419 To The Power Of 3

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If you have used e-mail for more than 10 seconds you are aware of 419 scams. Someone from Nigeria, or some other African nation, writes to you in utter secrecy and ALL CAPS requesting that you aid them in retrieving money that was lost, inherited or from over-invoiced contracts that is being held by mean and nefarious bankers or a corrupt government.

It’s a scam. I don’t know why I feel compelled to tell anyone that they will not get millions of dollars for doing nothing, but the fact is that common sense is outweighed by avarice these days.

The good news is that this axiom cuts both ways. It turns out that avarice can blind the scammers as much as it can the scammed. A wily American, having received a 419 spam/scam, outwitted the scammers and conned them out of three dollars. A long read, but well worth it. Hilarious.

Score one for the good guys.

Thanks to ond for the heads-up.

Who Guards The Lifeguards?

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A group of New Zealand lifeguards was recently saved from a great white shark by a pod of dolphins. Here’s the full story.

Dolphins kick booty. Period. That is just so, so cool.

A marine biologist insisted that dolphins … “like to help the helpless.” Humanity could take a lesson here.

Valve Applies The Steam

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Computer game maker Valve recently released the much-anticipated Half-Life 2. The first Half-Life was one of the best-received first person shooters in history, and with good reason. It was a great game.

A little more than a year ago, a substantial part of the source code for HL2 was stolen from Valve’s internal servers. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that Valve is now taking theft of their property very seriously.

Playing Half-Life 2 online involves connecting to Valve’s Steam service. This allows you to play against others, and also allows Valve to check the authenticity of your version of the game. The Beeb is reporting that Valve has disabled 20,000 Steam accounts that are using pirated versions. Holy CRAP! The game is out for so short a time, and already Valve can identify and disable 20K stolen versions! Wow. It’s not that I’m surprised at the level of theft, I’m surprised at Valve’s ability to find the pirates. And you know, more power to them. If you want to play, pay. Play fair.

Along the “play fair” lines, while digging deeper into this story I found mention of VAC (Valve Anti-Cheat) on the Steam site. It turns out Steam can scan for cheat code applied to the software, and automatically bans accounts for one year that are found to be cheating. To quote their policy:

We will not un-ban you regardless of the reason. It doesn’t matter if someone else used your account, you didn’t know what you were doing was wrong, your brother or sister downloaded a cheat you didn’t know about, etc.

Use of your Steam account is your responsibility.

Gawd, I’d pay money to see the e-mail from the person banned for cheating, has then said that they didn’t know cheating wasn’t allowed, been told by Valve that they’re still banned for a year and complains, “That’s not FAIR!”

Ha! Go Valve!

Firefox Theme Installer

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If you don’t know by now that Firefox has gone to a 1.0 revision, I don’t know what rock you’re sleeping under. If you are under a rock, Firefox is a project to tear the web browser guts out of the Netscape code and build a browser (only) that’s fast, standards-compliant and cross platform. I highly suggest you download it and check it out.

I love Firefox, but I found there’s no way to install a theme (a set of files that changes the look and feel) that’s stored on your local drive. Bleh. I don’t want to go to the official Firefox theme pages every time I want to re-install a theme. I want to download once, store it locally and re-install from there. Besides, being on a Mac, I might use Safari to grab a theme or two. What then?

I went looking for something that would allow me to do this, and there are a few different attempts. None of them suited me. So, I tore pieces and parts from some, wrote chunks myself and whipped up a Javascript-enabled page that lets you install a Firefox theme that’s stored on your local disk. I release it to the world under a simple Creative Commons license, embedded in the page. My little contribution to the Firefox effort. Feel free to wget (or whatever) this page and store it on your machine, but remember, no charging for it. Ha! As if …

Click Here to install a Firefox theme from your local drive.

Goblin Commander

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I picked up Goblin Commander: Unleash The Horde this week. The price for the Gamecube version finally dropped to the same $19.99 as the PS2 and XBox versions, and it’s been on my wish list since it was released a year ago.

I’m not disappointed. The game was designed and coded by refugees from Blizzard, arguably the the best real-time strategy company on the planet. If you like the Warcraft series, you’ll dig Goblin Commander. I’m thoroughly hooked.

I’m having fun working through the levels, unlocking new clans by defeating them in pitched battles and generally causing mayhem. While a bit more simplistic than Warcraft games, it’s still a blast. I highly recommend the game if you’re an RTS fan. Need more than my opinion? Check out the trailer.

Ironically, one review site has this to say: Real-time strategy is one genre that has yet to establish itself on consoles. Huh? Someone want to tell this guy that RTS games started on consoles with Herzog Zwei for the Sega Genesis console? I actually remember playing Herzog Zwei back in the day, and sometimes play it using a Genesis emulator on my desktop. If Herzog Zwei isn’t an RTS game, I don’t know what is. And it was first.

OK, back to the living room to smack the snot outta the Night Horde clan. :)

The Luxury Gap

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An album by Heaven 17, and now a semi-lengthy diatribe about some recent cogitations about my next computer, the Apple experience and other nerdly subjects. If you’re not geeky, a friend, morbidly curious or terminally bored, you might find this entire exercise tedious. Hell, you might might find it tedious anyway. But here goes.

I have been a Mac user for many years. I started with Macs in the late 80s, and stuck with them until the realization in the mid 1990s that cooperative multitasking and other Mac shortcomings were just that, serious shortcomings. I jumped off the platform and landed on WindowsNT.

For about 12 minutes. While work with NT4 paid my bills, the entire user experience of Windows left me flat. For the server closet, Unix(-like) OSes did a far, far better job for me, and always had. For the desktop, NT and its registry and vulnerabilities and random executable firing (will Redmond ever understand that nothing should run in userspace without user authorization?) made me not only uneasy, but downright nauseous. Let’s get this out of the way right here. Windows of any flavor is a disaster. Period. “But, it’s compatible!” With what? The spyware, adware, trojans and virii that companies have made fortunes cleaning? “It’s the industry standard!” I pity you if you lived in 1930s Germany and just followed the herd. “All the good software is made for Windows.” This is such an outrageous a claim I won’t even deign to fire a retort.

Years ago Neal Stephenson wrote an essay called In The Beginning Was The Command Line, which every serious computer user should still read. Still valid to this day. Of Windows he said:

Eventually the big dealership (Microsoft) came out with a full-fledged car: a colossal station wagon (Windows 95). It had all the aesthetic appeal of a Soviet worker housing block, it leaked oil and blew gaskets, and it was an enormous success. A little later, they also came out with a hulking off-road vehicle intended for industrial users (Windows NT) which was no more beautiful than the station wagon, and only a little more reliable.

Amen. That’s exactly how Windows struck me. A cobbled-together half-attempt at a GUI OS designed not to provide a pleasant and secure user experience, but to sell licenses. I think time has proved me correct. It has, at least, in my mind. And you Windows defenders (read “apologists”) aren’t going to change my mind in this regard, so do us both a favor and don’t try.

In this same article Stephenson describes BeOS as a “Batmobile.”

One of them (Be, Inc.) is selling fully operational Batmobiles (the BeOS). They are more beautiful and stylish even than the Euro-sedans, better designed, more technologically advanced, and at least as reliable as anything else on the market – and yet cheaper than the others.

At the time I read it, in the depths of my OS pilgrimage, that analogy intrigued me. And he was right. In 1998, nothing out-performed BeOS. I became a user, developer, evangelist and support guru for BeOS, and still count those days as among the most giddy of my life. Unfortunately, like a giddy teenager with a crush, my infatuation was not cemented in reality. BeOS was a commercial OS aimed at Windows users on the x86 platform. Can you spell “doomed?” And indeed, in 2002 when I left Gobe Software, the writing was no longer on the wall, it was tattooed to my forehead. Fighting Windows as a commercial desktop venture is best left to fools or the extremely wealthy.

But by that time Mac OS X had begun to gain serious momentum. Jobs had returned to Apple, dumped OS Nein like the steaming pile of outdated trash it was and was ushering in a new world based on Mach, BSD and the other Unix-y goodness I had always enjoyed in my server space. While Linux and *BSD had matured to the point of being fairly functional desktop OSes for a nerd like myself at that stage, I was an old-time Apple geek. And hey, Mac OS X has as much (or more) right to call itself “Unix-like” as Linux or *BSD.

I have been an OSX user ever since. And happy, relatively. OSX is, hands-down, the best OS for the non-nerdly computer user that wants a functional, fun, secure OS. I want to make that clear. If you are not a geek, OSX is the best OS you can use.

But … I’m a geek.

I recently sold my PowerMac G4 Cube for a variety of reasons that I need not discuss here. I have been living and working on the girlfriend’s iBook G3 500. And you know what? I’m not as impressed as I once was. A 500Mhz PowerPC processor with 384MB of RAM to play in should NOT slow to a crawl when running a Terminal, an e-mail app, a web browser and an mp3 player. Period. BeOS did better 6 years ago on older hardware. Whether you agree with me or no, it has become apparent that I need a new computer. (And if anyone starts the “OSX is bloated, OS 9 was the best!” nonsense, save your breath for someone with fewer brain cells).

Recently I had the fun experience of installing Fedora Core Test 3 on some friends’ machines. I am absolutely astounded at the progress Linux has made as a desktop OS. It’s not that Linux wasn’t on my radar all these years. I used Linux in server closets, had access to friends’ Linux boxes etc etc. I’m not a Unix newbie (heck, this page you’re reading is served up by OpenBSD, installed and maintained by yours truly). It’s just that in the past when I mucked with Linux thinking I might switch to using it as a desktop OS, I was left thinking something along the lines of, “very nice, but not quite.” It’s not that I didn’t understand what I was looking at, it’s that as a daily use machine for desktop tasks, it seemed to be like using a teaspoon to move a lake when a pumping station was sitting next to you. No offense to desktop Linux users, but be realistic. Would you have sat Mom down in front of Red Hat 6 and expected her to be productive? No, I’m not as technically illiterate as Mom, but I AM lazy. :)

But, wow. Fedora, Suse, Debian and a lot of the distros have made great strides to allowing me to be a user and not an admin 24/7. Which leads me to the point of all this …

I’m thinking about a new machine. Let’s examine my options.

I want something fast that I won’t have to replace next year because of lackluster performance. I want something reliable and secure. I could buy a low-end G5 for US$1,499. Let’s examine the specs:

  • 1.8GHz PowerPC G5
  • 600MHz frontside bus
  • 512K L2 cache
  • 256MB DDR400 SDRAM
  • Expandable to 4GB SDRAM
  • 80GB Serial ATA hard drive
  • 8x SuperDrive
  • Three PCI Slots
  • NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 Ultra
  • 64MB DDR video memory
  • 56K internal modem

Pretty kick-booty, for sure. But let’s say I’m ready to use Linux as my day-to-day desktop. Let’s look at the machine I spec’ed out.

  • AMD Athlon64 3200+ 2.0Ghz (939-pin, Winchester core)
  • Gigabyte GA-K8NSNXP-939 motherboard
  • 5 PCI slots
  • integrated 6 channel sound, USB2.0 and IEEE1394 (Firewire)
  • 400Mhz frontside bus
  • Crucial 512MB(x2) PC3200 DDR RAM
  • expandable to 4GB RAM
  • Antec SLK-3700-BQE ATX case
  • Western Digital 250MB Serial ATA hard drive
  • Plextor 12/4/16 DVD-RW
  • nVidia FX5700LE 8xAGP video
  • 128MB DDR video memory

And the total price for this rig? US$965.97. That’s right. One third less for four times the drive space and memory. Better video card. More PCI expandability. And I can upgrade the processor in a year. And when the next version of Fedora (Suse/Gentoo/Debian/whatever) is released, I pay nothing (unlike the yearly OS Upgrade Tax I pay with OSX). I can choose a filesystem that’s superior to the steaming hulk of boilerplate that is HFS+. In fact, only the frontside bus of the Mac is superior to this machine.

This is nothing new. People have complained that Apple is more expensive for years. Stephenson (in his car dealership analogy) said:

There was a competing bicycle dealership next door (Apple) that one day began selling motorized vehicles – expensive but attractively styled cars with their innards hermetically sealed, so that how they worked was something of a mystery.

Apple has always charged a premium to come to the Macintosh. That having been said, even to this day, Macs are not tremendously more expensive than equivalent Dells or HPs. And if you’re going to use Windows, then the value of your time trying to keep your machine free of infections and compromises is worth something. But Macs do cost a bit more. Especially if you can build your own machine. So what’s my point?

Linux is gaining ground on the usability front. Many people that wouldn’t have looked at Linux sideways in the past will now do so. More and more of the computer-buying public is comfortable building a machine themselves. And the people to whom I’m referring in both sentences above tend to be the trend-setters. If they use Linux, so will their siblings and parents and friends, as they look to the geeks for direction.

Apple, the luxury gap is going to fail you, long-term. The boutique experience you offer at premium prices can only last to keep you in business for so long. I know it’s been said before, and it’s kind of a “Chicken Little” diatribe. But now you’re going to face competition from a free OS on cheaper hardware that is well within the grasp of the average user. And, perhaps most importantly, an OS whose roadmap is determined by geeks, and not by Steve Jobs.

Steve can’t demo a filesystem during a keynote, so it doesn’t get fixed the right way. When he wants to have database-like functionality in the OS, instead of using Dom Giampolo who designed the most-excellent Be Filesystem (and who works at Apple) to build it the right way, Apple boilerplates it onto HFS+. Steve doesn’t use a word processor, so years after we get the PowerPoint competitor Keynote, we still don’t have an Apple-branded word processing solution.

Apple, it’s time to think about how you’re going to keep the geeky users that act as tractors for the others. You have probably lost me. Again. The first time was because your OS technology was so far behind the curve it made the platform a pain to use. This time, the price/performance gap is too wide, which is a much more tricky situation to address than fixing your OS. You need those hardware profit margins. Your hardware looks sexy as hell, but all that design comes at a price you must recoup.

Now, unlike some self-important pundits (ahem … Dvorak) I’m not going to preach to Apple about what they should do. I’m not experienced enough in business marketing to do it. But you don’t need to be a doctor to know someone’s sick. And you don’t need an MBA to know that the boutique approach to computing is not a great long-term strategy in our increasingly tech-savvy world.

I say again, at this juncture, for the non-geek, Macs are the best choice, hands-down. But I think that’s changing. Linux is getting better and better; easier and easier for the average user. Soon the “We’re not Microsoft, and our stuff is really easy to use,” argument is going to belong to Linux as well as Apple. And Linux gets to claim significantly cheaper hardware. It must make some people at Apple uneasy.

Me, I don’t need to run Microsoft Orifice or Adobe apps and I’m a tech-savvy geek. I’m not 100% sure yet that I’m moving to Linux/x86-64, but it’s seeming more and more likely. Why should I pay an extra US$500 for a more anemic machine, Apple? If your best answer is, “Because the G5 looks cool and we have a U2 iPod,” be afraid. Be very afraid.

From The Tautology Newswire

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Man Stabbed in Melee at L.A.-Area Rap Awards Show.”

In related news; water is wet, outer space is cold and listening to rap music makes you into a violent, posturing, uneducated idiot.

Evidence to the contrary? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

My Spine Is The Bassline

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This week a tree service removed a large, dead birch tree from our front yard. In the process they unearthed yet more soaker hose from a defunct irrigation system. Yesterday I decided to try to yank it out of the ground.

Less than a minute in, I threw my back out. First time that’s ever happened. And yow, it hurts. It feels like my spine is going to shoot out of my bum like some kind of Chinese yo-yo. I woke up about every hour last night to gingerly change sleeping positions. Getting out of a chair or off the sofa/futon is like scaling Everest. Ibruprofen is my new best friend.

Youth is squandered on the young. Waaaa …

My City Was Gone

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I went back to Ohio
But my city was gone
There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
Hey, ho, way to go Ohio

Well I went back to Ohio
But my family was gone
I stood on the back porch
There was nobody home
I was stunned and amazed
My childhood memories
Slowly swirled past
Like the wind through the trees
Hey, ho, oh way to go Ohio

I went back to Ohio
But my pretty countryside
Had been paved down the middle
By a government that had no pride
The farms of Ohio
Had been replaced by shopping malls
And muzak filled the air
From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls
Said, hey, ho, oh way to go Ohio

Chrissie Hynde

Note: Posted before any results returned. Non-partisan. No matter the election outcome … way to go, Ohio.