a pile of parts here waiting to be assembled. Pity the motherboard doesn't arrive until Monday...

* I downloaded the trial version.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 07:29 AM | Comments (3) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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Thursday, November 27


Out of Inodes

Not the first thing I suspected when the mysterious errors started appearing. Normally, Linux allocates enough inodes so that you can't possibly run out - you'll always run out of disk space first. But no, clever me has to reduce the number of inodes on this filesystem to save space, because it's never going to be used for strange and unforseen projects that create tens of thousands of tiny files.

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Wednesday, November 26


Getting to Giga

Here's a good article on the future of microprocessor design in the era of billion-transistor chips.

The free ride chip designers got from the lithography* people ended, pretty much, at the 0.25 micron node. One of the big side effects of this is that power consumption is now going up rather than down, as you may have guessed if you have looked inside a late-model computer. The enormous fan bolted directly onto the CPU is something of a giveaway.

My new computer - or at least the processor, since I don't have the rest of the parts just yet - is around four thousand times faster than my faithful Amiga 1000. We're going to see a similar increase in performance over the next 15 years, but it will be a little different this time. We are likely to get more processors rather than just faster ones, and lots of special-function circuits. When you have a billion transistors to play with, but a fixed power budget, the priorities for the chip designers change drastically.

Um, read the article. It's got pictures! Well, graphs, anyway.

* Lithography means writing in stone. It was invented as a new printing technique in the late 18th century, but the term has now been recycled to mean the production of silicon chips. (Or at least, a key stage in their production.) Ironically, the original stone used for lithography was limestone, which is calcium carbonate and contains no silicon at all.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 11:47 AM | No Comments | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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A Few Million Orders of Magnitude

Dear Dan,

When you say "there are 16.8 million to the power of 307,200 possible images that can be displayed on a 640 by 480, 24 bit screen", you are of course correct, but when you continue "and to display all of them, you'd need 2400 televisions showing 25 frames per second for eight billion years", you are off by a very considerable margin.

Those 2400 televisions, in that time, could display 15,147,648,000,000,000,000,000 frames - a 23-digit number, a little over 15 sextillion.*

But 16.8 million raised to the power of 307,200 is... Well, bc ain't gonna calculate that one for me in a hurry.** Let's call it ten million (7 zeroes) raised to the power of 300,000. That's a 1 followed by 2.1 million zeroes. We're talking big big big numbers here. If every subatomic particle in the Universe was a TV, showing one frame every Planck Time... You wouldn't even be started by the time the entire Universe had dissociated into electron/positron pairs (or collapsed into the Big Crunch, depending on the value of the Cosmological Constant).

But what's a few million orders of magnitude between friends?

*That's an American sextillion, 1021. The old-fashioned British sextillion is 1036, a very much larger number.
** bc just came back with the answer. Of course, this involved a lot of scrolling of the screen - after all, it's just an 80x60 terminal session - but it's pretty impressive.

(I emailed this to Dan, but I thought it would make a nice blog entry as well. Dan's Data is one of the best geek sites around. Dan knows his stuff, knows what's cool (Giant magnets! Tiny tanks! Backyard trebuchets!), and doesn't talk down to the non-geeks.)

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Poxy Little Pillbox

My new modem, the D-Link 302G, the one that turns out the be three quarters of a router as well as a modem, that modem, sucks.

I can't get NAT to work through my real router, the Netgear RO318, because the D-Link, being a router (of sorts) itself, wants to do the NAT. Only, not being a proper router, it won't do it properly, and the two will not play nice together. It's like having to look after a pair of two-year-olds and cook dinner.

So I set up NAT just using the D-Link, only it has the most retarded NAT setup I've ever seen. You can put in a range of local IPs, and a range of global IPs, but you can't put in a range of port numbers to be forwarded untouched. In fact, you have to put in a range of local and global IPs, even though in almost every case you'll only be interested in one of each.

Now, I download a lot of anime, and I use the wonderful BitTorrent program for that. BitTorrent uses ports 6881 through 6889, but I can't just enter that range (as I could with my Netgear router), so I have to enter nine separate rules. And every time I have to type both IP addresses in twice, even though the stupid thing already knows what its global IP is, and even though it doesn't make any sense for me to be specifying a range of local IPs.

So, nine rules for that, one for SSH, one for my web server, one for my mail server, one for DC - and the default rule, without which nothing else works.

Only there's this slight flaw, in that the D-Link 302G DSL modem-and-three-quarters-of-a-router only allows you to enter twelve NAT rules. Oh, that makes a lot of sense. Let's just deliberately cripple this thing, shall we?

Cows. That's all I have to say on the subject. Cows.

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Two-Thirds of a Yay

I have a shiny new Pentium 4 2.60C with HyperThreading™

Only... Only it's just the CPU, because I haven't got around to ordering the motherboard or memory yet.

[Not much good then, is it? — Ed.] Quiet, you.

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Tuesday, November 25


He Shoots! He Scores!

More and more people are getting it every day, at least in terms of the lawsuit SCO v. Right-Thinking People Everywhere. Read this article by Rupert Goodwins on* Scoring SCO's legal games:
With SCO spraying out threats of legal action like a tomcat on diuretics, this latest piece of territorial widdle might seem like an attempt to put the legal frighteners on a competitor rather than a justifiable defense of SCO's core business--unless SCO's core business now is taking people to court. The company is handing over hunks of shares to its lawyers: this can't be ruled out.

But is there anything to it? One may be expert in the details of Linux and Unix, and perhaps understand half what's going on: one may be a commercial lawyer and be comfortable with the other half. Trying to untangle the chimera at the interface of technology and law is enough to send anyone off to take up a simpler job, like quantum chromodynamics.

But hold on before you brush up your Feynman: there is one good thing that's come out of all this. The unofficial nexus of the SCO affair is Groklaw, a bulletin board turned into a Web site. Here, you can find lawyers and code hackers busily engaged in pulling the bones out of every pronouncement that falls from the mouth of Darl McBride, CEO of SCO, and his merry men. SCO says it's sent IBM all the examples of the code it claims IBM infringes in Linux? Well, here's a Unix guy who's shown the 'infringing code' so produced was produced by a simple text search for certain words in the Linux source--and proof of nothing at all.

So, micturating cats, quantum chromodynamics, Feynman and Groklaw, all in three short paragraphs. There is hope for computer journalism after all.

* Are they part of now?

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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.

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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...

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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!

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 03:04 AM | Comments (1) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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