Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dropbox arghhhhh you goofed.

Like many others I have become dependent on Dropbox to share files between the various internet connected devices in my life. A recent update to the mobile version of Dropbox for Android made an such an enormous boo boo that I am surprised that there has been no outcry about it.

To understand the gaff you must understand how Dropbox works on mobile devices. On a normal computer Dropbox keeps a full copy of every file in your Dropbox folder and constantly keeps these files updated via the internet. This approach would be far too expensive in memory and data allowance for a phone so the mobile version of dropbox does not keep a local copy of every file but instead only downloads files to a cache directory as you need them. Once you accept that you have to manually upload and download the system is a reasonable compromise and programs can still work on the copy of the file stored on the cache directory.

So far so good but a recent update to Dropbox made several changes. First they moved the location of the cache from /mnt/sdcard/dropbox to /mnt/android/data/ This change is more of a nuisance than a serious problem because it breaks any links in programmes that used files stored in the cache directory.

The real gaff however was that the update deleted the original cache folder and everything in it. Deleting user data files is always a no no. I was unfortunate enough to be in an area without internet when I realised what had happened and I was rightly annoyed to discover that my offline versions of several key data files had ben deleted. Others may have lost recently changed data files that had not yet been synchronised to the internet.

Terrible move Dropbox. Never delete a user's own data files without warning.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The games of Christmas 2011

I didn't blow the bank this year but nevertheless I have stocked my gaming cupboard quite well between sales, presents and impulse purchasing over the holiday period. The list of acquisitions is as follows:

Orcs Must Die+DLC, Steam, €4.96:
This is great fun, I spent several days playing it and I am still only half way through the campaign. Between Sanctum and his game I have come to the conclusion that I cannot enjoy tower defence unless I actually participate in the action myself alongside the towers.

Dungeons of Dredmor, Steam, €1.47:
Highly regarded roguelike game but not really my cup of tea. I played just enough to get the holiday achievement.

Railworks 3 +DLC , Steam, €3.49
To be honest I will probably only dabble in the game but I have had my eye on this train simulator for ages so I had to buy it when it came on sale (90% off).

Batman Arkham City, Gamers Gate, £11.98 
I really enjoyed Arkham Asylum and this is supposed to  be better. I am looking forward to playing it when a window of time opens up.

E.Y.E., Divine Cybermancy, Steam, €2.49
A hugely ambitious Deus Ex like game from a little known French studio. I may play it for a bit until I get pissed off by the many flaws mixed in with the brilliance.

The Elder Scrolls Skyrim, Boxed gift from my family, Price Unknown
Hailed by many as the game of the year. I have only managed to put about eight hours into the game just enough time to do a couple of side quests. So far I like it. They appear to have completely overhauled the levelling system that was so broken in Oblivion and that can only be a good thing.

Star Wars Republic Commando, Steam,  €2.24
I played the demo years ago and have always intended to play the main game but never gotten around to it.

Section 8 Prejudice, Steam,  €3.24
It's a shooter, It seems to be all right and it was cheap.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, Gamestop store, €27.99
I had a few vouchers and this was the best price I have seen for the game so I succumbed to a moment of impulse. The main campaign took me just 9 hours .I suspect the achievement focussed "Special Ops" mode will  take a lot longer than that however - especially as it can now be played solo or co-op. Of course multi-player is the real reason for any Modern Warfare game and I have yet to sample that.

Wings of Prey, Steam, Gift ,
WWII flight simulator. Thank you very much to Txster of Grumpy Gaming fame.

Crimecraft, Mafia Wars: Steam, Free to Play
I installed this for the sole reason of getting the holiday achievement (a snowball death match). The game itself seems quite good with plenty of multi player shooty action but I am very suspicious of pvp focused free to pay games. Inevitably you need to spend a lot of money to play competitively.

Rusty Hearts, Steam, Free to play
Another game I installed only for the holiday achievement. It is a kind of anime, action fighter mmorpg. The few missions I ran for the achievement were enjoyable enough and the game seems to have a surprising amount of depth but nevertheless I doubt I will be returning to it.
Spiral Knights: Steam, Free to play
I had actually installed this before but I only got around to playing it during my achievement hunt over Christmas. This is probably the best of the free to play games I tried and I especially liked how easy it as to just jump into a group with others for a mission. Unlikely to play again though.

Notable games missing from the acquisition list:

Star Wars, the Old Republic Online, I do intend to try this blockbuster mmorpg eventually, probably in single player mode but at the moment I have too many games and too little time to get into an mmorpg.

Shogun 2 Total War 
I held off buying this in the Steam sale because Gamersgate have it at a similar sale price for another week. This will probably be my first gaming purchase of the new year.
Battlefield 3
I love a good shooter but I suck at multi-player so there is no way I am paying full price for game that is multi-player focussed and has only a short single player game. I didn't see this on sale at an attractive price point yet so I will wait this one out.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Has SWTOR Sold Out? Even on Origin?

Only a couple of days after launch it seems that digital download sales of SWTOR have been halted. 

I am still undecided about purchasing the game but I logged into Origin to check out pricing. At first I was a little bit surprised to see that the only version listed was the digital deluxe version costing €75. I was even more surprised when I clicked the link to be told: "Product No Longer Available".  Thinking I may have missed something I searched again for any other edition but no. There was none available for sale.

Then I went to the Bioware website which directed me to the Origin Web Page for Ireland:   While the web page does list the standard edition (at a price higher than I have seen it in stores) the purchase button is greyed out and I could not purchase the game even if I wanted to.

Interestingly the link to purchase additional game time works. Could it be that EA are actually restricting sales of the game in order to reduce crowding? 

EDIT: False alarm it seems the origin web page is working again and the retail version is now on sale. Perhaps it was something to do with server downtime this morning but why then were game time cards still on sale? 

Steam Christmas Achievement Whoring

Over the last few days I have surprised myself by how much fun I am having collecting Steam Christmas achievements. Ostensibly these are for Steam related prizes but the prizes themselves have so far been unexciting: a free game I am unlikely to ever play, discounts off several others I have no interest in and several lumps of coal. Collecting the achievements themselves however provides an interesting excuse to look at games I might otherwise never had played.

Apart from a couple of "click this box to win" achievements most of them require you to achieve a certain goal in one of the games that is currently on sale on Steam. Many can be completed fairly quickly by an entry level character but others require hours of play to get to the correct spot in game. Happily there is help at hand in the Steam forums with guides and even save games to help achievement collectors towards their goals.

Of course it is a waste money to buy games just to earn a fairly worthless prize so I have to restrict my efforts to those games I either own already, intend to purchase anyway or can acquire for a trivial amount (read free). Even under these restrictions I have so far been able to knock out achievements in Orcs must Die (clear the first level with a particular type of trap),
Psychonauts (hunt and cook a bird and a squirrel),
Spiral Knights (hit a player with a snowball)
Dungeons of Dredmor (brew a particular potion).

In each case the achievement took me about half an hour starting from scratch with the exception for Psychonauts where I had to download a save game to get to the correct level. As someone who normally hates achievements because they often distract from playing the game I find it strangely entertaining to start a game with no intention of playing normally but just to follow a set of instructions required to get a bizarre achievement.

Monday, December 19, 2011

If I were a despot: Part 1 - Controlling the Internet

Why do despotic governments make such a big deal about internet firewalls and trying to clamp down on "insidious foreign websites" like Facebook and Youtube. It seems to me that such loudly proclaimed efforts are as amateurish as those of the most inept Bond villain.

Can these would be megalomaniacs not see that the internet is the greatest surveillance tool ever invented? No longer do we have to pay an army of informers to eavesdrop on the conversations of their friends and families. Gone is the need for midnight secret police raids on subversives meeting in abandoned warehouses. Instead of such outdated techniques monitoring the communications of your citizens over the tubes of the internet will provide vastly more information.

Rather than banning Youtube, Facebook or any other seditious website invest in warehouses full of hard disks and record all of the online activities of your populace. The more seditious the website the more useful will be the information it gathers for you. 

Amateur security experts may fool themselves that encryption and anonymising services will keep them safe. Happily for the would be despot no security system is safe from a well organised man in the middle attack and it should be relatively simple to ensure that you are the quintessential man in the middle.  The usual techniques of bribery, coercion, threats to family members and such will quickly ensure that not a single byte travels over your national internet that doesn't also go through your own monitoring system. Do not advertise this fact. Let it be done with the lightest of touches. Should one of your citizens wish to use encryption or anonymising services then let them. Well, rather, let them use the carefully altered versions that you, as man in the middle, have substituted in their place. The more accomplished phishing organisations have developed such practices to a fine art so it should be relatively trivial when you have the resources of a nation behind you.

Indeed the biggest problem you are likely to face is the extreme surfeit of information that is going to be collected. You will have ready access to the most private communications both innocent and subversive of your citizens. Happily several large organisations have refined the science of mining useful information from a vast sea of data to a high degree. I am sure that their techniques can be copied or more likely bought.

Needless to say you are going to have to change your recruitment policies. Candidates with a creative flair for information processing and degrees in computer science are likely to be of more use to future  leaders than those with an ability to painfully extract fingernails. It would be no harm either if recruits had siblings, spouses and other family members to whom they felt a protective attachment. Might be a good idea to keep a few of the fingernail pullers on hand too. Just in case.

Anyway I am not a despot nor do I want to be one so I can only be grateful that no real world government has figured out the incredible surveillance potential of the internet because done well such practices would be extremely powerful and very hard to detect. Oh, wait ....

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To SWTOR or not to SWTOR

Christmas is one of the few times of the year when a combination of loosened purse strings and available free time allows me the luxury of sampling recently released games. This year there are a few possible contenders for my Christmas holiday gaming list: Skyrim is a leading candidate while Arkham city, Shogun 2 and even Modern Warfare 3 are all possibilities and then of course there is the tantalising prospect of SWTOR.

The timing of SWTOR couldn't be better for a Christmas gaming blitz and there is something magical about the early days of an mmorpg. Settings, quests and activities that will come to be regarded as tiresomely repetitive over the coming months and years are still seen as fresh and new.  The only trouble is that it is an mmorpg and I thought I had grown out of mmorpgs. My recent attempt at logging into LOTRO to sample the Isengard content lasted all of 30 minutes before I got bored and logged out. I don't think this is just burnout with one game. The whole mmorpg genre fails to inspire me. In fact at this point in my life I feel tired of all multi-player games.  I play games for escapism and release from the stresses of every day life. Having to deal with other humans even if it is just a bit of friendly guild banter takes more social effort than I feel like putting in at the moment. I realise of course that modern mmorpg's can be played solo and SWTOR seems to excel at this but if I am going to play solo - then a game designed specifically for its solo experience is likely to be better.

Another factor is that if I do get into an mmorpg it is likely to consume all of my available gaming time for the next weeks and months. How then am I going to fit in Skyrim or any of the other games I really would like to play?

So: To SWTOR or not to SWTOR that is the question.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mr Fixit or Mr. Breakit

I seem to have spent the entire weekend fixing things. This would normally be a cause for pride of accomplishment on my part except for the fact that at least one of the breakages was completely my own fault.

The first patient was a cable  remote which had stopped talking to the set top box. After several batteries were wasted by various members of the family who assumed that batteries were the problem I decided that I had better roll up my sleeves and "look into it".

Looking into it consisted of  prising the plastic cover apart and peering at the circuit board inside, knowing full well that if there was anything seriously wrong I wasn't going to be able to fix it. While peering I noticed that the keypad matrix on the circuit board was covered in a syrupy gloop. The rubber keypad mat had its own fair share of this gloop. Guessing that this wasn't a design feature I carefully cleaned both and re-assembled. Hey Presto the remote works and Daddy is a hero.

The second case was my wife's PC which has been acting up for a few weeks, hanging irrecoverably at random intervals. These hanging incidents were just frequent enough to annoy my wife considerably but neither frequent enough nor predictable enough for me to make a serious attempt at solving the issue. It ffinally came to a head at the weekend when the computer sat down for good and refused to boot. My keen photographer spouse was quite distraught at her inability to get into photoshop but I was actually pleased. I knew from experience that a fault that stops the machine from working at all is usually easier to diagnose and fix than one that occurs randomly once a day.

She actually has five big hard disks on this machine to store all her photos but the problem turned out to be related to the main windows disk. A combination of binary search, trial and error, booting from puppy linux, disk repair using another machine, reseating all connectors and cleaing the machine out with a vacuum cleaner got us up and running again and I am hopeful that the problem is now fixed. Kudos again for Daddy.

The final repair job is the one that consumed most of my time and is the also the one that is entirely my own responsibility. It arose from attempts to upgrade the operating system on my Android phone. They say that if something isn't broken then you shouldn't try to fix it and that certainly applies here. Yes my phone was running an older version of Android but it was working great and it did everything I needed it to do. Complicating matter further was the fact that the latest version of Android hadn't been officially released for my country yet so I had to install a hacked version downloaded from the web.

I am not completely clueless. I have hacked my phone before with great results   but this time things didn't run so smoothly.

Although the upgraded operating system appeared to work very well the first problem that I had failed to anticipate is that the upgrade wiped all my apps and data. This wasn't the disaster it could have been because I was able to restore everything from backups and from the cloud but reconfiguring everything to be the way I like was time-consuming and tedious. It was made harder by the fact that the wifi seemed to be acting up and attempts to download anything more than a few megabytes invariably failed.

Eventually the wifi issue got to me and I went to google to discover that this was indeed a known issue for some phones using this latest version of the operating system. Various tweaks to the phone (and to the wifi router) were offered as solutions by commentators but I tried all of them and nothing worked. In fact my ham fisted repair attempts made things worse leaving me eventually with a phone that couldn't connect to the internet at all either via wifi or packet data.

At around midnight on Sunday I came to the twin realisation that a) My attempts at repairing the new operating system weren't working and b) I needed the phone to work better than this for the week ahead. I resigned myself to a late night and went through the tedious process of downgrading back to an official version of the Android operating system (which wiped all my stuff again) and then re-configuring and reinstalling everything I needed again. It was 2am before I had a fully working phone and could finally go to bed.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

DRM makes criminals of us all.

I recently found myself in a position where the only practical solution for me to enjoy ebooks I had legitimately purchased (would have been) to engage in the highly illegal pursuit of using a drm removal too. The cause was a clash of software upgrades and activation limits with a healthy dose of misunderstanding from me thrown in.

I am not a lawyer and the law on drm circumvention is pretty confusing at the moment. There is an EU treaty from 2001 which appears to makes it highly illegal to even think about anti drm but it hasn't been transcribed into my own countries national law yet and I believe there is still some discussion over possible exceptions (ie fair use provisions). 

Well I am not going to admit to breaking the law but I will say that Google informed me that there was a very easy to use open source, community supported tool available to perform drm removal  (if I felt so inclined). I quickly realised that this tool (if I were to use it) would make the whole process of managing and reading ebooks a lot more robust and future proof as well as making it more enjoyable by allowing me freedom to choose whatever reader I liked best.

A curious thought struck me as I was thinking about this drm removal tool.  A genuine criminal I wouldn't need this apparently highly illegal piece of software. A criminal would just download a pirated version without drm. The only people who need to use drm removal are those who have already acquired (presumably legally) a piece of drm protected content.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

They are going to have to bring back farthings.

First we had digital retailers like Steam discounting AAA games from €40 down to €10 and it felt like a revolution.

Then the revolution moved on to indie titles which usually cost €10 or €15 and these were discounted down to €1 or €2.

Now we have the Android Sale discounting mobile  games that normally only cost a couple of euro down to €0.10.

Pretty soon they are going to have to bring back halfpenny's and farthings in order to allow this discounting madness to continue.

Wot I am playing

Finished Red Faction Armageddon. I enjoyed this third person linear shooter a lot but I agree with reviews that give it a "good but not great" rating. Red Faction's unique selling proposition is an engine which allow for insane levels of property destruction and Armageddon brings a unique repair capability to the mix. Unfortunately most of the time the stuff that gets destroyed is the platform you are standing on or the box you are trying to take cover behind and this gets somewhat tiresome.

Currently playing Sanctum. I don't generally like Tower defence games.Partly this is because I am bad at them but also because I find it very depressing to watch an inexorable stream of monsters march towards my inner sanctum despite my usually inept efforts at stopping them. Sanctum however spices up the mix a bit by inserting you into the fray in FPS mode and I find that is enough for me to overcome my dislike of the tower defence format.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Portal 2 two screen coop on one PC.

I mentioned before that I intended to try Portal 2 in "unofficial split screen co-op mode. Well split screen on a small computer monitor is a recipe for a headache especially when the game defies gravity as much as portal. However a minor bit of extra fiddling allowed us to drive two seperate screens from one PC.

The Steam forums describes a complicated method of doing this that I couldn't get working so this simpler method which worked for me might be of use to someone.

1. First I followed the instructions in this post to get split screen multi-player working:
A minor issue not mentioned is that you need to enable the console from the keyboard/mouse options menu
I am using keyboard and one wired Xbox360 controller as suggested. Getting the controller to switch to channel 2 was tricky at first but as Chameleon8 mentions plugging it out and in again during loading works. The trick for me was to do the plug / plug out quickly.
2. When game is running make sure you have vertical split screen. Use the console command ss_splitmode  0 if necessary to change it.

3. To get the image split between monitors I went back to the desktop and used my graphics card software (ATI Catalyst for me) to configure the two screens as one big screen. In  catalyst this is called grouping and is accessed under the desktop management of the catalyst control centre. I am sure Nvidia cards have a similar feature.  Both screens have to have the same resolution so I set them both to the resolution of the smaller monitor. This means a small loss of quality but it isn't really noticeable.

4. With both monitors acting as one big widescreen I ran portal in multiplayer again and this time the image stretched across both screens. I enabled vertical split screen and hey presto player one on one screen and player 2 on the other.

It is takes a minute or two to set up but it is worth it. We are having lots of fun together working through the levels.

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...