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7 Jul 2014 : Real or Render? Render or Real? #
The astonishing ability of computers to turn entirely imaginary objects into realistic representations is obvious just by watching pretty much any recent blockbuster movie. I know I go on about it a lot, but it bears repeating that with 3D printing you can take it a step further: turning entirely imaginary objects into their physical counterparts. This isn't the first time I've compared renders to reality (or is it the other way around? I forget), but the question of how close they can get remains a bit of a fascination.

So what do you think? One of these images is a render, created using Blender Cycles. The other is a photograph of a 3D print generated from the same model and cast in bronze. Which is which though?

If you're not sure, click on the image for a larger version, and leave a comment if you think you've figured it out!


Cubic Celtic knot rendered using Blender Cycles and 3D printed in raw bronze

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11 Jun 2014 : How much information's created when I stare out the window? #
This afternoon I received an advertising email from the Viglen Marketing team. It boldly repeats the oft-quoted statement of Eric Schmidt from Google's Atmosphere convention in 2010:

"Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were 5 exabytes of information created. We now create 5 exabytes every 2 days."

Every time I read this quote my faith in human intelligence dies a little more. It's an old quote now, but it still riles me: it's such a patently absurd statement. I can understand Dr. Schmidt making it for the sake of theatre, but please don't repeat it as if it's fact.

There have been far more detailed and convincing critiques of the claim than I'm able to offer, but I wouldn't even extend the benefit of the doubt that these lavish on Google's Executive Chairman. The fact is, the same amount of information is being created now as has ever been the case. If you want to some how massage the quote into plausibility you have to narrow its meaning beyond recognition. Perhaps it means data recorded, rather than information created? Perhaps it only means by humans? Perhaps it means only in sharable form? When the information is useful? On Earth? When someone is watching?

How much information is there in a cave painting? I'd wager more than Google explicitly stores in all of its data warehouses. How much information gets sucked into a black hole every second? I can't even be bothered to think about it. It's just the basic difference between discrete and continuous stuff.

Frankly, it probably means "data that has been recorded permanently by humans in discrete form". So why not say so?

This morning I was relatively happy; now I'm just annoyed.


Stupid quotes that shouldn't be repeated

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22 May 2014 : Technology vs The Law #
Broken CD image by omernos The problem with technology is that it has created a new and unique power struggle; a struggle that the law has found itself on the wrong side of. The legal bullying of Ladar Levinson that ultimately resulted in him having to shut down his company Lavabit, is a nasty symptom of the way the law reacts when it feels threatened.

I won't go into the details here, but recommend you take a look at Levinson's description of what happened in his Guardian article.

How can the legal system have got so fucked up that this can happen? How is it - to use Levinson's words - that he can find himself "standing in a secret courtroom, alone, and without any of the meaningful protections that were always supposed to be the people's defense against an abuse of the state's power"?

To understand this, we need to figure out where the law gets its power from. The nature of the law has always been inextricably linked with power. It's the people in power who define the laws and this gives them credibility through process (although it doesn't give any guarantee that the laws are just). How do you get to be in power? If you're lucky, you might live in a country where there's a process for this too. In the US they exercise what they call democracy (it's not exactly what I'd call democracy, but it's still a lot better than what we have here in the UK). Still, the legitimacy of the process is really seeded elsewhere: it's a redistribution of powers granted conditionally by those who are physically most powerful. Some might say the legitimacy comes from something like the constitution, but in practice the legitimacy of a constitution comes from the war that was won beforehand. Without the demonstration of superior power, the constitution would have rather been just a manifesto put together by a bunch of terrorists.

All laws are founded on power and all power is founded on force. Except that technology has a tendency to destabilise this equation. Take guns (I'm not a big fan of guns in practice, and I'm going to conveniently classify them as technology for the purposes of this argument). Guns have the potential to be an amazing leveller. Prior to their introduction, the force behind the power was premised on physical strength and numbers. Suddenly with guns physical strength becomes an irrelevance. And this isn't just about the advantage of being the first to have one. If everyone owned a gun then actual physical strength would no longer be a consideration since everyone would have the means to end another person's life at the click of a button. I'm not advocating this as a wise move of course (just think what would happen if there was a "Terminate user" option next to the "Report abuse" link on YouTube), but it does illustrate the point.

The law is ultimately reliant on physical force for its legitimacy. Not only does it rely on political power (which is underwritten by force), but it also uses force as its last-resort sanction. There are many intermediate sanctions (removal of money and property, restrictions of rights, threat of surveillance, storing details on a database...), but if these fail, or if someone refuses to submit to them, the ultimate sanctions are incarceration or death, both of which are physical threats. And it's not just legal outcomes, but also the legal process that relies on the threat of physical force. During an investigation, if someone refuses to comply with a search warrant, the police are within their rights to break down the door. Take away the physical threat and you leave the law impotent.

New technologies, and especially encryption and distributed networking technologies, pose a real threat to this. While you can break down a door with a sledgehammer, you can't decrypt an encrypted message by smashing open a computer. If the encryption is done right, you can't decrypt the message at all: you're fighting against the laws of nature and mathematical axioms*. Up until now, the solution sought by the law has been to go after the encryptor rather than the encryption (take for example RIPA in the UK). But technology is nibbling away at this too. Distributed technologies support actions that have no single enactor; information and processes that don't belong to anyone. You can't pursue a physical protector if none exists.

The events surrounding Lavabit and the actions of the intelligence and police services uncovered by Edwared Snowdon demonstrate a response by the law to try to address a threat which is conceptual rather than physical. The growing realisation that physical solutions can't work has led to laws and processes that were designed to protect being contorted into tools that many people no longer recognise as just.

Unless the law can find new ways to deal with the conceptual threats to its processes that new technologies have introduced, the temptation to become increasingly draconian will remain. There need to be new solutions that don't amount to "if we can't attack the problem with physical force, we'll attack an innocent bystander instead."

On the other hand, individuals will continue to invest in more robust cryptography and make more widespread use of distributed technologies (by which I absolutely do not mean the Cloud!) as a way of preserving the privacy and (ethical) rights that recent events suggest the law has started taking away.

* May be subject to change.

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15 May 2014 : Treading More Lightly #
Footprints image by mailsparky Some time ago I started the process of disentangling myself from Google's clutches. This morning I finally finished the process by deleting the last vestiges of my account.

When Google first appeared it demonstrated a refreshingly open and efficient approach to the Internet, so I was making prolific use of their services until a couple of years ago. Since switching away from Google's search it's felt like their other services have become increasingly irrelevant to me.

In spite of this I discovered this morning the tentacles were still embedded pretty deep. I had documents scattered all over Google Drive, a languishing Google+ profile mostly used for access to hangouts, a Google Talk account (as a front for getting people to use Jabber), Google Analytics, Android accounts, an old Blogger blog; the list goes on.

And this was just the exposed information. I dread to think about the mountain of data being amassed in the background. The reality check really hit last year when Google's services went offline for four minutes in August. Subsequent reports suggested that Internet traffic dropped by 40% as a result. That's a dangerous over-reliance we have there. I was also impressed when one of my students, involved in the CodePool project (if you're reading this: you know who you are!) attempted to remove her Web footprint; I was surprised at how successful she was.

This isn't an attempt to remove my Web presence though and sadly I don't expect the data accumulation to stop. I'm sure Google will continue to know more about my movements than anyone else, whether company or individual. The biggest problem for me is that, even though everyone knows that Google knows, we don't really know the extent of knowledge Google can derive from our data. That's a real concern.

Google still offers outstanding services. I've found no replacement for the public-facing calendar sharing of Google Calendar. I'll inevitably continue to use Google Scholar, Google Maps and Google Images but without the login. Yet most of Google's services are replicated by smaller and less intrusive companies. I'm under no illusion about the motives of these smaller rivals: they still want my data and ad-revenue. But by virtue of their size they're less of a threat to my privacy.

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23 Feb 2014 : Adventures with The Other Half #
It's fair to say this is a misleading title. As you'll discover if you take the trouble to read through (and now you've started, you'd be missing out if you didn't), this has nothing to do with either feats of derring-do or my wife Joanna.

No, this is to do with my Jolla phone. Back in the day, before smartphones were ubiquitous, many phone manufacturers tried to lure in the punters by offering interchangeable fascias or backplates. Not very subtle, or high-tech, but presumably effective.

Well, Jolla have decided to return to this, while taking the opportunity to update it for the 21st Century. Each Jolla smartphone appears to be built in two halves, split parallel to the screen and with the back half ("The Other Half") replaceable to provide not just different styles, but also additional functionality. The extra functionality is provided by cleverly using NFC-detection of different covers, along with the ability for covers to draw power from and communicate with the main phone via a selection of pins on the back.

At the moment there are only four official Other Halves that I'm aware of: Snow White (the one that comes as standard), Keira Black, Aloe and Poppy Red (the preorder-only cover). They use the NFC capability to change the styling of the phone theme as the cover is changed, but in the future there's a hope that new covers might provide things light wireless charging, solar charging, pull-out keyboard, etc.

For me, the interesting thing about the phone has always been the Sailfish OS that powers it. As anyone who's ever set eyes on me will attest, I've never been particularly fashion conscious, so the prospect of switching my phone cover to match my outfit has never offered much appeal. However, since the good sailors at Jolla have released a development kit for The Other Half, and since it seemed like an ideal challenge to test out the true potential of future manufacturing - by which I mean 3D printing - this was not an opportunity I could not miss.

Rather brilliantly, the development kit includes a 3D model which loads directly into Blender.


From there it's possible to export it in a suitable format for upload directly to the Shapeways site. The model is quite intricate, since it has various hooks and tabs to ensure it'll fit cleanly on to the back of the phone. Sadly this means that most of the usual materials offered by Shapeways are unavailable without making more edits to the model (sadly, it will take a bit more work before it can be printed in sterling silver or ceramic!). My attempt to print in polished Strong & Flexible failed, and eventually I had to go with Frosted Ultra Detail. Not a problem from a design perspective, but a bit more expensive.

The result was immaculate. All of the detail retained, a perfect fit on the phone and a curious transparent effect that allows the battery, sim and SD card to be seen through the plastic.


Although a perfect print, it wasn't a good look. Being able to see the innards of the phone is interesting in an industrial kind of way, but the contouring on the inside results in a fussy appearance.

The good news is that all of the undulations causing this really are on the inside. The outer face is slightly curved but otherwise smooth. The printing process results in a very slight wood-grain effect, which I wasn't anticipating, but in hindsight makes sense. The solution to all of this was therefore to sand the outside down and then add some colour.


The colour I chose was a pastel blue, or to give its full title according to the aerosol it came in, Tranquil Blue. Irrespective of the paint company's choice of name, the result was very pleasing, as you can see from the photos below. The 3D-printed surface isn't quite as nicely textured as the original Other Half cover that came with the phone, but I believe most people would be hard-pressed to identify it as a 3D-printed cover. It looks as good as you might expect from mass-produced commercial plasticware.

With the design coming straight from the developer kit, I can't claim to have made any real input to the process. And that's an amazing thing. Anyone can now generate their own 3D printed Other Half direct from Shapeways with just a few clicks (and some liberal unburdening of cash, of course!). A brand-new or updated design can be uploaded and tested out just as easily.

It's genuinely exciting to see how 3D printing can produce both practical and unique results. The next step will be to add in the NFC chip (it turns out they're very cheap and easy to source), so that the phone can identify when the cover is attached.


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9 Feb 2014 : Jolla: Easy Wins #
This weekend I tried my hand at a bit of SailfishOS programming, and once again have been pleasantly surprised.

There's no shortage of places to get Apps from for a Jolla phone: the Jolla Store, the Yandex Store and the OpenRepos Warehouse being just a few. But even with this smörgåsbord of stores there are still obvious gaps. For example, I wanted to connect my phone through my home VPN, so that I can access things like SMB shares and ssh into my machines.

The iPhone has an OpenVPN client, but the frustrating file management on the iPhone meant I never got it up and running. Unsurprisingly Android has good OpenVPN support which combines well with the broad range of other good network tools for the platform.

In contrast the various SailfishOS stores are sadly bereft of OpenVPN solutions. However, a quick search using pkcon showed the command line openvpn client available in the Jolla repositories. I was astonished when, after a few commands to transfer the relevant client certificates and install the tool, it was able to connect to my VPN first time.


This is what I'm loving about SailfishOS. It speaks the same language as my other machines and runs the same software. Getting it to talk to my VPN server was really easy, even though you won't find this advertised in the headline features list.

Still, having a command line tool isn't the same as having a nicely integrated GUI App, so this seemed like a great opportunity to try out Jolla's Qt development tools. I've not done any Qt development in the past so started by working through the examples on the Sailfish site.

Qt seems to be a nice toolkit and it's set up well for the phone, but Qt Quick and QML in particular require a shift in approach compared to what I'm used to. Qt Quick obfuscates the boundary between the QML and C++ code. It's effective, but I find it a bit confusing.


Still, after a weekend of learning and coding, I've been able to knock together a simple but effective front-end for controlling OpenVPN connections from my phone.

As well as providing a simple fullscreen interface, you can also control the connection directly from the home screen using the clever SailfishOS multi-tasking cover gestures: pull the application thumbnail left or right to connect to or disconnect from the server.


What I think this demonstrates is how quick and easy it is to get a useful application up and running. The strength is the combination of the existing powerful Linux command line tools, and the ability to develop well-integrated SailfishOS user interfaces using Qt. I'm really pleased with the result given the relatively small amount of effort required.

If I get time, there's plenty more to be done. Currently the configuration runs directly from the openvpn script, but allowing this to be configured from the front-end would be an obvious and simple improvement. After this, mounting SMB shares will be next.

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2 Feb 2014 : Smartphone Homecoming #
First, a warning: if technology doesn't interest you then you're likely to find what you read below just a bit odd. If it does then you might find it a bit opinionated. If you're normal, you'll find it boring. If you're not sure which category you fall into, go ahead and read on, and then check back here to find out!

For many months now I've been stuck in the smartphone wilderness, wandering between platforms trying to find one that makes me feel empowered in the way a good computer should.

Well, I think I've finally found my nirvana, having received my Jolla smartphone yesterday. After playing around with it for just a day, it's already in a much more usable state than the iPhone it's replacing. Although the hardware's nothing to write home about, the whole package is beautifully designed with a flair you rarely see on a mobile device. Programs run well, with fluid and transparent multitasking. The gestures are simple, consistent and brilliantly effective: you can use the phone with just a single hand. For a first device, the completeness of the functionality is impressive. Best yet, the console is just a couple of clicks away, giving full access to the entire device (I already have gcc and python installed).

I have to admit, this is all very exciting. I've used multiple devices over the last year trying to find something interesting without luck, so it's worth considering the path that brought me here. It can be neatly summarised by the photo below.


My smartphone experience has been coloured by the earlier devices that defined my computing development. The strength of a device has always been measured - for me - by the potential to program directly on the device. What's the point of carrying a computer around if you can't use it to compute?! From Psions to Nokia Communicators through to the ill-fated Meamo devices, this has always been by far their most exciting trait.

When Maemo/Meego was killed off, the only real alternatives were iOS and Android. I tried both. Android is the spiritual successor to Windows. Its strength is defined by the software that runs on top of it, and it's open enough to interest developers. It's not so bad that people want to avoid it but nonetheless doesn't excel in any particular way. The iPhone on the other hand is an astonishing device. It achieves simplicity through a mixture of control and illusion. In its own way it's perfect, making an excellent communication device. A computing device: less so.

As an aside, both devices are also Trojan horses. Google just wants you logged in to your Google account so it can collect data. Apple wants to seduce you in to its ecosystem, if necessary by making it harder to use anything else. Both are fine as long as the value proposition is worth it.

In February 2013 I finally decided to retire my N900. The provocation for this was actually the release of the Ubuntu Touch developer preview. I purchased a Nexus 4, which is a beautiful piece of hardware, and flashed it with Ubuntu. Sadly, the operating system wasn't ready yet. I've kept the OS on the phone up-to-date (the device is now dual-boot) and in fact it's still not ready yet. If it fulfils its goal of becoming a dual mobile/desktop OS, it could have real potential. But (in the immortal words of Juba) "not yet".

So, in May 2013 I moved to an iPhone. The main motivation for this was to try to establish what data Apple collects during its use, especially given the way Siri works. I've continued using it for this purpose until now, maintaining it exclusively as my main phone in order to ensure valid results. After ten months of usage I think I've given it a fair tryout, but it's definitely not for me. It implements non-standard methods where existing standards would have worked just as well. Options are scattered around the interfaces or programs through a mixture of soft-buttons, hardware-buttons and gestures. I find this constantly frustrating, since most of the time the functionality I'm after doesn't actually exist. Yes, mystery meat navigation has escaped the nineties: it's alive and well on the iPhone. The hardware - while well made - is fussy with its mixture of materials and over-elaborate bevelling. However, ultimately what rules it out is the lack of support for programming the device on the device. There are some simple programming tools, but nothing that really grants proper control.

Finally I've ended up with a Jolla phone running Sailfish OS. There's no doubt that this is the true successor to Maemo. If you have fond memories of the Internet Tablet/N900/N9/N950 line of devices, then I'd recommend a Jolla. If you like Linux and want a phone that really is Linux, rather than a Java VM that happens to be running on the Linux kernel, then I'd recommend a Jolla. Clearly, I'm still suffering from the first-flush of enthusiasm, but it definitely feels good to be finally in possession of a phone that I feel like I can control, rather than one that controls me.

For the record, the photo shows (from right to left) Ubuntu Touch running on a Nexus 4, an iPhone 5 running iOS 7.0.4, Android 4.4.2 KitKat on a Nexus 4 and a Jolla device running Sailfish OS 1.0.3.8 (Naamankajärvi). There are actually only three devices here: both Nexuses are the same. The overall photo and Android device was taken using the Jolla; the Jolla and Ubuntu phones were shot with the iPhone; the iPhone photo was taken with the Android.

I had an interesting experience getting all of the photos off the phones and onto my computer for photoshopping together. Getting the photos off the Jolla and Android devices was easy enough using Bluetooth transfer. The iPhone inexplicably doesn't support Bluetooth file transfer (except with the uselessly myopic AirDrop), and getting anything off the device is generally painful. Eventually I used a third-party application to share the photos over Wi-Fi. However, it was Ubuntu Touch that gave the most trouble. The Nexus 4 doesn't support memory cards, Ubuntu Touch doesn't yet support Bluetooth and the only option offered was to share via Facebook. I gave up on this. No doubt Ubuntu Touch will improve and ultimately outdo iOS on this, but... not yet.

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8 Jan 2014 : Digital Forensics: can it really be an academic discipline? #
Although Digital Forensics isn't my main research area, it is one that I've had involvement with for some time. I work with many very talented researchers in the area of digital forensics, and have worked in the past with the Police in testing new digital forensics tools.

Yet in spite of this, I've struggled with the underpinnings of digital forensics for some time. Unlike security research, which is built on a set of clear principals that remain consistent over time, the principal techniques of digital forensics appear to me to be inevitably temporary and fleeting.

To be clear, I do understand that there are clearly defined goals for good digital forensics practice, and that the overarching aim is to collect evidence within the constraints of these requirements. For example, the need to collect data in a non-destructive way, while ensuring traceability, collecting information about provenance, and ideally supporting repeatability of collection. If digital forensics constrained itself to the pure pursuit of managing data based on these principals, then that would provide scope for a practically useful, but theoretically unremarkable area for future research.

I also understand that there are interesting questions related to how data can be analysed and interpreted to better understand it . But to me this falls under intelligence gathering rather than digital forensics. It fits into a much broader class of research (data analysis) which exists separately and independently.

Instead, at the heart of most digital forensics research you'll invariably find a data collection technique that's designed to uncover unexpected data. Data that the user never intended to persist or become accessible. As others have noted, this goal is diametrically opposed to the central goal of security, which is to offer a strict decision over what access is granted and to whom (where access can apply to not just data but also actions). Presumably, a tightly configured and accurately implemented security policy would prevent any effective digital forensics techniques from being used.

As a consequence, much digital forensics research focusses on bypassing security measures, making use of unanticipated data leaks or amalgamating data that had hitherto been considered benign. As soon as these techniques have been identified, a good security process should provide a countermeasure.

Certainly this offers a lucrative seam of challenges to undertake research around. However, each is just the exploitation of a transient mistake, framed from a perspective of intent. Consequently, when I read about digital forensics research I always struggle to understand the enduring principals which have been uncovered by it.

In contrast, the enduring principals of security research are clear. The aim there is to provide control: the ability to allow or disallow access to digital functionality or information based on a stated security policy. The security policy might change, and so the controls and feedback given to the user might also change, but good security research accommodates this without diverging from this clearly defined goal.

No doubt security doesn't always work like this and there are many challenges to achieving it. Security policies must be suitably complete, definable and understood by the user to achieve the intended results. There must be methods for applying the policy which ensure that the model (policy) and design (controls) align. Finally, the implementation must be correct, so that it - ideally verifiably - matches the requirements.

There will always be difficulties that arise in achieving this, but there is no reason why the methods developed today, which fulfil these objectives within a particular context, shouldn't be as applicable in the future as they are now. I'll grant that the completeness part may be an unachievable aspiration. But this doesn't make the steps towards it any less valid.

On the other hand, the goal of digital forensics is always moving: not forwards but sideways. So what are the underlying principals of digital forensics that an academic research discipline can uncover? How will digital forensics survive as a research area in the future, other than through the drive for practical outcomes? What area is there left for digital forensics to inhabit, once the security problem has been solved?

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31 Dec 2013 : Music in the Air #
After wrangling for days with all of the other services to try to get them set up properly on our new home server (mostly the print and folder shares), setting up media streaming has been a breath of fresh air. A quick install of MiniDLNA from the repositories and some minor tweaking of the configuration file, and we can now access music and video from anywhere in the house. Particularly nice is the fact we can upload music via ownCloud and immediately access it direct from the TV. It's all very impressive, for negligible effort on my part (which is just how I like it)!
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28 Dec 2013 : Constantia Mk II Goes Live #
After over five years running as my main server resource the time has finally arrived to retire my mini Koolu server, called Constantia. The last few days have been spent transferring its contents over to a new server, ready to take on the same role. The switch has been necessitated by the ageing hardware of the Koolu device. While it's still running beautifully the last Ubuntu release to support the hardware dropped out of its support period earlier this year.

The new hardware is an Aleutia T1 device. With its fanless chassis, low (10W) power consumption, tiny (20cm × 18cm) footprint and supported hardware it makes an ideal successor to the Koolu, as you can see below (Koolu on the left, Aleutia on the right).


Aleutia build the devices for projects such as solar classrooms in rural Africa, but they were also very happy to supply a single machine, even going to the trouble of preloading Ubuntu with a bespoke configuration.

I've been working with it for a couple of days now, and first impressions are good. There's a big performance improvement (noticeable even when accessing basic server tasks over the LAN). The more recent Ubuntu support means a host of new useful features and so far the the new server has picked up the following roles:

  • DNS server.
  • Apache SSL/TLS web server.
  • Subversion repository.
  • SMB shared folders.
  • Shared print server.
  • OwnCloud cloud storage and services.
  • Trac project management.
  • OpenVPN secure remote access.
  • DLNA media streaming.

Most of these were transferred over seamlessly; for example clients see the Subversion repository as just a continuation of what was there before. I'm looking forward to the improved performance, increased functionality and a more robust server to run the network for the next five years or more! Constantia Mk II can be found at www.flypig.org.uk.

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23 Nov 2013 : A Very Exciting Day #
Today is very exciting. I hear you ask: is it because of the Liverpool Derby? The Day of the Doctor? The Xbox One release? 1D Day?*

No. Today is when I get to try out my new server, which will be replacing Constantia and which will basically be running my entire life. For the last five years this has been very ably managed by a Koolu box (actually an FIC built Ion A603 with an AMD Geode LX processor) running Ubuntu 8.04. It's served beautifully all this time and never let me down. Sadly, Ubuntu 8.04 drifted out of its LTS support cycle earlier this year and the hardware combination isn't usable with newer versions of Ubuntu. It's taken me ages to choose a worthy successor given my demanding requirements (very small, passively cooled, low power, silent, good Linux and software compatibility, etc.). Finally I settled on an Aleutia T1 Fanless PC.


Hence my excitement. It's not the highest specced device in the world, but it runs at 10 Watts, is fanless, with supported chipsets. It arrived yesterday and I've not yet even turned it on. Actually getting it to the stage where it can replace my existing server wholesale is going to take a lot of configuration and data transfer between the two, but that'll all be part of the fun challenge.

In my small world, this is a big event, which could very well end in disaster. If this is my last ever post, you'll know why.

* (The Liverpool what? A little. Waiting for SteamBoxen. Please save me!)

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27 Jul 2013 : Raiding Revisited #

Over the years I've collected a lot of screenshots of the various games I've played. Still, the games that have captured the essence of adventure and exploration most consistently for me over a long period of time are those from the Tomb Raider series.

The thing they've consistently managed to get right throughout the series is the sense of scale needed to pull the adventure forwards. Surprisingly evocative vistas and large internal cavernous rooms (captured using clever cinematic long-shots) are balanced against intricate mazes with hidden alcoves. The large scale of the vistas offers the promise of future adventure; the claustrophobic corridors achieve the sense of exploration.

On top of this, there have even been some beautiful weather effects (contrast the atmospheric storm at Dr Willard's Scottish castle against the bright burning sunlight of the Coastal Ruins in Alexandria).

The Tomb Raider Reboot didn't disappoint. To celebrate this (it's a small, private celebration to which only me and the Internet have been invited) below are a selection of some of the more powerful screenshots captured during my playthrough of the game.


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7 Jul 2013 : Tombs: Raided #

No one other than me will care about this, but I've finally completed the full complement of Tomb Raider games. It's been a long slog, over 10 years in the passing. It doesn't help that they continue to make things harder by releasing new games every so often.

Perhaps surprisingly, but fittingly, the last game that I managed to complete wasn't the latest Tomb Raider reboot, but instead was Unfinished Business, where Lara returns to the Atlantean Hive from Tomb Raider 1. To be fair, I'd already completed this, but had taken the shortcut to skip the Atlantean Stronghold level. I've now done it properly.

Although there are lots of Tomb Raider games I've not played, most of them are mobile, Gameboy or Xbox exclusives which I don't imagine I'll ever get to have access to. I like to think of them as not being canon! Here's the full list of conquered games.

  • Tomb Raider.
  • Unfinished Business and Shadow of the Cat.
  • Tomb Raider II: Starring Lara Croft.
  • Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft.
  • The Golden Mask.
  • Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.
  • Tomb Raider: The Lost Artefact.
  • Tomb Raider Chronicles.
  • Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness.
  • Tomb Raider Legend.
  • Tomb Raider Anniversary.
  • Tomb Raider Underworld.
  • Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.
  • Tomb Raider (reboot).


From all of these, the standout levels are the Venice Level from Tomb Raider II, and (ironically, given the bad reviews) the Louvre level from Angel of Darkness. I loved leaping around those roofs. The latest Tomb Raider was a great game and worked really well as a fresh approach. Still, Edge had it spot on when they said it was a reversal of the formula: from precise platforming and loose shooting to loose platforming and precise shooting. I'd rather have precise platforming and no shooting myself. In spite of this it was a great game and it would be a lie to say I didn't enjoy it a lot.

Thankfully Tomb Raider is a bit like Doctor Who. There's more than enough non-canon material to fill a lifetime, so I have absolutely no plans to stop here. Even the original block-based adventures have their place in modern gaming as rare examples of games worth playing on a laptop without the need for a mouse (it's a dubious accolade I admit). With a bit of luck they'll continue to release great games in the future.

Below are a few more images taken from my final foray into the original world of Lara Croft: Unfinished Business.


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28 Jun 2013 : Bitcash #
A while ago I traded my first Bitcoins, and now the purchased product has arrived, all the way from Switzerland. What did I buy with my Bitcoins? Well, a Bitcoin of course! Except this one is a Cacasius physical Bitcoin. It’s an interesting idea: create a physical coin that contains the private key to access an "actual" (virtual!) Bitcoin. The private key is printed on the coin under an opaque tamper-proof cover, so that anyone can easily ensure that the coin is worth the valid amount by checking the seal. Consequently it can be passed between people like a normal coin. With a real coin if you want the government to make good on its promise to pay the bearer you’re out of luck. With this coin, to redeem the amount just pull off the cover to reveal the key. In practice you’d never want to do this, and the virtual Bitcoin you’d get wouldn’t necessarily be worth any more (or less) than the government’s promise, but it’s still a neat idea.


Cacasius physical Bitcoins

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3 May 2013 : Finished Business #
After destroying the Scion and fighting off Natla I thought my work would be done. Not so. There were many other mysteries to solve, and given my late arrival, lots of adventures to pursue in a largely random order. Finally, after completing all of the other adventures, it was time to return to the Atlantean Stronghold and destroy the mutants created by Natla once and for all. To that end, I returned with intent to ultimately destroying the remaining inner Hive.

From the top of the structure overlooking where the hive pyramid erupted from the rock I could see the far cliffs ahead, but no way to reach them. On the ground below, in the far distance, I perceived two golden doors, tempting me forwards as the best means of progress. Alas, despite my best investigatory efforts, there was no way to open the doors and although I knew I needed to ascend to reach my goal, the only way forwards was now down into the hive pyramid itself.

Working my way through the pyramid, I dispatched various terrestrial and winged mutants en route, including those showering me with deadly darts and explosive projectiles. Luckily many of them suffered from idiosyncratic perception difficulties – no doubt a result of the mutation process – that made them more likely to follow my shadow than me. Fooling them using acrobatic prowess – dangling from ledges and leaping on top of blocks – and showering them with persistent pistol fire while dodging their own deadly projectiles saw me prevail. Yet this was no easy fight through the chambers and passageways.

As I continued onwards the way became more treacherous still, with lava flows cutting off my path, dangerous precipices to be scaled over lethal spikes and watery pools containing hidden switches that bore the secrets to opening the passageways ahead. Oftentimes I saw glimpses of future dangers, obliquely viewable through the many impenetrable glass and tissue structures of which the pyramid was built. But these ominous forewarnings only drove me harder to complete my journey.

Eventually, working down and then higher again into the rocks above, I found myself overlooking the same pyramid again, but now from the opposite side, from an angle where my goal was visible. Leaping into the unknown, I dived through the darkened hole in the pyramid with only serendipity and an unwavering belief in the existence of a path forwards to trust in. My faith was rewarded, with the pool below deep enough to buffer the impact of my fall. I climbed out to find myself in the inner hive of the mutants, and able to finally finish what had been started all those years ago in the Peruvian Andes searching for the Scion.

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28 Apr 2013 : Bitcoins #
Today I traded my very first Bitcoins. It's possibly the worst time to be buying them, given the amazing amount of publicity they've been getting recently (and the upsurge in their value that's resulted). Still, today I'm buying them for a reason rather than as an investment, so I've convinced myself that it's okay. Why the rush? I just discovered that Casascius is no longer selling physical Bitcoins to individuals. Since I'm keen to have one, the high price is just something I have to suck up. I'm looking forward to getting hold of a physical coin (even if it epitomises everything Bitcoins aren't!), and it's exciting to actual own some of the currency. The Web right now manages to make Bitcoins look a lot more daunting than they actually are, which is quite an accomplishment.
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9 Dec 2012 : PiBot2 parts #
I've been really quite shocked (in a good way) at the interest that PiBot has generated. Apparently the world needs more Raspberry flavoured Lego robots, so to help anyone aspiring to own their own robot army, here's the list of parts that was used for PiBot2.

Pretty much everything came from Amazon, so most of the links are to the UK Amazon site. Apologies if you're from outside the UK or are currently boycotting Amazon for their dubious tax practices, but all of these should be readily available from lots of other places too.

The table is split into two parts. The first part covers just those bits and pieces that you're likely to need to get a Raspberry Pi up and running. If you've already got a Raspberry Pi, you probably already have all of these things. The second part covers the materials needed to get the robot working.


Parts needed for the Pi
PartPurposeBuy
Raspberry PiThe computer.£25.92
Logitech K340 Wireless KeyboardKeyboard works well with Pi.£34.95
Logitech M505 Wireless MouseMouse works well with Pi. The Logitech unifying receiver takes one USB port for both keyboard and mouse.£30.98
HDMI cableTo connect the Pi to a screen.£1.03
Micro USB Mains ChargerTo power the Pi when it's not attached to the battery.£2.75
16GB Micro SDHC cardTo run the OS from.£8.22
Parts needed for the Robot
PartPurposeBuy
LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT 2.0The actual robot. This includes the motors and ultrasonic sensor needed for control.£234.99
TeckNet iEP387 7000mAh 2.1Amp Output USB BatteryFor powering the Pi when it's on the move. I tried cheaper less powerful chargers (including AA batteries), but they couldn't provide enough juice to keep the Pi running.£23.97
USB 2.0 A/b Cable - 1mFor connecting the Pi to the Mindstorm control Brick.£1.69
USB A to Micro B Cable - 6 inchFor connecting the Pi to the battery.£2.13

The total bill for this lot was around £370. However, £235 of this is the LEGO Mindstorm and £65 is for the wireless keyboard and mouse, so if you've already got these I'd say the rest is pretty reasonable. I had to try a number of wireless keyboards before finding one which didn't cause the Raspberry Pi to reset randomly though. If anyone knows of a cheaper keyboard/mouse combo that works well with the Pi, let me know and I can alter the list.

If you're building a PiBot, I hope this helps to get things underway. I'd be really interested to know how other people get on; it'd be fantastic to feature some other PiBot designs on the site!

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9 Aug 2012 : PiBot2 #
After a frantic buying spree on Amazon and some tense anticipation each day with the post, PiBot has now been augmented (Deus Ex style) with better hardware, neater design and improved software. Meet PiBot2!. The upgrades include a much larger (7000 mAh) battery, a USB connector that doesn't cut power when riding over bumps; a mere 1m long cable (as compared to the previous 5m long version), and auto-roaming code that will explore the room without intervention (mostly!).

The cable is still a good 80cm too long, and the exploration code is simple to say the least, but it's one step further on. Using PyGame for the code means proper asynchronous keyboard input, so that human-control and auto-exploration can be switched between seamlessly. The next part of the plan is to draw objects in the PyGame window as PiBot senses them. I don't expect this to work very well, but I plan to have fun trying it!

Below are a few screenshots of the new PyBot, along with the code in its latest state.


#!/usr/bin/env python
#

import pygame
import sys
from pygame.locals import *
import nxt
import nxt.locator
from nxt.sensor import *
from nxt.motor import *
from time import sleep


def input(events, state):
    for event in events:
        if event.type == QUIT:
            state = 0
        if event.type == KEYDOWN:
            if event.key == K_q:
                print "q"
                state = 0
            elif event.key == K_w:
                print "Forwards"
                both.turn(100, 360, False)
            elif event.key == K_s:
                print "Backwards"
                both.turn(-100, 360, False)
            elif event.key == K_a:
                print "Left"
                leftboth.turn(100, 90, False)
            elif event.key == K_d:
                print "Right"
                rightboth.turn(100, 90, False)
            elif event.key == K_f:
                print "Head"
                head.turn(30, 45, False)
            elif event.key == K_r:
                state = explore(state)

    return state

def explore(state):
    if state == 1:
        state = 2
        print "Explore"
    elif state == 2:
        state = 1
        print "Command"
    return state

def autoroll():
    if Ultrasonic(brick, PORT_2).get_sample() < 20:
        both.brake()
        both.turn(-100, 360, False)
        sleep(1)
        leftboth.turn(100, 360, False)
        sleep(1)
    else:
        both.run(100)

def update(state):
    if state == 2:
        autoroll()
    
    return state

pygame.init()
window = pygame.display.set_mode((400, 400))
fpsClock = pygame.time.Clock()

brick = nxt.locator.find_one_brick()
left = Motor(brick, PORT_B)
right = Motor(brick, PORT_C)
both = nxt.SynchronizedMotors(left, right, 0)
leftboth = nxt.SynchronizedMotors(left, right, 100)
rightboth = nxt.SynchronizedMotors(right, left, 100)
head = Motor(brick, PORT_A)

state = 1
print "Running"
while (state > 0):
    state = input(pygame.event.get(), state)
    #pygame.display.flip()
    state = update(state)

print "Quit"

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22 Jul 2012 : The PiBot Raspberry Pi NXT robot #

Inspired by the amazing things the Boreatton Scouts group are doing with their Raspberry Pis, as well as a conversation with David Lamb and Andrew Attwood – two colleagues of mine at LJMU – I thought it was about time I actually tried to use my Pi for something other than recompiling existing software. I'm not a hardware person. Not at all. But I do have a Lego Mindstorms NXT robot which has always had far more potential than I've ever had the energy to extract from it.

But after reading about how it's possible to control the NXT brick with Python using nxt-python, and with David pointing out how manifestly great it would be to get the first year undergraduates learning programming using it, I couldn't resist giving it a go.

It turned out to be surprisingly easy. The hard parts? First was getting the Pi to discover the NXT brick over USB. The instructions for this aren't too great, but in fact it turned out to be as simple as copying the NXT MAC address into the PyUSB configuration file. Second was getting the Pi, battery pack and 5 metres (yes, you read that right) of USB lead to balance on top of the robot!


The PiBot components

I'm not exactly sure why I bought such a huge lead given I knew it would all end up on top of the robot, but that's planning for you!

The result really is as crazy and great as I'd hoped. I wrote a 50 line python programme to read key presses and drive the robot appropriately – right, left, forward and back – and nxt-python does all of the hard work. The keyboard is wireless, attached to the Raspberry Pi using a micro dongle. The USB lead connects the Pi with the NXT brick. The Raspberry Pi is powered by a USB phone charger. The monitor lead and ethernet aren't needed when the machine's running, which means the robot/pi combination is entirely self-contained and can be controlled using the wireless keyboard.

It was also possible to read data from the sensors, allowing the robot to drive itself entirely autonomously around the room avoiding objects and generally exploring. The next step is to collect more input about the distance it's travelled so that it can be mapped on to a virtual room on the Raspberry Pi and build a picture of the world.

Here's a video of Joanna controlling the Heath-Robinson contraption as well some photos showing all of the different parts balanced on top of one another.


The PiBot components

The wonderful thing about all of this is that although it requires a huge amount of effort and insight to get each of the individual pieces working, none of the effort was mine. Pulling the pieces together is really straightforward, building on so much clever work by so many people. It's got to the stage where you can grab a phone charger, some Lego, a £35 PC the size of a credit card, a wireless keyboard, an entirely open source software stack, 5m of USB cable and a Sunday afternoon and end up with a complete robot you can programme directly in Python. Brilliant.


The PiBot components

#!/usr/bin/env python
#

import nxt
import sys
import tty, termios
import nxt.locator
from nxt.sensor import *
from nxt.motor import *

brick = nxt.locator.find_one_brick()
left = nxt.Motor(brick, PORT_B)
right = nxt.Motor(brick, PORT_C)
both = nxt.SynchronizedMotors(left, right, 0)
leftboth = nxt.SynchronizedMotors(left, right, 100)
rightboth = nxt.SynchronizedMotors(right, left, 100)

def getch():
	fd = sys.stdin.fileno()
	old_settings = termios.tcgetattr(fd)
	try:
		tty.setraw(fd)
		ch = sys.stdin.read(1)
	finally:
		termios.tcsetattr(fd, termios.TCSADRAIN, old_settings)
	return ch

ch = ' '
print "Ready"
while ch != 'q':
	ch = getch()

	if ch == 'w':
		print "Forwards"
		both.turn(100, 360, False)
	elif ch == 's':
		print "Backwards"
		both.turn(-100, 360, False)
	elif ch == 'a':
		print "Left"
		leftboth.turn(100, 90, False)
	elif ch == 'd':
		print "Right"
		rightboth.turn(100, 90, False)

print "Finished"

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19 Feb 2012 : The World Wild West #
The Web used to be like the Wild West: lawless and anarchic, yet at the same time inspirational and free. But frontiers get pushed back, and beasts get tamed. Today the Web is a far 'safer' place, with much of the control ceded to governments and corporations. One of the happier casualties of this appears to be spam, which through a combination of law and technology, is now a far less aggressive problem than it was back then.
Since the start of this site, I've always used a public email address that was separate from the private email address I gave to people personally. The reason was to reduce spam, and also because companies couldn't be trusted to use my email address responsibly. Today the amount of spam I receive, even on the public address, is bearable and companies are much more likely to actually comply with the data protection laws preventing distribution of contact details. As a result, I've decided to finally move over to using just a single, simple, email address. The plan is to make my life easier and have fewer addresses to deal with. Whenever I write out my name on official forms it's always hard to fit it into the space provided. Finally I can now avoid having the same problem with my email address as well!
12 Feb 2012 : Celtic Knots: moving from 2D to 3D #
A couple more prints have arrived from Shapeways and once again I'm really pleased with the results. The first was a bit of an experimental print for a number of reasons. It's another 3D Celtic knot, but this time I tried it with much thinner threads, right down to the minimum of 0.7mm thickness recommended by Shapeways. I get the feeling this recommendation is intended for walls, so I'd feared the threads wouldn't be strong enough to hold together. In fact, the final result is perfectly sturdy and the threads seem quite robust. Second, I tried the polished version of the "white strong and flexible" material (which is apparently a kind of nylon). The polishing process involves shaking the model with lots of tiny polishing balls, so again I'd feared this might affect the models strength. And again, it seems my fears were unfounded. Finally, I generated the model to have gaps where the threads cross over, the hope being it would be printed in four separate pieces. Unfortunately I apparently didn't give enough clearance, and some of the threads fuse at these intersections. Nonetheless, some of them are still loose, and the result is really great. I may try it again with a bit more of a gap next time though.

The second knot is a proper 2D Celtic knot. The idea is that this is generated from the same seed as the 3D knot, making it in some sense the 'same' knot. That's not really true, but until I figure out what's really meant by 'the same', this is as close as I can think of. I was pleased to find that, since they're both printed with the same dimensions, resting the 2D version on one of the faces of the 3D knot, they align nicely and really look like one is an extruded version of the other.
Once again, printing out these knots has provided some really nice results, leaving the biggest problem the question of what to print next.
4 Feb 2012 : From theory to practice #
Yesterday I received another print from Shapeways. It's my first metal creation using a clever printing process that takes a 3D model as input and creates a completely formed bronze object as output.
Perhaps unsurprisingly it's another 3D Celtic knot. Once again, in spite of the dubious model I provided, the result is just brilliant. It's a real chunk of metal that looks like it's been hewn and polished into a complex shape through hours of craftsmanship. It did take hours of work of course, but in reality it was largely done using completely routine machine production techniques. Here's a shot of the result.

We all have dreams about the things we want to do when we're grown up, like becoming pop stars, train drivers, footballers or whatever. As we grow older we find we have to shed some of these hopes. There comes a point when the realisation sets in that perhaps there are people better suited to fighting dragons. Having spent practically all my life working with either maths or computers, I'd pretty much given up hope of ever doing something that actually produced physical results. It sounds like a strange dream, but the prospect of being able to create something tangible has always seemed exciting.
It's surprising then to find a path of entirely abstract ideas can lead so naturally into a process of creating physical constructs. This is the solution 3D printing offers. It allows people to turn abstract ideas into physical form, without ever having to leave the comfort of a computer screen. No need to get your hands dirty.
Of course, the physical infrastructure needed to get to this point is phenomenal (electricity, Internet, banking, etc.). Someone had to build it and huge numbers of people are still needed to maintain it. But as far as I'm concerned, sitting behind a computer screen, it's still an utterly seamless and physically effortless process. Only thought required.
You can download the 3D model for this, or buy a physical artefact, direct from the Shapeways website.
6 Sep 2011 : 3D printing #
In case you're interested to know more about my recent 3D printing experience, I've put together some more words and pictures. Feel free to take a look. Alternatively, there's also a link in case you want to print a copy of the Celtic knot yourself. That's right, you really can print your own. Still doesn't seem right.
3 Sep 2011 : 3D printing #
Today I received my first ever 3D print. It's a 3D Celtic Knot which was generated by some code I put together while Joanna and I were in Tuscany a couple of weeks back. The model was sent off to a company called Shapeways in the Netherlands, and today I received the final printed object. The technology that allows you to print 3D objects is just phenomenal, both in terms of how clever it is, and the astonish potential it promises. It really does provide the opportunity to create just about anything, turning the wildest imaginings into reality.
I was pretty nervous getting it out of its box as I really wasn't sure how well it would come out, but in fact I'm astonished at how clean the printing is and how sturdy the object is. I hope to put together the full story of my 3D printing experience, from theory to reality, tomorrow.
One of the things I love about the idea of 3D printing, is that it really seems as close as we can get right now to the Star Trek replicator way of doing things. That might seem like an irrelevance - just a nerdy reaction - but I see it as a real vision of how things will change in the future. I find the shift from small-scale-bespoke, through mass-production, to mass-bespoke just a little exhilarating to be lucky enough to experience.
3D printed celtic knot
31 Aug 2011 : Syncing my Google Calendar #
At work I use Outlook, since the University uses MS Exchange and the nature of collaboration tools is that you have to use what other people are using. However, for some time now I've also been syncing this with a Google Calendar so that I can also make some of the details available on this site. Google provides a free syncing tool, but this had various limitations, such as only being able to sync one calendar, making it no good for what I wanted. The solution was to use a piece of software called SyncMyCal. For the record, this is a great piece of software that does a straightforward task very well. Once it's properly configured, it's the kind of software that works best if you don't notice it again, which is exactly how things were until recently. It was well worth the asking price.
So, this worked great for ages, until half a year or so ago the University started upgrading the Exchange servers, and I upgraded my machine to Outlook 2010. SyncMyCal was only compatible with Outlook 2003.
My solution at the time was to continue running OUtlook 2003 with SyncMyCal on a separate machine. This kind of worked, but had problems. The machine would get turned off and I wouldn't notice, or it would reboot after an automatic update leaving Outlook asleep on the hard drive. My Google calendar was only updated intermittently. Nobody really cared, except for me, since it increased the disorder in my world and kept me locked in to running an old machine just for the sake of syncing.
Until yesterday that is. On the offchance I checked the SyncMyCal site yesterday and found they'd finally released an Outlook 2010 version of their tool. Yay!
The result is that now my calendars are syncing normally, the version on this site is telling the truth, rather than some partial version of it, and the world - for me at least - has become a little more ordered!
3 Oct 2010 : Guardian of Light #
Guardian of Light It's been a long time since I wrote anything in this plog, but I guess some things just warrant waking up from a slumber. What's the big new? Well, I've just completed the latest Tomb Raider game. Actually, scratch that as it's not a Tomb Raider game, it's the latest Lara Croft game: The Guardian of Light. It's a lot different from previous instalments in the series, in that rather than being third-person following Lara, it's third-person bird's-eye-view 'isometric'. I don't think it's true isometric because they left some perspective in, but you get the idea. It was an enjoyable game (I finished pretty quickly for me, which says something), but compared to the previous ones I found it easier to forget that I was playing as Lara Croft. The puzzles were good, and ironically I thought the combat was much better than in the 3D-view games. It's just a shame that there wasn't more dialogue and story elements to keep the game grounded in the Tomb Raider world. Guardian of Light Anyway, I'm glad I played it, and that the series is continuing with the same energy. I had to finish it after all, just to keep up my Tomb Raider completion rate. Eventually I still plan to go back and complete Unfinished Business (I only have The Hive to do, but it really is still unfinished business); I console myself with the fact that this was really an add-on for the original game.
30 Sep 2010 : The seasons change again #
The trees decided that Autumn has begun today!
22 Sep 2008 : Sparky the Dragon #
Joanna wakes up Sparky for the first time Joanna's been asking to have a baby red dragon for a present for every birthday and Christmas for several years now. With the release of the Pleo, it finally looked like it might be possible to fulfil her wish. The result of my attempt to do this is Sparky the Dragon.
15 Sep 2008 : Raiding the last tomb... so far #
Tomb Raider 1 Finally, after what feels like an æon, I've managed to complete Tomb Raider 1. It feels like it's taken some Herculean effort (not that I'd know!) after nearly 12 years, and for me is something to celebrate. To most people it won't sound like a big deal at all, but the real reason it feels like such an achievement is that this actually means I've now finished all of the Tomb Raider games. All eight of them. I can finally say that I've scaled the Tomb Raider mountain. Tomb Raider 1, looking back at the carnage It seems kind of odd to have finished the first game last, but when it was released I wasn't really interested in playing it (even though I loved computer games and remember being mesmerised watching my house mate Alex complete it at the time). Rather strangely I didn't start playing the games until thoroughly enjoying playing through Angel of Darkness. Apparently I was the only person who did enjoy it, but it got me hooked and I moved on to the others. Tomb Raider 1, the end awaits After completing Legend I didn't think I'd ever play the first game (I thought it'd feel too much like playing it twice) and so would never finish them all, but eventually that human-collector-instinct got the better of me and I had to give it a go. It was well worth it, in spite of its venerable age. So, I'm glad I can revel in the fact I've completed them all, at least until they release Underworld, which I'm nonetheless looking forward to. In the meantime, I've not yet played all of the extra Gold levels, so there's still work to be done. And for the record, maybe Angel of Darkness was my favourite, although Chronicles was the best of the vintage games and I loved the Venice level in Tomb Raider 2 as well.
11 Oct 2007 : Autumn #
Autumn at the Commercial Road to Vauxhall Road junction Every time the season changes my journey to work becomes far more enjoyable. It seems to happen so quickly. One day the trees are green and suffering the end-of-summer storms, the next day the air is still and crisp, and the world has turned a golden orange colour. Yesterday evening on my journey home there was a deep mist. The halo of the lights and the glowing golden trees made things feel just a bit magical.
I've decided that Liverpool is a beautiful place at this time of year. I'm sure this is true of everywhere else too, but It's only recently that I remember noticing such vibrant changes in the seasons. I was wondering why this might be, and then I realised. When we lived in Pall Mall there were basically no plants or trees on my way to work. A total absence of nature. Thinking about it, that's really strange, and it makes me realise how important it is to live where there is more than just concrete. It's also true that the relative harshness of the climate here (being a northern port city), compared to other places I've lived, is quite bracing. And also just a little annoying when you have to cycle somewhere!
12 Sep 2007 : Deadly Shadows #
Deadly Shadows Kirkdale industry at dusk Industrial silhouette I've just finished the game Thief - Deadly Shadows. It's a great game, full of dark atmosphere. Like many of the games I enjoy most, it's always the atmosphere that makes the game immersive and enjoyable. What I particularly enjoy about Thief, is that it reminds me of wandering around the docks in Liverpool at dusk. With all of the industrial architecture and crumbling infrastructure it's a scary place, but with the continuously working industry -- container ships arriving all through the night -- it also feels alive with a kind of eternal energy. Whilst I enjoy visiting the docks I basically get too fearful to stay there when it gets really dark. Entirely psychological fear I'm sure. That's the beauty of Thief. You can do things you'd never dream of doing in real life, with some of the same fear, but without the consequences. The pictures are of the game and a couple of photos of Liverpool Docks I took trying to overcome my fear one summer evening!
21 Apr 2007 : With Every HeartBeat #
Kleerup and RobynI felt rubbish this morning, but my day was saved by a beautiful piece of music. So much of the time, music seems to be in the background. It's so rare that you hear a song that's so powerful that you can't help but give in to its effect on your emotions. There's a track called "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," and every so often, I can understand it. Ironically, this track doesn't hold much power, but it has its truth nonetheless.
The music I heard today was called "With Every HeartBeat" by Kleerup and Robyn. It stopped me in my tracks and I swear I stopped breathing for the 4 minutes the track played.
Later I listed to "Be Mine," also by Robyn. It's another beautiful, if equally tragic, track. When you're not feeling too great they're utterly self indulgent. And beautiful. And somehow helpful.
14 Apr 2007 : A walk in the park #
Kirkdale skyline
I went for a walk around the neighbourhood this evening. It's amazing how warm it is. The air is completely still and although it's not been sunny all day, the air is hot but not humid. It's a very unusual combination for around here at this time of year. It's especially surprising that it's so warm in the evening. It's now nearly 10pm and I have the windows fully open as I sit in my study. The temperature in here is the same as it is outside and it feels just perfect. Like a mediterranean evening.
So I went for a walk because it's wonderfully warm and I'd not yet been outside today, but mostly because I find the industrial area that we live in to be utterly mesmerising at night. The huge great industrial storage drums and buildings. They sit, looking both alive and silent at night like sleeping giants. Some of them have glistening lights whereas others are just dark looming silhouettes against the night sky. We're near the docks, which is an important part of the magic, because it feels like a space port or space station. Technological, but also grimy and real.
I didn't feel safe walking around the neighbourhood. There were few people around and I was on my own. There was some noise because the only people around at 9:30pm on a Saturday evening in this part of town are kids. Kids are intimidating and I walked past a couple of gangs of kids, which felt a bit uncomfortable. But they didn't actually cause any trouble at all. Just walked straight past.
We don't live in what could be called a nice part of town, although I find it okay. So I wonder whether it really is a dangerous or scary place to be. I'm sure almost all of the fear I experienced was self inflicted. I suppose by definition all of fear is self inflicted, but what I mean is that it's almost certainly entirely unnecessary. But in spite of reminding myself this I couldn't get it out of my mind. I wonder whether there really is something to fear? Lots of people say that it's a modern phenomenon, but I'm sure walking around industrial areas has always been scary. "Everyday do something that scares you." This is so important. It wasn't the reason for my walk, and I hope over the next few months the weather is such that I can do it more often. Part of the reason for doing scary things is realising that there's no need for the fear. I'm not entirely convinced just yet, but I'm glad I had the walk nonetheless.
Another Kirkdale skyline
6 Mar 2007 : Spring #
DaffodilsA couple of days ago, on the 27th February in fact (the day before St. David's day) I suddently noticed hundreds of daffodils had appeared in the grassy patches that line my journey in to work. It felt like they'd just appeared overnight. I don't know if this is a reflection of what actually happened, or of my not noticing them earlier, but it was a very uplifting realisation. At the time, I put it down to my enjoyment of Spring as a season. After all, my birthday tends to fall in Spring so it's bound to enthuse me a bit! On further thought though, I realised that I feel uplifted at every change in the season. The onset of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter are all exciting times. Perhaps it's the possibility of renewal, the chance for a change? Whatever it is, I'm hoping the optimism of the new season brings positive effects.
6 Mar 2007 : The secret of success #
"Success begins at you believing you can do it. But it ends where that belief begins to blind you." (As said by l3v1 in a comment on OSNews).
6 Feb 2007 : Pigeon AI #
It wasn't until after writing up that last post about birds in computer games that I discovered - whilst search for suitable screenshots on the Web - that the birds in Broken Sword Angel of Darkness were actually intended as a clue in the game. Not quite as incidental as I'd imagined! It just goes to show how much thought has often gone into such things.
6 Feb 2007 : Free as a bird #
BirdOver the years, I have to admit, I've played a fair few computer games. A common theme that runs through many games is that of 'struggle'. You take on the role of an - often reluctant - hero, struggling against some alien or mystical aggressor so as to fulfil your destiny and, coincidentally, complete the game.
Another common theme that I've noticed is that many computer games like to include incidental aesthetic features. Bushes that move with the wind, birds that fly away in reaction to some movement, the changing light as the sun moves through the sky. These all add to the atmosphere of the game, immersing the player and increasing the feeling that the environment is real. It's touches like these that I find particularly beautiful in computer games; things that aren't necessary, but which nonetheless add depth. Half-life 2, Broken Sword Angel of Death, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Tomb Raider Legend and Prince of Persia the Two Thrones are games with these kinds of incidental effects that immediately spring to mind.
Birds from Shadow of the ColossusHowever, whenever I notice such things - usually as a result of me disturbing some quietly perched birds - it also has another effect, serving to highlight the disparity between the tumultuous struggle inherent to the gameplay and the unchanging indifference of the world it inhabits.
Why are evil overlord alien races or mystical enemies never interested in subjugating or annihilating the bird population? Why are they only interested in the humans? Why is it that they are happy to share their world with the birds, but not with the humans? There might be all manner of pain and suffering, battling, fighting and enslaving going on - massive gun battles and destruction - yet the birds just seem to go about their business oblivious to the disaster going on around them. It's not just the birds either. It's pretty much all of the other animals: fish, lizards, insects and so on. All of nature in fact.
Okay, perhaps I'm reading too much into what is really just an incidental addition to a game. But I think it's an interesting metaphor for everyday life. It's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of stress and work that can consume our daily lives, whilst at the same time the world goes on, oblivious and unaffected. The stress and work is often entirely of our own making.
You can extend this further to more serious matters too. I'm lucky to never have experienced wartime in any real sense (although Britain seems to have been at war with at least one country for as long as I can remember; it's testament to the aggressive nature of our democracy that this always seems to be happening somewhere else). But even during the most horrendous times, nature carries on, the weather changes and animals continue their lives indifferent to the human follies around them. It's somehow reassuring.
It may seem a little odd, but it's this that I'm reminded of when I disturb a flock of birds in a computer game.
3 Feb 2007 : The longest journey of all #
AthenaI've really fallen in love with small games (maybe "become addicted to" would be more honest!). Most games are so huge and cinematic that you can't really pick them up for a quick game and put them down again. Sometimes you want something with epic production values, but just at the moment I'm enjoying a games that's epic in a totally different way: The Odyssey: Winds of Athena is a small game based on Homer's epic poem. It's sort of puzzle based, but mostly it requires dexterity, creating currents in the water and wind with the mouse to blow Odysseus's boats to safety. At the same time as providing fun and frustrating gameplay, it also charts its way through the classic story, which is enjoyable in itself.
The Odyssey: Winds of AthenaIt isn't expensive, and I for one reckon I'd spend a lot more overall buying several games of this size and price than on fewer of the more costly variety. This is certainly what's happened over the last couple of weeks (last weekend I bought Gumboy's Crazy Adventures; another great game).
To be fair, it could be that the reason I find these kinds of games more appealing is because they tend to be 2D and puzzle oriented, with quirky rather than realistic game mechanics. This is the kind of game I grew up with before 3D games became the norm. Nevertheless, there's no denying that they're fun to play, and much better if you just want to have a quick break between doing other things, so I'm indebted to the Out of Eight PC Game Reviews site for introducing it to me.
30 Jan 2007 : Crazy Czech Adventures #
One of the big attractions of computer games for me is the brilliant use of graphics that they routinely incorporate, and I often think that they're one of the best ways (both as a medium and as a commercially viable proposition) to be able to create beautiful things. Samorost 2However, in spite of this it's not often that I am totally awestruck by the beauty and atmosphere of a game. There are only two recent games that I can think of that have had what I consider to be a quite profound beauty. The first is Samorost, or more accurately, Samorost 2 which I discovered first, created by Amanita Design. The second, which I only stumbled across over the weekend in spite of the fact that it's a good few months old, is called Gumboy Crazy Adventures, by Cinemax. Gumboy Crazy AdventuresYou'd not expect something with a title that includes the words gum and crazy to inspire beautiful imagery, but it has the same magical, whimsical, and fantastical atmosphere that I found so beautiful in Samorost. Although the graphics and sound - which form a major part of the beauty - are similar between the two games, the gameplay differs greatly between them. Luckily, they're also both great fun to play. Both Cinemax and Amanita Design are based in the Czech Republic. The combination of eerie sound and music, incomprehensible speech, and graphics that integrate real rustic objects is very unusual to me, and I wonder if it's something that's grown out of traditional East European art. Given how much I seem to enjoy it, this is something I probably ought to look into more deeply.
21 Dec 2006 : Too much of too little #
It's a strange phenomenon, finding yourself with nowhere to call home. This is the situation I find myself in this evening. This is not the same as having nowhere to live, the tragedy and unpleasantness of which the word 'strange' doesn't even begin to capture. On the contrary, it is ironically the fact that - as of today - I technically have two flats to live in that I find I don't have anywhere to sleep. One flat is practically empty, save for a rather lonely bed that belongs to our landlord. The other flat is packed full of our possessions, all laboriously moved over the last few days, and all carefully concealed in easily transportable (but not easily accessible) boxes. So the choice is between an empty, cold flat where the few remaining contents are easily accessible but offer little in the way of comfort, or a congested, cold flat packed full of practically everything you could wish for, none of which can be effectively used.
I'm not complaining mind. The circumstance represents a small part of a much larger journey and is at any rate entirely of my own making. Even if none of this were the case, it would be churlish to claim that this is a bad situation, when there are so many deeper levels of being worse off that people suffer.
It is a strange journey nonetheless, both in circumstance and emotional effect. We've decided where we're going to stay tonight. There really was only one choice, even if it's not very practical. When you're on a journey, the only choice, after all, is to move forwards.
6 Nov 2006 : Corporate art that doesn't work #
Whenever I visit a company's website or watch a company presentation, it often strikes me how utterly irrelevant to the content the images used are. The pictures invariably portray exceptionally happy people in bright sunshine doing fun things. Sun Borland artnonwork Sometimes, if a designer really exceeds expectations, there might be a stock image of someone using a computer for a technology site say, but often they won't even have bothered to do this. I understand why happy people sell products, but it just saddens me that so little effort appears to have gone in to finding relevant images. Maybe I just don't understand? Take for example the Sun JDK download site. It'll probably be gone by tomorrow, but take a look at the capture of the site that I just took. As I say, maybe I'm missing the point, but what's the connection between migrating projects between IDEs and some kids climbing a tree? I'm inclined to think it's even quite irresponsible. Climbing trees requires full attention. You wouldn't want to try migrating projects up a tree: it'd be dangerous! The sad thing is that it's got to the point where I hardly even notice the artwork anymore. It's just a fleeting wash of colour that passes through my consciousness. This is a real shame, because the pictures themselves are often very good and a lot of effort was probably put in to them. What's more, I'm sure a designer could have some real fun working out some pithy connection between the picture and the content. Surely there must be some exciting and relevant pictures that could go with JBuilder migration? How hard can it be...
15 Aug 2006 : The Last of the Colossi #
Well, that's the last of the colossi dealt with. It's another great game, but I think the story is even more ambiguous than Ico. There's definitely a link between the two games, and maybe that's the part that makes the most sense, but the meaning of the game -- if there is one -- is a little less clear. It might require a bit more thought tonight, and that's no bad thing. I've never played a game, and don't know of any either, that are anything like Shadow of the Colossus. This isn't true for Ico, although perhaps that's because all of the similar games follow rather than precede it. Nonetheless, it's impressive to find such a great and original game as Shadow of the Colossus.
13 Aug 2006 : Shadow of the Colossus #
Not a great deal of success doing more today than yesterday, it has to be said! I did manage to dispose of a further 9 colossi or so. I've now reached 13 of them, which means there should be only 3 more to go. Not quite an achievement, but it is a very good game. It'll be a shame when it's finished.
12 Aug 2006 : Saturday #
I didn't really achieve a great deal today. Got up relatively early. Helped Tom to transport his parents' budgie, started playing Shadow of the Colossus, listened to the radio a bit. But that really is about it. That's pretty bad really. I'll have to try to achieve a bit more tomorrow. Having said that, yesterday was quite busy (and we even got to have a nice Indian takeaway), so I did need the break. The real problem, though, is deciding exactly what I should really be doing. I have plenty of things that I want to do, but many of them involve starting up new projects, and I'm not sure I'm ready to start getting into something too deeply whilst I still have so many half finished things to do. I should probably get down and finish a few things off properly.
11 Aug 2006 : Tidying up some important tasks (end of the week) #
I managed to meet with Bo today about forums and Content Management Systems for the WARP. It was a useful discussion. There've also been a couple of things that I needed to do that have been playing on my mind for a while now. I had to suggest some changes to the Chinacom Security Symposium programme, and the reorganisation was actually a surprisingly tricky thing to get right. I also had to write an important email to foster some collaboration with another organisation on some of the work that we're doing. I've finally got around to tackling these tasks, and both of them are now done. Quite a relief. It sounds really stupid, but things really begin to weigh on my mind after a bit. Of course I do have a number of other things that I still need to do -- this is a universal constant -- but these are manageable, and hopefully I will now feel a bit more free to get engrossed in some of the programming work that I've been needing (and hoping) to do recently.
11 Aug 2006 : Ico and Prince of Persia #
Just as a quick addendum to the previous entry, whilst playing Ico it surprised me how similar many of the game elements were to the first 3D Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time. Of course, Ico predates The Sands of Time, and when Sands of Time was released, I think Ico had only been a critical but not popular success in the UK (I don't know about Canada, where Sands of Time was developed, though). At any rate, it does look like Sands of Time has taken many good ideas from Ico: the idea of protecting someone else, gradually falling in love with her, the way the camera movement when you enter a new area gives a clue as to where you should go, the general gameplay characteristics combining architectural puzzles with intermittent fighting, the need to use both characters to solve puzzles. There seem like a whole host of similarities. To some extent, Sands of Time could be seen as a more mainstream Ico (the fighting is much more involved in the Prince of Persia title, for example), and it certainly has interesting new elements of its own too (such as the ability to rewind time). None of this reuse of ideas is a bad thing of course, but it does perhaps highlight how Ico is a game that has left an important legacy. The gaming world is better for it. It might also explain why they are both such great games, probably two of my favourite. The use of two characters (only one of which you control) to solve puzzles is part of what makes both games great and also, I believe, why the Sands of Time is so much more fulfilling than its two sequels.
11 Aug 2006 : Ico (possible spoilers if you've not played it) #
I just finished ico the game this evening. It was really quite sublime in many ways. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what it all means and what actually happens in the game. As far as I can tell, it seems to be an allegory on coming of age and the importance of mutual help. Ico is a misunderstood miscreant. Yorda's mother is protective of her, and not ready to believe that she is able to survive on her own. This may be true, but what we grow to understand is that whilst Yorda is able to reform Ico, so Ico can also help Yorda to grow independent of her mother. The result is that by helping each other, they are able to survive on their own, against Yorda's mother's wishes. As with anything like this, the beauty is as much in the enigma as in the truth, but that's my interpretation.
10 Aug 2006 : Submitted review #
Submitted the review I've been working on. Have lots of other stuff still to do, though...
9 Aug 2006 : More paper reading #
Finished reading paper S. Kremer, O. Markowitch and J. Zhou, "An Intensive Survey of Fair Non-Repudiation Protocols". Also finished writing up a review of a paper.
8 Aug 2006 : Reading and reviewing papers #
Today I read a couple of papers. They were J. Riordan and B. Schneier, "Environmental Key Generation towards Clueless Agents" and G. Vigna, "Protecting Mobile Agents through Tracing". I've also been reviewing a paper, and working out the Security Track timetable for Chinacom this year. Neither of these last two tasks are finished yet, though.
21 Jun 2006 : Lacking motivation today #
I spent many hours yesterday writing reviews for Chinacom in to the middle of the night. It was a shame, because Joanna has just been offered a new job and we were supposed to be celebrating. Today the result has been that I just can't seem to get motivated. I'm going to have to try harder at being motivated.
16 Jun 2006 : The beginning #
Well, this is going to be a bit of a test, and I'll see how it goes. I'm not big on keeping a diary, but I figure it may be useful to keep some notes about things on a daily basis. You never know, I may even get the hang of it (yeah, right!). Anyway, this is just getting the ball rolling. I guess time will tell how it pans out.