geek(n): An intelligent, eccentric person with an interest in the perceptibly useless and esoteric.
asylum(n): 1) A place offering protection and safety; a shelter.
2) An institution for the care of those requiring organized supervision.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Call Of Juarez

I dont play a lot of games - I have too many projects, and games always seem to take up a lot of valuable time. Thats not to say I dont enjoy a good gaming session whenever I have the chance. A couple of favourites over the years have included Neverwinter Nights (looking forward to playing the sequel too), and Freelancer. Ive also played the original DOOM, Quake, and Ureal First Person Shooter (FPS) games (and the sequals, and the multi-player deathmatches etc) and really enjoyed them.

So anyway, Im building a new PC for 3D modelling. Having tried out the new AMD X2 Dual core processors and Nvidia SLI graphics on the PVR, I wanted the new machine to be built for graphics power and speed. I was not looking for a new game to play. Really.

The Gigabyte 7600GS graphics cards that I bought included the new game "Call Of Juarez" to show off the cards capabilities. I figured it was just a crappy bundled demo, and pretty much ignored it. Finally I decided to load it up to try out the Dual GPU SLI mode, and see what it could do. I was amazed not only by the graphics appearing on my screen, but by the game itself. The new machine gave me a frame rate of around 60 fps on a single card, before I enabled SLI mode, so I figure Im probably getting almost double that now - way overkill, but I havnt benchmarked it yet.

Call Of Juarez is awesome!. At first, I didnt expect to get into it, since the Western style isnt really my thing, but as I played it drew me further and further into it, to the point where I just had to write this review.

Call Of Juarez is based on the old classic western genre of movies such as "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" or "Fistful of Dollars" where the west is a hard and dirty place, and justice is served swiftly with a Colt 45. It is set near the Mexican border and features all of the classic things you would expect from a great western - Indians, hold ups, train robberies, quickdraw duels, outlaws, the wrongly accused hero, and of course the righteous gunslinger.

Whats most impressive about Call Of Juarez is the attention to detail in every aspect. Not only does the game look and feel like a Western movie, but all of the expected First Person Shooter features are there, plus a few innovative additions, such as a "bullet-time" mode which represents the seasoned gunslinger's advantage over the common outlaws. All of the classic weaponry has been faithfully reproduced, from the basic whip to the classic Colt 45 and Winchester rifle, and even a Gattling Gun, which you get to play with for a while.

The scenery and characters did not escape the level of detail applied to the rest of the game. The characters are superbly modelled with a hard and chiselled appearance from their life on the plains. The scenery is brilliant with water, grass, and even heat haze all realistic and believable. The overall look is enhanced by the superb cinematography - every scene is picture perfect, adding to the whole movie-like experience. The game's engine is the best I have seen so far, for its versatility and ability to create many unique features and challenges.

At times, I was surprised by the level of violence and blood unfolding before me. Even here the detail is high. At one point while walking to a nearby farmhouse, I was attacked by a wolf, and having almost killed it with a swift crack of my whip, I watched it quiver for a minute or so until it finally died - not a pleasant experience, but one that highlights the level of realism that this game has achieved.

Game play alternates between Billy, the young hero, who is falsely accused of murdering his own family, and the Reverend Ray, who is Billy's uncle, and seeking revenge for the death of his brother. Billy must try to escape, while Reverend Ray, a former gunslinger who has reverted to his old ways, tracks him every step of the way. Often their paths cross briefly, though usually via a slightly different route.

At first, I enjoyed playing Billy - figuring out who he was, learning how to control the game, and solving all of the challenges to advance through the levels. When the game first switched me to Reverend Ray, I really missed him, but the more I played as the gunslinging reverend, the more I enjoyed his character, and realised that he probably wasnt as bad as Billy thought he was. Now, its hard to switch back to being Billy again.

Im about half way through the game at present, and can't wait to get back to it.

You can buy Call Of Juarez via the official web site - its a bargain at only $US30, or get it like I did, for free, with a Gigabyte 7600GS PCI-Express SLI video card.

Highly Recommended

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Encoding Digital TV

Ok, so it took me a while... I finally realised that because the HTPC is going to be all about digital TV, I dont need an encoder card. I guess I was still buzzed by all the good reviews I read about the Haupage PVR-350 (which includes a hardware MPEG encoder because it is an analog TV card).

Digital TV is already digitally encoded (Duh!) so the data stream is simply written directly to the disk.

Still, a hardware MPEG encoder might be useful for transcoding into other MPEG formats, but the dual core CPU should be able to handle that without assistance.

Im still learning about video and the various codecs and formats, and it is all starting to fall into place. I have a lot of experience with Linux (since 1991) and computers in general (since 1979) but video is something I havnt played with before.

Ive been shopping, and will post more on that soon.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

More HTPC thoughts

Now that the shopping list for this stage of the project is complete, ive been reading whatever I can about MythTV and general tips and tricks. I cant wait to buy the next lot of parts tomorrow, and really wish the hardware was all assembled and working so that I could get on with tinkering with the software that will be installed eventually.

In my research Ive discovered that the DVICO dual DVB-T tuner card that I want outputs one tuner via the PCI slot, and the other via an internal USB connector. I wrote last time about the USB connectors on the motherboard, and my need for more than the usual two (dual) internal connectors. Luckily after the 4 front panel USB connectors and the VFD are connected to the motherboard, I will still have one more internal USB port left. I will use that for the dual tuner card's USB output. I guess in a pinch I could add a mini USB hub to the inside of the case somewhere, to add some extra internal ports.

It also occurred to me that the Haupage PVR-350 is probably an analog TV card. I couldnt find any info which specifically said that it is or isnt, but I assume that if it was digital (DVB-T), the specs would say so. Thats a problem because the analog TV reception around here is rubbish, and digital TV is much clearer to begin with.

I still want a hardware MPEG encoder (one of the PVR-350 features that I was looking forward to) but I may have to do without it, or try and find a decent digital tuner card which includes a working encoder. With the dual core AMD64 X2 CPU, I probably wont miss it too much, but it would be nice to have. The motherboard only has two standard PCI slots, and they are reserved for the tuner cards - I have been quite surprised that I have not yet found a digital tuner card on a PCI-Express board - they all still seem to be on standard PCI cards, but that should change as PCI-Express makes a wider impact.

Friday, October 06, 2006

HTPC Shopping List

I've saved up a bit more money, and spent this week making a shopping list for the next lot of HTPC parts. It took me a while to settle on a motherboard, but the list is finally finished, and I'll be buying as much as I can on Monday.

Im going with an AMD64 X2 dual core 4600+ CPU in a Gigabyte M55SLI-S4 motherboard. I was originally drawn to the M59SLI-S5, but didnt need the dual gigabit ethernet, so I quickly downgraded it to an S4. Then I started tossing up whether I needed SLI or not, but the clincher was the 3 USB connectors on the SLI motherboards, as opposed to only two on the non-SLI models. I finally settled on the slightly older M55 board, which is about half the price of the other two. I may still buy the M59SLI-S4.

Having 3 internal USB connectors means that the board will integrate with the LC20M case, which has 4 USB ports on the front panel (requiring 2 internal connectors) and a USB VFD which also needs an internal USB connector. I dont want to have a couple of dead USB ports on the front panel, and I really dont want to run the VFD cable out of the case and plug it into one of the 4 external USB ports on the back (which Ive seen done before in some LC20M reviews). Going that little extra for the SLI motherboard solves the problem, and choosing the older board keeps the price about the same as a current non-SLI board.

I wont be using the SLI features to begin with, so Ive chosen a Nvidia 7300GS based video card without SLI. Its cheap and will do the job, and later I can replace it with a pair of SLI capable cards. One reason for this choice is that I couldnt find many SLI cards around, and the ones I did find were all expensive. This way I can wait a while until there are more around and the price comes down a bit.

Im adding 1Gb (2 x 512Mb) of 533Mhz generic DDR2 memory, which will take advantage of the dual channel DDR2 slots, a Silverstone ST60F 600W modular power supply, with SLI outlets, and a pair of Liteon SHM-165P6S DVD-RW Dual Layer drives. These drives were highly recommended in the reviews I read, and have the bonus of being easily flashed.

So thats the list. I cant wait until Monday. I'll be cashing in my Tomoko bucks to add to my savings. I should be able to pick up most of it, but if I have to wait a few days for something to be ordered, it wont really be a problem, as I still have to save up for the hard drives and TV cards.

On that front I will probably go with a pair of 400Gb SATAII drives (as raid-1) and at least one Haupage PVR-350 - probably with a DVICO dual tuner card in the other slot, for a total of 3 tuners in the box, with an encoder on the 350.

Anyway, I'll add links to all the gear when I get a bit more time later today. (Done).

Linux Upgrades

Once the web server was back up and running, I started on upgrading the two remaining servers to Linux 2.6. (The web server has been on 2.6 for years). This involved first upgrading all of the other software to the latest levels. That isnt so hard under Gentoo, but the mail server is complex and was a pain to reconfigure, and the other machine is a bit older and took a while to compile everything.

The old machine doesnt need much in the way of speed, and it has been caringly maintained over the years. It runs an old 233Mhz Pentium-MMX CPU, but it did have its motherboard upgraded a few months back so that it could be added to the rack, instead of sitting next to it on the floor. I was rather surprised when I found an ATX style board for an old Socket7 CPU on ebay, so I snapped it up and moved the machine to a new 2U Spin Server rack case.

While I was doing the mail server, I was trying to clean out a bunch of old dead symlinks in /usr/lib and put together a "find" command to list them all. After I had tested it and it had located all the right files, I thought I would be clever and get it to delete them at the same time...

It was taking too long so I killed it, and found that it had somehow (I still dont know how) wiped out half of /usr, which is an important part of the filesystem hierachy on a linux system.

I copied a few key files over from another system to make the machine usable again, and then set about rebuilding the GCC compiler, without having a working compiler to start with. Once that was back up, I then basically had to reinstall every library in /usr/lib and rebuild most of the binaries on the /usr partition. It took several days to get it all back again. Every now and then, while I was rebuilding something, the compile would crash as it discovered another missing library, and I would have to stop, reinstall the library, and then continue. I wont be adding -delete to my find commands in the future.

Then I had to rebuild all the missing modules under /usr/perl5 which took a while because I was getting version mis-matches with bits that had been left behind. I eventually deleted the whole /usr/perl5 tree and started over from scratch.

As part of the upgrade, I had to migrate both systems from devfs to udev, which was fairly painless. I run raid on my root partitions, so I decided to upgrade my initial ramdisk (initrd) to support the latest version of EVMS. The Pentium-MMX loads the new initrd fine, but doesnt seem to execute linuxrc, which causes a kernel panic because it cant find the root filesystem. It works fine with the old version of the ramdisk, and the other machines have no problem with the new one. Go figure.

Eventually the Linux upgrades went smoothly, and im just cleaning up a few loose ends, such as ntp, which refused to run on any of the machines. It turned out that the problem was due to some missing compile options (Gentoo USE flags) which had been introduced since the last time ntp had been compiled here, so suddenly bits stopped compiling until I added the new flags.

Everything is now up to date, and I can get back to other things such as 3D modelling, creating web sites, and building the HTPC. I'll be buying the next lot of HTPC components on Monday.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Going down the tube?

A friend emailed me a heads up about this story. Here is my emailed response.

Hmmm. Interesting about the future of Youtube. I'd have to agree,.. and disagree.

One of the first things that struck me as strange when I first started using YT was that their flagging system, while having options to flag offensive or illegal material, did not (and still doesnt) offer the option to flag copyrighted material. Then again, its quite possibly fair use to clip a few minutes of a 2 hour movie, and the quality is so reduced that even a 3 min music clip isnt anywhere near as good as the original version that you might see on a purchased DVD.

Eventually the RIAA will sue YT - they sue everyone else, including 12 year old girls, so why would they make an exception. I dont know how that will go, but I bet that fair use (and reduced quality) will play a part in the legal argument. The reduction in quality reduces the size of the copied data significantly and could arguably reduce the clip to something that may qualify as fair use. (IANAL).

On the other hand, my absolute favourite stuff on there is not the questionable TV shows or music clips, but rather a few selected individuals who have a bit of talent (or some other interesting quality) who regularly upload original videos, often from their webcam, but sometimes even from a proper expensive video camera.

Brookers is the obvious one, and not having looked at YT in recent weeks, the others that still come to mind are Moshihino, Smosh, and some Canadian girl whose name Ive forgotten (but shes on my subscription list - no, its not LisaNova).

I think YT will survive even if they are forced to pull the copyrighted material (Im surprised the flagging system wasnt designed to weed it out in the first place, but then they probably wouldnt have gotten so big so fast if it had) Why will they survive? Well, to answer that, heres a few more questions...

What has made the press? What has gotten YT all the attention? What made us all watch it? The recent ones that I can recall are Brookers (Hired by NBC on the strength of her YT videos) Geriatric1927 (an old guy recalling his very interesting life (personally, I flag him as another possible "fake" - I mean what 80 year old can use a computer, let alone a webcam and internet connection?)) The EepyBird guys with their massively upscale (and entertaining) Coke and Mentos experements (before they moved to Revver for the money) and of course everyone knows about LonleyGirl15.

All of these, that have created the most buzz around YT have been original content. I think those calling doom and gloom for YT's future are probably lobyists paid by the TV networks.

Ya'know, I really should blog this stuff :)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Web Server Reconstruction

In the last couple of weeks, Ive been upgrading my web server to the new versions of apache2, PHP4, and PHP5. This took a bit of effort because in order to support PHP4 and PHP5 at the same time, Gentoo have restructured the PHP directories, so I pretty nuch had to uninstall everything and start over, to get the new directory structure set up. This also involved updating the apache2 configuration and also reconfiguring a couple of internal webapps that I run here

Naturally the machine locked up in between uninstalling and reinstalling everything, and I hadnt thought to make a paper list or save my notes - it was all just sitting unsaved in memory. Doh!

Im just about done, so I will soon be starting to reorganise the web sites themselves. I had an online store for a while (which is technically still there, but disabled), and was working on a couple of other projects as well. I closed the online store temporarily when I went to Japan last year, and never got around to reopening it, partly because although it had several sales, it wasnt really bringing in enough to balance the amount of effort involved - I was making more on Ebay, and I had a full time job at the time, so accepting courier deliveries and getting to the post office, while not impossible, was a little difficult at times - even for the Ebay sales.

This time around, Im determined to do it properly. Ive had an idea of what GeekAsylum should be for a long time, but in the past Ive concentrated on building other web sites to try and bring in a bit of money. This time Ive realised that GeekAsylum is the cornerstone on which the other sites depend, so it will be set up first.

GeekAsylum will be a site for geeks like me who need a cornerstone to focus on and support and extend their web development habit. Im hoping to find a small group of local geeks who want to colaborate and build a few web sites together. There are a range of skills involved, and Ive noticed that web sites tend to be better when they are built by several geeks with varying skills, experience, and interests. Naturally, any revenue generated will be put back into the various projects, and any profit will be shared among the contributors. Other local groups may form in other locations, or even virtually over the internet.

I have a ton of project ideas for money-making web sites, so even if it doesnt work out as planned, it will still be there to support me in developing these sites. I also have quite a bit of code from previous web projects to contribute.

Anyway, thats the basic idea - without giving too much away, and I will post updates here as it and the other projects develop.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Tomoko Bucks

For my birthday recently, my wife gave me $300 Tomoko Bucks to go towards the HTPC! Thanks sweety! Tomoko Bucks come from the Tomoko International Bank. They only have two branches - one in Sydney, and one in Japan, and only one of them is ever open at any given time, depending on where she is... Too cute!

These will be redeemed soon, and put towards the CPU, Mobo and Memory which I mentioned previously.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Home Theatre PC Project (HTPC)

Recently I started on my Home Theatre PC project. This is something I have wanted to do for a while, but didnt really have the money for. Well, I still dont really have the money, but I have started on it anyway.

I started by browsing the web looking for a decent case, since not having much money means that the project will probably be sitting around for several months while Im saving up to buy the next piece, and I figured it was a good idea to have a box to keep all the pieces in. After searching for a few days and comparing several different cases, I decided on the Silverstone LC20M (pictured).

I read several reviews, and they all looked pretty good, so I headed over to CX Computer in the city to pick one up. I know I could have gotten one cheaper if I looked around, but they are close and had a black one in stock.

Now, here is the tricky part. The box that these come in is used for both the LC20 and the LC20M, and it has pictures of both models on the outside. I was specifcally after the LC20M, which includes the Multimedia pack (remote control, VFD and Software). I saw the remote control on the box along side the LC20M model number so I made sure the case inside was black, picked it up and headed to the register.

When I got home and opened the box, there was no remote control or software CD, and presumably no VFD (Its hard to see without pulling the whole thing apart). It took me a few minutes to double check, and thats when I realised that both models are shown on the box, and to make sure that you have the right one, you have to check the tiny shipping label on the side to see what model the box contains.

The guys at CX were great. I called the next day and they ordered the LC20M in for me. I returned the LC20 the following week, paid the difference, and I now have the LC20M here waiting for a few more pieces to be added to it.

The next components to be obtained will be the motherboard, CPU, and memory. At this stage Im thinking AMD64 dual 2.4Ghz CPU, Gigabyte board, and 1Mb of generic memory. When finished, it will be running MythTV on Gentoo Linux, with an EPG provided by these guys, and at least two Digital TV cards - possibly Haupage-350 if I can afford them. The box will have at least one hardware MPEG encoder, and a hardware decoder on each card.

I'll update the progress of this project as I go.

Monday, September 04, 2006

First Post

Updated: 19th Sept, 2006

I've been meaning to start this blog for some time. I actually set it up in October 2005, and its now almost a year later that I am finally getting around to configuring it and adding the content that it was always meant to have. Its been sitting there for ages, and occasionally I would add a post about something or other that was driving me crazy at the time. These have been moved to a new blog that I am setting up called Deep Water. I am continuing to add more to that blog from other web pages that I have maintained in the past.

Appologies for the URL of the new blog changing so often recently. It was hard to find a name and URL that I liked and was happy with. It should finally be stable now - Ive keept these kind of posts on a page called "Deep Water" for a number of years, and finally have a blogspot URL that matches that title (well, almost).