blarg?

From Boing Boing:

Many times, intrusions into privacy like this are excused on the basis that they offer discounts in exchange for your personal information. This is true with the Oyster card, too: a single ride on the tube costs £3 now if you use a paper ticket, but with an Oyster card the journey is as little as £1.30. The thing is, before they ramped up Oyster card use on January 1, the cost of a paper single was also as little as £1.10 — in other words, they nearly tripled the cost of an anonymous journey and then told everyone that you got a great discount if you used the privacy-surrendering means.

They do this in Ottawa, too, albeit with paper passes and not with RFID technology. The RFID stuff is kind of neat, and I suppose that some malicious administrator could use it to track specific people, but if the description in the article is correct, it wouldn’t be terribly useful as the tools of oppressive states go: Cory says “With one of these, you could zap your card when it runs out of stored money and trade it for a new one that will have a different serial number and consequently not be associatable with your previous card”, but who cares if it’s associated with your other card? What matters is, is that card associated with me, somewhere other than my pocket. Either the card points at you, or it doesn’t – the new card, when you get it, will either point at you again, or it won’t.

The reason that there’s such a dramatic difference between cash fares and tickets or passes is not because the system wants you to give up your privacy – it’s because the system wants you to not pay cash. For individuals, carrying cash is not a huge problem – it’s a few bills in the wallet, and a handful of coins in our pocket. If the coin situation gets unwieldy, any merchant will gladly change it into a five or ten dollar bill.

For your local transit authorites, not so much; our bus service has to shift, count, deposit and just generally cope with several tons of change every day, a process that’s difficult, expensive and not exactly, as you might imagine, airtight or precise. And Ottawa isn’t nearly as big a city as London. Pricing tickets well below the cost of cash fare can mean significant economies for the transit system, and with a little foresight your taxpayer citizen pays a much cheaper fare.

There are privacy implications in this stuff, to be sure, but to believe that dog-tagging the citizenry is the prime motive for all these things is, well, wrong.

Windows Compact Edition, “WinCE”, might be the most appropriately-named operating system of all time.

I realize that my situation is probably unique, but let’s say for arguments’ sake that you want to install stuff on your WinCE PDA, and you don’t use a Windows desktop. Well, how hard can it be, you ask?

Well, it’s just like riding a bike. Which is to say, if you haven’t done it before, it’s pretty goddamned hard.

Typically, WinCE/PPC installers are intended to be run from the Windows desktop to install to a cradled PDA, and if you don’t like that, well, you can choke on it. Virtually nobody provides the naked .cab files you’re really looking for, and instead wraps collections of them in installer metapackages. This is a non-issue if you’re using a Windows desktop, but it’s a colossal pain in the ass if you’re using Linux, and it completely precludes the idea of using a PDA as your primary computing device.

Ok, here comes the howto.

Everyone’s got unzip; you’re going to need cabextract and unshield. Then, you’re going to need to know precisely which version of WinCE you’re using, and what kind of processor it’s running on (typically MIPS or ARM). You’ll need this information, and you’ll also need to know that that bit about raki working is a lie; Raki is currently broken, and you should apparently use syncekonnector. I’ll let you know when and if I get it working myself.

Then, once you can browse the filesystem on your PDA, (or if you’ve got another way of getting bits into it, like a removable memory card) you’ll need to take a look at the software you intend to install. Let’s take, for example, GreenSoftware’s GSPlayer, which I’ve picked partly because it fits my example nicely, and mostly because it’s superior to the WinCE Media Player in every observable respect.

The GSPlayer download is a .zip file, but just ignore that for the moment; you’ve got to do the same thing for executables, and unzip them. In there, you’ll find .cab files amidst all the other crap. Use cabextract and unshield on those things, and unwind the file compression until you get to filenames that look like “AppName-VersionNumber.XX-MIPS-CE5.0.cab” – my experience so far has been that one you’ve peeled the installers far enough open, you get to a bunch of files with names something like that. In the case of GSPlayer, gsplayer.ppc3_arm.CAB and gsplayer.ppc3_mips.CAB.

Then, you copy the .cab file whose name corresponds to your version of WinCE over to your device, either directly via the SynCE pipe mentioned above or removable media.

Then, once you’ve got that file onto your device, a double-click should make it install itself. While it’s doing that, you can ask yourself if we’re in the future yet!

This trick doesn’t always work – my beloved MiniStumbler, for example, uses a custom Nullsoft installer that apparently relies on the fact that you can treat your PDA as a mounted share in Windows (installing to \pdaname\program files\) that I can’t find any linux tools to unwind. But it gets you most of the way there, most of the time.

Arlene and I were talking about relationships and age differences last night. As I periodically do, being about a year and change older than her, I remarked that it’s a good thing she likes older men.

To which she replied: “Yeah, but you act like you’re six. In intellectual terms, I’m robbing the cradle.”

This is how we roll, in this relationship.

Incidentally, the Joy Restaurant’s set dinner for two is both generously portioned and very delicious. Highly recommended.

Here comes the science.

Well, here comes the math, really, in which Matrix-Chain-Order gets a little bit sharper around the edges.

When you multiply a long list of matrices together, there’s a few (usually one, really) ways of doing that that are significantly faster than the others. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get the wrong answer, it’s just that, like much of life, going about it one way can be much, much faster than the others.

If you are not interested in this sort of thing, please, come back tomorrow, where I will try hard to be entertaining. Right now, you’re getting abstract algebra.


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I am starting a meme here, so readers who have weblogs are now obligated to play along. Tell the world the life lesson that you learned, or possibly had driven sharply home, in the last year. You will then provide me with a link to it, either in email or the comments.

The most important thing that I’ve learned in the last year is this:

Good tools cost money; bad tools cost time, and you can get money back.

Begin participating now.

Another observation about video games, if I may.

Let us imagine a situation in which you are playing Prince of Persia, and you push the “rewind time” button and nothing happens and you fall to your death. You yell something like “Crap, my sand! What happened to my sand?”

Let us further postulate that you were previously out of the room for a few minutes leading up to this, and the Arlene next to you says “What sand?”. So you explain the mechanics of the game, and she says “Is that the part where the screen goes dark for a little bit?”, and you say “It would be that bit, yes”.

When she says “I don’t know”. that would be a lie. She knows.

I’m sure I’m only the millionth person to ask this, but the other day I was looking at digital cameras and wondering if I could get one that’s controllable from my PC, which I was told in no uncertain terms doesn’t exist. I apparently can’t buy a camera that I can plug into a USB port, and have some Python module that I can run that says “Take a picture, and save it on my hard drive every five minutes”. Maybe more importantly, I can’t buy a camera that I can plug in to a wall socket in the morning and say “between noon and five, record what goes on outside my window”.

I can do that with a webcam, but I can’t do it with a full-sized camera that isn’t tethered and pretending to be a webcam, and definitely not on a standalone camera. That’s just one thing, though – why can’t I tell my cellphone that between midnight and five in the morning, only these whitelisted numbers are allowed to make my phone ring, but they should ring loud? Or tell my car that it’s me, not Arlene, so fire up my half of the mp3 collection, not hers?

Where, I guess, are my scriptable devices?

One of the things that’s more frustrating about the ongoing “computer revolution” than any other thing, and I’d bet for a lot of people more frightening, is that there are computers are all over the place making decisions on our behalf, but we frequently have zero input as to what those decisions are past the initial purchase. There are microprocessors of one kind or another in damn near everything these days, and especially in smaller devices the interfaces are these horrible, tiny little things with buttons the size of a child’s fingertip and a display that looks like a five-dollar digital watch. Phones, radios, thermostats, cameras, belt buckles, this stuff is everywhere, and I can’t tell any of it what to do if I’m not standing right there twiddling the knobs.

Basically, I want to be able to delegate paying-attention-to-stuff and doing-things-routinely stuff to widgets with processors in them, in the hopes that I wouldn’t have to babysit them, and might be able to get them to do neater things. Do these wonderful toys exist? I can’t find them, if they do.

Je pwn,
Tu pwn,
Il pwn.

Nous pwnons,
Vous pwnez,
Ils pwnent.

Last week’s Photoshop Phriday is a must-see.

I’ve played more video games recently than I have in a long time. I’m late to the console thing, so I get a chance to wait until other people shake out the good stuff from the chaff. I think it’s pretty much out of my system, for the time being; I tend to binge on these things, and then walk away from them for a few months. I’ll probably let these machines be for a while, but in the meantime let me tell you all about a few games I’ve liked.

  • Katamari Damacy and We Love Katamari

    I’ve gone on about this before, but Katamari Damacy is a ton of fun, and by a long margin the most innovative game in the last decade. We Love Katamari isn’t as much of a new game as it is an expansion pack, but it’s still worth owning. I’m a big fan of video games with great soundtracks, and Katamari Damacy’s soundtrack is worth owning entirely on its own.

  • Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus

    If you’ve played video games for any length of time, the mechanics of the process are well understood – you enter a room, and it presents you with a possible mechanism, and you work that mechanism until you’re able to make it to the next space. At this point, it’s the trappings of puzzle-room games that make them worthwhile, more than the gameplay; that’s what made Myst so great. And Ico is very, very pretty, and who doesn’t like rescuing a princess now and then?

    Shadow Of The Colossus, I’m much more ambivalent about. On the one hand it is stunningly, mind-blowingly beautiful. The landscape is vast, varied and lushly rendered. And the things you have to do in that landscape, as part of the whole “work the mechanism” process, are frequently very, very ugly. You’re confronted with monstrous, majestic creatures that you have to goad, cripple and kill, at the behest of a disembodied voice whose motives are not obviously virtuous. It’s clear, though, that our hero doesn’t care, and is going to do it anyway, and the incredible artistry of the game makes that difficult to stomach – we’re not talking about knocking mushrooms-with-feet or cartoonish spiky lizards around with fireballs, here. Tycho, over at Penny Arcade, wrote that

    “The supposed hero is assaulting majestic, sometimes docile, sometimes curious, sometimes sleeping creatures. They’re almost all portrayed in a sympathetic light at some point, and it’s hard not to feel disgusted at times for iterating Hollow Game Mechanic X by rote without any sense of the moral spectrum the acts inhabit.”

    At one point, you have to stab a colossus in the hand, not because it’s about to crush you but so that it holds its hand up to its face to look at you more closely. The colossi you’re sent out to kill are monstrous, for sure, but it’s not clear at all who the bad guy is. Not until the end of the game, at least.

  • The Mark Of Kri and Rise Of The Kasai

    The Mark of Kri is, in many respects, the opposite of Shadow of the Colossus. Instead of no chaff and sixteen bosses, there’s no bosses, really, and thousands and thousands of guys. The fighting system takes a while to get used to, but these are both really pretty games, even if they both start to feel like you’re just grinding meat after a while. One of the fun things about Rise of the Kasai is cooperative play, which while sadly not multiplayer does feature an AI engine that isn’t dumber than a bag of hammers, which is nice. Also very pretty, but cartoonish-realism, beautifully drawn but clearly never intended to be photoreal. All told, I enjoyed them quite a bit, and the stealth levels are fun.

  • God Of War

    This is an astonishingly savage game. If you’re the kind of person who needs a minute to shift gears after gaming, like you shouldn’t be driving anywhere for an hour after playing Grand Tourismo or something like that, you should absolutely not touch your significant other or cook anything during your post-God-Of-War safety window. This is the most insanely violent game I have ever seen. There’s no moral ambiguity here; you’re setting out to kill Ares, the God of War, and you’re going to butcher everything between you and him. Beautifully rendered, absolutely fluid gameplay and just swimming in blood. Truly awesome. If you can stomach it at all, you’ll absolutely love it.

If you’ve got any other must-haves that I should know about for the Gamecube or PS2, I’d love to hear about them.

To my friends and compatriots to the south:

Dear filthy, ignorant savages -

Deserve has nothing to do with it, and horrific things happen to good people for no reason. The single, exclusive reason that we have “society” is because it’s not as mercilessly unforgiving as random chance. When you’re ready to grow up, please move inside the bounds of civilization. Thanks!

Sincerely,

The civilized world, early 2006.

In this article, Paul Bailey goes on at some length about how great Roger Federer is, arguing that he’s in fact the greatest tennis player of all time. I think it’s pretty early in his career to be making that claim; the two people you’d normally consider for that position are Rod Laver, who swept the four Grand Slam titles in both ’62 and ’69, and Pete Sampras, with 14 Grand Slam wins altogether. And that’s ignoring the women’s game entirely, where there’s Steffi Graf with 22 Slam titles, and Martina Navratilova, who’s record I urge you to treat with the appropriate amount of awe because it’s insane and that woman is some kind of cyborg professional-tennis-playing machine.

Anyway, Federer: yes, he’s scary good. But the other claim that gets a lot of play in his article, and indeed in the world, is the idea that it’s only partly about the athletes, and mostly about the technology:

“With the hardening of professionalism and before the arrival of Federer, a certain gracefulness began to disappear from the game. That was exacerbated by the advent of new technology. Wooden rackets had to have small heads and short strings, the frames not strong enough to keep longer strings in tension. Graphite gives more strength and size to the frame, without adding any weight, giving a larger sweet spot. The power of today’s game is only partly generated by the players themselves. Much of it comes from their rackets.”

This is a common lament that you hear from a lot of long-time tennis fans, but it’s also just plain old not true.

Around 1997 or thereabouts, Tennis Magazine took one of the biggest hitters in the game, Mark Philippoussis, and gave him three racquets, a classic wood-frame raquet, an an extra-long oversize frame that (A Dunlop, I think), and put the radar gun on him, while he hit a few serves. The racquets had been strung by his personal stringer, and when they clocked them, what they found wasn’t all that surprising – he was hitting them within a few miles per hour of each other with all three frames.

The original graphite frames were pretty much the same size as the wood frames of the day, and even today you can buy frames off the shelf at your local pro shop that are no bigger than the wood frames from the bad old days. The thing you can’t get, though, is any frame made with the single-stem design. Not a lot of people remember the details of the shift from wood to graphite, but for a little while there you could get oversized wood frames with the split-fork design that played so much better than the conventional frames of the day that it was crystal clear that it didn’t matter so much what material the raquet was made of, because the old design was now obsolete.

It’s not really about the weight of the material – a professional tennis player’s raquet has all kinds of things done to it that you can’t usually see, some of which make them dramatically heavier; Sampras had four six-inch strips of lead tape around the edge of his Wilson Pro Staff, a frame that was originally made in the late 70s. Some pros have the handle or whole frame injected with silicone. It’s not so much about the size of the frame, either – Federer like Sampras before him, uses an 85 square inch frame, no bigger than your average wood frame back in the dark ages.

But the split frame part – that’s your new technology, right there. It keeps the frame from twisting in your hand, lets you control off-center hits better and just generally makes the game hugely more playable. Maybe it’s a semantic difference, but the fact that you can control the ball better with the new frames means that you can take a bigger swing at them, and it will work more often. It’s not that it is now possible to make shots that weren’t possible before – just that, in general, your shots will be much more reliable. The difference that the new technology makes is all about consistency and control, not power.

As an aside, a few years ago Prince manufactured a frame called the Mono, an oversize, graphite version of that old single-stem raquet design. Predictably, it turned out to be just as unusable as the old woodies were. I think they might have sold about twelve of them.

You want to know what the biggest difference is, between the old days and the new ones? Money. Lots of money, which is the same as lots of incentive to train. The caliber of athlete who played tennis forty years ago is simply not comparable to the people who play professional tennis today. That’s where your extra power is coming from – bigger, stronger players. The days when Karsten Braasch calmed down by smoking a cigarette between sets are as long gone as the days when it was considered poor form to make your opponent break a sweat.

People who decry the state of tennis in this modern age, well, you’ll probably find that they’re the sort of people who routinely use words like “decry”. But to those people, I ask you to go back and give it a try the old way. Get some of your friends together, get some of those old wood frames and see if what comes out the other end of that reminds you of the tennis you enjoy. Take it from me, because I’ve done it – it’s the opposite of fun.