January 12, 2009

Crayon Physics Deluxe

I recently bought a new game, Crayon Physics Deluxe.

In the past three or four years, I've bought maybe three or four games: the Orange Box (for Portal mainly - I haven't gotten anywhere on HL2 really, it is too scary, Galactic Civiliations 2, which is totally awesome, World of Goo and now this one.

I have only played a few levels, but it is really fun. You basically get to draw stuff, and they follow a reasonable physics model. So far as far as I have gotten there are little pivots points that you can use to make pivots, but so far most of the game involves drawing bridges and using weights and stuff to make the ball move around.

There is a really nice pace to the game where each level takes only a few minutes. It is slowing introducing me to how to use the game's controls and idioms, and probably will get harder once they have introduced all the game elements.

The music is really nice, and the GUI is very pretty with a child-like crayon-based feel to it. I highly recommend this game. Go and get it!

Let's Talk about Bathtubs

My bathtub is a lot smarter than I expected. It has a nice little spout thing that doesn't get in your way. The spout can shoot water out to the left or to the right. There is a control panel where you can set the temperature of the water, and the bathtub will re-circulate water to make sure that the water stays at the temperature that you set. More interestingly, you can press a button to have the bathtub fill itself up automatically. It says nice things like "Ok, I'm filling up!" and when it is done it says "Ok! I'm ready and full, let's take a bath!" It plays little songs to encourage you to take a bath. Inviting, warm and nice sounding songs. There are a lot of appliances in my house that play songs, and in my opinion the bathtub is the least demanding and annoying of them all: if you ignore it for a bit, it doesn't start to get on your case about it.

One of the things that really surprised me is that after you take a bath and let the water out, it says something about cleaning, and then starts putting more water into the bathtub. It shoots water around in an attempt to clean the tub for you! My wife got after me because I was actually supposed to take our special bathtub sponge and bathtub cleaner thing and clean it myself, but I was still surprised. Actually, I thought it was starting the robot revolution because even though I had hit the big physical button that opens a drain, the bath decided to counter-mand my orders and started filling itself back up. (Well, it couldn't beat the big wide open drain, but still.)

Finally, if you tell the bath to fill it up but accidentally forget to close the drain it will do its thing for a while, and then tell you the check the tub: "I can't fill up! Check the drain (you moron!)" Then it waits until you close the drain and tell it to fill up again.

Man that thing is smart.

Review of David Gemmel's Legend

While I was busy reading and buying the Caine series of books by Michael Stover Amazon recommended that I read David Gemmell's Legend (Drenai Tales, Book 1), so I added that to my cart to await an opening in my reading schedule.

A few weeks back I started reading Legend, and really enjoyed it. I didn't think the book was as engaging as the Caine series, but it opens with an interesting concept that I hadn't read before: what happens to heroes once they are leavig their prime? This was also the first book I've read by David Gemmell, and I enjoyed it so I have since picked up another book of his, the later written "prequel" to this book, which describes how Druss, the tititular Legend, becomes a legend. The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend (Drenai Tales, Book 6)

The battle scenes are very good, and the world also seems to have some sort of magic system that is, if not entirely explained, at least internally consistent, and used sparingly enough to make magic feel magical and not everyday and ordinary.

I'm excited about reading more books in this series. It seems like a somewhat confusing set of novels: looking at this list of books in the series they seem to be written at different times in different orders, but it is nice to see I have a new source of fantasy novels to mine.

January 8, 2009

Another brief roundup: cheap ebooks, cool indy games, and a neat graphics library

This is another post mostly for myself so I don't lose track of some interesting looking things.

First up, cheap $1 ebooks from Orbit. It looks like this publisher is selling one ebook per month at $1, which is a deal that you can not pass up, even if the books are DRM-encumbered. I'm seriously considering buying at least the first two books, The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, and Ian M. Banks' Use of Weapons, even though I can't DRMd books on my OLPC with FBReader.

I highly recommend Use of Weapons by Ian M. Banks, but you should probably wait until next month to pick it up for $1. I have the paperback sitting right in front of me and I'm still going to buy the ebook.

Next, an interesting looking programming language for visualization and graphics. I wish I had more time to look into stuff like that.

Finally, Game Tunnel's list of 2008 best indy games - I want to check these out when I have more time.

January 3, 2009

Time Capsule Finally Working

So I have had a 500GB Time Capsule for a while. I am really impressed with it as an automated back-up device for Macs. I run two Macs at home, a three-year-old (and a bit) Mac PowerBook G4, a year and a bit old MacBook Pro (Intel, but not the latest all from aluminum one) and have been backing them up to my Time Capsule. When I first brought the Time Capsule home and tried to set up a wireless network, it worked fine for about ten minutes, but eventually the wireless would cut out. Connection attempts from Airport Utility would time out, and the wireless network itself would just disappear. Connecting from a wired connection worked fine though, and since I've been super busy I just chalked it up to one of those things and put the Time Capsule on a separate wireless router. I could still backup using wireless because it was on the same network, but I was limited to b/g speeds.

I recently had a reason to look into fixing this again: the warranty period is coming up in 3 months, and I picked up another Mac (for my wife - maybe I'll post more about that later.) I really wanted to get backups of her machine and my machine. The third G4 PowerBook is used essentially as a TV player connected to the TV, so that isn't too critical.

Anwyay, I took the Time Capsule down to the Apple Store in Shibuya, and after talking with the guys at the Genius bar, they recommended that they swap it out for a new one. That means that I lost the backups I had up until then, but there is no major loss there. They are only backups. I got the new Time Capsule home, and wouldn't you know it, this one works like a charm. The wireless network is 100% solid with WPA2, I backed up 100GB+40GB+70GB or so over wireless, no problems.

I really think the Time Capsule is a nice bit of hardware. First, it is absolutely silent. There is no fan on it (that I know of) and when you don't use the hard disk it spins down eventually and becomes dead silent. I tried to spin down external USB hard drives when they aren't being used under Ubuntu, but I never got them to turn off their fans. The Time Capsule is a lot more quiet than the other two external USB hard drives I have. The 802.11n wireless network is fast - on my MacBook Pro I was getting from 2GB/sec to 3GB/sec throughput on it. (On the PowerBook G4 only up to 1GB, but that doesn't have an 802.11n adapter on it.)

The backup software with OSX Tiger, Time Machine, is just amazing. It takes snapshots on the hour every hour, and has an amazingly pleasant UI to use to restore files. I have a similar sort of script running under linux with rsync and hardlinks, but there is no nice file restoration GUI, and ou can tell when it kicks in. Time Machine is really great because you can sleep the machine in the middle of a backup and it takes care of things gracefully.

So I'm really happy with my Time Capsule, even though it wasn't working for months. When things are covered under the warranty with Apple, you really get great service. I love that you can just make an appointment and walk into a real store and talk to a real person. I always buy the 3 year AppleCare Extended Warranty with Apple machines because having that service is just super useful.

That said, I also have three linux (Ubuntu 8.10, Fedora 10, and some random Ubuntu with XFCE version on the OLPC) machines at home and enjoy working with them also. The Macs are still better for just getting stuff done. I spend more time screwing around with the linux machines that I would like to admit (just look at my most recent posts...!)

Getting Tomoe to recognize Japanese characters in English on Fedora 10

I recently set up Fedora 10 on a ThinkPad X60 laptop, which has worked very well. I'll write about that a bit later I think. There are still some issues with the wireless connecting to a WPA2 network, and the Intel 945GM video drivers are apparently pretty crappy right now due to changes in the underlying architecture, but things are working really well on this small laptop.

One of the things I am interested in using this laptop for is as a Japanese-English dictionary. To that end I installed GWaEi, a Japanese-English dictionary using the Edict files. I had been using GJiten for a long time, but that project hasn't been updated in a while, so I thought I would try something new. (Warning: I had to compile from source, and make a minor change in main.c to have it default to called "/usr/local/bin/gwaei" when re-setting the language variables. A simple change, shouldn't be tough to figure out but feel free to drop a comment if you want more info.)

GWaEi seems to work well.

The other thing I like to do is use Tomoe, a linux-based handwriting recognition engine for Japanese and Chinese characters. It is conveniently available for install via yum. The problem is that after installation, no matter how many strokes I entered no candidates would show up. That is odd. I vaguely remembered that when I installed Tomoe on Ubuntu recently that I had to copy some file.

So, for those facing a similar problem at home: if you want Tomoe to make suggestions when you are running in an English environment, you will have to do something like this:

$ sudo cp /usr/share/tomoe/recognizer/handwriting-ja.xml /usr/share/tomoe/recognizer/handwriting-en.xml

That took care of the problem for me. Yay! Now I can fingerpaint my way to successful Japanese reading.

My next project: see if I can upgrade to the newest version of Ubuntu on the OLPC that I have, and get Tomoe working on that. It is a bit smaller than the X60 and might make a good machine to take to coffee shops. (That isn't really true though: the keyboard on the X60 is vastly superior to the one on the OLPC, but the OLPC has a much better screen for doing lots of ebook reading.)

Anyway, hope that helps someone out there. Jeez, it seems like my entire vacation has been spent on sundry computer things at home.

Our Hatsumode Plan

One thing people like to do in Japan around the New Year is their first shrine visit, the Hatsumode (初詣). I think generally people in Japan visit a temple probably on average 1.8 times a year (this is a wild guess.) Generally, people go to a shrine right after the new year. Then they probably don't go again, unless they have kids at those special ages (3, 5, 7, 20) a wedding, or some other things. I don't really know though.

Anyway, at midnight of the new year people go to shrine. Meiji Jinguu is probably one of the most popular shrines in Japan. It is absolutely packed.

R. wanted to go to Meiji Junguu for our first shrine visit of the year. As a foreigner, I actually go to lots of shrines. They are cool and new to me. R. likes to visit shrines around the country when she travels, so she goes to a few shrines a year also. I haven't really visited Meiji Jingu so I was excited about it.

The interesting thing is that R. had a plan to avoid the crowds. She was working the night shift on the 2nd, so she would get home at about 2:30am or so on the 3rd, then we would go to the Shrine. Awesome! So she got home at about 3:30am, picked me up, and we drove to the shrine.

I like cities late at night. People say that New York is the city that doesn't sleep, but that isn't true. I've walked around New York city last at night, 2am to 5am at various different times. The city does sleep. But it has different rhythms at night. Garbage men are out, people are making deliveries. The roads are less busy, sidewalks are empty. Just seeing what does on behind the scenes while we sleep is interesting. Of course, there are places that people are out and partying or whatever, but those are more the exceptions than the rule. Las Vegas is probably a better example of a city that sleeps less than New York.

So driving around Tokyo late at night was very interesting. I haven't spent as much time out late at night in Tokyo because the mass transit systems shuts down, but I really enjoyed it.

So when we pulled up to the shrine and got out of the car and found out that the temple was closed until 6am, it wasn't a disappointment for me: I had already had a nice time. We went home, and got in bed by 4:30am for some much-needed rest. (I stayed up until R. got home out of a misguided sense of solidarity. Also, I was trying to get WPA2 wireless on Fedora 10 working on a ThinkPad X60.)

Just to be clear, she was pretty sure that the place would be open: it is open 24 hours on New Year's eve / day, and probably should have been open until the 4th or so.

January 2, 2009

MAME Frontends in Ubuntu

I have been interested in getting MAME running on my desktop again. I never got SDLMAME working on Fedora 8 because performance was terrible. For some reason, under Ubuntu with my Intel GMA3100 onboard video things work well enough to play pacman at least (and probably others, SFA2 seemed to work well, but as always SSF2T was too fast) so I wanted to see what the state of MAME Front Ends for linux was. (Oh, also I have to run in the software render mode to get the tab menus to show up, otherwise they are garbage. Once things are set up though I don't need the menus, so back to hardware mode which is fast.)

kxmame doesn't believe me that my sdlmame executable is a MAME executable, it complains that it can't find any MAME instance and errors out. So that is enough time spent on that one.

kamefu refuses to find any of my roms. So that one is out.

wah!cade seems to work, but it uses bitmaps for the default UI and on my 24" monitor I can't read anything. So I stopped play with that for the time being.

Two more I am looking at are Lemon Launcher (probably won't install it unless I can't get AdvancedMenu to work) and AdvanceMENU which is my current best hope. There is a description of the install process here. So far installing AdvanceMENU has been a real pain. this thread has helped me fix a few SDL errors and of course I had to install a lot of stuff to get this to compile.

Once compiled I couldn't get it to run well: I added sdlmame as an xmame emulator, and had to make some init files for that. But it would freeze when trying to launch a program. I am now checking on the configuration used by Piapara, a bootable ISO that runs advancemenu and sdlmame to see what they use. To do that I had to create a boot cd, mount the iso in a loopback filesystem, then mount the app.img in a loopback filesystem. Finally, the relevant setup info they use is:

emulator "MAME" mame "/usr/bin/mame" "-inipath /mnt/pendrive/sdlmame/ini"
emulator_roms "MAME" "/mnt/cdrom/sdlmame/roms"
emulator_flyers "MAME" "/mnt/cdrom/sdlmame/flyers"
emulator_altss "MAME" "/mnt/cdrom/sdlmame/snap"
So they set up the emulator as a mame emulator. Ok. I'll try that.

Also, a new discovery: using the sdlmame option -gl_forcepow2texture fixes the menu corruption bug that I was seeing. So yay for that! Actually on further investigation I also needed to set the filter to 0 and (remove bilinear filtering from output, which makes things look more pixelated and better anyway) and enable gl_glsl in the sdlmame config. It seems to be working well now.

I haven't got advancemenu to work though. I have all these great artwork cabinet and screenshot files, but I can't get advancemenu to launch sdlmame. Ah well. That is enough time spent on that today.

Annoyingly Super Street Fighter II Turbo still runs too fast. Tapper runs well though, so that is good enough.

January 1, 2009

Spinning down external USB hard drives on Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex

So I recently switched to Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex from Fedora 8 for no real good reason. Anyway, I have two external 500GB drives that I use for backup, accessing about once a day or so. I would like for those external USB drives to spin down when I am now using them. How can I get that to happens?

Generally, it looks like you can use the sg3-utils package to do that. First, install the package:

$ sudo apt-get install sg3-utils
To do this right you should probably make sure that your hard drives show up in predictable places. The best way I know to do that is to set a label on the partition, and then it should mount in /media/LABEL. So here is a good article on how to rename external USB hard drives. I saved the script at the URL above as /usr/local/scsi-idle and following along:
$ mount
(note that sdc1 has mostly TV shows, sdd has my other data)
$ sudo umount /dev/sdc1
$ sudo umout /dev/sdd1 
(name both partitions appropriately - one partition per drive)
$ sudo e2label /dev/sdc1 BackupTV
$ sudo e2label /dev/sdd1 BackupData
Then power cycle the drives. Check that they show up as expected:
$ mount
/dev/sdc1 on /media/BackupTV type ext3 (rw,nosuid,nodev,uhelper=hal)
/dev/sdd1 on /media/BackupData type ext3 (rw,nosuid,nodev,uhelper=hal)
That looks good to me. I also added to /etc/local.rc
# added by devans to spin down external disks.                                                            
# See http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=560958&page=3                                              
# and the related wiki entry https://help.ubuntu.com/community/ExternalDriveStandby                       
# Spin down any external SCSI drives after "X" seconds:                                                   
/usr/local/bin/scsi-idle 900 &
which should take care of that. Just for this first time, I ran it myself: $ sudo /usr/local/bin/scsi-idle 900 & While that did work ok, it only spun down the hard disks. It did not go the extra step of shutting down the fans on the hard drives, so they are about as noisy as they were before. Still, at least they are spun down now. I set the drives to their "auto" setting, but it looks like that will only kick-in and shut them down when they are unmounted, which I do not want to do.

December 30, 2008

Wedding Rings

R's friend Mibe Atsushi makes jewelry for a living. Months ago we commissioned him to make our wedding rings. We aren't quite doing things traditionally: I proposed with a necklace because R. can't wear rings at work, but could get away with a necklace. Sometimes. Instead of a traditional (in America) gold wedding band, she wanted something more unique. Also, in Japan the wedding band is always platinum so that is what we went with. Mibe came up with a lot of designs and we looked through a bunch of books and finally settled on this design. I like it because I wanted a nice simple ring that was symmetric. R. wanted a common theme between the designs, so I have 12 gems mounted on the side of the ring where they won't flash at me. She has a few more on her ring, which looks pretty and girly. My ring looks manly and strong. Or so I tell myself.

Also, I wanted to make a joke about playing D&D so I know that platinum is better than gold when it comes to trying to bargain with shop-keepers to buy that +1 sword of cutting, but I figured a totally geeky joke like that had no place in a serious blog post about important serious wedding stuff. So I didn't make the joke.

December 28, 2008

Two Christmas Dinners

Dinner with the in-laws

The 23rd was a national holiday in Japan for the Emperor's Birthday. It was also coming up on Christmas, so we got together with the in-laws for dinner. We usually get together once a week for a weekly dinner, so this isn't an unusual occurrence, but for the occasion R. and I drove out over the weekend and bought a turkey. You don't see those too often in Japan so we had to go out to Kinokunia to buy one. Because of the New Year's holiday R's little sister also came up and brought her daughter Yuzuna, who is super cute at a bit over 1 year old.

R. spent the day at her grandmother's working on the turkey stuffing and other dishes. By the time I showed up, the table was set and we were ready for dinner. We started things out with some champagne and then dug into the turkey. The turkey, named Nanami-chan by R., was very juicy and delicious. Maybe I just thought so because I went to a lot of trouble to drive out and get it, but still. I brought along some brownies, and R's sister made a nice cake.

I made a joke about this being a "Traditional Imperial Birthday Dinner", but the only response I got was "oh, that's right today is the Emperor's birthday", so maybe that isn't a holiday that people are all that worked up about.

We took home some of the leftover turkey, but haven't had a chance to work on it yet. It was nice spending time with the family, but I wish I could see my family back in the US as well. It is a little tough though when they are a 12+ hour flight away. I've been making do with email and phone calls though. I had been told that Christmas in Japan is usually a holiday for couples, and not so much the big family extravaganza that we have in the states, so it was nice to spend time with everyone here. New Year's is coming up fast, and that really is the all-family all-the-time holiday so I'm sure I'll get plenty of family time in the next week.

Xmas Eve Dinner at Coucagno

On Christmas Eve R. and I headed out to Coucagno, a nice French Restaurant in the Cerulean Tower for dinner. Last year we went to the New York Grill in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku for a very, very nice dinner. Since we have done the same thing for a second year in a row, I think now we have started a family tradition. I have to start thinking of where to go next year. I need to find a nice restaurant up high in a tower with a nice view for next year. Figuring the expansion rate of Tokyo and how often they build new skyscrapers, I don't think we'll run out of candidates for a long time.

In this case, we were up on the 39th floor of the Cerulean tower and had a great view of Shibuya. The dinner started with a nice appetizer, Regina Caviar, Sea Urchin Mousse, and Sea Bream Tartar. The mousse was a bit strange, but it was a good appetizer. The first course was a Foie Gras course shaped like a Christmas tree. The toasted bread was great, but the Foie Gras was a bit strong. I've had it a few times before, and generally thought that the flavor is a bit strong for the cost. An acquired taste I guess. I still happily ate the dish up: it might not be something that I would make at home, but I'm happy to eat it when it is done well at a nice restaurant.

The second course was interesting on a linguistic note. It was a lobster and shrimp dish, but when I was talking with the waiter, he called them both 海老, Shrimp. I'm a big fan of delicious foods, and lobster hits that category for me. I was a bit surprised to hear them both called shrimp, because as far as I know big things with claws aren't called shrimp in English. I could very well be wrong though. I would have thought that they were both crustaceans, but maybe in Japanese shrimp is that larger category. Anyway, no matter what you call it, the lobster was totally delicious. The shrimp was great too. I could have used more of both.

The third course was a nice steak course. The steak was very small, very tender, and delicious. Compared to the dinner last year, this one had smaller portions and that actually worked out very well: last year I felt like I was going to explode. This year I felt a lot better, and much less explodey. The steak was really tender and just excellent. The potatoes of various types were really great too: I definitely could have used more of those. I'm a big fan of mashed potatoes though.

There was a small dessert which was some sort of orange sherbert or something, and then a nice cake. The cake was also great, and followed by coffee, which included three types of things that were too sweet for their own good. They would have been better if they were chocolatey sweet, but they were all fruity sweet.

A day or two before Christmas Eve, Mibe Atsushi, R's friend who makes jewlery, finished the rings that we commissioned and brought them to us. I would link to Mibe's website, but he doesn't have one yet. I'm supposed to look into that and get a website built for him. So keep your eyes open for that. I'll put up a few more pictures of our rings in a bit, but there is one shot in this set with R. and I wearing our rings.

Hitler Clause?

Finally, there was a strange ice scultpture that was trying to get people into the Christmas Spirit, but looking at it just made me think of the Hitler salute thing. It was really strange. I'm not really sure what they were thinking. But it creeps me out. So of course I took a few pictures.

December 27, 2008

Real American Brownies

This isn't really something that deserves a blog post, but it gets one anyway. The other day I made brownies for the first time in Japan that actually came out correctly. I made them in my convection oven - one of the first times I've used it to actually bake something instead of using it just as a microwave - and they turned out great. I cut the cooking time by about five minutes, but they turned out great. I haven't used a convection oven before, and it seems like they cook things a bit quicker. That's cool by me.

Sat down to actually make the things, I freaked out a bit: the recipe called for the oven to heat up to 350 degrees or so, but my oven couldn't even reach 200!! What am I going to do!? Oh, I'll convert to Celsius because that is what my over runs. Doh! After that brilliant observation (this is why mars probes go boom people) things went great.

I brought the brownies to work and put a sign saying "Merry Christmas!" but throughout the day nobody was taking them. In fact, someone had put the lid back on the tupperware because I guess the brownies were too smelly. R. was telling me that the brownies are too sweet, and Japanese people wouldn't like them. Fine, that's just more for me! When I came back the next morning though, only one was left. I guess people just had to get hungry before they tried them.

I enjoyed those brownies so much that I'm going to make some more right now.

Review of Wall-E in Japan

A few weeks ago, R. and I went to a movie. I used to love going to see movies in New York - and I still do love to see movies, but since coming to Japan I haven't had the time or the money. Movies here are super expensive. A ticket for a movie costs usually about $18. If you get food though, it is a lot cheaper than in the US, so that is a benefit. Also they sell beer, which is nice. I have really enjoyed Pixar's movies so when I heard that Wall-E was coming out in Japan I knew I wanted to take R. to see it. I love robots! And Pixar movies are cute! We can't go wrong!

So I'm sure many people have reviewed this movie before, but I'll put in my two cents. It is a really great movie. Cute and fun. A bit of a scathing comment on commercialization, consumerism, and apathy. It is also just a really cute movie. After the movie we bought matching Wall-E and Eve phone straps, which worked out well because my old phone strap, a little Kubrick Bear Star Wars trooper, had lost both his legs in the line of duty. So now we've got cute matching phone straps.

It was also surprising to me that I could (if I was the unscrupulous type) download a Blu-Ray rip of Wall-E before the movie came out in theaters in Japan if I had wanted. That is crazy! Release these things more quickly in Japan people!

So, a short review that amounts to: good movie!

December 24, 2008

Amazon Web Services CTO interview / award

There is an interesting article over at Information Week picking Amazon's Werner Vogels as CTO of the year. I really like the IT / web services stuff that Amazon is doing, and this is a great introduction to some of that stuff that is easy to understand for non-developers.

I wish I had a bit more time myself to look into using Amazon's cloud computing and storage services. I was thinking of using them as off-site backup for my home server, but when I looked at the massive amount of data I would need to backup (about a terabyte) and thought about how important it was to me (not important at all - about 95% of the data is just TV shows that wouldn't hurt me if they disappeared) the cost was too high. So I just bought 1TB of external hard drives and will back up that way.

Still, at some point I want to look into using some of the storage and cloud computing stuff. It would be fun to do just as an interesting programming exercise.

December 23, 2008

Jogging around the park

It has been a while, but I had time today on my day off (Happy Imperial Birthday Day everyone!) to go for a nice jog. I did my normal 6.8km loop around the park across the river, and brought my camera since it is daytime. I took a few pictures of the random stuff in the park and then probably too many pictures of our apartment building across the river.

There are a bunch of other joggers in the park, and a few dog walkers usually. There are also lots of people fishing. Do they really get fish? Is the fish good? I can't imagine that they can be all that great, but I don't know much about fishing. There are some random statues in the park and some sort of museum thing that I am curious about. There's also a big baseball (well, small) stadium, a horse track across the river, a bunch of bridges, and generally it is a nice run. The only problem is that half the run is fun, the other half is along a feeder road for the highway, so it isn't so good. I could try to run through the more residential areas near the road, but the sidewalk by the road is nice and straight and well-paved so that usually wins. It is harder to get lost on also.

The job by the river is nice, especially near the end when I can see my apartment building on the way back. The monorail runs by every once in a while and is pretty cool too. I really like this park across the river. I should check out the facilities that they have. I know they have tennis courts and baseball fields, but they do not have basketball courts. I did check with the ward office and there aren't any basketball courts within walking distance. Dang.

The Baen Free Library and a bit on DRM ebooks

I'm sure that I've pointed out a few books from the Baen Free Library before, in particular the the books by Rick Cook, which are interesting to computer science people and fantasy people (or possibly only the intersection of the two.)

I've been meaning to go through and download other books from the site - I have read a few which led to some paper book purchases, but never took the time to get all the books there. I finally had a bit of time today and wrote up a quick Perl/LWP script to go through and download the books and covers. I'll throw them on my OLPC later on today, but I really get a kick out of browsing the covers. OSX does a nice job of browsing stuff like that when it is all thrown into a directory together.

I haven't read much out of the free library yet, so I can't provide any recommendations other than the above (which realistically is limited to a pretty small audience) but I encourage you to check out the library. I also like Baen's Webscriptions service. It is really great to get DRM-free ebooks, because you can transfer them to other devices.

I started out reading ebooks on my Handspring Visor. I then moved what I could over to my Treo 600, and now I primarily read on my OLPC with FBReader. There were some DRM'd books that I was not able to move across. I try to make sure from here on out that the books that I buy do not have DRM (digital rights management, but more realistically digital restrictions management) so that I can make sure that as technology progresses I can keep reading the books I've bought. Real books don't have this problem: when you buy a real book, you can keep reading it and you do not need to ask permission from a publisher or content provider to move the book to a new device. Maybe a good analogy would be if you buy a book, and the publisher stipulates that you can only read the book in the house you live in when you bought it. If you move, you have to give the book up.

That is just terrible. I know it is tough for publishers to publish DRM free books because they are worried about copying and re-distribution, but that is not my problem. Don't assume I am a criminal (I am not) and don't make things difficult for me because of what other people do. Usually there are provisions or ways for the company to re-license your book for new hardware, but there are problems with that too: what happens if the company goes out of business? You won't be able to move to new devices then. I know that I have read books that are over 40 years old, and I would like to be able to do that with ebooks. Even without that scenario, why am I required to get permission from some entity to do things that should be entirely within my rights (format, place, or time shifting) with data that I bought? It is ridiculous.

I really want an Amazon Kindle, but I am also worried about the DRM that they place on their books. I am sure that Amazon will be around for a long time, but what if I want to read things on my kindle and on my computer? (Probably wouldn't happen since the e-ink screens are much nicer than LCDs IMHO.) I'm sure in 20 years though there will be some other great device that I would like to use for reading, and if books have DRM on them I can't be sure that I would be able to do that. Paper books are better in that regard, but I just don't have the room I need to store lots of those, so I would really like to move to digital books.

So for now I will stick to DRM-free books. I might also start buying DRM'd books if I can find a way to remove the DRM from them - I know there are some programs around that can try to do that, so maybe that would work too. I'm not interested in copying and re-distributing books, I am just interested in being able to use my data freely. One reason MP3s are so popular is because people can use them how they want to use them, and don't have to worry about DRM issues.

Well, rant mode off. If you are interested in DRM and computer games, I recommend reading Shamus Young's Twenty Sided blog, which touches on DRM issues. And Shamus is generally an interesting guy that writes well about all sorts of stuff.

Driving in Tokyo, buying turkeys, and Eeden Mall

This weekend, R. and needed to go and buy a turkey because we are planning to cook a nice traditional (for Christmas, which is what R. thinks I need) turkey dinner for the Emperor's Birthday, which is the holiday that we get off that is near Christmas time. I'm pretty sure we are the only people that will be preparing a turkey dinner for the Emperor's birthday, but that is fine by me. Anyway, in order to get a turkey, we had to go somewhere to buy one. Since turkeys are not really all that popular around here, the only place I know of that sells turkeys is high end grocery stores, andKinokunia is one of them.

This weekend both R. and I have time off - a rarity - and so she wanted to go for a drive. I'm now officially a "paper driver", which means that I have a Japanese license, but I am not prepared or able to really drive in Japan. I've been driving in Japan twice, more or less: once for the driving test (which I failed once, then I went and took some lessons and passed the second time) and then when I drove to Fuji Rock a few months back. That was scary and dangerous for everyone involved. But I'm not a quitter, and more importantly, R. wants me to drive and when R. wants something, I've learned that it is best to help her get what she wants.

So we decided to kill two birds with one stone, and go drive down to the the Todoroki Kinokunia near my old stomping grounds of Jiyugaoka and buy a turkey, then keep going on down to Fujisawa to pick up R's younger sister and her niece. That is about an hour drive, and is worrying for me, but we hopped in the car and took off. We made it more or less safely toKinokunia , but parking was a problem. I ended up ignoring the GPS system to my own peril, tried to enter a do-not-enter driveway, and had to keep going. I eventually found a nice parking lot that was forKinokunia customers and free, but a bit farther off than the one that I was aiming for.

Once parked, it was a bit past noon, so R. and I decided to get some food. I used to hang around these parks, so I knew that the "Fukazawa Eeden Mall" was nearby. It is a little shopping district that time has passed by more or less: it is kind of far away from the station, and not really convenient to anywhere, so not many people are shopping there. I used to stop by there sometimes for lunch or dinner, but not too often because there really isn't anything great there, but thought we would take the 5 minute walk to check it out.

Surprisingly there was a new restaurant there: Palmetto, a Western (like cowboy) themed place. They specialized in hamburgers, and I was shocked to see that they had honest-to-god real pepsi in a glass bottle. It was great. The burger was pretty good too. I wouldn't say you should go out of your way to get a burger there, but if you are in the area, it is a good burger and nice little joint. There was a cute 12 or 13 year old helping out at the place, and it looked like one of his little (girl) friends from school came by and they were chatting while he was back in the kitchen and her mom chatted with one of the cooks. Doing a quick search on the web, this person is a friend of the person who opened the shop up in 2008-08 some time.

After lunch, we checked out the turkey selection at Kinokunia and picked up one that I hope will fit in our small oven. I also bought all 4 packs of Bettery Crocker Brownie mix that they had. And R. yelled at me for buying too much brownie mix.

Then we drove down to Fujisawa. It took a bit over an hour. I didn't hit anything. We picked up R's little sister and her super cute niece. Then we drove back. Things went mostly well, except for the one time that I completely blanked out and almost drove through an interestion. I was worried about the right turn I had to make and was thinking about that, and forgot to check if the signal at the intersection was, you know, signaling me to stop. Luckily R. yelled at me in time and was able to screech to a halt. I swear it wouldn't have happened in the states because I wouldn't have been worried about trying to make sure that I stayed in the correct lane when I cross traffic. I actually probably would have seen the light in time to stop myself, but having someone else in the car who believes she is about to die and will yell out warnings at the drop of a hat can be useful also.

Driving on the highways is fine, but is very expensive here. I think for approximately two hours on the road we spent about $40 in tolls. I don't want to even think about the gas. The local roads in Tokyo are a lot more scary for me than the highways. I hope I'll have more time in the coming months to go out for drives and get used to things, I'm starting to think that I might be able to manage this.

Luckily the train system is so good here that I don't really have any reason to drive, but as long as I got the license I should try to use it.

December 21, 2008

Review of Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshalle, and Caine Black Knife

A while back I subscribed to John Scalzi's "Whatever" blog and I saw his Big Idea column on Matthew Stover's new Caine Black Knife book. I read the first bit of the column, but then quit because it sounded interesting and I didn't want to have the books ruined for me. If you plan on getting the books my suggestion is to go in cold, because it is quite a ride when you don't know what is coming.

What really surprised me is that I went in thinking that these were fantasy books. It says right on the cover "A Fantasy Novel", which I thought was pretty strange. What sort of novel needs to proclaim on the cover what it is? Usually these categorizations are fairly straightfoward and you don't need to try to convince the readers what kind of book you are. (Well, that probably isn't true, but just from a straight consumer point of view, I hadn't seen something like that before.)

When I got the first book - available from Amazon Japan! - I put it on my pile of books and eventually got around to starting it. I read the back cover, and started to get a bit depressed: according to the back of the book, this was actually a sci-fi / fantasy combo type book that uses a device that I've really just grown sick of lately: the concept of alternate worlds. This concept is all over the place, I probably first ran into with Piers Anthony's Xanth series when I was a kid, and then the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (I didn't realize that that series was still ongoing) and it pops up all over the place really. I'm just sick of it. I don't like this idea of a real world and a fantasy world. If you are going to do alternate worlds, I have a hard time seeing how you can do it better than Roger Zelazny and maybe I'm just tiring of the whole idea. It seems to be popping up in video games a lot too, from Zelda the Twilight Princess to the more recent Metroid game and a whole bunch of Silent Hill games (but I haven't played many games lately, so I'm just getting that from reviews and other stuff I see on the web.)

I would rather have a story in a well-developed world rather than one that marginalizes one world or the other, or is a ridiculous escapist fantasy about escaping a boring real life and going into some exciting alternate reality (.hack and persona are two more that annoy me in that way.)

So I was really expecting to hate Heroes Die. I expected that I would put it down after ten pages, and regret buying.

I was wrong. The book completely sucked me in. I don't know if it was the characters, which are great, or the subtle undertones (or not-so-subtle as the case may be) of existential philosophy and commentary on totalitarian regimes and the "bread and circus" trap, but I really, really enjoyed these novels. I had to go out of my to track down a copy of Blade of Tyshalle, which was hard for me to get in Japan but one of the Amazon.com third party merchants shipped it to me no problem ($25 for a paperback though, a bit expensive!) and luckily Caine Black Knife is also available on the Amazon Japan site. I went through each of these books in about a week, reading snatches here and there. I think I even got my wife angry at me once because I pulled the book out while we were waiting for a train, which apparently wasn't the correct ending for an otherwise romantic evening seeing the movie Wall-E.

I just finished reading "Caine Black Knife" three days ago and I'm disappointed that the second volume isn't out yet. I hope that it will be out soon, but knowing how these things go it will be a while.

The good news is that it looks like "Heroes Die" and "The Blade of Tyshalle" will be put out in ebook form soon - I am looking forward to that so I can add them to my growing ebook collection so re-reads can be done on my ebook reader, currently but I'm hoping to get if they ever release a version for Japan. I keep asking the digital contents guys if that will happen, but they haven't given me a straight answer yet. :)

So, in summary: go and buy Heroes Die and the other two Caine books. They are really great. I should mention that they are really violent, and have some philosophical discussions about free will and the nature of man. The violence makes those sections a bit easier to bear for some people, I'm sure. :)

December 17, 2008

Switching to Ubuntu from Fedora

So last week I broke my Fedora 8 box. It was a shame really, there was no reason for my machine to break. There was one problem with the video card, a kernel panic and reboot. That was the first time since I replaced the power supply that went bad that the machine had any trouble. Since the new version of Fedora, Fedora 10, has come out I thought I would take this chance to upgrade.

I usually have pretty good luck doing upgrades with linux, so I didn't think much about it this time. Unfortunately, that was a mistake. For some reason Fedora 10 ships with a version of Xorg that isn't compatible with the binary driver from AMD for my HD2400 card. It wasn't even worth trying to keep using the system with Vesa, radeon, or radeonhd drivers because it was just terribly slow. I thought this wouldn't be a huge problem, because I can fall back onto the built in Intel 3100 graphics chip. It is a kind of sucky chip, but works. It also has a great open source driver that supports 3d, and plays video well enough for me to get by with until AMD releases drivers that work with the new Xorg server.

Unfortunately, for some reason, there was a bug with the Intel driver on Fedora 10 or (my install of it), and I couldn't get that to work. At that point it looked like things were going from bad to worse, so I decided to back up all my data. I had to pick up another external drive, but after about 24 hours of copying in single user mode everything from /home and /data (the two places where I keep most of my data - I forgot to get /var though, which lost me my Amarok library stat data via the mysql DBs it uses!) and then installed Fedora 9.

Fedora 9 didn't give me any joy either.

So now I'm getting frustrated. I haven't watched the Daily Show for 4 days now. And this useless expensive hunk of metal is laughing at me from across the room. So I decided I would try to install Windows on it, just to see what life in the world of well-supported video card drivers is like. I had a copy of Windows XP that I bought a while ago, and that installed but it sucked. I had to do completely remove all linux partitions from the machine to get it to even recognize the hard drives. And it would only install on one of the hard drives. Also, no driver support off the default image. I had to download and install a whole bunch of drivers for the Gigabyte ga-g33m-s2h motherboard that I have, and then things seemed ok. I tried to do a windows update, but it started giving me a lot of grief about "Windows Genuine Advantage" and I decided that I didn't need all that trouble (it was a legal student copy that I bought a while back, I have used it to install on another machine whose recovery disk I lost, etc.) so I gave up on windows.

So I decided I would take a look at Ubuntu. I've heard good things about Ubuntu so I thought I would give that a try. I installed the regular desktop edition and everything went well with that. It installed very easily actually, and picked up my GMA3100 video card fine (I didn't try with the HD2400 card) and it performed well: I could play video well and have desktop effects turned on. I kind of missed the yum functionality of Fedora, but Ubuntu has apt-get which is just as good. More or less.

The only problem is that Ubuntu does not have any LVM support with the normal installer. So I initially set things up on sda to see how it went, and it went well. Then I decided that I would stick with Ubuntu for a while to see how things go, but if I am going to do that, I really want to use LVM so I can bond the 2 internal 500gig drives together into a unified /home directory. I also want to be able to put other installs at a separate logical volume so next time I upgrade things will go so crazy.

Anyway, here is an excellent guide to setting up LVMs on Ubuntu. The Fedora installer for LVM stuff is nicer - in graphical mode, I didn't try their text version - and I will miss some of the other neat stuff about Fedora (pulse audio probably, maybe some other stuff.) So far though, I have had really good luck with Ubuntu and getting it running as I like. It will take another day or two to re-copy the data, and then probably another week or two while I try to find out everything I missed (lost the MySQL database for Amarok so my music library stats are all gone) - I need to set up a webserver and stuff, I just set up Azureus (Vuze now?) with RSS feed eating capability for automatic TV downloading, and stuff like that.

Ubuntu is looking pretty good though.

December 14, 2008

I need to back up data more often

Friday night my desktop linux machine crashed. That is pretty unusual: it usually runs 24x7 for months at a time. I have had one or two crashes recently due to the video drivers (I guess) because basically the video goes out, but I can still ssh in from another machine and the desktop is still alive. I've been running Fedora 8 for a long time on it, and haven't been able to get updates lately due to some broken packages and wonky yum state I got the machine into. I haven't really had time to try to fix it, and just figured that I would upgrade to Fedora 10 when that came out.

Well, Fedora 10 came out, and my machine was giving me problems, so I thought I would do an upgrade. I downloaded the DVD, threw it in and started the process.

The install went fine, but there were problems with the video card drivers. I had been using the binary drivers from AMD for my Radeon HD2400 (card of some sort) and they worked well for playing video. I never could get video to work with compiz, so I didn't have pretty whiz-bang effects, but that was fine because I could watch videos on the machine, which is basically what it is for.

The problem was that I couldn't get the HD2400 card to display the screen right. I read up on stuff, and it turns out that the newest version of the drivers hasn't been updated for Fedora 10 and lots of people are having problems with those drivers now. Great. Well, I can always fall back to the onboard Intel G31 (I think?) video card. Unfortunately, that gave me a different just as fatal problem: there are some strange messages in the log about the X server going into some sort of infinite loop. It basically locks the screen. I couldn't manage to get that working either.

So I am now in a state with that machine where I can't boot it graphically. It will run fine in text mode. That isn't very useful for watching videos. Things were working great with Fedora 8, but I had borked the install a bit, and now it is out of support anyway. So I am now planning to move back to Fedora 9, but I can't downgrade without wiping all the data on the hard disk. This is a problem because I've got a LVM install binding two 500gig drives together, and they are not backed up. About 800gig is video and user data that I want to keep. Another 100gig of system data that I don't care too much about. But no backups.

Well, I have a 500gig external drive, and just bought another 500gig external, and in single user mode I am now backing up the machine. It looks like it will take about 24 hours to do a backup using the tar copy trick (I can at least see what files are being copied that way: "tar cf - . | (cd /mnt/backup/data && tar xBfv -)")

It is super slow. I would like to use dd or something, but because I'm using LVM the sizes don't work out so that I can mirror the partitions. I don't know the intricacies of dd anyway. At least I'll get a backup of all my data now (one of the drives I had was firewire, the new one is only USB. The firewire drive was a lot quicker.) Also when I re-install Fedora 9 (because driver support still isn't there for 10) I will do a smarter partitioning: put /home and /data on their own mount points in the LVM so that future installs can blow the other stuff away and leave that data intact.

Actually, I'm still not clear on the best use of LVM. Should I make a second LVM LogVolume group just for /home and /data? That sounds like it would be safer to me, because then I could make multiple LogVolume groups for different installs if I wanted to, and blow away the whole thing on an upgrade. But LVM is still a somewhat confusing concept for me. I understand what it is doing, I do not understand practically what are the best ways to set things up to keep your data safe. I had a different problem with LVMs once where the LVM itself went corrupt, and basically I just had to kiss that machine goodbye.

I think I can use my standard rsync trick for backups from here on out, but Apple makes this so much easier with Time Machine.

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