Wednesday 19 December 2007

Dell To The Rescue

Following up on my posts about the problems I had playing DirectX games on the M1330 (Gaming Blues and More Gaming Blues) I finally caved in and actually called Dell last Wednesday rather than continue to wait for the Internet based ticket issuing system to actually work. Dell requested a little more diagnostic work ( facilitated by Mr Cronin, thanks Pat ) that involved swapping the hard drive out with that in a similarly configured M1330. That pretty much proved that the problem was with the hardware and Dell eventually arranged for a technician to come and replace the motherboard and graphics card. The delay was pretty much all my own doing in the end and to be fair to Dell once they accepted that the issue required a hardware swap they had a technician out to do the job within a day.

Dismantling one of these things completely is a reasonably complicated task - all in all it took the technician just over an hour to take everything out and put it all back together again, and he really did know what he was doing. Now that I've seen it I think I'd have about a 50:50 chance of repeating the exercise but I don't think I'll ever try.

Anyway the good news is that the swap has (so far) completely eliminated the problem so I can now happily waste hours playing TF2, Portal, HL2 and UT3.

The other good news is that the network adapter that I was disappointed to discover is only a 100Mbps part is a very easily replaceable (and upgradable ) part and the WLAN antenna cabling is kitted out to support 802.11n. So two of my (minor) beefs with the machine are fairly easily fixable should I choose to do so.

Edit: Just adding a link to my final update on this here.

Monday 17 December 2007

PayPal's Single Use Virtual Credit Cards

I was delighted this morning when I found this press release from Orbiscom and read that PayPal had finally opened up their Orbiscom derived PayPal Plug-In single use Credit Card system to their entire user base.

Pay-Pal Plug In

Anyone with a PayPal account can now download and install the Plug In however it appears to be preventing me from activating the one time Credit Card feature unless I can provide it with a personal credit card with a US billing address. I suspect that when this press release talks about "entire user base" they really mean just the US users which is a pity.

I'd be delighted to find out that I'm making some mistake here though as I really miss the security of the old O-Card that I used to have from Orbiscom since my bank discontinued the service last year.

New Moves in Authentication

I noticed that Barclays are starting to deploy a two factor \ one time password authentication mechanism for online banking called PINSentry. It's an interesting step that should make it pretty hard to launch brute force attacks against consumer banking accounts but it is no better at defeating man in the middle attacks than any of their previous mechanisms. I've made the point before and will make it again - without full mutual authentication using very strong authentication protocols the whole online banking and payment system remains fragile.

This is significantly better than Verified by Visa for example which still leaves me scratching my head as to its usefulness to me (as a card holder). When paying using VbV you first enter all of your card details onto the vendors website - they now can take as much out of your account as they please and if they are stupid ( like these people ) they will not protect those details so that criminals can steal them and use them to steal from you at a later date. After the vendor has been given all of the sensitive data that you might like to protect they then ask Visa to authorize payment and at that point Visa force you to go through an entirely unnecessary (for you) authentication mechanism. This authentication step protects the transaction between the Vendor and Visa so both of those parties benefit from getting you to do this but since you have already given the vendor all of your details you remain exposed to the risk of fraud. In fact as far as I can tell the only difference that VbV makes to a card holder is that it will be very difficult to challenge a payment that has been authorized through VbV - bear that in mind when you choose a password for it.

To be fair to Visa and Barclays though they are making some attempts to move forward and it is very,very hard to implement change in the area of consumer payment schemes.

All is not bleak however. A couple of us in Intel had a patent idea declined last year that was almost identical to this juicy bit of news. F-Secure's recent report from the Information Security Forum's 2007 conference in Cape Town discussed a demonstration by Jolyon Clulow from Deloitte of a new class of banking card that includes an embedded keypad so that the user authentication process can occur within the (user) controlled card's physical enclosure.

Deloitte-Card

It's not clear yet whether this new card will be part of the foundation of a properly mutually authenticated system where individual transactions get the sort of unique authentication that I believe we need in order to make these systems sufficiently robust but it definitely takes one of the steps that must happen before we get there. If nothing else cards of this type can dramatically reduce the risk of card skimming type attacks, well they will provided certain back ward compatibility risks are managed effectively by the banks. It's no good implementing chip and pin here in Ireland if a skimmed copy of my cards magnetic strip or card number can be used by a thief in Bali without being challenged (for example).

The end state that I want to see will need card readers for this type of card present in all types of device where we wish to carry out online authorization's. This sort of thing is not limited to banking either but at least with banking there is a good commercial reason to do it now, once it's in place the banks can start to earn some less grubby revenue by selling trust services to consumers.

All of these things could deftly link into the OpenID, InfoCard or CardSpace structures that are being built out at the moment. OpenID's big gap is that it still relies on passwords in almost all its implementations. CardSpace's big problem is that it is locked into the core Windows OS architecture(s), although that does give it some significant anti-tampering strength, and the other InfoCards suffer because they are pure software only credential stores sitting on effectively untrustworthy hardware and operating systems. All of these systems could benefit hugely from being able to delegate interactive user authentication to a compact hardware token that is extremely hard to compromise.

Sunday 16 December 2007

What Do You Think Of Your Mobile Phone Company?

I ask because mine thinks I'm a complete moron and I think they are scumbags.

I recently privatised my mobile phone - by this I mean I took over ownership of it rather than losing it as Intel would no longer be paying the bill. To be fair to the Vodafone they have provided me with a decent enough service for years and they were happy to transfer ownership of the account and number to me fairly painlessly. I was given a (paper!) application form that I had to fill in and fax (! again) to one of their account people. As it happens I was allowed to scan it in and email the image instead but the whole idea is so anachronistic that I don't know whether to laugh or cry about it. After all I'm now paying them to keep someone employed who's job is basically to transcribe forms that customers have filled in into a system that frankly would be far more efficient if they just let us do that ourselves. Anyway I asked to be signed up to their cheapest "Bundle" deal that also allowed me to continue to make use of GPRS data since on reading their web site it appeared that their rates for data under this bundle were something like:

  • €2.00 for the first 50Mb of data per day
  • Excess charged at €5 per Mb

The first part of that is a lot more than I'd like to pay but it's better than the "standard" €5 per Meg that otherwise would apply. Since I had access to 3 years of billing detail and I knew that I never use more than 50Mb on any day so this at least would cap things at a sort of affordable level. (Sort of ) Happy days.

My bill arrived earlier this week and lo and behold:

  • Call charges €0.00
  • Roaming Call Charges: €1.22
  • Messages: €0.36 (for a couple of messages while in the UK)
  • Data: €48.41 ( 11.5Meg across various sessions on 19 days)

Like WTF? It appears that I'm being charged the full €5 per meg after VAT for all data. They apparently didn't register my selection for signing up for Mobile Data when I signed up. So I should have checked that, right? Only problem with that is that the way to check that is to sign into their web site and log in using some details from your bill. So you can't check if your initial billing is set up correctly until you get your first bill.

So there is a mistake and surprise, surprise I'm the one who pays the price for it. I'm very sorry folks but when things like this happen they are not mistakes. The system is designed so that if any errors are made they will always benefit the company and not the customer. I am certain that if I check on the couple of dozen other people who transferred their phones at the same time as me we will find >90% of them in error and the beneficiary in each case wont be the customer.

I will be giving them a piece of my mind on that problem in due course but now that I see that I have a problem I go to fix it. The details on the data packages have changed and It appears (but it isn't totally clear) that what I need to do is sign up for their Mobile Internet package:

Vodafone Bundle

Does this make sense to anyone?? Like how much does a browsing session that pulls down 75K of data cost? 0K ? 10Mb? What about 5Mb every day for 10 days? 20 days?

The only other data rate information that I can find at the moment are these alternatives:

Vodafone Stadard Data 

Again I ask with tears in my eyes - does this make any sense?

So anyway for the moment I'm going to hope that the €9.99 per month package will effectively cost me less than €5 per Meg so I've signed up. At this point I notice that I'm being told that my selection of this "Add On" is "Pending" and will only take effect after my next bill.

Clearly they think I'm both stupid and a sucker. They are right on the second part of that but only because their competitors appear to be even worse than them but at this rate of going I am sorely tempted to tell them to take their service and stick it where the sun doesn't shine.

Some day I hope I will be able to find a Cellular Provider who can deliver a reasonable service at a reasonable price but at the moment I am forced to continue to remain convinced that they are scumbags. 

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Teh Intarweb has made u all dum

Or at least that's what the Guardian yesterday distilled from Doris Lessing's Nobel acceptance speech. The money quote being:

"Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books. We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned, and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing."

Reading the actual speech I was a bit disturbed to find that the quote is a little bit massaged - first she says..

"We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education, to know nothing about the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers."

And a bit later gets to this theme.

"Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books."..

Overall though they capture one side of Lessig's Lament - the Internet is debasing writing and facilitating the decline of "standards". They ignore the other more complicated side of her argument about what sort of environment makes good writers (and by implication enhances our cultural well being).

To get back to the first quote above though I have to say that I am disappointed - it is a tired and (frankly) pathetic argument that has been a staple of the elderly and the conservative since the ancient Greeks. Monty Python's "Four Yorkshiremen" skit is a classic precisely because it turns that standard cultural meme on its head and exposes its inherent silliness. Culture is not fragmenting, there has never been a time when the world was more monocultural than it is today (although that might be a bad thing in itself) and it is absolutely correct that the youth of today should question the standards of their elders and dispose of those that no are no longer useful.

Does this mean that we should ignore the classics? Of course not, but the intelligentsia needs to get its head out of its collective backside and acknowledge that there are hierarchies of interest in the world. More people than ever are reading "The Classics" now and discussing them at length. Search the web for Ovid, Virgil, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Sartre and you will find hundreds of thousands (and millions) of pages, hundreds if not thousands of which contain active discussions on the meaning and content of the works by those authors. The Internet means that anyone who can connect to it and who wants to explore it has instantaneous access to material in a way that people like Doris Lessing just doesn't understand or appreciate. The fact that hundreds of millions of people prefer to read about Britney's latest car park fender bender or Brad Pitt's new pet sheep makes no difference.

Moving on and actually digging into the speech the main point she seems to be making is:

"In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, the Tradition."

Libraries don't have to be mystical stone buildings, books don't have to be paper and anyone who writes Tradition with a capital T deserves to be ridiculed. More seriously though access to the intellectual tradition does not require smoking jackets and smokey academic coffee rooms, the fine traditions of literary, cultural and philosophic thought and valuable, even cutting edge, debate on them continues on line and is healthier now than it has ever been because it is more accessible. Not all deprived children are a badly off as the Zimbabwean horror stories Lessig rightly laments  - many potential great minds have been stunted because even in first world societies it was always hard for people who don't have access to a library at home to develop the habits and interests that are needed to get started on the road to intellectual exploration. It's not just about writing either. The point though is that with the Internet those who are interested are no longer hamstrung if they don't happen to be one of the lucky ones (like Lessig, and like me to be fair) who grew up in a house surrounded by books.

The true benefit of libraries is that they make books available, and books about books and they enable those who are interested to do some real research and perhaps find some truth. Most of that research is utter drivel though - the tens of thousands of books that have been written about Shakespeare not having really been Shakespeare would be a good example of that - but that doesn't matter the point is that the ideas need to be available to minds so that those minds can discover them and think about the. In the past a load of old paper was the only way for a developing mind to benefit from the work of the past. That has changed - a ten year old (or a 70 year old for that matter) who develops an interest in Plato (or Ovid, or Kant, or Shakespeare or whoever ) can now read as much of the entire relevant canon as they please when ever they please and enter into discussions about the fundamental meaning of the work with (some of ) the best minds on the planet via that demonic Internet. Now many people will cry about how that's not the same - you can't actually read a Book on a monitor, that's not Reading, blah,blah, blah. Seriously folks the youth of today will read on anything - in fact they'd probably prefer to read Plato in their mobile phones if given the chance.

The vast majority of the unwashed ( i.e. the proletariat bloggers out there that Lessig despises ) don't care about Ovid, Virgil, Plato, Shakespeare, Sartre, Kant or Derrida but then the vast majority of people in the 1050's/1550's/1950's or even 1970's never did and wont in 2050 either. Arguably there are many more people communicating today who are less catholic in their education that those who were lucky enough to have an education and access to publishing resources twenty years ago, let alone a hundred and five hundred years ago, but that doesn't mean that there is some sort of intellectual decline. Far more people today have a good to average level of education than ever before and that number just gets better. Unfortunately most of those will only want to read about Angelina's latest tiff with Brad or who's been run off the latest reality TV show but a small but significant fraction will continue to add worthwhile cultural content and that has always been the same.

At one point she bemoans the fact that a library full of books in a London school generally lies unused..

"Next day I am at a school in North London, a very good school,".... "And here, in this privileged school, I hear what I always hear when I go to schools and even universities.'You know how it is. A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used.' 'You know how it is.' Yes, we indeed do know how it is. All of us."

I went to school in the 70's and 80's and finished up in a good (but not "privileged" ) school and there were plenty of very smart and quite well off kids there. Still, the library there was effectively unused. As far as I can recall I was the only kid in my final year in secondary school who used both the School Library and the local Public Library regularly, and I had access to a pretty good library at home. I bet if if went back there today there would still be only one or two sad geeks in the same boat. When my kids were younger I used to take them to the Public Libraries regularly and again I'm one of the few people around who knows where the local libraries actually are. I don't think that the fact that only a tiny minority have an interest in physical Libraries is a huge or even a new issue. They have ceased to be culturally special places and that change took place long before I went to school in the 70's and 80's so their decline (if it is relevant) predates the latter half of the last century in my experience. The advent of the Internet has changed the game completely now - everyone lucky enough to have access to it who chooses to use it has access to vast libraries in an instant. I recall that when I was in College a girl that I had a sort of crush on wrote something slightly obscure in Latin to me in a note (I told you I was a geek, so were all most of my friends). I knew enough Latin to know what it said and it was a very interesting thing for a nice, attractive girl to write to a boy. However it was clearly some lines from a longer poem and I suspected that I needed to read the context to fully understand what it meant. It took me a couple of days to find it even though I had access to a full University Library in order to carry out the research. Thankfully I found what it was as the literal meaning of it would have given me the wrong idea but the point I wanted to make is that today anyone could find that out by typing four words into Google and reading a few articles. My example is a simple one and there are substantially better examples out there but every time I search Google for something obscure I am reminded that some things are now astonishingly easy and it is invariably a good thing that they are. I remain fundamentally convinced that the internet's democratization of knowledge in this way is an enormous cultural benefit moreover it's removal of the barriers to participation in intellectual discourse and the production of cultural content are effective cultural "multipliers" that will lead to the creation and rapid distribution of far more valuable content in the future than would otherwise have been possible.

Monday 10 December 2007

Authentic Geek

I had an interesting (and briefly worrying) authentication crisis yesterday. I've been looking for some toys (for me) and found exactly what I wanted at ThinkGeek. I've bought some stuff from them before and have generally been happy enough with the service. I can't recall if my order was delivered relatively quickly or not but I got what I ordered and nothing particularly untoward happened.

Last night ThinkGeek's credit card handling routine couldn't deal with my credit card details. It barfed when I entered the various numbers and told me to be careful because even though it was refusing to accept some unspecified aspect of my card and personal details an authorization against my card had already gone through. Now the amount was small enough - a few tens of dollars - and I really wanted the thing I was ordering so I assumed there was some minor problem so I tried again. I double and triple checked my details, went back to my Credit Card Bill and made 100% sure that the data I was entering matched the card precisely right down to capital letters and punctuation in the address. Barf again, and I got the same warning again.

Now I was a little worried - was there actually something wrong with my card? So off I went independently (ie on another PC) and checked it, there were no apparent problems with it that I could see and the Card company are pretty good these days about calling me up when they think something odd is up. That said you cannot ever see what items have been pre-authorized and those flags against your card account can last a long time if not cancelled by the vendor.

I did some checking and found this rant from Larry Osterman which seems to explain why my order was refused but doesn't really explain why ThinkGeek's ordering process doesn't let me know about these requirements in advance. Now in my case I've ordered from them before using this very same credit card but I have moved address and I do live outside of the US so I clearly fall foul of their new order processing requirements. It's possible that the order failed because of this, or perhaps my card supplier was down and couldn't validate my new billing address, or possibly ThinkGeek's ordering system just broke temporarily. What bothers me most about this is that I was now left with a card that I was unsure of, even though I'd done nothing wrong.

As it happens the card is fine - I used it today to test it - and I still don't know why ThinkGeek's ordering system had such issues with me last night so I'm going to have to go back to them and ask for a bit more info.

The conceptual problem for me here though is that in this day and age this should not be happening - I shouldn't care. If the transaction fails then I should not be exposed to potentially having funds removed from my account in this way and if transactions succeed I shouldn't have to sit back and think about whether I trust the vendor or their Credit Card handling agency to protect my accounts details. Surely transactions should be secure (ie encrypted and authenticated) and atomic ( i.e. can only be used for the transaction they are intended to pay for) by now. When I pay a vendor for a specific transaction I shouldn't have to give them so many details about my account and identity that they could (if they were corrupt and chose to do so) empty my account. Likewise both parties should both be able to unambiguously identify that specific payment in the future, uniquely. Furthermore no vendor should need to get any corroborating ID data from a customer - surely they should just ask the payment processor if it is willing to pay for the transaction and if the it says OK then the vendor should feel well enough protected to proceed. Consumers shouldn't have to be worried about inept or corrupt vendors (not that I think ThinkGeek are either of those), accidents or misunderstandings should be automatically damage limited by restricting transaction replayability and consumers should have a robust, easy to use and secure mechanism that allows them to fully control what funds move out of their account.  I used to have a system that gave me some of this (the old AIB O-Card that generated single use time constrained disposable credit cards) but it only dealt  with one side of the problem. I'll be posting some more thoughts on this over the next couple of days. It's amazing that we do any business at all online given how poor the current system is - most people must be very trusting and even more surprisingly most people must be scrupulously honest for the current system to work as well as it does.

What's Wrong With Amazon

I've been an Amazon customer for over 10 years. I bought my first books from Amazon sometime in early 1997 and I have always been a fan. You find what you want, check it out, pay and it comes in the post in a cool amazon goodie box shortly thereafter. Sweet.

They seem to have lost the plot somewhat of late though. Despite having a fairly large operation in Ireland they still don't have an Ireland friendly web site. I suppose that since Ireland is a pretty small market they can be forgiven for not having an amazon.ie site but they could at least try to deliver an english language site that displayed prices in Euro but that's not on the cards at the moment. Now I don't really care about whether we have Amazon Prime, or the Amazing Kindle(TM)! available to us out here on the western spiral arm of the EuroZone but the real problem I have is that I would just like to be able to buy the stuff that's advertised. I'd put up with the (frankly stupid) inconvenience of not being able to see prices in my own currency and (equally stupid) practice of forcing me to virtually go to an arbitrary other country to shop if I could actually get the stuff that I wanted to order (and I'm allowed put in a basket) delivered to my home.

The beef is that Amazon will not send the vast majority of electrical, electronic and photographic type goods to Ireland. The line between what they will and wont send is a bit arbitrary but by and large they will let you add a camera, a TV or an mp3 player to your shopping basket but will not actually ship it. When you get to the check out you will be presented with this:

*** We're sorry. This item can't be shipped to your selected destination. You may either change the shipping address or delete the item from your order by changing its quantity to 0 and clicking the update button below. (See geographical restrictions.) ***


WTF? What's with this - haven't you dudes heard of "shipping" ? Eh? Is there some law about sending stuff from the UK to Ireland that we haven't been told about? Did we just get cut off from the EU? None of the above but you could be forgiven for having these mad thoughts if all you did was read the totally unhelpful link Amazon provide to their Geographical Restrictions Page where they don't give you any idea why they won't send us stuff they just tell you what you have already been told - you're not getting any. Maybe it's because we're Irish? After all we used to be pariahs in the UK so why not again? TFSU! That can't be true can it?

That would make for a great story but unfortunately the truth appears to be a lot more mundane although it is still completely puerile and stupid. Apparently the reason is that Ireland implemented the EU mandated WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) producer recycling fund surcharges in mid 2006 and Amazon don't want to deal with it. The part that I love about this is that Amazon don't bother to explain what the reason is even they have been doing this for a year and a half and still haven't tried to fix it. What's worse is that even though the same rules apply in Germany and France you can't order electrical\electronic items in Amazon.fr or Amazon.de and have them delivered to Ireland either. Oh and remember they have a very large operation here in Ireland (in Cork) so there can be no argument about this being too hard for a US\UK company to deal with.

The stupidity of this becomes even more outstanding when you try to buy the same thing from Amazon and one of its marketplace partners and find just the right combination.

Amazon-Silliness

Eddie has run into the same problem where he was allowed to pre-order one game - Resident Evil - Umbrella Chronicles - but was presented with something like the above for Metroid Prime. After raising the insanity of the inconsistency with their support "team" he got an endless run around, inaccurate excuses about why it might be and eventually complete silence. Now games shouldn't be subject to any restrictions as a result of a dispute over the WEE PRF because it doesn't apply to them but I strongly suspect that the root cause here is also the Amazon WEEE dispute and the lack of an explanation from Amazon certainly makes that seem more likely.

Basically this is just a large company acting really stupidly and getting away with it. I'm well ticked off right now and I'm boycotting them until they sort themselves out - it wont make any difference to them but I've had enough of large companies treating me like crap and I'm not giving them any more of my money.

Companies like Komplett, Dabs, MemoryC, Expansys and Pixmania will get my business because they aren't behaving stupidly and don't make me feel like a second class citizen when I go shopping. And as a bonus they will all give me an online shop that gives me prices in Euro and an English language interface. Clearly it's not impossible to treat Irish customers like real people when you want to.

* Edited to remove some personal details that I really shouldn't have been posting online. Silly me.

Sunday 9 December 2007

More Gaming Blues

I did some more troubleshooting to see if I could zero in on the problem.

I downloaded RivaTuner from the folks at Guru 3D which is a pretty neat tweaking utility generally used by overclockers but I thought it might allow me to selectively disable graphics hardware features like the Pixel\Vertex shaders (yes it does) and possibly help me with memory mapping issues (not sure but probably not). I also downloaded 3D-Mark03 and was going to download 3D-Mark 05 and 06 but as it turns out I didn't need the newer two - 3D Mark03 happily crashes the machine all on its own so there was no point.

I used RivaTuner to step through the process of disabling the two shader types, then locked out anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering and did a few other minor things that it gave me access to but the end result was always the same. I was partially able to confirm that RivaTuner was doing what it said on the tin as Vista's Aero features got progressively disabled as I turned off the graphic card's higher end DirectX features. It didn't matter though - I still ended up staring at the Black Screen of Death.

So I've accepted now that I have a hardware fault and have raised a ticket with Dell. Lets see how long it takes to get this resolved satisfactorily. The clock is ticking and I keenly await a resolution from Dell.

Edit: After phone troubleshooting demonstrated a hardware fault Dell sent a technician to fix it and after letting it settle in for a couple of weeks I posted a final update here.

Gaming Blues on the XPS M1330

I'm pretty certain this is an issue with my own PC at this stage and not a general problem with all XPS M1330's that have the 8400M GS video card but I'm throwing this one out there for comment just to see if anyone has any bright ideas.

I've had the XPS for about four weeks now and apart from a single Blue Screen crash on the day after I got it (as it was rebooting after being patched) it has been rock solid. It is still rock solid if all I do is stick to standard PC stuff like browsing the web, posting nonsense on the blog playing some old games and what not. I'd tried playing UT3 Demo on this PC but it felt like playing in molasses so I never played it much, and had much more fun playing that on the XPS 420. However I got both Valve's Orange Box and Unreal 3 during the week and installed them on Thursday. At that point I was running the up to date standard Dell supplied drivers for all the hardware on the device some of which (like the Video drivers) are a couple of months old but nothing is seriously out of date. I immediately had problems with Team Fortress 2. It would run for a bit, allow me to connect to a server and start to wander around but within a couple of minutes the screen would go black and I'd lose all interactive capability with the PC. All the lights were still on but I couldn't get back to the OS at all - even the touch sensitive media buttons and DVD eject button on the top of the keyboard failed to respond. I had to force the device to reset by holding down the power button for 15 seconds.

I checked out Valve's support and found lots of information about hot fixes to solve similar sounding problems when running HL2 engine games on Vista. So I applied all of them (only one was actually applied, Vista told me the others did not apply to my hardware). No joy.

I checked out Nvidia's support site and found a similar but slightly larger list of hot fixes. I applied them and again all but one were not applicable but again no joy.

I then tried reinstalling\updating DirectX with the August update just in case that had been corrupted at some stage. No joy.

At this point I was testing using Portal cos it was easier to get it started and was a bit more fun to play for the 10-15 minutes it would take before it crashed. The crashes are weird by the way - I can start Portal and generally play a level or two before it locks up an delivers me to the Black Screen of Death but if I stop playing it will stay at that spot without crashing for as long as I've left it so far (more than an hour).

At this stage I decided I needed to see if this was a core video driver problem and immediately ran into the traditional problem with laptops - the manufacturers do not release drivers anything like as often as the Video Card manufacturers do so the Dell supplied drivers at V156.55 were well behind the cutting edge from Nvidia ( 158.36 for WHQL certified Series 150 drivers ). Nvidia's own driver packages will not install on most laptops but thankfully the internet delivers an alternative with  LaptopVideo2go.com who provide repackaged Nvidia drivers with updated .inf files that resolve that problem. So I tried the 158.36 drivers - No Joy. Note I carried out this exercise four different ways - trying a simple upgrade in place, and then totally uninstalling the video drivers and installing the upgrade and then repeating the exercise using Driver Cleaner to be certain that I wasn't getting mixed up driver components. I also tried to install the 160 series drivers but they point blank refuse to install on this machine.

Just to be certain that this was not a Valve problem I switched over to Unreal 3 and that is an even better demonstration of the problem. I can start a single player campaign but as soon as I get past the very first door on the training level it Black Screens. If I hang about and don't move outside it stays up.

I've since uninstalled every bit of potentially iffy software that I had installed over the last few weeks to no effect and then in a fit of desperation I shut down every service and support application I could on the machine just in case this was being caused by some other rogue process. No joy.

For a laugh I installed Unreal Tournament 2003 earlier and played a couple of Death Match games this morning without a hitch.

The really awful part of this is that much to my surprise all of the games play well on this box before they crash. Now they aren't delivering 100+fps at 1920x1200 but they are fitting a nice comfortable frame rate for casual gaming on a laptop. Certainly Portal would be perfectly playable and a single player campaign on U3 seems to be possible.

I believe I have a hardware problem but I'm at a loss as to what exactly it is - apart from the fact that my PC can't play some high end 3d games. Any ideas folks - should I just send it back to Dell and ask them for a new one? There is plenty of evidence on the web that folks use this particular set up to play these games and I can find nobody else with a problem that clearly matches it.

Edit: I dug a little deeper as described here and then chased Dell for an active resolution - after phone troubleshooting demonstrated a hardware fault Dell sent a technician to fix it and after letting it settle in for a couple of weeks I posted a final update here. The problem was a hardware fault.

The Dell XPS M1330

Some wag on Engadget commented on their "What would you do to improve the XPS M1330?" thread that all it needed was to be renamed the XPS M 1337.

XPS-M1330

I got one recently and I love it, in fact I am happy to say that it is the best PC that I've ever owned and with one notable exception I have no real complaints at all. I took the jump to Vista with this, 32bit Vista Home Premium to be precise and apart from one Blue Screen crash on the first day as it was rebooting after getting its initial truck load of patches it's been remarkably stable and fast. Once I got over my initial outrage at how UAC works and figured out how to disable it I've found Vista to be a good to very good experience so far for day to day use. Yeah I know its not a smart security strategy to turn off UAC but frankly its usability is pants and that actually does matter a lot to me. I'm happy to run as a standard user account for the most part and prefer that approach to running as an elevatable administrator. The one notable exception to this computing nirvana at the moment is that the M1330 that I have will not play any current generation 3D games (e.g. Valve's Orange Box products or Unreal 3) - it crashes badly and takes out the whole OS after a minute or two of play leaving me staring at a totally black screen with everything running but nothing responding. I'm going to park that problem for the moment and discuss it in a later post as it is an very specific problem that is probably caused by a dodgy graphics adapter. Anyway returning to the good stuff.

When I was ordering mine I spent a bit of time trying to get the best machine I could without going nuts on the options. In the end I chose the following options: 4GB RAM, 2.2Ghz T7500 Core2 Duo, 1280x800 White LED screen, 200GB 7200 RPM Seagate Momentus HDD, 802.11abg (Intel) WLAN, Bluetooth 2.0, and a 256Meg NVIDIA 8400M GS discrete graphics card. And I got a black one, red just isn't my colour.

The standard features that you get with any XPS M1330 are the very sleek slim line case, a built in IR Media remote, a set of in-ear headphones, built in webcam, touch sensitive media management keys, SD-HC compatible card slot, HDMI and VGA video out, mini FireWire 400 port, 2 USB ports, hardware Wireless power switch, a slot loading DVD+-/RW drive and a nice keyboard and touch pad. There is no dial up modem. It comes in at a base weight of 1.8kg which is very light, and while it's not rugged it feels nicely solid and very well made.

I decided against opting for a solid state HDD (too small and way too expensive), fingerprint reader (I still think they're a gimmick to be honest), built in Cellular Data Card (not an option available to us in Ireland and too expensive anyway), 802.11n Draft compatible WiFi (not available to us in Ireland so I got 802.11abg instead) and stuck with the smaller battery (6 cell vs 9 cell) as it gives me more than two hours of un-tethered battery life and finally I saw absolutely no reason to spend an extra couple of hundred Euro to get the marginally faster 2.4Ghz CPU.

After four weeks of living with this as my primary PC I'm still really happy with it and apart from the 3D gaming problem it is by far the best PC I've ever. That said it has some flaws that I hope they will fix in a future model.

What I would change:

  • Increase screen resolution 1440x900 minimum.
  • Add Gigabit Ethernet capability to the Ethernet adapter.
  • Support for 802.11n WiFi across the board.
  • Remove the optical drive - make it USB.
  • Bump the FireWire port up to FireWire 800 and add eSATA.

The screen resolution is just about OK - I haven't had to limit myself to a screen resolution as low as 1280x800 for five years now. Admittedly all of my previous notebooks were relatively large devices with 15" displays and the M1330 is tiny by comparison but the dot pitch on my previous laptop (an IBM Thinkpad T43p with a 1680x1200 resolution 15" monitor) was 137 pixels/ inch vs 116ppi for the M1330. I'd love to see them build a true 1080p HD capable ultra portable ( i.e. 1920x1200 for this aspect ratio)but I don't see that happening any time soon and to be fair the OS's available at the moment can't scale the UI elements well enough to make a 230ppi screen viable yet.

I was shocked to discover last week that it doesn't have a Gigabit Ethernet wired network port - again I haven't owned a PC in years that didn't have a GigE port and I never even bothered to check that when buying it so I was quite shocked. It's not as if GigE components are expensive anymore so leaving it out on an XPS class system doesn't make any sense. While we're on the subject of networks 802.11n compatible WiFi has to be a minimum going forward but given the draft state of that standard (and my own experience with it's rough edges) it's not as important.

The built in slot loading DVD drive is neat and all but frankly I don't need built in optical media drives on a device this small - ship it with a USB drive and it would save a couple of hundred grams and quite a bit of space.

While we're dropping the optical drive I'd bump the FireWire port to FireWire 800 and put in an eSATA drive while we're at it.

Finally - The hardware radio switch on the device is a bit of a con - it's not actually a hardware switch that makes\breaks the power to the Radios it's just a switch that triggers the software to turn on \ off the radios. It's more flexible but frankly I'm at a loss as to what it actually achieves - the capability could just as easily have been implemented using the traditional FN+Function key that is used for triggering hibernate\sleep and adjusting the screen brightness.

Friday 7 December 2007

Kindle Update

Kindle usage report update from the Washington Post via  Tele-Read:

–Says the “Sprint-supplied ‘Whispernet’ service,” used for transmitting books, “has major gaps in rural areas, starting as close as 30 miles from the District. Users in the country may need to download books to their computers, then copy them to a Kindle.” In a related vein, see this link kindly supplied by TeleBlog contributor Paul Biba—on the difficulties of using the Whispernet in Montana and other states with no coverage or spotty coverage. Bait-and-switch advertising for their residents? Or are they not reading fine print?

This should not be a surprise - for crying out I called that one out as soon as I saw the actual technical details and I don't live anywhere near Montana..

.. the choice of EV-DO means this is restricted to major population centers in the US.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Shay's TV

I took some pictures while I was helping Shay install his newly acquired 40" Sony Bravia KDL 40W3000 last week that I've been meaning to post. My initial reaction on seeing the box it was delivered in was that it was way too big and Shay had clearly been drinking before he bought it but to be fair to Tank Boy it looks amazing when mounted properly using a good wall bracket.

To give you an idea of scale - the Dell box on the table in the first picture contains a 24" Dell flat panel monitor and it looks minute beside this beast.

The final picture is a full 7meg shot of the TV displaying Shay's X-Box Live console you can click through to Picasa and zoom in to see just how much detail there is on a 1080p display.

Windows Live Writer

Microsoft get a lot of stick for developing and delivering monstrous bloat-ware rather than lean and mean functional software that just does the job. Occasionally though, they really get the balance right and Windows Live Writer is one of those. It's a free (as in beer) lightweight offline blog post editor.

If you don't post articles to blogs often then you may be forgiven for assuming that blog sites must surely support some pretty advanced (i.e. intuitive, easy to use and reliable) post editing features. I don't have much experience in this field but I can tell you that the post editor in Blogger at least is abysmal. Blogger's online editor is only partially WYSIWYG, breaks many of the common user interface conventions and has failed more than enough times for me to get labelled unreliable. Windows Live Writer by contrast is a lightweight and (so far) perfectly reliable offline editor. It integrates incredibly well with a range of Blog sites, including Blogger, and my initial impression is that it is easy to use, accurate and reliable.

It detects your blog's layout and style template(s) and applies them on the fly so you actually get WYSIWYG editing. It allows you to easily edit and republish posts after you realise that you just published complete rubbish and need to fix it. It allows you to manage posting to multiple blog hosts including Blogger, WordPress, Microsoft Live Spaces and more, easily and efficiently.

It appears to have the beginnings of a plug in developer culture kicking off so in addition to the basic Insert Hyperlink\Picture\Video\Table options you can add plugins to support proper Insert Code that preserves the structure of formatted code and Insert Code from Visual Studio that preserves syntax highlighted code. Now if only it supported Insert Code from UltraEdit\Eclipse I'd be away on a hack, but it's light years ahead of the basic options available directly from Blogger.

The only problem with it at the moment is that the main Windows Live Writer site appears to be unavailable at the moment which sort of takes the shine of this. Keep hacking away at it though, if you ever post blog articles then it's worth downloading and using.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

The Golden Compass

There may be spoilers ahead...

I was going to post links to PR type images but frankly since those MPAA goons would probably consider that stealing their IP even though I would be doing it to advertise their damn film I can't be bothered trying to figure out how to extract a decent picture of the film from the script silliness that is preventing me from directly embedding a link to their site from here. So instead here's the first five minutes courtesy of YouTube.

 

Seriously if you haven't read the books yet and are intending to go see the film then you may want to skip this until you have seen it.

.....

Anyway for those of you who have read the books or who really don't care about spoilers, read on.

......

I'm conflicted. I have to say that I absolutely love Pullmans's "His Dark Materials" trilogy and I have been very worried that this attempt to make a film of it would just get it all wrong and ruin them for me. I'm happy to say that that hasn't happened at all. In fact the development of "Lyra's World" is stunning, the design of it is incredible, the set designs are awesome, the costumes are exquisite and above all the utterly seamless effects used to create the Steampunk Victorian environment demonstrate a level of technical sophistication that is better than anything I've ever seen.

The casting is excellent and (most of) the acting is top notch. I don't think anyone is going to be handing out Oscars but Dakota Blue Richards is incredible and captures Lyra far better than I would ever have thought any child actor ever could, Nicole Kidman definitely finds Mrs Coulter's exceptionally disturbed soul and the remainder of the cast are exceptionally well chosen. Once or twice the supporting kids are a little wooden but the general level of this film is very high.

The animation of the Daemons is virtually perfect, particularly when it is not over done. At one or two points the animation wizards just had to start showboating but the interleaving of animation and live action only ever stumbles if you are very fussy, know what you are looking for and are looking very hard.

The storyline is reasonably loyally rendered and in particular the spirit of the book is more or less maintained, at least from my perspective with the memory loss of a three year gap since I read it. The main protagonists in the overarching story of the trilogy have been introduced and some have begun to show that they have depth.

The director also doesn't pull too much of the grit out of the story. It's not quite as brutal as the book but there's lots of dead bodies and mutilated bears before it ends and it more than deserves its Irish 12A rating. I fair jumped on more than one occassion but I am a bit of a wimp. Anyway I suspect that as the more adult themes (ie those related to sex) of the books get developed in the later films that may rise as film rating authorities see sex as a much more dangerous thing for children to be exposed to than child kidnapping, murder and mutilation.

But all is not perfect. For some reason the technical wizards who can make a convincingly realistic creature that morphs from being a pine marten into a small bird then into a cat and a seagull without missing a beat found it impossible to create a convincing flying witch. It may just be me being a bit fussy but I kept looking for the wires when they were taking off. I found the animation of Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear, to be less convincing than the daemons but again that might just be me being picky.

I could easily forgive those minor problems but there is one huge problem. The person responsible for the final edit of the cut that I saw was a complete and utter idiot. I don't think the end result is that someone who hasn't read the books can't follow the story but there were four or five points when I was sitting scratching my head asking myself how a particular character knew what they did. I suspect that the director and writers were building a 150 minute film that the suits got hold of and decided had to be no longer than 115.

The DVD release of this will probably be awesome but the net effect of the hack editing job is that I am somewhat disappointed. Overall I'd give it a solid 7/10 with the potential to be an 8+ if they let the director do the DVD release properly.