Friday, April 29, 2011

What is it with barbecues?

April has favoured us with some prematurely fine weather so we had our inaugural barbecue of the year this evening.

For any normal meal we would generally decide on a meat component and build on that.  Perhaps we would enjoy a beef dish or a chicken dish or a fish dish.  Once the idea of barbecuing is mentioned however  all concept of dietary reasonableness goes out the window: "Steak is good on a barbecue so lets have some of that and some chicken and some sausages and some barbecued salmon  while we are at it.  Don't forget the chicken wings and we need  peppers and mushrooms and onions and potatoes and plenty of crusty white bread while we are at it."

Choosing to serve a green salad on the side does not compensate. 

What would you say to a cyber criminal?

I am sitting at my PC having just hung up the phone following a conversation with a cyber criminal.

I was working at my pc when the phone rang. I picked up and a woman introduced herself as  representing "Online Computer Security" or something like that. The lady had an Asian accent and the line was quite poor so I guess the call may have originated from somewhere in Asia. She proceeded to tell me that they had detected numerous internet problems originating from my computer and  that she would be able to fix it.

Thankfully I was somewhat awake and realised that this was a scam. What should I do? Hang up the phone or perhaps try to get more details to forward on to the police? In the heat of the moment I saw red and my temper took over. While she was explaining to me how important it was to allow her to "fix my computer" (no doubt by downloading a virus from some website) I let rip:

"You are an unpleasant person and you work for an unpleasant company", I said,  "What you are doing is illegal and immoral. You might not be punished for it in this world but you will certainly be punished for it in the next".

Then I hung up.

I realise of course that this lady is probably just an underpaid lackey working in a sweatshop but I still got some satisfaction from my outburst. It is not often that you get the chance to talk in person to a scammer. I am also naive enough to believe that the little folks who work at the coal face of crime are more likely to be moved by an accusation of immorality than the bosses who exploit them.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Playstation Network Data Breach

It is not that long since any reference to gaming in the mainstream media was accompanied by a picture of a dribbling youth clutching fiercely to a 1980's era joystick so it is something of a surprise to see that the Playstation Network data breach is headline news here in Ireland today. Even more surprisingly the mainstream radio channels I have listened to have had quite sensible analyses of the breach and what it may mean for affected customers. In this respect they are even ahead of the normal techie news channels like Slashdot.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How much do you spend on games?

Portal 2 has been released to high accolades and fan fair (and the inevitable bit of controversy). It is a game I would like to play. It is a game I intend to play. Yet I am not playing it. Noticing that several of my friends on Steam were playing the game I thought about this and wondered why I wasn't joining them. The answer is very simple - it is too expensive for me at the moment. This is not a rant against the economics game industry or any part of it, It is purely a statement of my own personal situation and a query perhaps as to whether anyone else finds them self in a similar situation. 

What it boils down to is this: I spend about 20 hours every week playing games yet games come pretty far down the priority list of household expenditure. It isn't that we are badly off but I just don't feel comfortable spending more than  €50 or so on game purchases every month (last year for example I spent less than €400 on games). I need to squeeze 80 hours of gaming out of that €50 so a game that costs €49.99 for a dozen hours of game-play just doesn't make sense for me unless it is a very special occasion (perhaps Christmas or a birthday).

I will  play Portal 2, it's just that I will have to wait a few months until it comes down in price or is put on sale.

Is my situation unusual? Am I the only gamer who likes to play a lot of games while keeping to a tight budget?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Where are all the weekend bloggers?

One of the disappointments of this here new fangled internet is that the whole of the blogosphere seems to go asleep at 6pm on Friday and not wake up again until 8am Monday morning. I realise that for many of us reading and writing blog posts is an activity best carried out during business hours when we are supposed to be gainfully employed doing something else but I feel it is time to move on from that. Our brains have become so accustomed to a ceaseless flow of digitally transmitted information that this 48 hour break at the end of every seven days has become intolerable. I call for an end to this quietude. Today is Saturday. Blog I say. Blog like you have never blogged before!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Solved! The mystery of the dissappearing app tabs.

App tabs is a lovely feature of Firefox 4. It allows you to sticky tabs turning them into small icons on the left hand side of your tab bar. Firefox will remember your stickied tabs between sessions.  I make gmail an app tab for example and every time I run Firefox there is the gmail tab waiting for me unobtrusively in the top left hand corner of my screen. I find the feature less obtrusive and yet more useful than the speed dial feature in Opera because you don't have ot go to the home page to get your frequently used tabs.

Unfortunately the current incarnation of app tabs don't seem to be as sticky as you would like them to be.One issue is that they start up to the last page you viewed in the tab rather than your chosen page. The app tab for Gmail for example is likely to show you the email you were reading the last time you shut down Firefox.  Another annoyance is that Firefox sync doesn't sync app tabs between different computers. The most infuriating feature however is that Firefox regularly seems to forget all my app tabs forcing me to set them up all over again.

Until today I couldn't figure out why this was happening. Most of the time app tabs worked great but once every few days I would open the browser to find my special tabs gone. Searching on google pointed to the fact that Firefox stores its app tabs in recent browser history and the clear history button also wipes app tabs. While this is not ideal it is not the cause of my disappearing tabs because I never clear my browser history. Today I finally stumbled across the explanation in this post on Mozilla forums.

The answer relates to the fact that Firefox stores the last state of your app tabs every time you close down. If you open multiple browser windows then it will only remember your app tabs if the last window you close has the app tabs. I use two monitors on my computer and occasionally I will spawn a second browser window to compare pages side by side. Only the main window has app tabs. If I close the main window first and the daughter window last then all my app tabs disappear.

Now that I know why this happens I can hopefully remember not to do it again but I do think it would be better if app tabs were defined in a more permanent way. If I can find a useful way of making this suggestion on Mozilla's forums I will.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Continuing Browser Confusion

I have ended my brief flirtation with Firefox for Android. Its current incarnation suffers from painfully slow page rendering and the re-formating for the small screen leaves a lot to be desired. Opera Mini 6 for Android on the other hand has turned into a really great browser now that the initial bugs have been eliminated. Opera mini 6 has lightning fast page rendering and a much improved tab implementation compared to Opera 5. Tabs now load properly in the background allowing you to read one page while the next loads in the background. It supports proper pinch zoom as well as double tap to reformat the current paragraph to fit the screen.  The page reformating is the best I have seen on any mobile browser and really enhances mobile browsing. I played around with Safari on my wife's Iphone and it really misses this feature. Sadly Opera mini 6 is not available on the Iphone yet.

Moving back to Opera mini on the phone tempted me to try Opera 11 on my desktop. Opera 11 doesn't feel all that different to Opera 10 but it seems to have much better compatibility with the few pages that caused me problems in 10. 

Unfortunately a bug of some kind is preventing me from installing Opera 11 on my main gaming machine so now I use a mishmash of  Opera and Firefox depending on which machine I am on. I actually prefer the look and feel of Firefox 4 without exactly knowing why. The app tabs feature has grown on me although they are not as sticky as I would like. Every so often my app tabs disappear for reasons I haven't been able to fathom. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How I learned to love Expensive Cables and other Rip Offs.

I am looking for a hdmi cable so yesterday I wandered into a major home entertainment store to see if they had the cable I need. Sure enough they had a big stand of hdmi cables between the home theatre systems and flat screen TVs. It was a slightly heavier sell than I expected for a simple cable. A multi-screen display looped a presentation eulogising the benefits of hdmi and stressing the importance of choosing the right cable for the job. It was pretty clear from the presentation that the "right cable" was the top of the range "ultimate super duper awesome adamantium plated" cable costing a staggering €120. If you are a cheapskate and prepared to take chances with your shiny new home theatre system you could always settle for the lowly "super duper gold plated" cable costing only €80.

Now I am an electrical engineer and I know that hdmi is a purely digital protocol.  As long as the cable has sufficient bandwidth to carry the digital signals the metre or so from your player to your TV you will get perfect transmission and no amount of adamantium in the cable is going to make it any better. Professional studios might need cables that are designed to take more abuse, to carry the signal over longer distances or to survive many insertions but for the average home user a €5 cable bought on Ebay is just as good as that €120 cable.

Don't get me wrong. I fully understand that for many non tech savvy customers it is often better to pay more for a product that is easier to use or comes with better support. Microsoft Windows for example is a better choice for the vast majority of users than Ubuntu even though the latter is free. This is a frigging cable however. You plug it in and forget it and two seconds of advice from the sales assistant to make sure you have  the right connector at each end is not worth €120.

I nearly ran out of the shop fuming with anger. Clearly they are duping non savvy customers into buying ludicrously expensive cables they don't need. It is probably a very easy scam to run too: "Now that you have bought our €1500 home entertainment system make sure you get a really good (€120) cable to hook it all up."

I was so incensed by this that I looked it up on the internet and sure enough it seems to be a universal phenomenon that high street shops only sell over priced hdmi cables. My anger subsided a bit when I stumbled across this short blog post on the subject by Alex Tabarrok in which he refers to the hidden fee model of Xavier Gabaix and David Laibson. The expensive hdmi cable phenomenon is just another example of  a business practise where a competitively priced big ticket item comes with a lot of expensive add ons: Hotel room phone and mini bar charges, extended warranties, and printer inks are cited as other examples. Naive customers are attracted by the competitive offering on the big ticket item but then spend too much on the add ons.

Gabaix and Laibson's paper is particularly interesting because they show that even though the market is operating inefficiently there is no incentive for a competitor to  challenge the practice. The retailer is using the margin on the expensive cables to subsidise the price of their TVs and Blue Ray players. A competitor who offers cheap cables will not be able to compete on the big ticket items because they don't have the subsidy. Even if the competitor aggressively advertises the scam they still won't win because educated customers will continue to buy the cheap subsidised TVs.

Why am I not angry any more? Well because the nub of this story is that the retailer is not really making a killing. They are using the expensive cables to subsidise cheaper TVs and Blue Ray players. The only people making a killing are tech savvy folk who know enough to buy the subsidised home theatre system in a major retailer and then head around the corner to a local electronics shop for a cheap cable. The only people making a killing are people like me. Less tech savvy folk are directly subsiding my purchases. Alex Taborrok somewhat cruelly calls it an Idiot Tax and IQ Subsidy.

Roll on overpriced cables I say. I certainly never intend to buy one but I am a beneficiary of them.

Edit: A bit more googling has convinced me that hdmi cable does not have error checking which is somewhat surprising for a digital protocol but it means that the system cannot automatically compensate for cable losses.  Nevertheless the point still remains that a digital cable will give perfect transmission up to the point at which signal distortion is so severe that individual bits can no longer be detected. It is like a cliff effect with a cable working very well up to a certain length beyond which there is severe signal deterioration with sparklies and drop-outs. The typical 1m to 2m home cable comes nowhere near this limit so €120 cable is still pointless.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gaming Update

I haven't been slacking on the game front despite the lack of gaming news on this blog. Last week I completed the single player campaigns of Aliens versus Predator (2010 version) while this weekend has seen me playing Just Cause 2 and dipping briefly back into Lotro.

AvP is an enjoyable shooter with the standard three campaigns: alien human and predator. The atmosphere and game play do not match up to the ten year old AvP2 unfortunately but the game is still worth picking up if you can get it on sale. I didn't play any multiplayer but the characters are so imbalanced that it is had to see how that would work out. Predators are ridiculously over powered. By the end of the game you have the ability to make one shot kills from stealth without breaking stealth.

I have only just started Just Cause 2 and so far it feels like Red Faction Guerilla on steroids: Zipping around a huge island by means of every form of transport imaginable, causing mayhem wherever I go. The storyline missions seem almost irrelevant in comparison.

Don't know if I am seriously going back to Lotro. I just poped in to say hello to my kin and have a look at the latest book story.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Thoughts inspired by a comparison of Android and Iphone

I have had a Samsung Galaxy S Android phone since Christmas. My wife acquired an Iphone 4 two weeks ago. We both love our phones but one annoyance for me was how much more responsive the Iphone feels in use. The Samsung running stock 2.2 Android Froyo would often lag and feel sluggish.

I solved the lag by installing a custom Android kernel called SpeedMod which performs much behind the scenes magic without disturbing the front end user interface. It is a terrific mod which makes the phone fly. I can now whizz around my Android with the same speed and grace that my wife navigates her Iphone.

Installing the mod is not for the faint hearted however. You need to break into the operating system through a process called rooting which almost certainly invalidates your warranty. I spent hours trawling hacker forums and websites gleaning the relevant information and further hours figuring out how to back up the rom before I started so I that I could reverse the process should the need ever arise. (By the way you may also need this to get Rom Manager to work.)

While the results are impressive there is no way I could recommend this complicated process to the average user and this highlights a key dilemma of the Android phenomenon. Android is a mass market product with a total installed base that surpassed Iphone some time ago. Yet the average user does will not have the competence to get the best experience from their Android device.

I don't actually blame Google or Samsung's engineers for not making a product as polished as an Iphone. It seems to me that this is a consequence of the curious hybrid of closed and open technology models that Android has become. Apple's fully closed technology allows their engineers to control every aspect of the user experience on a very limited set of hardware and fine tune it to perfection. Android is an open operating system appearing on a much wider range of platforms and it is no surprise that the user experience is not as finely polished on any one of them.

Open source can solve this problem - an army of talented coders are busy tweaking and modifying to come up with refinements that make it as good as if not better than anything Apple can provide.

Unfortunately Android and Android products are not fully open source. Google and handset manufacturers have locked down their individual products in ways that make it difficult for the man in the street to enjoy the full benefit of this open source creativity unless they are prepared to delve into the geeky world of phone modding.

There is talk in recent times that Google are moving towards a more closed technology model as they extend Android into the Tablet market. The logic is that by exercising greater control over the platforms that Android appears on Google will be able to deliver a more polished product. I can understand that logic but I think it is still flawed: Android will still have to support dozens of different products while Apple need only support two. Apple's engineers will always have a much easier job delivering a polished user experience.

Why not go the other way I wonder? Make products that are even more open and provide a very simple way to install custom hacks and improvements. Perhaps a single password would give root access and allow a user to download new firmware from the Android market. Maybe manufacturer's are worried about the support nightmare arising from ill informed users downloading completely inappropriate software but they could provide a fail-safe method of returning the device to a factory condition saved in non volatile memory.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

New Graphics Card (except it's an old graphics card!)

It is two and a quarter years since I last replaced my gaming graphics card. This is something of a personal record and I take some credit for wisely choosing a card with such longevity (a 1Gb Radeon 4850). I have to admit though that the PC gaming scene has changed considerably from the days when every new title was expected to push graphics cards to their bleeding edge. Today my aging card comfortably handles every game I throw at it. Nevertheless technology pushes on and when even even a lightweight title like Magicka demands a minimum of a 512MB 8800GTS then it is probably no harm to keep an eye out for a possible upgrade.

My normal rule when buying graphics cards is to look for a good card around the €200 mark with extra graphics ram if possible. Such cards generally offer excellent performance for the money while the additional memory helps a lot with longevity. Today however I have just ordered a card costing closer to €100 than €200 and it has the same 1 Gb of graphics ram as my existing 4850.

What happened to cause me to break my own rule? The Sapphire Radeon 5850 Extreme happened. The 5850 is actually a high end card from last year that would have set you back some €250 in its day but it has been superseded by-newer shinier cards in the meantime. Sapphire however have pulled a master-stroke and have released a limited edition of the 5850 with a great low noise cooler for a give-away price. This card easily outperforms later generation cards like the Nvidia 460 and ATI 6850 that cost 50% more.

What do you lose by not buying a more up to date card? Well the later ATI cards support some form of 3D display a feature I am unlikely to ever need and of course you eschew PhysX support if you don't buy an Nvidia card. If you can live with those minor limitations then this is an outstanding graphics card bargain.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Adobe drm, epub, Android, Aldiko, ebook lending libraries, how to

How to download and read adobe epub books including library books using Aldiko reader on your Android phone.

In a previous post I described how I have become an e-book convert and my reader of choice is Aldiko on my Android phone. One of the big advantages of Aldiko is its support for Adobe drm epub which seems to offer a wider choice than Amazon's kindle format and is also the format supported by many e-book lending libraries. Sadly using Aldiko with Adobe drm is not as easy as Amazon's one click purchase and download. In my last post I described a complicated process involving downloading the book on the PC first. Unfortunately this process let me down when I tried to borrow an ebook from my library because library books seem to have an even more restrictive form of Adobe drm which restricts reading to the device the book is downloaded to. Happily I have now discovered that you can download Adobe epub books directly into Aldiko from any website. Here is how:

I use Aldiko Premium on my phone so this may or may not work with the free version.

If the book you want has adobe drm first make sure you have created an adobe account and are logged into it. Bookshelf - menu button - settings - Adobe drm.

Now we need to add the website of your library or online book store to Aldiko: Bookshelf - Home button (top left)- My catalogues - "+" (top right) - Enter a
title of your choice for this entry - enter the URL (web address leaving out the http://) e.g

You should find yourself in a simple web browser viewing the home page of your library or online book store. You will probably have to log into an account in order to download books. Navigate to your list of ebooks and press the download link for the title of your choice.

If all goes well as long as you do the download from within Aldiko it should automatically add the book to your bookshelf. As an added bonus the library/book store you used should be there for future use as a new catalogue accessible from the home screen.

Note: Most ebook stores and libraries separate the process of adding the book to your account from the process of downloading it. You probably have to go through a basket and checkout process to add the book to your store account before you can download it. I wonder if this is because of Amazon's infamous one click patent. In any case it means you are not constrained to using the crude Aldiko browser to buy books and add them to your store account, you can use any browser you want. You do have to use Aldiko to do the actual download though once the book is acquired.

Note: Many book stores and libraries have a mobile view which may or may not simplify the process of browsing on your mobile device. My local library's mobile view is quite useful. Waterstone's mobile view is very poor and does not seem to support ebooks in any form. There is usually a link at the bottom of the page to turn mobile view on and off. Try both to see which works best for you.

Note: My public library (and others as far as I know) recommend the Overdrive media browser for reading e-books. Overdrive is a nice app that makes it very easy to browse libraries and download and play audio books and ebooks from libraries. Unfortunately the epub reader in Overdrive is painfully slow on my phone. It takes 3 seconds or more to turn a page which doesn't sound like much but really breaks up the flow of reading. Aldiko is just slicker and faster.

Note: Life is never simple and I encountered another difficulty with accessing my public library from within Aldiko: It hung at the login screen. Here is a fix that works for me: Run Aldiko and access my library from the catalogue menu. Try to log in and the screen goes blank. Open the normal android browser which can be accessed quickly from the menu of the Aldiko browser. Login with the normal browser (note I get a security cert error which is probably the reason this is causing problems but the normal browser allows me to accept it anyway). Now return to Aldiko by holding the home key until you get a list of open apps and go to Aldiko. Aldiko is still looking at a blank screen but if you go back two pages (using the menu back button) you will find you are logged in and can download books.

Note: This post sure has a lot of notes. If you are interested in ebook reading check out this great wiki: Of particular interest is their long list of lending libraries which loan out ebooks.

Apparently I have a coffee problem

 A couple of weeks ago my wife alerted me to the fact that I had developed an occasional odour problem. This surprised and distressed me som...