Thursday, 2 August 2007

Ubuntu switcher

About two weeks ago I installed Ubuntu on the Girlfriend's laptop, after her request. She had become fed up with the sluggish responsiveness of her Windows XP installation. There was also that virus incident not long ago.

At some point of frustration (coupled with a bit of cursing from her part :-) ) she asked me whether moving to Linux would make things any better. Trying to suppress my extreme geeky excitement I replied somewhere along the lines 'Well, I think it would. At least you won't get any viruses and most of those pop-ups would go away'.

She instantly liked the overall theme as well as the name. The included games were a big hit, especially Gnometris: ('Are you telling me I've got Tetris on my PC? Woohoo!'. I challenge you to find one worthy Tetris game on Windows XP). Then I installed Frozen Bubble which proved to be an instant hit too.

What she did not like was the carry-over wallpaper from her Windows XP account (Windows migration tool is quite impressive although it missed Firefox's bookmarks) . 'Eeeek! Am I back to Windows? Can you please take that away??'. She also got frustrated with the super-sensitive track pad but that was easy to fix too.

So for the last two weeks everything has been nice and dandy. I dare say that some things work better than they did in Windows XP. The wireless connection is one, while Internet radio streaming (in .asx format) has been stellar contrasted with Windows XP's (and sadly OS X's) hit and miss performance. I've set up read-write access to her NTFS partition where are her files still reside and put a shortcut on her desktop so she can find them easily.

From now on I can only guess how things will go. I guess she will eventually like the absence of viruses and adware and the general hassle-free environment. I've also noticed that Ubuntu has had zero dropped connections from our wireless home network. Windows XP was constantly struggling to connect to our home network even when the laptop was sitting next to the wireless router.

Of course she did not get involved with the process at all. I was solely responsible for setting everything up. After everything was done and dusted I just gave her a quick tutorial ("Here are your files, here is Firefox, here are the games"). There was no point in getting her involved with anything else like how I got the NTFS partition to work (super easy, just install the relevant utility). I consider it a success that she thinks it was as easy as it looked to her (and even to me). That's a big thumbs-up for the Ubuntu team by me.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Auto-next for YouTube

After seeing the auto-countdown 'Right' and 'Left' arrows that appear when a video ends in YouTube the following occured to me:

Wouldn't it be neat if YouTube could track what kind of videos you watch, compare your selections with its own list of popular videos and select the next video on its own? Each video could have a 'Skip' and a 'I like this' button appear in the controls, just like the one currently appearing in the player.

You'd still have control over what gets played. When a video ends, you could select from the options provided, just like you do now. The new bit would be a timer. When the timer expires the most popular video from those presented gets loaded automatically. That could even be applied in the AppleTV's and the iPhone's version of YouTube as well.

The algorithm behind something like that is simple as shown by other 'behaviour-tracking' services like, Pandora radio and Reddit. If you are not logged in you can skip the 'tracking' part altogether and just auto-load the next most popular video in line.

A point against this could be that contrary to and Pandora's case, watching videos is not a background task like listening to music (Wasn't something similar said as an 'evidence' on why there was no point behind the iPod's ability to play videos? :-) ). I think this does not hold true. From my own and my friends' experiences, YouTube can be addictive. Like a Greek ad for chips said, 'It's impossible to have only one'. Why not try to automate the selection then?

I think that an automation like that would be usefull, specifically in 'dedicated' YouTube applications like the AppleTV and the iPhone. You'd log in, manually select the first video you want to watch and then let it play on its own. Imagine this scenario with the AppleTV, it's almost like watching your own, personal TV program for free.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Pixar Drama?

Pixar's latest movie, Ratatouille was released last week. I haven't seen the movie yet but I am planning to go and see it as soon as possible. Based on the previous Pixar movies I have seen I know what to expect on the scenario. I'm guessing it will be a mixture of a kids' fairy tale interwoven with a more serious theme. It's been like that since their first feature movie, Toy Story. Their movies have been the kind that both kids and their parents can enjoy equally.

Up to now Pixar's stories have been strictly in the fairy tale realm. This provides a big advantage for the stylistic and the technological requirements of a movie. What do toys, bugs, fish and cars have in common? They are not humans and this gives you the freedom to depict them as you want. The notable exception are of course The Incredibles. This is a movie focused around (super) humans. Yet the style of the movie is focused in a more caricature depiction of the human form. It does not try very much to depict humans as realistic as possible.

I think there is a pattern in the character figures in Pixar's movies. Starting with Toy Story the characters do not have to look very much human like. They are toys after all. With each movie iteration though the focus shifts to the human figure although not always directly. Toy Story led to A Bug's Life which featured more human like figures. Then came Monster's Inc. which focused even more on the human form. It might not seem like it but "Sulley" Sullivan had a clearly human form and especially a human face.

Finding Nemo featured fish of course. What can be less human-like than a fish? And yet, those fish were even more human like. Because fish do not have any useful body parts to convey feelings the animators had to focus mainly of the face of each figure to paint the expressions of each character. This is even more clear in Cars. Here the characters are practically just a face on wheels. Everything had to be shown through the facial expression of the character.

That leads us to the latest movie, Ratatouille. This is the second movie after The Incredibles that features humans as main characters. From the trailers I've seen though it seems like the human figures in Ratatouille are much more "human" than those found in The Incredibles.

This (personally perceived) shift of focus towards the human form led me to the following thought: How long till Pixar produces an animated film that is not a fairy tale? If not by Pixar by someone else but the question is the same, how long until an "adult" movie comes out that is completely animated? We've seen that it's possible to convey serious thoughts through an animated film. Is it possible to have an animated "Philadelphia"? Or an animated "The Lifes of Others"? How about an animated "American History X" or any other "serious" and "adult" movie?

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Athens teh h4x0r

Spotted in downtown Athens today :-)

Wednesday, 23 May 2007


Aaaaargh! The Girlfriend's PC caught a virus. Somehow, somewhere. I might be slightly responsible for that; me downloading a couple of torrents with her machine might have something to do with it :-$ The point is that, as the tech-guy in the house, I have to find a way to clean the damn thing now. It seems that it's a very resistant kind of virus. AVG can't get rid of it, Spybot can't get rid of it. I am currently browsing in the Intratubes to find a possible cure if possible.

The one extreme solution is to format and install from scratch. The Girlfriend is not very positive on the idea, although it is 100% clear that it will be me who is going to do the whole thing :-)

The other extreme solution is to format and switch to Ubuntu. Last time she saw Ubuntu 7.04 from a liveCD on her PC she liked it. I might try it for a couple of days from the liveCD again and based on her reactions I might convince her to go for it. The good thing with 7.04 is that everything worked out of the box with her laptop. Trackpad, wireless card, 3D graphics, It Just Worked. This gives me hopes, it might not be THAT difficult after all.

On the other hand she might want to practice her Excel skills in the following weeks for her work. While is fine and dandy, when it comes to learning the menus and the shortcuts and generally familiarising with Excel, well, by definition, it's not good enough.

We'll see how it goes. In the meantime I'll have to provide practical and psychological support when the infected machine keeps popping up un-requested windows and generally acting on its own...

I managed to get rid of the trojan eventually. SpyBot spotted the culprit and after a quick look in some forums I spotted the foul entry in the registry that resurrected the thing each time I removed it. I deleted the entry and everything seems normal now. I run a full malware scan (AVG, SpyBot and Microsoft™ Windows™ Defender) every couple of days. Everything looks normal for now, let's hope it stays that way.

Monday, 16 April 2007


I finished 3D Realm’s Prey a couple of days ago. First time I head about Prey was around 1997, back when I was an avid reader of the English version of the PC Gamer magazine. The details seemed so far ahead of anything else that existed back then. Coloured lights, reflections, insane character polygon counts for the time and of course portals. I’ve even downloaded a small video from the Internet (through dial-up!) and gasped at the amazing graphics of the day. I still have that video and I’ve found more, nothing beats some video game nostalgia.

When a friend bought a brand new PC about a month ago and asked for a really good-looking game to test his kit, I did not hesitate to suggest Prey. The new version of course (the old one was discontinued unfortunately and never saw the light of day), which is based on the Doom3 engine. After a while I could not resist the temptation and asked him to give me a copy to play with. I installed it on Girlfriend’s laptop, patched it to the latest version and soon I was good to go.

And now that I’ve finished it, here are my thoughts on this game whose beginnings are more than a decade ago.

The graphics are of course really spectacular. Even on Girlfriend’s laptop which is nothing great the lightning effects are top-notch. The levels are really interesting as well, playing a lot with the notion of what is up and down. Gravity (and its manipulation) are a central part of the game and used creatively to create some really interesting puzzles. It’s also used to enhance the sense of scale in some cases, like when you exit the bad guys’ mothership with a small space shuttle and land on a small asteroid that has its own gravity field. It sometimes becomes disorienting but I count that as a Good Thing™ (Nothing beats the sheer sense of disorientation you get when playing Descent 1 & 2).

Additional tricks are the Portals that act as teleportation devices that also show you where you end up. If you played Quake 3 Arena, you’ll remember in q3dm7 the portal near the rail gun and the quad damage. It looks like that, although it’s more advanced since it’s a two way thing and you can also shoot stuff through it.

The final trick is the notion of Spirit Walking. When your character first dies, you are told that your spirit has the special ability of leaving your body and moving around on its own abiding to slightly different physical laws. This enables you to solve some puzzles like walking through force-fields for example. Another implication is that once you die, your spirit has the chance to return to you body, effectively letting you resurrect from the dead.

Every single time.

And that’s where the problem is. After a while, I found myself not really caring if I died since there’s no real impact on the game apart from a small slow down while I try to resurrect my character. You don’t lose your weapons and there is no limit on how often or how many times you can die. Once you’re dead, you don’t even have to do anything to resurrect, after a while it happens on its own.

While an interesting idea it ends up ruining the game. After a while there’s no real motive to become better at aiming or develop a different strategy because it doesn’t really matter if the bad guys kill you. In the end, you will beat them because they cannot really kill you. It ends up being just an annoyance that slows you down. It feels like having a invincibility cheat turned on permanently.

I also suspect that the designers of the game deliberately tweaked the game mechanics to make you die more. The weapons are not only unoriginal they don’t feel powerful either. You get the standard set of weapons: A melee weapon, a machine-gun type with a scope for long range shots, a grenade type with a sticky mode, a machine-gun with grenade, a shotgun again with a grenade function and a rocket launcher. The only interesting one is a plasma-laser-frozen flamethrower all in one, that accepts 3 different types of ammo, out of which only the laser feels really powerful (but ends up not being one). All the rest are just not powerful enough, they do not carry the actual punch you think they will based on how they look. Why do you give me a rocket launcher if it cannot even kill one of the basic enemies with one shot?

It’s a shame because Prey has a really good story. It might not be the most original one ever but at least it’s told in a really good way. The voice acting is also great. If only for the bad guys that are really stupid and the spirit walking, I could have gotten a much bigger sense of accomplishment when I saw the rolling end credits.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Is iTunes really pointing to Leopard's new UI?

Now that Leopard is officially delayed for autumn, people have started wondering again about its secret features. A popular secret feature rumour is that Leopard will sport a brand new UI style. I've already laid my view on why I believe that we're not going to see drastic changes in Leopard's UI so I won't repeat them here.

I think that the changes will be subtle, in the same spirit of the changes that occurred with OS X's previous updates. What I don't think is that we can use iTunes latest (v7.0) chameleon change as a guide of what's coming as some people have suggested.

iTunes is a strange application. Some claim that it's a programming feat since it's not just a simple application ported between two completely different environments (Windows and OS X). It seems to be carrying over a number of OS X's core technologies to Windows; iTunes store's WebKit presentation engine, QuickTime's full media stack and probably numerous Cocoa components that were torn out of their natural habitat in OS X and made functional in a completely different technical infrastructure. And it does all this while managing to work almost exactly the same between the two platforms.

And look almost exactly the same too. You might complain that there are too many different visual styles in OS X nowadays (Brushed Metal, Unified, Aqua and in some Frankenstein cases a combination of them), but iTunes sits in a realm of its own. The first time I saw it, it seemed to me like the result of a half-finished morphing transition from classic OS X Aqua to classic Windows Luna style.

iTunes is in the difficult position of having to be consistent between two different worlds. One has to look at iTunes under the iPod halo prism. iTunes acts like OS X's ambassador in Windows' land. It has to look new and interesting and full of promises about where it's coming from. On the same time it has to also look and behave somewhat familiar to what the user already knows. And the user already knows how Windows land is. Hence the "half-morphed" UI and the "OK" and "Cancel" buttons in the Preferences window. No other OS X application (iLife or not) looks like iTunes and no other OS X application has confirmation buttons on their preferences windows (correct me if I'm wrong). It's a trade-off of this slightly schizophrenic nature of iTunes' purpose.

What iTunes wants is to make the Windows user interested in OS X land enough so he makes the switch.

Imagine you never had a Mac. You do have an iPod though. And you like it so much how easy it is to work with iTunes that you decide to take the big step and switch. Now, Macs might be easy, but they are different alright. Imagine that iTunes acts like you first friend in this new town called OS X. Among all those new faces and concepts you have a familiar face with known shortcuts (that happen to work in other applications as well).

That's what iTunes is all about, not about testing and previewing new visual styles. Sure, it's about helping you organize your music and managing your iPod and downloading music and videos. In the end though, it's also a promise that where it's coming from there's more of the good stuff.

As for us already in OS X land, well, we'll have to deal with it.

Leopard delay VS iPhone on time

I don't really mind that Leopard is delayed until October. Sure, there was a small "Oh come on..." moment, but at the end of the day I too believe that it's better to delay a bit instead of rushing out a seriously buggy product. I believe that Leopard will indeed be as good and solid as we want it to be.

On the other hand, the phrasing of Apple's statement for the iPhone got me thinking about its progress through the FFC verification.

Somehow I don't really believe the reason behind the extra resources needed (and "borowed" from the Leopard departments) is just that iPhone comes with "the most advanced software ever in a mobile device". January's presentation showed a very functional device. Sure, it wasn't complete, but the telephone functions seemed to be working more than OK.

Something tells me that the FCC required some serious changes be made. Changes require time to be made and deadlines require resources to be allocated. A typical Apple could just delay the iPhone a bit until it implements the required changes, the same way it delays Leopard or other Apple-only products.

iPhone is not Apple-only though. Apple has not only to consider whether or not FFC and itself are satisfied with the quality of iPhone. iPhone has also to be delivered according to the schedule agreed with Cingular (and probably other network companies we don't yet know of. I'm sure Apple is in the talks with European network companies as well). Cingular agreed to offer iPhone and also agreed to make changes to its network to support iPhone's visual voice mail on the premise that it could start selling the thing ASAP. ASAP in this case was agreed to be June.

Apple can afford to delay Leopard. It cannot afford to miss the June deadline for iPhone though because it is partially obliged to Cingular. I'm sure this will bring some bad old memories from the past to Apple when it tried to partner with other companies (licensing its OS in the 90s and the Motorola RAZR joke).