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PC Games (Games)

Journal Journal: Gold farming orgs advertising on Slashdot... 4

Today I saw a big ad for Evony on Slashdot's front page. Do the editors know that a Chinese gold farming operation is advertising here?


The scum^Wpeople behind Evony are also trying to sue Bruce Everiss (a games industry marketer/blogger) - who is from the UK, in the Australian courts(!) for defamation for posting about it...


Journal Journal: So many spammers, so few bullets... 2

Some observations recently on spam.

Far from Microsoft's declaration that "spam would be a thing of the past", in no small part due to exploited Windows boxes, spam is worse than ever. Over the last three months or so, spam has made two obvious step increases. When I got my new mail server running, my personal email account was receiving around 450 spam messages per day on average. It made two jumps - first to about 600 per day about 6 weeks ago, and a couple of weeks ago, made another surge again to about 800 per day. The peak was reached on Thursday - 977 spam emails in one day to a *single* email address!

The other interesting thing I've noticed: a good deal of the spammers seem to take weekends off. There is a very significant dip in spam on Saturdays and Sundays.

The other thing I'd want to say is what the hell would I do without SpamAssassin, Procmail and Postfix. Thanks to SpamAssassin plus some Procmail rules, on the day I got 977 spam emails, perhaps five or six actually leaked through into my inbox. Procmail makes it easy to push this into a spamtrap on the server, so I never have to download them - but if I suspect a mail may have accidentally ended up there, I can always look in the spam trap. (I have a cron job that deletes the spamtrap daily, otherwise the filesystem would fill in short order).

Looking at how SA is classifying spam, SpamAssassin's heuristics aren't used all that much - today it's usually because the message body has URLs that are on half a dozen DNSBLs, or the Received: is from an address listed in dozens of DNSBLs. Still, it's surprising how many spammers think that sending messages with "viagra" or lots of 419 scam stuff think it'll get through. Probably 30% of the caught spam hits the threshold from heuristics alone. (And additionally, usually appear in half a dozen DNSBLs too). I'm also using just the normal Debian SpamAssassin package, so the Debian packagers have done a good job with the default setup.

Classic Games (Games)

Journal Journal: Transformers - inductors in disguise 1

Last week, at last, I got my hands on a Vectrex. A really nice one, too - it looks hardly used (and when I took the case off, not a speck of dust inside). If you don't know what a Vectrex is, it's an early 1980s game console. It's about the size of the original Macintosh, and has a black and white vector CRT. Yes, vector. Just like the original Asteroids, or the original Battle Zone, it uses vector graphics, rather than a bitmapped raster display that everything else uses.

However, after 5 minutes of playing with it, it died. It didn't take me long to trace the problem - the primary winding on the main transformer had failed. I'm surprised there was no magic smoke. The problem: I can't even get to where the wires are soldered onto the primary windings, even after prising off the transformer's metal case. It looks like it was manufactured by winding the bobbins with the leads soldered directly onto the transformer wire, buried in the bobbins, then the iron laminations put on afterwards - so it can't be disassembled.

The transformer carries no useful markings, and the Vectrex service manual doesn't even tell you the specifications. All I know is that it's probably got a 115-0-115 primary (with the 115 ends connected, to make the primary 230v), and a suspected 9-0-9 secondary. I say suspected because the rectified lines say 9V DC on the power board, but 9V AC secondaries will give about 11 volts once rectified (RMS * 1.4) with no load. (But then again, many nominal 9V unregulated DC circuits powered by a transformer typically are a bit higher when unloaded, for example, my Spectrum's transformer is rated as 9V DC out, and all the DC inputs are labeled 9V but in reality it gives about 12V, unless you load it down).

So I'm not entirely sure what lump to replace it with. It looks like it'll need a >30VA rated secondary (I have already found a 50VA transformer in the Farnell catalogue which will physically fit). The real trouble is that on talking to someone I know who owns a Vectrex, his suggestion was that no ratings for the transformer were given because it's a "critical safety component" and the wrong voltage could produce X-rays from the CRT. Indeed, I looked at the HV circuit in the Vectrex service manual, and the picture tube's HV circuit is unregulated. Well, it's regulated insofar that it will hold a *relative* voltage, but there's no voltage reference in the regulation circuit, so if you feed it a higher input voltage, you'll get a higher output voltage. (Incidentally, the flyback circuit's oscillator is 555 based, and not all that far removed from some of the power supply ideas I played with for powering nixie tubes, although the output voltages there were 170 volts, not 6800 volts).

I don't want to turn the console into a cheap medical X-ray scanner, so I'm going to have to really get to the bottom of this transformer issue. It turns out half of the primary still works, so I may try and feed that half 115 volts and see what comes out of the other end, if it's 9VAC, then I can order a new lump of iron off Farnell. I would also like to get a HV voltmeter to test the tube anode voltage (which itself is going to be an interesting thing to accomplish, I imagine the HV output is very high impedance, since effectively hardly any current will flow, and so it'll easily get loaded down by a meter if it's not high enough impedance). If not I guess all I can do is stick the machine somewhere else and leave it turned on with a piece of photo paper in a black bag against the screen for a few hours and see if it gets fogged.

The other alternative is to look out for a "spares or repair" Vectrex and steal its power transformer.

Social Networks

Journal Journal: The dodgy state of i10n (internationalization) 2

(Is it just me, or do other people see "lion" when someone's written i10n?)

On my Farcebook^WFacebook 'new messages' thingy, it reads (yes, they are supposed to be in Spanish, but look at the first one...)

* Aaron McHone also commented on his enlace. Hace 2 horas

* Raoul Neuhaus ha comentado tu estado. Hace 3 horas

* Nick Clark ha comentado tu estado. Hace 3 horas

* Phill Adams ha comentado tu estado. Hace 9 horas

* Wally Scharold también ha comentado el estado de Richard Warp. Hace 22 horas

Hmmm... I think there must be some epic fail in Facebook's code for picking the right translation, that first one is mixed language :-) I've also got messages appearing there in Portugese(!) for some reason.

PC Games (Games)

Journal Journal: From acorns do great oaks grow... 2

Firstly, and OT... what happened to the "Write in journal" link? I had to really look hard to find it - in fact, you don't get one unless you actually click on and open a journal entry! About the last place you'd expect to find it - by reading your own journal!

If you're in the UK, I suggest you head over to the iPlayer and watch BBC4's "Micro Men" (and if you're not in the UK, head over to the Pirate Bay, where I'm sure it'll appear), which is a BBC TV film about the rivalry between Sinclair Research and Acorn Computers in their heyday. While both companies ultimately disappeared, it was Acorn who ultimately prevailed. Without Chris Curry having left Sinclair, without Acorn, without the BBC Computers for Schools project...there wouldn't have been the ARM CPU or the company, ARM International. Of course, today ARM International designs the world's most popular CPU. If you were thinking x86 was the world's most popular CPU, well - the desktop is far from being the be-all and end-all of computing. The ARM's role in embedded and handhelds has ensured what grew from Acorn Computers has positively thrived.

I really enjoyed "Micro Men", lots of funny moments, and it reminded me of the excitement of the home computing boom. Of course, writing software for work is still interesting, and messing around with retrocomputers at home is still fun, but a little bit of me wishes I was actually there in the workforce "back in the day" working for one of these companies.

PC Games (Games)

Journal Journal: Retro Reunited 4

Last weekend was Retro Reunited, in Huddersfield (Yorkshire, England). Of course I went. I also brought a VAX (well, MicroVAX) which was a file server to my ethernet connected Sinclair Spectrum :-) Photos are here - http://www.alioth.net/pics/RetroReunited

There were lots of fun things happening - I didn't know "Acorn World" was being held at the same time, and I don't think I've seen so many BBC Micros in one room since I was at school. It's funny, just like "back in the day", there was a sort of BBC Micro/Everyone else divide. The kids who had BBC Micros at home were typically the slightly more serious types, and those of us who had Spectrums or C64s were generally sort of ... anarchic. And that's how it was. General anarchy in the all-other-systems room and a sort of refined politeness in the BBC Micro room :-) That's not to say BBC Micro people don't have fun. I was always (and still am) in both camps; although I didn't own a Beeb I still spent a lot of time on the school ones (which were networked), at least half of my "back in the day" geekery was Beeb orientated. I still regard the BBC Micro highly today, and own two of them :-)

I got to meet a few of the people from the World of Spectrum forums, did plenty of gaming, and drank beer. Saturday evening, games of Rock Band II broke out in the games machine room, and we formed the WOS band and were absolutely appalling :-) Probably the best Rock Band moment was the last song before the show closed for the night, when everyone pitched in to "I am the Walrus". Good times!

  Since I was flying, Sunday was a quieter day for me (incidentally, flying a privately owned aircraft was about £100 cheaper than taking the car on the ferry from the island!) - 8 hours bottle to throttle of course - so I spent more time going to the presentations. The most fascinating one was the one given by Steve Furber. It's not every day you get to see someone like him. If you don't know, he's one of the designers of the world's most popular CPU. No, it's not an intel chip, it's the ARM. Developed by Acorn in the mid 1980s, it's gone on to be dominant in the embedded world. Steve Furber talked of Acorn from the development of the first Eurocard systems, the Atom, the BBC Micro, and of course the ARM. He also spoke of the projects he's working on now - a *massively* hugely multiprocessor system called SpiNNaker with *thousands* of ARM cores.

An interesting tidbit came from the talk in the Q&A section - where someone of course asked: Does RISC matter now that Intel chips are effectively a RISC core and a hardware translator from x86 instructions? The answer...well, yes of course. Just the circuit that finds out the length of the next x86 instruction is as big as an *entire* ARM core. This means an x86 chip is wasting the space that could be used for another core just to deal with the untidy x86 ISA, which means x86 will never be able to compete in massively multicore low power devices with chips with cleaner instruction sets.

The other interesting tidbit was the original ARM CPU was specified with just 818 lines of BBC BASIC.

And a further one. Acorn needed the CPU to be low power, because they needed it to be cheap. This meant it had to work in a plastic package, not ceramic, because plastic chip packages are about a tenth of the cost of ceramic ones, and this meant a maximum power dissipation of just one watt. Having no tools in the mid 80s to estimate power dissipation, they did everything they could to make the chip low power so it'd dissipate less than one watt. To their astonishment, the first chips used 0.1 watts! They had massively overachieved. This set them in good stead for the embedded market when it became clear Acorn desktop computers were fading away... and of course, for Apple to buy the chip for the Newton. Although the Newton was a market failure, the business relationship with ARM International and Apple meant other firms started taking the ARM seriously.

The Icon Bar has a write up of the show here, too. http://www.iconbar.com/forums/viewthread.php?threadid=11209&page=1

For the next show I go to, I'm hoping to get some cheap second hand TVs off ebay so I can have three or four Spectrums on a LAN, with the VAX fileserver of course :-)

User Journal

Journal Journal: a return which is long overdue (plus achievements!) 17

I've lurked at /. without posting for ages, mostly because I just don't have the time to interact like I used to.

But I've been clicking through the old RSS feed more and more lately, and when I saw the PAX Plague thread today, I came over to comment, since I'm kind of affected by the whole damn thing. I thought I'd take a look around since I haven't been here in awhile, and I saw that there are freaking ACHIEVEMENTS associated with our accounts. It's silly, and I'm sure it's been here forever, but I thought it was awesome and I was delighted when I read it.

I didn't realize how much I missed Slashdot until I spent some time here today, and I bet that anyone who joined in the last 2 years doesn't even give a shit about my stupid comments or anything, but it felt good to come back here, and feel safely among my people again.


Journal Journal: To learn more...

I made a possibly fortuitous discovery this weekend. While trying to see whether something I had written in Spanish was remotely grammatically correct, Google brought up a correction to what someone had written in a site called livemocha.com. It only turns out to be the kind of website I've been looking for for months!

It's a language site, which has some courses - but much more importantly, it's a social networking site for language learners, where people who are native speakers of the language you're learning can critique what you write, and you can do the same. For Spanish, it's a place where I can write stuff on various topics, and have someone tell me what I'm doing wrong. And it's also a constructive outlet for my inner spelling/grammar nazi :-)

Operating Systems

Journal Journal: Another talk - BCS 1

I seem to be making a habit of this.

My boss at work happened to be talking to one of the guys who runs the local BCS chapter (British Computer Society), and mentioned that I was "into Linux". And it so happened that the local BCS wanted to do one of its monthly talks on something like Linux and Free software.

So, well, I got roped into doing it. I'm by far not a natural public speaker, and also I had to decide *what* to talk about that was going to be generally interesting. So I decided to talk about the history so people could understand where Linux came from and where it's going to. I prepared a presentation on OpenOffice (I've never used PowerPoint let alone OO Impress), which turned out to be very easy to do, and OO has some nice presentation templates that don't go completely overboard. I just want the presentation notes to be straightforward, readable, and to the point - and somewhere where I can show photos, too. I also got some videos of Richard Stallman explaining why he started the FSF and the Four Freedoms. My talk covered the history from before Linus was even born - from 1965, and the Multics project, a potted history of Unix, how the FSF came to be, and how Linus Torvalds got into low-level programming. The second half was about the growth of Linux itself from the humble beginnings at kernel 0.01 (it was fitting that yesterday was just after the 18th anniversary of the first Usenet message that Linus Torvalds had written in comp.os.minix, saying that he was writing an OS).

The talk went amazingly well. I had practised it 3 times on the three nights leading up to the talk, and my practise sessions hadn't gone all that well, I kept forgetting things or having to stop or whatever, but on the night I managed to talk with great fluidity - and no one fell asleep :-) I even got many complements for putting on an interesting talk. I'd even say I had *fun*, which I never thought I would with a public speaking engagement.

It was also a good opportunity to find some other geeks in the island. One thing I miss about living in Houston was that I could hang out with a lot of strange people, something that's not really happened in the island. I probably ought to join the local BCS too, and go to some of their events. (I've also found out there's a "social networking" meetup once a month, where people who normally only meet online get together, so I may have to look into that).


Journal Journal: RetroEuskal 1

So I went away for a week. As usual, work was *chaos* as I left, for some reason, whenever I take time off, things go chaotic at work without enough hours in the day to get everything done...fortunately, no real problems while I was away. I think it's the first time I've gone away and not been phoned by work!

Off to Spain.

Where I wanted to actually be was Bilbao for RetroEuskal 2009 organized by RetroAcción. But it's a real pain to get to Bilbao by air from where I live - you have to leave from Stanstead at some ungodly hour which is basically impossible, unless you stay within a mile of Stanstead airport. So instead, I decided to go to Madrid, and get the train to Bilbao from Madrid... as well as spend a couple of days doing touristy things in Madrid.

Arriving in Madrid, I was instantly befuddled by the metro system. The Metro is actually very good, but the signage is nowhere near as clear as the London Underground (on the Tube, there's complete system maps all over the place, but the Madrid Metro only seems to have them, for the most part, in the station concourses). Also the tickets from the airport are a bit confusing, for reasons I can't fathom there's an extra charge if you get on or off the metro at the airport, an extra euro, and the ticket conditions too were a bit confusing at first. I wasn't the only person confused, a Madrileño couple came up to me and told me they'd bought too many tickets and did I want to buy one of theirs...except at that point I had no idea how many tickets I needed, and what suppliments I needed, nor could I think of how to adequately answer them! A very confused conversation ensued, but eventually there was some mutual understanding, but my first attempts at the Spanish language for real hadn't really got off to a very good start. Oh well.

Finally I managed to get the right ticket, and off I went. Only to find the trains, unlike the London Underground, don't say inside which route they run on, they list about 5 routes, so I wasn't even sure I was on the right train. But once I realised that this was the case, the confusion went away. After a couple of trips, I got to grips with the Metro, and All Was Good (although Nuevos Ministerios station was a bit of a nightmare - a big interchange, but when you get on the big bit in the middle, you have to wander around aimlessly a bit until you finally get within visual range of a sign telling you where you need to go next).

Finally, at Chamartin, I found my hotel (I consulted the GPS on my phone, and then realised the hotel was *right in front of me* after fiddling around for 5 minutes trying to find the hotel's address and put it in the search box... ho hum)

I was determined not to speak English in the hotel, but the receptionist wasn't having any of it.

Me: Buenas tardes, tengo una reserva, aquí están mis detalles... (hand over paper)
Him: Could I see your passport and credit card please?
Me: D'oh

The hotel was great though. 60 euros for the night and I got a *suite*. I had a living room. I've never had a hotel where I've had a living room before. And a separate sun room thing (a smallish room with a sofa and a big window you could open). Plus a bedroom and large separate bathroom.

First things first. Due to the idiotic liquids rule on airlines, and the high extra charges for checking luggage, all I had was a backpack and no personal hygiene stuff... I discovered the nearest supermarket to Chamartin was 4km or so away, so another foray on the Metro. Then off into the centre of the city to have a look around. I thought La Plaza de España would be a good place to stop for a while, so I got off there, and discovered some live music event going on (a free one, too). So that filled the night. After all that, too tired to make a proper food decision, I decided (disgracefully) a quick stop in Ronnie's Burger Bar (McDonald's) would have to do. I went back to the hotel and watched a really terrible film that was on Telemadrid, about a subway hijacking in New York. On the sofa, in my living room :-)

There shouldn't really be two 7 o'clocks in one day, but I had to get the 8am train to Bilbao, so unfortunately I had to get up, and have my first experience with Renfe, the Spanish train operator. Bizarrely, they X-ray your bags. It's not the huge invasive checks you get at the airport, it was a bit sort of "well, I suppose we better make a token effort that you're not from ETA".

The train itself was quite an interesting beast. The locomotive looked a bit like a duck (and indeed, that's its nickname, the front aerodynamic fairings look like, well, the front of a duck). The coaches were also notably lower than the locomotive. (I'd learn all about Talgo later - more on that in a while). There has been a great deal of investment in the railways in Spain in the last few years, and this was one of the results - the inter-city Alvia service. It's not high speed all the way to Bilbao - it slows down a lot after Valladolid, and gets really quite slow approaching the Basque Country as you end up in more mountainous terrain (the tracks get very curvaceous) - although at the moment a high speed rail line is being built to provide high speed service from Bilbao to Madrid. The high speed part of it is very good - fast and amazingly smooth.

Arriving in Bilbao, one of the guys, Josetxu, from RetroAcción met me at the station. The first thing I noted about Bilbao was how much nicer the temperature was than Madrid. It was just too hot in Madrid, but Bilbao in the shade was only around 20 celcius. We had a wander around town, and went for lunch. My level of Spanish improved notably halfway through the second beer too :-) Also, the people of Bilbao were far easier to understand than those of Madrid - the Madrileños spoke with a sort of very staccato tempo that I just wasn't expecting. It wasn't that they spoke any faster, it was just the way the syllables came out. The people in Bilbao spoke more, well, smoothly. I had expected the difficulties to be the other way around. After lunch, we met up with the rest of RetroAcción at the Bilbao Exhibition Centre (after a little trouble getting in - we needed ideally to get the car around the back of the BEC, but there's this security guard, and she's sort of like the bridge troll of the BEC. She's nicknamed "la matafrikis" (literally, the geek killer) by the organizers... that probably tells you all you need to know. So we couldn't get the car in and had to lug everything around the long way. Oh well.

RetroEuskal itself is held inside an event called Euskal Encounter. This event takes over a cavernous hall in the BEC. It's a LAN party of simply epic proportions. There are 4096 network ports, and as far as I could tell, virtually all of them were occupied. There's just a sea of computers filling this giant hall about twice the size of a football pitch. At night when the lights are turned out, it looks like a city from the air - thousands of rectangular lights stretching off into the distance - the computer displays. Somewhere in the far corner is the RetroEuskal stand, made up of a decent sized exhibition room plus an adjacent area for showing videos/giving talks/workshops etc.

Friday, my date with destiny...

I was to give a talk, on this ethernet card I've made for the Sinclair Spectrum. In Spanish.

Of course I'd prepared, I'd written down what I wanted to say, prepared some video and tested what I wanted to demonstrate. I was gratified to see my DHCP client faced the Euskal Encounter LAN with aplomb, effortlessly obtaining a lease. And then the announcement came, across the tannoy to the whole event that I was giving this talk, and people started showing up... Before I knew it, Albert Valls (who speaks English rather well and said he'd help me with any questions I didn't understand) was introducing me and there I was, on... gulp.

So I just had to go and do it. Of course, when it got to the point of demonstrating stuff, I had my own Bill Gates moment. Stuff that had functioned perfectly half an hour earlier decided to give time out errors. Gah! The fact the audience laughed when I compared it to Bill Gates's blue screen of death moment at least confirmed that my accent wasn't so strong that no one could understand and they'd all been politely nodding all this time. After some frantic prodding of my PowerBook (which happened to be the file server), things started working again, and I could demo things like the file system, and how to write networked programs in ZX BASIC etc. As usual with any talk like this I forgot to say half the things I wanted despite having written it all down, but fortunately people asked the right questions and I got to say them anyway.

After that was over, I could just relax and enjoy the rest of the event :-) I particularly enjoyed trying out all the different consoles and 8 bit systems that were in the gaming area, and also the talk that was given on how to make a MAME cabinet. Other curiosities were the giant game of stop-motion Galaxians (visitors to RetroEuskal could all have a go at moving the ship, or firing, or both, and all the aliens etc. were moved on a large magnetic "screen" by hand then photographed). There was also the 8 bit gaming competition with prizes on offer (a timed game competition, score as many points as you can within a minute on several different games on several different platforms). Somewhere in the corner came drifting the smell of hot flux as a couple of guys seemed to spend endless hours manufacturing RGB cables for consoles and computers. Then I got ambushed by the Basque Country television station and had a little Andy Warhol moment. Yes, I've been on the tv in northern Spain, showing off my Speccy ethernet card. I'm such a geek.

We also ate vast quantities of food. Next time I'll not eat for 3 days before arriving. Good food, too. They really eat well there.

Everyone involved with RetroAcción made me feel very welcome - I had a fantastic time in Bilbao.

So Monday morning - back to Madrid to do touristy stuff.

I spent a lot of time staying in the shade. The temperature wasn't too bad there, a little wind, and not too much humidity (without the parching dryness you get in places like Salt Lake City, which absolutely kills me). First things first - lunch. 10 euros got me a 3 course lunch (!) with a beer, which got me off to a good start. The chicken and chips (tr. US: french fries) turned out to be what looked like half a chicken. I had to walk several miles in the park to burn all that lot off.

The next day, I went to do museums during the heat of the day. First stop, the Telefónica Museum, which sadly seemed to have a really terrible modern art exhibition rather than telephones (I'm sure some people appreciate the work of this guy, but it did absolutely nothing for me). So I headed down to the Museo de Ferrocarriles (railway museum), where I got to see possibly the ugliest electric locomotive ever built, along with probably the best bit of train technology in use today.

I mentioned Talgo earlier. It's an acronym, and it means "Tren articulado ligero Goicoechea Oriol", meaning lightweight articulated train, by Goicoechea Oriol. The fundamental difference between the conventional trains, like we have in Britain, and the Talgo is this. To make a high speed train, what they have done is make the passenger coaches low to give good stability with a low CofG, and lightweight - but not just that, each coach is quite short with an articulation the width of the coach (not just a connecting door). Instead of bogies with two axles at the end of each coach, a single axle is shared by the ends of each coach. Or rather, a single wheel set, there's no axle between the two. Talgo has been in use for a long time - the first revenue service from this type of train was the Talgo II in 1950 - the museum had this as their exhibit. Today, the 330 km/h AVE is a Talgo train, Unlike the modern "Pendolino" trains running in Britain, which are heavy, relatively inefficient, and need a complex gyroscopic tilting mechanism, the modern Talgo trains can tilt in the curves completely passively due to the design of the wheelsets, and is lighter and more efficient. And I never knew this existed.

I also went to the science and technology museum, but while it's interesting, it's fairly small - perhaps as big as just one of the exhibit halls of the London Science Museum.

My Dad had told me that Madrid's a great place to eat fish and he's not wrong. The furthest you can get from the sea in the whole country, and the fish is amazing. I had a very enjoyable meal (albeit a little pricey) in La Plaza Mayor, which is also a great place to people watch.

Wednesday, regrettably, it was time to come home - I wish I could have spent a bit more time there. Although I think I'd probably have to spend a month there to even start to understand people in Madrid!


Journal Journal: Lo que me gustaría decir...

It's been a while since I wrote a JE...

It's been busy. We have a new contract at work, and OK - it's a money maker, but the project itself is *awful*. No specs, no formal requirements, no process - just things thrown at us and two days (or less) later it has to go live. Of course, this means there have been cock-ups. I keep trying to warn people that no requirements = eventual failure, but it's difficult to get people to listen - especially as it's the customer who's the one we have to persuade. At the moment, it is utterly chaotic and I spend all day fighting fires.

I don't mind being busy, in fact that's fine - but when it's all chaos and firefighting, it wears thin. Especially since I'm going away for a week from Wednesday, and I've not been able to document anything because (a) I've been fighting fires, and (b) it's so fluid that by the time I've written something down the requirements have changed on us again (via a phone call, the details of which I get third hand, nothing so concrete as an email).

Fortunately the cockups so far have been human issues rather than my code falling to bits. But if we had more time and better requirements perhaps we could have designed a system that prevented some of the human error. The trouble is we're kind of "on trial" to get the contract and it can all fall through at any moment now, and it's the difference between us making money and us not making money since our usual core business has basically gone down the pan (parcel volumes have simply collapsed since the Credit Crunch).

Aside from work, last week I was also busy trying to get video for the Southern 100 races. Sadly, one of the sidecar drivers (Phil Dongworth) was killed in a crash in the second practise session. He hit a wall very hard - he survived the impact and was conscious and talking when the helicopter took him to hospital, but he died on the operating table. When the last racing fatality happened at the Southern, the riders were understandably dispondent and were debating whether to race the next day; it was Phil who held the riders' meeting and told everyone, "if it were me, I'd want you to still race". This time, there was no debate - the crews went out and raced. My Dad didn't have a very good time though - the engine started to perform badly in the first race and he pulled in after two laps, and when they took the sump off the engine they found bits of metal all over the place (practically big enough to have part numbers on them). So that was the end of that. I did have my bullet cam on his bike, but I had to find someone else to carry it to get some rearward facing shots (of the passenger working). In the end, it went on Steve Coombes's bike, looking at his passenger. Unfortunately, they crashed on the last lap - they weren't hurt but the outfit was pretty dinged up - and worse than just crashing, the camera stopped recording about 1/2 a lap before they crashed, so I didn't even get any crash footage... I can really, really rate the Sony digital-8 tape recorders - not only has mine been around the very bumpy Southern 100 course for years running on a sidecar, and still functions perfectly - it's now survived being in a sidecar that hit a Manx stone wall and is still intact and working perfectly. Amazingly robust recorders. Still, next year I'm going to try to get hold of a couple of solid state recorders - this outfit had a different shaped fuel tank to my Dad's meaning the recorder was much nearer the sidecar wheel, and the jolts from the sidecar wheel (which lacks suspension) caused it to drop out several times, and was probably what caused it to stop recording.

The difficult thing is how to make the video a bit of a memorial for Phil, dealing with emotional stuff is something I'm just not good at. I do have some ideas, though. I'll probably talk to my Dad to see if he thinks they are good ones.

On to retrocomputing. I'm off to RetroEuskal in Bilbao this week... I leave on Wednesday. I'm going to demonstrate my ethernet hardware... I hope they can understand my terrible accent when I speak Spanish, and I hope I can understand them :-) Having said that in the computing world most people at least have a rudimentary knowledge of computery English so somehow we'll muddle through. Here's the terrifying link to my ZX Spectrum ethernet event...


User Journal

Journal Journal: Twitter from a ZX Spectrum 1

On Saturday, we successfully wrote a tweet from a ZX Spectrum, using my old Spectrum +3 and the Spectranet.

Not to be outdone by the Commodore 64 people, we decided that we had to have a Twitter client for the Speccy, too. And we coded one, in about 15 minutes (yes, it was a terrible hack), while drinking beer at the Oxford comp.sys.sinclair meet - in the Gloucester Arms pub in the centre of this grand city.

I bet the C64 guys didn't write their Twitter client in a pub while drinking Dark Horse stout :-)

Matt Westcott's Flikr page has some photos of during the event. We celebrated that evening with an Italian meal and a bottle of champagne. Some photos (taken from an iPhone) are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattwestcott/sets/72157620528397045/

The next step would be to do a proper Twitter client, something I may do if I get time before RetroEuskal.

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Journal Journal: Pitfalls...

What a difference a single accented character makes in Spanish. Such as:

Una mujer que sufrió una pérdida - A woman who suffered a loss, such as a loved one who died.
Una mujer perdida - A prostitute.

Pérdida and perdida mean different things. OK, in most cases it's possible to tell from context what you really meant to say, but I'm a bit worried I might inadvertently insult someone when I go to Spain next month if I get the emphasis on a word incorrect! Fortunately Spanishpodcast brought this little one up on an episode on giving condolences to somebody. "Un error fatal" indeed...

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Journal Journal: Parallels 3

I am very impressed with Parallels Desktop for the Mac.

I tried Doom3 with all the graphics set to the highest levels possible on a WinXP virtual machine, and the results were high frame rates and an extremely smooth game.

Other new Mac stuff - Safari 4 turned up with the latest update. I really like the new feature that you get on opening a new tab - a display of your top web pages, so you can just select one.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Aventuras en castellano

I've arrived at a point in learning Spanish which is at times very exciting, and then immediately enormously frustrating and/or confusing.

Since I'm going to RetroEuskal in July and I'm going to have to actually talk to people, I've upped the intensity of my study a great deal - mainly the spoken word. Reading now is easy. What makes reading easy is when you spot a word you don't know, you just put it in WordReference (which rocks, by the way, if you're on the lookout for a good multilingual dictionary - http://www.wordreference.com/ - and it also has good monolingual dictionaries at least for English and Spanish). But you just can't do that with the spoken word. When you read, you can just stop, take some time figuring out the bits you don't understand, and start again. If you're listening to the radio or watching TV - miss it, and it's gone. Also it's much harder to listen - I find the quality of the sound greatly affects how easily I can understand something (of course, this is true of your native language, but it's much easier to infer the missing words in your native language).

I've been listening to an episode of SpanishPodcast (http://www.spanishpodcast.org) in the morning. Typically these are 30 minutes long, and consist of Spanish being taught in Spanish - because of this I find them very valuable.

I also watch an hour of TV every day. The Spanish public service broadcaster (http://rtve.es) has a lot of their TV output available on demand "TVE a la carta" and it's not restricted to Spain. I have found a really interesting series called "Redes", in which the presenter, Eduard Punset, interviews researchers and philosophers on many interesting subjects - health, the universe, how the brain works, all interesting subjects to a geek. I can understand this particular TV programme almost entirely. In fact about two weeks ago I realised I was just understanding it without needing to think about it. It was an amazing feeling. (And all the episodes are available on Eduard Punset's website - http://www.eduardpunset.es )

But then I watched an episode of some crime fiction show, and for the entire 70 minute show (there's no advertising) I think I understood one sentence and that was it. It was incredibly disheartening after being able to effortlessly understand an episode of Redes. I actually understood the drama - unlike a TV programme on a technical matter, in a drama much of the meaning is conveyed in body language and tone of voice - I was just missing all the detail. But due to the quality of the sound (noisy street scenes, telephones, people speaking fast in hushed voices, people speaking in an agitated manner) I simply couldn't catch any of the words even though I wager I would know 80% of them (or be able to figure them out from context) if I saw the transcript of the show. So frustrating.

One thing I have noticed is when native speakers are talking, they occasionally get genders wrong - they start off something like "Este -" stop, and correct - "Esta -". If native speakers do it occasionally, I don't feel so bad if I make that sort of mistake :-) I do have to wonder why the Romance languages never evolved a neuter gender though, English is far simpler in that respect.

For speaking practise, not having a native speaker to talk to, I just have to talk to myself in the house. I feel incredibly self-conscious despite there being no one apart from my cats to hear me! Something about talking to yourself being the first sign of madness (it's not the language, I feel very self conscious if I speak in English to myself at home!). I also joined Barrapunto.com (a Slashdot-like site in Spanish) and I've been writing a while on foro.speccy.org since writing will help me internalize what I've been learning about the grammar. So far people say I write very well, but what they don't realise is that I spend half an hour agonizing over the grammar after writing a message and going back and editing it :-) Again, writing is much easier than speaking. If I'm not sure a phrase is grammatically correct, I just type it in quotes into google.es. If I get loads of hits with people using the same phrase I can be pretty certain I got it right (as well as getting it right for the context). You can't do this if you're speaking, though...

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