04 September, 2011

Mining, building, fighting...

What a little gem

Recently, when I bought the Humble Indie Bundle, I gained some free playtime on Minecraft. Not having played this before, I thought I'd finally give it a go. All I'd tried previously had been the predecessors and alternatives (Infiniminer, Manic Digger), so I thought I'd see why everyone was quietly addicted to this little game. Not even out of beta yet (supposedly being released some time in November 2011), it still manages to pull in the buyers with over three million purchases to date. That's not even including the people that are somehow managing to run it for free.

The basis of the game? You interact with a world of blocks (of various styles, but all the same shape), cacti, clouds, trees, snow, rain, lava, water, animals, mushrooms (two types), grass, flowers and of course, enemies (called mobs in the game). Most of the time when you kill an enemy—assuming they don't kill you first—you will end up with something else you can use. Skeletons drop their arrows and their bones, which you can then use to tame wolves with. Spiders will drop string, from which you can make fishing rods, bows and wool. Pigs give you pork chops that you can then eat, though you have to cook these to give you better health. Sheep also give you wool, that you can combine with colours to give you coloured wool. You can gain these colours by picking red or yellow flowers, or mining blue lapis lazuli gems. Pumpkins help make bright lights when you combine them with a light you made earlier out of a stick and a lump of coal. With stone, you can make furnaces where you can melt stuff and turn iron ore into iron ingots, or cook food, increasing its health value.

A builders nightmare

Out of this small collection of blocks (three types of wood, cobblestone, stone, dirt, wet dirt, water, lava, snow, flowers, coloured wool, etc etc), it's surprising what people have managed to make. Someone made a decent model of what they thought Hogwarts looks like inside, and even managed to add a little challenge to it—find all 100 diamonds. Others made worlds available where people can cooperatively build things, or challenge each other in PvP.

I've spent most of my computer time since installing just building my own little empire, surviving—or occasionally not—against the hordes of mobs that come out to kill you, and building the most weird constructions…a skywalk between two homes in the most recent world is my latest effort. I intend to grab enough sand to turn into glass to entirely encase the walkway in glass, and be safe from mobs as I walk between the two homes at night.

Minecraft wouldn't be minecraft without the ability to mine. So underground, you can also find coal, diamond, iron ore, redstone ore, gravel, and obsidian. With obsidian, you get to make…the Portal to the Nether.

The what?

The Nether is a completely different world, with lots and lots and lots of lava, and an enemy you really want to dodge the first time. Take a flint and steel when you go there, because you won't come back otherwise. I got caught in the Nether when a ghast extinguished the portal, and I had no way back. Since then, I've learned to keep out of their line of fire, and to protect the portal with big walls that they can't shoot through—cobblestone from the "real" world works best, though netherrack will do at a pinch. The Nether wouldn't be very much fun if you couldn't mine here, but at the moment, there's not much you can mine except for…well, lava. And you can pick that up in a bucket. Then there's netherrack, that you never seen in the real world. And glowstones, that you can make other bright lights with. Funnily enough, they even have gravel in the Nether too. And mushrooms.

So what's the draw? Why are so many people addicted?

I wish I knew how to answer that, I really do. All I know is—since I started, I find it hard to stop. And I guess that's the mark of a really good game. Yes, of course it's simple. The physics don't work like the real world, or else my skywalk would fall out of the sky. Trying to protect wolves from their own stupidity is sometimes more of a challenge than actually avoiding the enemies to begin with, but more fun sometimes, as you can walk into a collection of enemies with a little less regard for your life. The graphics are deliberately simplified, which makes for some odd looks when you're building stuff out of blocks that look like coloured lego stuck together. Oh, and don't get caught by a creeper. Those guys will kill you when they explode.

People have of course tried to modify the game so that you can use better graphics (photorealistic-ish blocks, trees, water, stones etc), and I've had mixed success with those. They sort of work, but then they slow the game down beyond what a good speed of reaction will provide. Other modifications are just plain useful, and there are a whole lot of these modifications. Currently they're all unsupported, but there will apparently be support for mods in the official client soon. I have to admit I rather like my minimap up in the right-hand corner.

Anyhow, I'm off to go glass in that walkway. Oh no, there's a creeper !!!!

Christchurch, one year on



The night we all (hopefully) slept

I slept well last night, thankfully. On my mind was the question "what if...". Thankfully, it didn't all happen again, as I don't wish to repeat that particular experience. Although the February 22nd quake was far worse in damage, at least we could all see where we were, and which doorway to dash to. September 4th 2010 was just ... eerie. Here's a snippet from the diary entry I wrote the next night before going to bed (early) in my clothing.

4:33 am, 7.1 Richter earthquake, 10km deep, centred about 30-40km west of Christchurch. Gave me a hell of a fright to see flashes while the first really big shock was rocking us around for more than a couple of minutes—that was probably powerlines going out and arcing.
A number of shocks afterwards, at least 23 since above 4.0 richter, including some around 5.5, and it's likely more will happen in the next few days. News coverage for the whole day on the event and its aftereffects right through until 7:30pm tonight, water and sewerage out across most of the city, power restored here just before midday. Government estimates for repair at over $2 billion, large areas of road damage, houses damaged to various stages though around here, we only ended up with a broken vase and one photo frames' glass panel. Books fell off Wendy's bedside cabinet all over the floor, with some ending up on the bed. All that has been tidied up now, of course—everyone seems okay, just real shaken.

Oh, if only we knew. Of course, things continued on from there, with various aftershocks happening, then another really big disaster on February 22nd this year, and yet another decent 6.3 jolt on June 13th. So, needless to say, it's been quite a year.
I noticed this on a Facebook feed today, thought I might post it for a laugh. Thanks to whomever posted it originally.

06 August, 2011

The Humble Bundle just got bigger!



The Humble Indie Bundle 3

If you haven't made up your mind to buy the original five games, then the creators of the Humble Indie Bundle just made it a lot more compelling. They added some games. And they've even thrown in some time with MineCraft (edit: this may now be over), if I read this image correctly. I went ahead and bought the initial five games on the strength of the Cogs game alone—neat game, by the way—but the other four games in the pack weren't weak either. HammerFight is really really hard. And I haven't got past level three in that.

The extra games

Adding the Braid game seems a bit weird to me, though I guess I'll warm to it. As for Machinarium, I've loved the game since I first saw it in operation. Atom Zombie Smasher is a good old top-down strategy shooter that rather reminds me of Alien Swarm. Cortex Command is an in-progress developing game. Steel Storm is another top-down shooter. Revenge of the Titans is a frenetic arcade mash-up of Real Time Strategy and Tower Defence. And to round out the collection, Osmos puts you into the position of a mote that has to get bigger.

Not only have they made the extra games available for all three platforms, but they've even provided extra content for some of the games as well, such as the Machinima soundtrack. If you loved the demo, then you'll probably love the music too. And there's only five more days to buy them all.

27 July, 2011

TV on HVR-900H under Ubuntu Linux


Adventures of a WinTV stick in Linux Lands

A while ago, I read a book that described the fight that the U.K. had to get their FreeView up and running. It was quite a good read, all things considered. At the time I read the book, New Zealand had barely heard of Freeview, but was already well on the way to a roll-out.

Fast forward to today—all analogue TV frequencies are set to be gradually turned off over the next year to be replaced by digital transmissions, which means you'll need either a modern television (with Freeview built in) or some sort of set top box, with or without recording capability. Computers have their own set of challenges that Hauppauge have addressed with their line of USB and PCI TV receivers.

I finally got the Hauppauge WinTV HVR-900H working under Ubuntu Linux 11.04! It seems I needed to modprobe tm6000_dvb and tm6000_alsa modules. In addition, I needed to download a firmware file that wasn't on my system. The link was easy enough to find, once I knew what I was looking for:

http://www.stefanringel.de/pub/xc3028L-v36.fw

An alternative URL is:

http://steventoth.net/linux/hvr1400/xc3028L-v36.fw

Observe the usual things about making sure this is the right file, and all that. Put this into /lib/firmware/ on your Ubuntu system—other Linux distributions may differ. Anyhow, it seems that the VideoLAN client will now play digital TV from the USB stick, once you point vlc at a dvb-t device, set up the frequencies you need to receive channels on, and of course have a decent signal. If you want to improve the picture somewhat (on my initial setup, I was getting all sorts of weird effects) you may want to turn on deinterlacing. Fiddle with the settings until you can't see any obvious blurriness when things move around fast on the screen.

Apparently mplayer can be set up to use the stick as well, though I've no idea how to get it to use the stick in just plain "start it, choose channel, watch like a drone" mode. At least VLC allows me to do that without any real magic commandline invocations.

Setting it all up

First off, you need to know what frequencies you're going to be receiving a digital signal on. Wikipedia is good for this, as they have a whole barrel load of information for various countries—New Zealand frequencies are included amongst them. For Christchurch, you'll need the Sugarloaf frequencies of 682 MHz, 698 MHz and 706 MHz. For other regions in NZ, see this list of DVB-T frequencies. These are all owned by either TVNZ, Mediaworks or Kordia, and provide most channels available on the digital platform.

Once you have the local frequencies, you can then feed these into VLC once you start it up. Do note that I've included screenies from both the Windows and the Ubuntu version of VLC, as the same instructions aren't quite the same for each OS.

Screenshot of Media Dialog

First off, hit that Media menu, choose "Open Capture Device", and in the Capture mode dropdown, select DVB (DVB Directshow under Windows). In Device Selection, choose DVB-T. For Linux, make sure there's something in the "Adapter Card" box —Windows doesn't have that setting. Then set the Transponder/Multiplex frequency to the relevant frequency for the transmissions you want to receive. Set the symbol rate to 8MHz for NZ, I'm not sure what you need for other countries. You should be good to go. In Christchurch at least, you could add all three frequencies to a playlist like I did, that should cover all relevant broadcasts from Freeview/HD.

Oh yeah, hit Play. It'll take a few seconds to scan the frequency, and load up the first available program off the frequency. Other programs can be got to by choosing the Playback menu, skipping down to Program, and selecting from the list.

Troubleshooting

First off, figure out if you're close enough to the local transmitter. Odds are if you're receiving crap telly now, then digital TV simply won't work without an improvement in aerial. Don't use the aerial that Hauppauge provided unless you're less than 5 km from the transmitter. Use a better one—preferably a good external UHF aerial. I'm relatively lucky to be able to pull in my signal with bunny ears, but that's because I'm practically line-of-sight to the local transmitter. If you're not, then all you can do is try it and see. If you have the option of taking a feed directly off the roof aerial, then that's also worth a shot, but if you don't want the hit of putting in a signal splitter (typically drops received signal by at least 3db), then you may need to go to the expense of putting up a separate aerial. Roof aerials (if they're set up properly) are usually your best bet for the cleanest signal.

Then, double check your frequencies. If they're not correct, then you won't be receiving anything, because the transmitter you chose with those frequencies will be too far away. If you're sure you've got your frequencies right, and you're close enough to the transmitter—and you have a low-loss line to the USB stick, see what the signal strength software shows—this software was included on a CDROM if you bought the stick from a retailer.

Other than that, I can't honestly suggest anything much more to think of for troubleshooting. It's just the normal getting a television signal right, but a little more stringent on the requirements.

12 July, 2011

Update about iPAQ ebook software


Books on the move

Last year, I posted a quick blog entry about the state of free software for reading eBooks on the iPAQ. It seems I missed one other piece of software out, and boy is it a winner—aside from the few gotchas. The software's called ZuluReader, and once I point it at a collection of ebooks in EPUB format, I'm away and laughing.

ZuluReader Portable is a reader specifically for portable devices, and provided you stick to a couple of simple rules, you should be enjoying books on your portable device without any significant issues. The first general rule? You can't have unsupported files in the directory you point ZuluReader at, otherwise it has a nasty habit of falling on its nose and being unstartable until you correct the initial error by removing any files that don't work in ZuluReader. The second thing isn't a killer, but it does require leaving the application if you decide to change the fontsize used by the main program. Of course, you can simply re-start the application, and everything comes back.

The ZuluReader Portable program has a set of icons on the screen that are easy to figure out how to use, and because EPUB files allow for reflowing text, you're able to adjust fontsize up or down to suit without breaking things too badly. Books with pictures could be a different story, depending upon how big those pictures are, and whether the pictures scale well to a device that has a 240x320 screen. That bit, I don't know, as I don't seem to have any books with embedded images in (aside from covers, that is)—I've yet to find them.

Books on the screen

Of course, ZuluReader Portable has a big brother too, allowing you to read, organise and even create ebooks on the PC. There's also sufficient glue embedded into the program to allow you to send ebooks to whatever device you happen to be using, though you do have to have some form of ActiveSync or modern equivalent installed. The screenshots look pretty good, though different from the Mobile version. In addition, it's not the easiest piece of software in the world to use, so do grab the documentation—it will be really useful.

Needless to say, this piece of software has made reading ebooks a whole lot more fun, instead of limiting me to books available in Microsoft's .lit format. I'm happy...

Does Google+ get a plus from me?


Summary

My initial assessment of Google+, which I’ll hereby summarise as simply Plus. I joined Google+ yesterday, and started getting used to the various additional functions I now have. There’s some good stuff to look forward to, but there’s still a couple of niggly warty things to work out.
For starters, Plus has some advantages for me, in that it attempts to integrate several of the aspects of Google that I use in one interface. The items I can directly access get bumped into their own tab, meaning I get to keep the previous tab contents - at least until I click on the +brickviking, which then takes me up to the top of the Plus hierarchy, no matter what task I clicked on it from.

New stuff

Apps-wise, Plus doesn’t add much beyond what I already have, bar the Circles addition, Hangout and the serious rewrite of the Profile screen. So, the warts and the bonuses of Plus - hard to summarise in one short document. The warts seem to only be little niggly “I can’t find out how to do this”, “Too many steps to do A or B” or simply “We don’t support doing that yet”. As for the bonuses - well, there’s the obvious takeup of Hangouts, the ability to finely sort your contacts into categories, with your choice of how those circles interact, if at all.

Warts

Yes, so far, it has warts. Simply put, things just aren’t as intuitive to do as I’d expect.  I couldn’t initially figure out how to make posts to circles, until I figured out how to actually select a circle then choose “Feed for this circle” - that then makes any of the posts from me appear only to members of that circle.
As for Hangouts, the only real bug I’ve found so far is that trying to type into the text chat portion simply doesn’t work, though I did figure out a way around this. Find another text field in the main browser window, type in some text, highlight the text, and copy the text to the clipboard. Switch back to the Hangouts window, and paste from the clipboard. You should then be able to keep typing as you normally would. This is just one of the weird problems that needs to be fixed. In addition, the application occasionally seems to think the microphone’s muted, even when it’s not.

Bonuses

Hangouts are a fantastic idea.  There’s the obvious comparison with Facebook’s Video Chat feature, but Hangouts has the edge, as it works on all three major platforms. Facebook currently only supports Windows and Mac OS X.
Circles are a rather neat UI tweak to manipulate existing data about contacts. It’s not exactly anything revolutionary, however it’s a nice touch and a nice way to do sub-setting. Facebook does have lists, but the interface to add people to each list is quite different. Facebook loads the list of friends as a big list, and lets you choose which lists those people are in with a dropdown on each friend’s entry. Circles allows you to drag contacts into each circle you create, and the focus is on the groups you create, not the individuals.
Feeds are basically Buzz, which contains (at your discretion) tweets, other RSS feeds you happen to be following, and other Buzz posts. Again, nothing stupendous, more of what they did previously. However, you can drill down, selecting feeds based on what circle you’ve selected. Trying to do the same thing with Facebook is nigh on impossible.

Summary

I suspect that Hangouts probably won’t be wildly popular, due to most people probably wanting real interaction instead of just via monitors, cameras and microphones. Adding people to the Hangout isn’t exactly intuitive, so I created a circle specifically for adding people to for hangouts - that way, I can select the circle, head off to the stream, and click the “Start a hangout” button on the right hand side.
The fact that Hangout’s plugin is installable to Linux gives Plus the edge, but I don’t think it’ll take Facebook too long to implement a plugin that also works with Linux browsers, if they haven’t already done so. After all, Skype works with cameras on Linux, there’s no reason why they can’t implement that into the Linux plugin too.
And my verdict? Yes, Google+ gets a Plus from me.

14 March, 2011

There's a python in my shell

I guess I shouldn't have woken up this morning. I've just seen someone spend 24 hours around at my place, trying to get their machine to the point of being able to boot up a Linux system. They succeeded after a lot of asking questions in the machine's setup, and then they decided to try something I'd never seen before.

For what it's worth, they were installing SourceMage. But the flash in the pan was, once they'd installed gcc and gazillions of other programs provided with SourceMage, they set their init shell to /usr/bin/python. Then they rebooted and loaded the kernel, which started off Python, and typed:

>>> import os
0
>>>

It all went from there... sigh. Sometimes I like geeks and the things they do. I must admit though, I'd never thought of this one.

No doubt you lot would have already found out about the earthquake I was in, which wasn't as bad as the very recent earthquake in Japan—exacerbated by a huge tsunami. Still, our earthquake was bad enough, causing a few cracks in our house, our power and water to be off for more than a week, and internet took even longer than that. Still, I'm alive—unlike 200-odd others, the wife's great, and we're doing well while I type up this note. To all of you who asked, thank you for your messages of support. I was touched especially by one message that was forwarded by snailmail from an email from the Open Cobalt and SecondLife AWG groups—thanks to you all, especially. I'm only sorry it took me so long to get back to you all.

Please, if you haven't considered it yet, do think about sending support to Japan. They need it.

Later ...