Archive for December, 2005

This is why I love gmail

December 29, 2005

Tracking Numbers in Gmail

I got a shipment notification about some ebay order today and my gmail was smart enough to recognize the UPS tracking number, and provide a clickable link to UPS tracking website on the sidebar. Awesome! I don’t know about you, but little things like that make me happy 😛

Of course this also means that Google now knows what I buy on ebay, where I live and when will my order be shipped. Somewhere out there, Google is building a really detailed profile of me. Over several years they can really create a neat little index representing my preferences, interests, hell – even political views. After all this very blog is hosted on a Google owned servers 😛 It’s scary to think what would happen if they would subpoena google for information on you.

It’s scary to think about this. But then again, unless you run your own host, and send everything encrypted with pgp you can’t have any expectations about privacy. At least google is indexing info about you openly, and promises not to misuse it. This is actually more than can be said about our government at the moment 😛

When I really want privacy I use pgp. For normal day to day stuff, gmail is just convenient. Especially with a nifty plugin for Firefox that let’s me know when my mail is ready 🙂

Still Life 2 would be better as non-talkie

December 28, 2005

Old School to the Core

Still Life 2 is yet another game I procured lately. School is out so I’m living it up, so to speak 😛 I don’t have that much time to play during the school year.

I’m a big fan of adventure games (it’s a pity that there are precious few of them coming out these days) and SL2 can be classified as an old school, point and click adventure. Which is kinda good and bad. It’s good, because point and click adventures were really cool back in the day. It’s bad, because you would expect a little more innovation from a fairly recent product. SL2 is old school to the core – complete with maddening pixel hunting puzzles.

The controls are a little clunky. LMB takes you to the inventory, and RMB is used for interaction. The mouse pointer changes shape when you hover over an “active” region, but you can only use items when you stand in specific place. When you use an item you need to open the full screen inventory, press on an item, and then hit use. The item will be used with the active region you are standing on. Funny thing is, that the developers didn’t bother to animate the “use” actions from different angles. So if you are off the mark by a fraction of an inch or facing the wrong direction, your character will magically “jump” into the “correct” position when you exit the inventory. Very crude. 😦

The dialogs are equally clunky. You essentially have two choices LMB and RMB. LMB usually produces to-the-point questions, and RMB results in some personal remarks, or light-heated wise cracking. You usually must click through all the LMB options, but you can skip the RMB ones completely. In result he conversations are absolutely linear. Your only option is to skip the comedy and concentrate on the case. 😦

Once you go through the important conversation, the characters revert to some standard dialog sequence in which they essentially tell you to get lost. These range from very short, to fairly long exchanges that are impossible to skip. This is fairly annoying, especially when you are stuck. Sometimes you want to check if a character has something new to say, and you get stuck listening to a 2 minute dialog that you already heard 7 times before. Agh…

SL2 tries to be funny really hard. I would say, too hard. For a murder mystery game, the main character is cracking to many weak jokes. Sometimes I wish she would stop, because the silly remarks completely do not fit the general mood of the game. The scenery looks like something taken out of a Resident Evil game, but the dialogs sound like a poor imitation of Monkey Island humor. Geez… Pick one or the other.

Speaking about the dialogs… The voice acting is horrid. The voice inflictions change randomly throughout each conversation, ranging from upbeat to grim, and brooding. The game sounds as if someone wrote down all the lines, on index cards, then shuffled them, and then taped them in random order. This is especially evident when reading the jokes and wise cracks. More often than not, the actors completely misinterpret the line (most likely reading it out of context).

I could understand these shortcomings if the game had a really dynamic dialog system. You can’t really help the slight variations when you mix the lines in semi-random order. But since all the conversations in the game are almost painfully linear they could have at least made sure that the voice acting is consistent. Besides, Fahrenheit had very dynamic dialogs and yet the voice acting was top notch.

I seriously thing this game would actually be better if it was a no-talkie. Perhaps I should play it with the sound off?

All in all, I’m not terribly impressed with this game. The story seems somewhat intriguing, so I’ll keep playing for a while more. I’m not sure if I can stand the shitty dialog and voice acting all the way till the end 😛

Update Sun, January 01 2006, 04:49 PM

Nope, I can’t finish it. The game pisses me off. It’s boring, and annoying. Don’t buy this crap! I totally gave up on it and uninstalled it to make space for Fable and Brothers in Arms 😛

Squad Based Combat

December 27, 2005

Squad Based Combad in BIA

Ark got me Brothers in Arms for Christmas. Unfortunately the game has a little tag saying GeForce MX not supported. 😦 So until my new graphics card arrives I can’t really play it. Of course the game runs perfectly on his computer and he was nice enough to let me play with it over the weekend.

I must say that the game is neat. I really like the concept of squad based combat. Its lot’s of fun to be able to position your men behind the cover, then tell them to suppress the enemy position while you sneak behind with a grenade and a machine gun 😛

I had to redefine the default keys though. BIA uses the RMB for commanding your squad and the MMB for the “aim down the barrel” mode. This is completely backwards, considering that all the games I have played lately (Call of Duty, Farcry etc…) use RMB for aiming mode. I kept messing up until I switched the two around – and now I’m fine 🙂

It is significantly harder to kill enemies in this game, than in COD. I kinda miss the easy head shots. Here you sometimes need to hit the guy 3-4 times till he kicks the bucket. Even when you shoot point blank, you usually need two shots.

On the other hand, this is kindoff cool. The enemies act realistic, and run for cover when you shoot at them. When you pin them they stay down.

I like it. Can’t wait till I get the new graphics card 😛

How to talk to users?

December 27, 2005

I wrote a small app for my company, that let’s them review and score Audit Reports via web based interface. The application is WIMP based, and fairly stable at this point.

Now my boss wants me to automate the procedure of receiving the reports from field Auditors, and tracking it’s progress through the review and billing. Seems easy. I already scoped out the specs, and talked to the users. Their current procedure is a mess. It goes something like this:

  1. Person A Schedules exams using a Scheduling Spreadsheet
  2. Person B goes through the scheduling spreadsheet and generates another spreadsheet with the exams due each week/month/whatever
  3. Person A or B or C receives an email with attached exam from an Auditor, and stashes it on the network share (and possibly notifies person B)
  4. Person B updates her spreadsheet
  5. The file is then picked up by a reviewer D, and high level reviewer E (which is somewhat covered by my current app.
  6. The report is then sent out to the client, and person B moves it to the billing spreadsheet

The Scheduling document is un-parsable. It is essentially a grid. Horizontal axis represents a date, and the vertical axis lists auditors. The intersection gives you what given person is doing on a given day. Potential values are “Available” or the name of the scheduled assignment.

The report tracking spreadsheet is actually nice. It has well defined columns such as start date, end date, submission date ,review date and etc… How do you get these dates? You scroll around the scheduling document till you find the first and last cell of a given assignment. Essentially my Person B spends 2-3 hours every other day, simply flipping between these two documents, and copying and pasting data. It’s a waste of time.

I could automate that, and link it up nicely with my reviewing system. I could track each report from the moment it is scheduled, through the review and evaluation process, down to billing. I already have the infrastructure in place. What is my problem then? Both person A and person B really like their spreadsheets. They hate maintaining them, but they can’t imagine their life without them. So they would both like to use them and just have them automagically updated when the reports are in.

Now, generating the tracking document is a piece of pie. Since I could automate most of the stuff that happens to the actual files (and remove the necessity to email them around) I could easily eliminate all the work involved in maintaining that thing. But to do that, I need to have up-to-date scheduling data in the database. But I just don’t see my user A happily switching to some web based, or non-excel driven interface.

I was actually asked “what is the difference of having the schedule in a database as opposed to a spreadsheet?” How do I explain data parsing to a non-technical user (preferably in one sentence or less)? Especially if in that user’s mind database == arcane magic, and excel == easy? I have no clue how to do this without breaking into a lecture on data management, and database design principles.

Anyways, I decided to move forward with the design and do most of the stuff in PHP assuming that somehow I will get the scheduling data into the db. After I have the whole app working with a web based interface, I will try to figure out how to parse that damn schedule. There is some data in there, so if I bend over backwards, and stand on my head I should be able to extract something borderline useful 😛

My Precious Blog

December 27, 2005

This blog recently became a big part of my life. I usually tend to post here every day, unless I have other stuff that get in the way. I got used to airing my thoughts here, and ranting about stupid stuff.

However, I just realized, that I’m hosting this blog on a free but proprietary platform, on a server that I don’t own. Sure, Google is cool and all, but what if I violate some silly rule from their TOS that I never even read? What if at some point someone decides to nuke my blog to make space for premium members or something? It would really bum me out to loose all my posts.

So I decided to mirror the blog locally, so that I at least have backup. I should do that weekly or something. It appears that blogger likes to use absolute URL’s for all the internal links so that wget –convert-links option does not work. If I ever loose the blog, and decide to restore from a backup at an alternative location, I will probably have to do some serious regexping to get all the links working correctly 😛

I should probably invest into some remote hosting and relocate the blog. This of course would mean that I would potentially loose my page rank, and confuse the hell out of google blog search and technorati for a little while. I don’t get that many hits, but I would hate to loose those precious few by moving around to much.

So I will stay here for now. But I will backup everything religiously from now on 😉

Finished Fahrenheit / Project Indigo

December 26, 2005

I just finished Fahrenheit / Project Indigo, the game that I posted about last monday. I think the game was awesome. I highly recommend it for the excellent story, and unconventional gameplay.

I actually enjoyed the quirky controls. The ddr button mashing sequences really keep you on your toes, without falling into a resident evil or fps shoot, duck, run, shoot routine. They seemed kinda refreshing in a way. Once in a while it is really nice to participate in some big action sequence without really worrying about mundane things like “do I jump now” or “how do you block in this game again?”. Some people may hate this type of stuff, but I didn’t mind it.

The tutorial covered most of the in game modes, but not all of them. There were few things left out. For example, in some sequences when Carla is scared you need to control her breathing. This is similar to the physical endurance feat, as it puts a little meter on the bottom of the screen which you control with the left-right movement buttons.

However, the way you control it is very different. The aim is to keep the “needle” in the middle of the bar. You need to alternate between buttons – each push is a breath. Each breath moves the needle to the left. When Carla is scared the needle gravitates to the right. So you need to compensate for that with breathing. If you breathe to much, and the needle hits the left edge you also freak out (hyperventilate?).

I found that it is usually best to do some fast breathing and put the needle way in the left field. This gives you more time to react once the needle starts moving again. Since the needle never moves left in it’s own, you should be fine as long as you don’t over breathe 🙂

Another sequence is tightrope walking, which uses the exact same type of the meter as Carla’s breathing. This time however each button press makes the needle move in the direction that was pressed. Once you hit the edge, you fall off. When the needle is near the middle it moves slower. It picks up speed when at the edges. It also moves faster with each key press. So if you press left twice, you probably won’t have time to mash right three times to compensate before you fall off. This was possibly the most annoying sequence of the game. I can’t tell you how many times I fell of that stupid railing 😛

What else… Let me talk about the story Spoilers may lurk below.

The game puzzles are easy, and usually suffer from the needle in the haystack syndrome. Whenever you need to walk around and look for an item, it is usually safe to assume that it is located in the least accessible area. And usually you don’t get enough hints to pinpoint the item, so you pick one at random, go back, validate, pick another one, go back, validate and etc…

I really liked the story. The plot is really linear. I think there are few ways to branch of from the main storyline but again, this is more of an interactive movie, than a game 😛 I didn’t mind the linear progression. The choices given to you make up for the linearity, and give an illusion of a very flexible story.

Only part that I don’t liked was the timed conversations. There were several instances when I “wasted” a question on something I already knew, and missed out on potential info. For example, I really didn’t learn anything about the second clan until the very end, because I asked Agatha some stupid questions before she transformed. I also still don’t know how exactly was Lucas reanimated.

In some cases the timing requirement made perfect sense – for example, when Carla is interrogating Lucas. But when it comes to the crucial information, integral to the plot we should be allowed to grill the characters to our heart’s content without some superimposed question limit, and timing. But that’s just me…

I also felt that the love scene between Carla and Lucas was kinda gratuitous, and shoved down our throat. I mean, they didn’t really get to know each other at all. Lucas just lost his girlfriend… And wasn’t he kinda dead – Carla said his skin was ice cold… WTF?

I mean, I think it was great that they actually showed a sex scene with boobs and all. Fuck the US censors. But still…

It’s a good game though. I really enjoyed it. Go play it 🙂

Adventures in Ebay

December 25, 2005

On the 19th I bought a new graphics card from this dude: COMstore168. I hardly ever use ebay. In fact I managed to avoid it for all these years because I’m paranoid about being screwed by some online scam. A friend convinced me that I can get a good deal on a decent card this way so I decided to finally give it a shot. I’m beginning to regret it now though…

The seller looked ok. He had 99.2% positive feedback, had a 45 day return policy and the item is supposed to be “brand new” and “factory sealed”. It sounded good, but I still haven’t heard anything from him. I don’t know if this is the effect of the holiday season or if I’m being ripped off. I simply don’t like the fact that I paid for an item, and I have no clue when it will be shipped. Should I be concerned?

Sigh… Next time I won’t fork over the money before I get some kind of feedback from the seller.

Update: Mon, December 26 2005, 04:58 PM

I finally got in touch with the seller yesterday. The card is on it’s way it seems. I guess it was just the holiday season.


December 25, 2005

In case you didn’t know:

It is a widely-held theory that Christians in the fourth century assigned December 25th (the Winter Solstice on the Julian calendar) as Christ’s birthday (and thus Christmas) because pagans already observed this day as a holiday. This would sidestep the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday while Christianizing the population. It is also possible to see it as early Christians replacing the Pagan celebration in an act of triumphalism. However, others claim that early Christians independently came up with the date of December 25th based on a Jewish tradition of the “integral age” of the Jewish prophets (the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception), and a miscalculation of the date of Jesus’ death. It is even sometimes claimed that Aurelian moved the feast of Sol Invictus to December 25th to co-opt the Christian celebration.

The Romans also practiced many traditions similar to Christmas; specifically the “Christmas tree”. The Romans often cut down evergreens and decorated them to pay homage to Saturn, the god of farming. This was to honor the fact that the evergreens remained alive during the harshness of winter. It was also traditional for Romans to exchange gifts during this holiday. These gifts were customarily made of silver, although nearly anything could be given as a gift for the occasion. Several epigrams by the poet Martial survive, seemingly crafted as riddling gift-tags for gifts of food. The medieval celebration of the Feast of Fools was another continuation of Saturnalia into the Christian era.

So Christmass is more or less a denominational holiday. 😛

Holiday Wishes

December 23, 2005

Just to be pollitically correct, I give you the holiday wishes regexp:

/(Happy|Merry) ((Crhist|X)mas)|(C?hannukah)|(Kwanza)|

Alright, that should cover just about anyone 😛

I live again!

December 21, 2005

Here is your moment of Zen (click on the pic to see what is going on) [via boinboing]

The final(s) are done! All projects are finished! The only thing I have to do is to give and grade a final tomorrow, and submit the grades over the next week.

My new graphics card is on it’s way right now (let’s hope it gets here before christmas). Now I can catch up on movies, games and all the other stuff that I was putting away to do actual work 😛

Life is good 🙂

Oh, and yeah – check out the pacman vid! LOL