Star Trek: Into Darkness

One of the perks of living in Australia is that occasionally we get to see really great movies well before the theoretical release in the USA. Star Trek: Into Darkness is one such movie, and definitely one I could not pass up.

Overall I enjoyed the experience, so when somebody asked me last week if I thought it was any good, it might come surprising to learn that I was hesitant with my answer.

It all depends on what is meant by the term “good”. If we take the meaning to be “was the film entertaining” then the answer is easy – the film is a fun ride. There’s plenty of suspense, action, comedy, good acting, etc. However, if we take the meaning to be “good for the franchise” or “a good step forward for demonstrating a set of idealisms for a younger generation”, the answer is a sound “no”.

I have always considered Star Trek movies very separate to any Star Trek TV series. My reasoning can be understood particularly well when drawing comparisons between The Next Generation series and films. Many of the films seem to pay more attention to action sequences than an actual story. Further, characters have a tendency to act differently. Picard in the movies never seemed to act as rationally as he did in the series, and in at least one instance was even hell-bent on revenge (First Contact)! Perhaps due to this, I find myself never expecting to be able to take the movies too seriously.

One aspect of Star Trek that I love is the abolishment of capitalism – the economy is no longer based on greed. The replacement economic system is never very well explained (we are only really told what it is not), however I feel this is one of the core aspects that makes Star Trek a believable franchise. Instead of focusing on greed, we have turned our attention to bettering humanity. Problems such as poverty and disease have been completely wiped out, and we have achieved amazing medical advances that appear accessible to all.

Many science fiction films paint a bleak picture of our future when capitalism is allowed to continue its course (eg. Blade Runner), but when greed is removed from an economy we get Star Trek – where humanity’s worst problems instead have a tendency to involve the unknown, or diplomatic relations with other races.

Perhaps the most compelling argument I have seen is that the Star Trek universe is based on a participatory economy. Regardless, you don’t see everyone owning personal vehicles, spacecraft, or other significant assets.

Yet, the 2009 film opens with Kirk driving what appears as somebody’s personal car. It’s an antique so perhaps not as bold of a statement that there is a capitalist economy as it could have been. Fast forward to the 2013 movie however, and I vaguely recall seeing a number of small spacecraft around the time Scotty was heading towards the coordinates that lead towards the USS Vengeance. This is seemingly a very inefficient way of managing transportation, and implies personal transportation is available, and thus a strong sign of capitalism.

(Side note: It’s true that Picard’s family seems to own a vineyard and Sisko’s father seems to own a restaurant. However Picard might also refer to “my ship” without meaning that he owns it. These may be collectively owned by all.)

Into Darkness, like the movie before it, further removes itself from the television series – despite making even more references to it. While I was better prepared for the change this time around, it’s still disappointing to see Star Trek reduced to another action movie. Essentially, that’s what the Star Trek universe is slowly becoming. I half-jokingly mentioned to a colleague that the new Star Trek movie probably has more action sequences than some of the Star Wars films, but actually this might even be true!

Further, a recent Slashdot review of the film noted that it likely fails the Bechdel test, and I think they’re right. This is a guy’s film. Having a film in the Star Trek universe – a universe that is supposed to uphold values such as equality – suggests that J. J. Abrams still doesn’t get it, or at least doesn’t care.

Why does any of this matter? It’s just a film after all, right? Well, if all I wanted was an action film set in the future, I’d probably prefer a Star Wars movie – pure science fantasy. Instead, I prefer Science Fiction. I like the idea that science fiction can take life today as we know it, change one aspect of it, fast-forward to the future and present a view of what our life might be like. I like Star Trek because it presents a future anyone can aspire for – even if they aren’t interested in astronomy or even space travel.

I shudder to think that this is the new future of Star Trek. If any TV series are made going forward, will they too throw away those core values and base it on what this reboot presents? Into Darkness seriously misrepresents all that Star Trek is, to the point where I wished Abrams used a different or original property to base his action films on.

My letter to Humble Bundle


Honestly, I could not believe you guys did this when I read the news on Slashdot. I thought no way, get outta here, this is some kind of joke..

The Humble Bundle has always had the tag-line “Pay what you want, DRM free cross-platform and support charity” yet you’ve made the decision to abandon 3 of those 4 core values to your brand.

I don’t game any more under Windows, I do care a lot about DRM, and as if all this wasn’t already bad enough you have also dropped the ability to support the EFF – my preferred charity.

My wife and I have purchased many bundles in the past. I’ve always told my friends and colleagues to check out the awesome bundles you have put together, but this will happen no longer. I will make sure that all the people I have recommended the Humble Bundle to are aware of what has happened today.

Even if you appear to go back to your previous-style bundles, you have lost my trust. I can’t promote or support a brand that isn’t true to the ideals and values that attracted me in the first place.

StatusNet now a part of System Saviour

Last week, the FSF dented about a MediaGoblin fund-raiser. Shortly after, Ben sent an email out to the FSM mail list indicating that he had used the service in the past and found himself donating. A couple of days later, a FSF e-mail hit my inbox pressuring me some more.

The funny thing is that whilst I’ve heard of the project, I don’t fully understand how it works and why I would use it. After all, if it’s just for sharing images I would either add them within WordPress, or otherwise simply do this by scp’ing them to a directory my server and link to them as required. This functionality works fine with my N900 as well, although clearly posting images online is not a service I have much demand for. Heck, not a week goes by that I don’t just use elinks for something.

Perhaps I’m not the target audience, but I’m probably also misunderstanding what MediaGoblin is all about. How does it compare to say ownCloud? The best way to understand it is to take it for a spin. Let’s take a look at the documentation… they compare it to and right off the bat. Wait a second… I use a lot but I’m not running it on my own hardware right now. Despite this I’m deploying some Goblin to my server that I don’t really understand? Time to change priorities.

What followed was me spending the rest of the day re-organising my DomU machines, web server configurations and finally installing my own StatusNet micro-blog at

So far I haven’t customised my install too much. I haven’t even replaced the Status.Net heading with the site name, but can do that all in good time. As my usage of was previously almost exclusively limited to other accounts, I had not until now had a good chance to see for myself how well the federation features worked. While not perfect (eg. no direct messaging functionality, documented bugs preventing messages to groups sometimes appearing, etc.) I think it will live up to my expectations and be sufficiently useful to me to want to make the switch away from my account.

As for MediaGoblin, I’ll have to look at that again another weekend to see if I can figure out how it might be useful. As for Libre.FM, I don’t think I’ll be hosting my own GNU FM server any time soon given it doesn’t appear to have federation capabilities currently which would pretty much restrict its usefulness to scrobbling (which I don’t really care much for anyway). I have decided that I also want to run my own Gitorious install sooner rather than later. Too much cool tech… arrggh!!

October 28th 2012 update:
As expected, I have since spent some time messing around with MediaGoblin. The results are visible from the Images menu button above. I have yet to create a custom theme, and do not have registrations enabled – with no plans to do so; at least not until the software matures.

Introducing ‘usbraid’ – for efficient USB RAID management.

Those of you who know me well also know that I’ve been doing geeky stuff for a long time, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that (while I wasn’t the first person to do so) I have been using USB RAID arrays for a few years. Unlike the linked articles however, I have generally had a practical reason for using one.

The first practical USB RAID array I ran was in RAID0 – attached with tape to the back of my Asus EeePC 701 laptop screen. The USB RAID storage was actually considerably faster than the 4Gb of internal non-upgradable flash the netbook came with.

Currently however, I use a USB RAID array to store my most confidential files on – things like my BitCoin wallet, password manager databases, important documents and the like. Why would I do that? Security and convenience, primarily. I wanted a backup solution with redundancy in case one of the drives failed, so that rules out my spare laptops which all only house a single HDD (without reaching for a soldering iron, anyway). I also don’t want to store such confidential information on my home server which is running 24×7 and always connected to the Internet – it exposes this data to unnecessary risk. No, ideally the storage device to be used for these specific backups should be only powered up when the data is actively being used.

Most USB HDDs you can buy would fail to meet the ‘redundancy’ requirement, but there are devices such as the Western Digital My Book RAID1 enclosures and the like. Unfortunately these generally house 3.5″ HDDs – overkill for the few small files I need to store securely. There are other non-apparent problems with these too:

  • The sheer bulk and weight of some of those solutions would make them very susceptible to damage if accidentally dropped.
  • They tend to rely on proprietary software and/or HDD controller chipsets which may not be easy to replace if they fail.
  • Generally, such devices are not terribly cheap.
  • In my experience, putting much trust in consumer-grade external hardware devices is just asking for trouble.

So there you have it – a very practical reason why I require a USB RAID array. Running five 1Gb sticks in RAID6, permanently duck-taped to a cheap USB hub solves all of the above problems, is silent, tougher, smaller, lighter, cheaper, more easy to replace (can just buy any other USB hub off the shelf – or in a pinch not even use a hub if a desktop has enough USB ports), and would require at least 3 drives (more than half the array in my case) to fail before losing data. As far as the hardware part of the solution goes, it’s perfect!

Of course, the software side of the story is a little more tedious. I actually run LVM to manage my partitions on top of my RAID device, so having to manually start a RAID array by specifying the device nodes of each USB key, setting the LVM volume group to ‘available’, creating mount points and then mounting each filesystem I’m interested in each time I want to use my array is actually quite a lot of work. After a bit of practice you can go from connecting the device to having the filesystems mounted in about a minute, but even that is far too long IMO – especially when you consider that you also need to do a number of steps to reverse all of this when you’re finished with the filesystems later.

A few months ago, I bit the bullet and spent a few hours writing my own solution which I now license to all (under the GPLv3): usbraid. I’ve spent most of this morning updating it to be less specific to my system and adding the included documentation, so hopefully it’s useful to somebody who might be in a similar situation. You need to know a bit about mdadm and LVM2 if you are considering making your own USB RAID setup and using this tool, but hopefully it’s not too difficult. Once setup as described in the included README file, you should just be able to simply run:

$ sudo usbraid -m
$ sudo usbraid -u

to mount and unmount your USB RAID filesystems.

Giving up fglrx in Debian Wheezy

The title says it all. A recent update has once again killed fglrx direct rendering from working with Xorg, so I’ve decided to just switch over to the free software Gallium driver entirely. This means no Amnesia, but I’ve since finished that game. It probably goes without saying that CrossFire won’t work now too, so… I would like to say that three of my GPUs are just doing nothing, but there are still power management issues with the radeon driver so the fans are sending my wife and I deaf while my cards cook at around 80-90 degrees, and it heats up my apartment noticeably – an annoyance since we’re heading towards the middle of summer here. It also means no OpenCL support since the AMD APP SDK depends on fglrx, although fortunately I haven’t been using that lately either.

The uninstallation of fglrx did not go smoothly. There have been times since I first performed my current desktop OS install where I manually ran the installer downloaded from AMD’s website, which spread files all over the place. These had to be cleaned up. The following two links were the most useful I came across which deal with this problem:

However, the final issue I had was documented on neither of those. The AMD installer created a file on my system in /etc/profile.d/ which set an environment variable which caused direct rendering fail ($LIBGL_DRIVERS_PATH IIRC). Removing that file, logging out and in again got everything back to normal… well, “normal” as described above. :/

I’m still keeping fglrx on my laptop though (which I haven’t updated in a while)… for now. I don’t want my laptop run into the same power management issues leading up to 2012.

Here’s something I’ll be taking away from this experience. Proprietary software might sometimes be better than free software, but generally there can be no expectation of it becoming any better in the future than it is today. In the future it may become incompatible, may add new restrictions upon you, may not support new formats, may force you to upgrade (sometimes at cost) to continue functioning properly, etc. The issue I have experienced in this post was the former. With free software however, I can generally expect that the software I have today will never become worse over time – that is, it only gets better. Even in cases where ‘better’ is debatable (eg. GNOME 3), it can be (and often is) forked by anyone. That’s one of the reasons I love it.

To show my support of free software and software freedom, I have finally done something I feel guilty for not doing a long time ago – and became an associate member of the Free Software Foundation.
[FSF Associate Member]

Tough time for Debian Wheezy users running fglrx (and farewell GNOME)

Do you run the fglrx driver on Debian Wheezy? I sure do, and if you’re like me I feel your pain.

About a month ago, the fglrx packages were added back into Debian Testing so the previous workaround is no longer required. Unfortunately not long after things appeared working, the Debian guys decided it would be a good time to upgrade to GNOME 3, which caused all kinds of graphical corruption and made Debian all but unusable for me. I actually found myself booting into my Windows install for a while.

A newer fglrx driver was then released which fixed most graphical glitches, however things were still far from perfect. As an example the alt tag pop-up text in Firefox was rendered incorrectly and barely readable, but for the most part things were okay… until I tried to play a video. Hello bug #649346 – “fglrx-driver: using xv extension crashes Xorg”. At the time of writing, this still isn’t fixed. Naturally this is all terribly frustrating.

I generally use mplayer whenever I need to watch a video, so the work-around for me was adding “vo=gl” under the [default] section in my ~/.mplayer/config file, and being extra careful mplayer is the default video player for everything!

There’s one other interesting thing that happened to me over the weekend – I ditched GNOME. I’ve been a GNOME fan-boy since the pre-1.0 releases back around 1998, so you might imagine the significance of this. Certainly some of the lead GNOME guys have previously upset me by encouraging some further development to be in Mono, but my real reason for doing this is simply because modern GNOME 3.x versions just don’t seem to cater to me any more. After using it for a few weeks, I just feel too constrained.

For example, I wanted to find a way to select an appropriate font size. I couldn’t – I could choose “Small”, “Medium” “Large” etc. I know I like font size 8, but there was no way to select it – all the options gave something too big or small for my liking.

Another thing I use all the time is virtual desktops. Right now, I’m using 3, but sometimes I find myself using 10 or more depending on my workload. Because GNOME has always defaulted to two horizontal panels along the top and bottom of the screen, my virtual desktops have also always been aligned horizontally. GNOME 3 changes this – you have to get used to managing them vertically. Further, I can’t assign e-mail to virtual desktop 7 – GNOME only creates them as you need them. This may seem like nit-picking, but it’s too difficult to get used to, and it just feels inefficient.

Then there’s the Alt+Tab functionality. How could they screw that up? Well, if you have 10 Terminator (xterm) windows open for example, GNOME considers them all to be a single application. So when you Alt+Tab to switch through them, they all appear as a single item. Instead, you must Alt+tab to Terminator, and then Alt+` to switch between the individual terminals. I’m sure they were aiming for efficiency here (for a change), but it all feels very tedious and breaks conventions everyone is already used to.

Opening a new program is also annoying in GNOME 3. You need to move the mouse over to the top-left corner of the screen, then click an Applications icon that appears a few centimetres away (probably further away on larger screens). An large (huge?) icon for every application will appear after a few seconds of loading time – which is impractical for most people since the list is so big, so you need to narrow down the results by category. So now move the mouse way over to the right side of the screen to what looks a bit like the traditional GNOME 2.x menu options. These limit the giant application icons to only those that fit within that category.

What happens if the application you have has been installed manually and does not have a GNOME launch icon? Well, you need to create one manually, of course! Fire up your favourite text editor and create one under ~/.local/share/applications/ or some such. What a pain in the ass! Unlike the good old days of creating a custom application launcher through the GUI, in GNOME 3 you need to do it all through text editors.

You can add commonly used application launch icons to a dock on the left-hand side of the screen, but if you’re like me and use a bunch of different applications depending on the task at hand, that’s not particularly helpful. In fact, quite frequently I find myself hitting ALT+F2 to just type the name of the application I want to launch. This functionality is still there in GNOME 3, however it’s far less useful than it used to be. Auto-complete functionality seemed to be missing, however it’s still the best option for launching applications when you don’t want to bother with creating launch icons.

Some of the GNOME 3 options simply aren’t even implemented. For example, telling GNOME you want your user to automatically log in doesn’t work – you need to edit configuration files. How a major release ever made it out in such a state I’ll never know.

Another thing I wanted to do was tell GNOME that my default terminal should be Terminator, since it was clearly ignoring my /etc/alternatives/x-terminal-emulator setting. Unfortunately, that’s a matter of firing up gconf-editor and hunting down the option. What used to be a simple drop-down menu in GNOME 2.x no longer exists!

Some of the above issues are able to be worked around via Shell Extensions, and GnomeTweakTool, but it seems stupid to be forced to waste time with hacks just to get basic functionality going. Firefox provides everything needed for efficient web browsing out of the box, and if you want extra uncommon functionality the extensions are there to help you out – but it’s still a perfectly good web browser without them. GNOME 3 on the other hand just feels useless as a desktop without them. It’s a disaster.

So what have I switched to? I wanted something Debian was likely to have good support for, so I started poking around the available packages:

$ for i in $(apt-cache show task-desktop | grep ^Recommends: | cut -d ' ' -f 2- | tr -d ',|') ; do [[ ${i} = *desktop ]] && echo ${i} ; done

I’ve given KDE a number of chances over the years, but have always switched back to GNOME due to its complexity. When you get frustrated trying to hunt down an option you know should exist, something has to be wrong. However, my N900 does run LXDE in a chroot and it seemes okay, so I gave it a spin. Ouch was it buggy! Trying to configure options would spit out random errors which had been fixed in newer releases which made it into Ubuntu over a month ago, but were still an issue in Debian Testing? Seemed to me like the Debian guys haven’t given LXDE much love, so that leaves me with Xfce. Linus Torvalds switched to it a while ago… how bad can it be? Well, I did try it years ago, and my memories of it were not good… but given the lack of options I thought I’d give it a try anyway. And boy was I impressed!

GNOME 2.x users will feel right at home. Imagine GNOME 2.x… except with more options for configuration out-of-the-box! I was able to make my Xfce desktop look and behave almost identically to GNOME 2.x, and it feels quicker to boot! I don’t know why the Mate project (aiming to fork GNOME 2) is bothering – Xfce just feels so right. ๐Ÿ™‚

I did have one issue with Xfce sound however. I have basically two sound cards – an Intel HD Audio Controller located on my motherboard, and my Logitech G35 USB headset. Stock Xfce did not seem to provide any option for switching between these on the fly, however audio was one thing that GNOME (both 2 and 3) got right.. which gave me an idea. Under Settings -> ‘Session and Startup’ -> ‘Application Autostart’, I added /usr/bin/gnome-sound-applet (which comes from the gnome-control-center package). Now, audio works just as well under Xfce via this applet as it does under GNOME. Beautiful!

There’s a few other little things I’ve found in Xfce where I’ve thought “wow that’s a nice touch”. Eg. I regularly Alt+drag windows around, but with Xfce you can actually drag them to neighbouring virtual desktops! It might not sound that amazing, but it feels nice. Also, when you want to move an applet around on the panels, you get a square appear that makes it very clear what the panel will look like if you left-click to confirm – as opposed to the GNOME way where you see the results as you have already made the change by dragging. Lastly, say I click on a launcher for a program that is already open in another virtual desktop which I forgot about, instead of getting a flashing icon in the task panel and having to click it to jump to a different virtual desktop (as would be the case in GNOME 2.x), you just have the application instantly move from whichever virtual desktop it was on to the current one. These are all minor details, but have made me pleasantly surprised.

As for the Xfce panel applets, some are better than those in GNOME 2.x, and some aren’t quite as good. Overall, I didn’t feel any worse off. I did think the Directory Menu applet will be really useful, but I haven’t relied on it much yet (perhaps out of habit of not having it). If you like GNOME 2 and hate GNOME 3, definitely do yourself a favour and give Xfce 4.8 a try for a few days and see what you think.

Slashdot: IEA Warns of Irreversible Climate Change In 5 Years

There have been some very interesting comments in the Slashdot post IEA Warns of Irreversible Climate Change In 5 Years. For example:

One example is the discussion over this image.

Another would be Phleg’s question What are you going to do?:

So what are any Of you going to do about it? Continue to point fingers at China? The third world? Oil companies?

How about accepting that you can’t change others, and instead set examples yourself. I moved into the city, leave my A/C and heat off whenever possible, bicycle for 95% of my trips (including commuting), grow as much of my own food as I can, and buy the rest locally and in-season whenever possible.

2 years ago, I was doing none of that. Now my personal energy footprint is a fraction of what it had been. Perhaps not as much as is needed, but it’s something, and none of it has honestly even been hard.

So again I ask: what are you going to do about it? What will you or have you changed about your lifestyle to help avert global disaster?

My answer:

I already am doing something about it. There’s room for improvement, but I know I must be doing better than 99% of Australians. Here’s how:

  1. My wife and I don’t have kids. There can be no greater selfishness. It may be said that the significance of all of our environmental problems are directly related to now 7 billion people on this planet. It’s been clear for decades that the Earth’s population growth is unsustainable, and yet here we are.

  2. We don’t own a car. Easily achievable. I know lots of people say “but I live in an area where there is no public transportation” or “I live too far away from work to ride” – but that’s because they’re selfish. They were not considering the environmental impact of their decision to live in such a location. My wife and I on the other hand have always expected we will not be relying on a car, and have planned our lifestyle accordingly. As such, it is no problem.

    If more people chose such a lifestyle, maybe councils around the country and the world would better cater for the needs of people like ourselves who do not drive. For example, the detours I need to take to ride to work are ridiculous – just because my local council didn’t pay any significant consideration to cyclists when planing and paving the roads.

  3. Don’t rely on an air-conditioner or heater. Until the summer heat wave of 2009, my wife and I had never owned an air-conditioner. We did buy a portable unit for those few weeks with over 40-degree heat since our apartment tends to get very hot as it is, but I don’t think we’ve ever used it since. Under ordinary circumstances, we have no problem adapting by simply changing to lighter clothing. When it’s cold, we wear a jumper and jacket, or dressing gown for night time. If that’s still not enough, we’ll just get a scarf or even a blanket until we’re comfortable.

    Contrast this to basically any workplace I’ve ever worked at. If somebody just came back from a jog, the air-conditioner gets cranked up. Same deal if the air feels “mucky”. If it’s a few degrees too cold, don’t bother putting something on – with a couple of button presses it’ll magically feel better. It’s a sad thing to watch. I usually just bring in a jacket so I can wear it if I’m cold, but almost every day someone will still turn on an air-conditioner. And worse – leave it on when they leave! Meanwhile, I don’t think there has ever been a time I have turned on the air-conditioner or heater at any of my workplaces – past or present.

  4. We’re vegetarian (and speaking for myself, I’ve been vegetarian for around 8 years). That means, we eat a lot of food that isn’t processed. My wife is always buying fresh vegetables to cook something for dinner from. Further – and more importantly, we are not contributing to the damage caused by extensive cattle farming – the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in places like Brazil, and it makes up about 17 per cent of Australia’s emissions. Our choice to be vegetarian certainly isn’t because we’re religious or too poor – it’s because it’s unethical from a number of viewpoints not to be at least a strict vegetarian. Some would say the same thing about being vegan, although I haven’t taken my diet to that level.

  5. Limit use of shopping bags and plastic bottles. I personally drink about 1 litre of soft drink each day at work – but I make it at home with my Soda Stream kit and bring it in using a reusable bottle – which I carry in using the pannier on my bike or a backpack if walking/jogging. The main waste created by this is the syrup bottle, although this is small and lasts a few weeks, and is always recycled. By contrast, I know other people who buy a bottle of coke each day from a local cafe! I sure hope they recycle all the plastic they throw out. I also take a backpack with me almost everywhere else I go, and when I do shopping I make sure it’s full of reusable shopping bags. Sometimes store clerks give me a plastic bag before I have a chance to tell them that I’d like them to use ones I have specially brought in – in which case I’ll keep the bag for use as a rubbish bin later. I always put any bag I receive to use – but do my best to not get them in the first place.

Having said all of the above, I know there is still room for improvement in our lifestyle.

  1. Our home server that powers this blog is running 24×7. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but I suspect the machine isn’t as power-efficient as it could be. Perhaps in a few years I’ll replace it with my current AMD E-350-based laptop, or maybe some other very low power ARM solution. However, I don’t think a perfect low-power replacement is readily available to me at this time.

  2. My desktop is extremely power-hungry. Sometimes I need that power, but ~90% of the time I don’t – which makes me feel like I’m being wasteful. Perhaps to test the above two points are valid, I should buy some kind of power draw measurement tool.

  3. Our electricity should ideally come from solar panels we would install on our roof. Unfortunately we are renting and haven’t the funds or authorization to make such a change, but if ever we buy a home that allows for such a setup, it’s my intention to do this.

  4. My wife especially purchases electronic devices that she doesn’t really need to have but just likes to have. eg. the latest model phone. I don’t think I personally fall into this category much these days – every electronic device I have brought in the last two or so years has some tangible practical benefit (well, arguably excluding game consoles I suppose…). At least when I have purchased new electronic devices (eg video cards), my older ones have been sold off and not directly wasted.

That’s it for me. What about you?

fglrx on Debian Wheezy (testing)

Packages fglrx-driver and fglrx-glx have been removed from Debian for the last few weeks due to #639875, so I’ve been using the free software Radeon drivers in the meantime. While I appreciate having my virtual terminals display the console at my native screen resolution automatically, I don’t like that I’ve had to put playing Amnesia on hold for a while – these drivers cause the game to segfault.

Today I decided to roll back my xorg version to get the fglrx drivers working again, and as it turns out, it really wasn’t that hard. Here’s how I did it.

  1. Set up a preference control file (eg. /etc/apt/preferences.d/60xorg_rollback_for_fglrx.pref) as follows:
    Package: xserver-xorg
    Pin: version 1:7.6+8
    Pin-Priority: 1001
    Package: xserver-xorg-core xserver-xorg-dev
    Pin: version 2:1.10.4-1
    Pin-Priority: 1001
    Package: xserver-xorg-input-evdev
    Pin: version 1:2.6.0-2+b1
    Pin-Priority: 1001
    Package: xserver-xorg-input-kbd
    Pin: version 1:1.6.0-3
    Pin-Priority: 1001
    Package: xserver-xorg-input-mouse
    Pin: version 1:1.7.1-1
    Pin-Priority: 1001
  2. Now add the following repositories to your apt sources configuration (eg. /etc/apt/sources.list.d/60snapshot-20110911T211512Z.list):
    deb wheezy main contrib non-free
    deb-src wheezy main contrib non-free

    These include Xorg package versions that don’t have the ABI change which is incompatible with fglrx.

  3. Normally, Debian will spit out the following error:
    E: Release file for is expired (invalid since 33d 17h 12min 59s). Updates for this repository will not be applied. We fix this by adding an apt configuration file (eg. /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/60ignore_repo_date_check) like so:

    	Check-Valid-Until "false";
  4. We should now be able to resynchronize the package index successfully.
    apt-get update
  5. Log out of your X session (if you haven’t already), and (from a virtual terminal) stop gdm/gdm3/lightdm or anything else that might be responsible for an Xorg server process running. eg,
    /etc/init.d/gdm3 stop
  6. Revert xorg packages to older versions, as defined in our preferences policy.
    apt-get dist-upgrade
  7. Install the fglrx drivers from the snapshot repository.
    apt-get install fglrx-driver fglrx-glx fglrx-control
  8. Make sure Kernel Mode Setting is not enabled. This should (in theory) be handled automatically due to the /etc/modprobe.d/fglrx-driver.conf file created during the fglrx-driver package installation – or at least it seemed to be for me.
  9. Create a new xorg.conf file. Assuming Bash:
    mv /etc/X11/xorg.conf{,.$(date +'%Y%m%d%H%m')}
    aticonfig --initial
  10. Reboot, and you should be presented with some kind of X display manager login screen. If everything went well, you should be able to see the following:
    $ glxinfo | grep -E '(^direct\ |\ glx\ |^GLX\ |^OpenGL)' | grep -v '\ extensions:$'
    direct rendering: Yes
    server glx vendor string: ATI
    server glx version string: 1.4
    client glx vendor string: ATI
    client glx version string: 1.4
    GLX version: 1.4
    OpenGL vendor string: ATI Technologies Inc.
    OpenGL renderer string: AMD Radeon HD 6900 Series  
    OpenGL version string: 4.1.11005 Compatibility Profile Context
    OpenGL shading language version string: 4.10

Update (2011-10-23, 10:14pm): In case it wasn’t clear, these changes are temporary. However that brings up new questions like how will I know when I need to revert these changes? and how do I revert?. Well, the first question is easy to answer – simply run the following command:
$ [ "$(apt-cache policy fglrx-driver | grep -E '^(\ |\*){5}[0-9]+' | wc -l)" -ge 2 ] && echo "fglrx-driver is back - time to upgrade xorg" You can optionally put that in a daily cron job to have it e-mail you when it is time.

Reverting the above changes is also very easy:
$ rm -f /etc/apt/preferences.d/60xorg_rollback_for_fglrx.pref /etc/apt/sources.list.d/60snapshot-20110911T211512Z.list /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/60ignore_repo_date_check
$ apt-get update && apt-get dist-upgrade
followed by a reboot.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – buggiest game ever?

I’m declaring Bad Company 2 one of the worst games I’ve played to date.

I wanted to like this game. Hawkeye of Atomic fame loves it, as do many others given its following. The queue at the EB Expo that was specifically for playing a Battlefield 3 preview for 5 minutes was massive, with reports of people waiting in line for over 3h. I’ve had Bad Company 2 sitting in my Steam account for some time, and with no other games currently occupying my time I figured I’d finally give it a shot.

Now one thing you must know about me – I’m first and foremost a PC gamer. Yes, I have all the major consoles. I have more consoles than anyone I know, but they’re purely for compatibility. If a game is made available for a range of platforms, I’ll just about always pick the PC version. Consoles are primarily great for two things – fighting games, and casual players that just want to relax on a couch and do something because their favourite TV show isn’t on. However, dedicated fans to genres such as FPS and RTS know the PC is the only true option. As a consequence, I only have 7 Xbox 360 games for example – all platform exclusives (at the time of purchase anyway).

Before I start playing any PC game, I always take a couple of minutes to make sure all the key mapping, locking and mouse sensitivity settings are all to my liking. For the first few minutes, I often find myself fine-tuning these further. Playing at the EB Expo (where everything seemed to be demoed on a console), I felt like the setup was barely usable – there was absolutely no accuracy, and aiming often took over a second longer than it should. It should be no surprise to learn then that I failed to find a single RTS game on display anywhere at the event. Beyond the hardware manufacturer stands such as Alienware, Razer and Western Digital, the EB Expo unfortunately did not cater for the professional/serious gamer at all.

After spending a few hours playing Bad Company 2, I have come to the conclusion that EA and DICE are also failing to do so. Had I done my research (and not just bothered to trust Atomic and the general popularity of the game which both indicated the game would be terrific), I probably would have noticed subtle hints that the game might not even be worthy of an average rating. For example, when I wondered why I had never noticed a Bad Company 1 anywhere I turned to eBay and Wikipedia only to discovered that Bad Company 2 is the sequel to a console-only game. Serious PC gamers would never have seen the first instalment, so already I started to feel alienated.

Anyway, after playing the game for a few minutes there were a few issues that became immediately obvious. First and foremost, this game is tries to be a realistic shooter but does not support a prone position. You can crouch, but that’s all there is – and it doesn’t feel like crouching takes you anywhere near as low as one might normally crouch if bullets were really flying at them.

Secondly, there is no option to look around corners. I’m pretty sure I saw the computer doing that, so why isn’t there an option? I don’t normally care about such a thing in most cases, but if this game really wants me to believe that it’s at least set in a semi-realistic environment, it needs to be supported. Otherwise, I might as well be playing Doom. I suspect this is related to such options being difficult to implement on a console controller… <sigh>.

Alright… Doom’s still fun. But it should be better than Doom because you get to go outside and drive vehicles, right? Hey, that’s Halo! Oh… that’s the series of games I almost didn’t finish because I just became so bored out of my mind towards the end… but perhaps it’s best I try not to draw comparisons.

Bad Company 2 starts you off trying to rescue a Japanese scientist a few days before the bomb gets dropped. This feels to me like a potentially fun mission, but why did the frame rate have to drop to 1 frame per second every time I entered into close combat? I’m running a 2x Radeon HD 6990 CrossFire setup (overclocked) and an 1920×1080 res LCD, so one would think such a system could handle game thrown at it, right? Apparently the answer is no. Apparently, selecting the “High” graphics profile at 1920×1080 would require consumer graphics hardware that has not yet been released (or possibly even invented). Yes, my drivers are up to date, I’m trying to play on a standard Windows 7 Ultimate install (not WINE for a change), etc. The game must be unbelievably unoptimised for the PC.

Then there’s the issue of people getting stuck when you kill them. Sometimes they get stuck in walls. Sometimes they just stand there perfectly still – giving the illusion you haven’t killed them yet just to keep you wasting your time and ammo. This is both frustrating and lame. I mean, the game has been out for over 18 months as I write this, so you’d think they’d have gotten this shit sorted. With that in mind, go read this Atomic interview with DICE. Choice quote: โ€œThe way we look at making the game as good as possible is that the real work only starts once the gameโ€™s released.โ€ Seriously, WTF?

But hell, I’m not only a serious gamer, I’m also dedicated. Surely I can look beyond the above flaws and finish the Bad Company 2 campaign? Heck, I finished Kayne and Lynch – and that’s saying something! My answer to that is that I might, but I really can’t say for sure… Bad Company 2 is seriously that bad.

The most recent level I was on (‘Crack the Sky’) involved driving a truck along a road while being shot at by other vehicles. Unfortunately in the fight, I ran slightly off the road onto a lake of ice which had a crack in it and caused the vehicle to be swallowed. Fortunately I was thrown to dry land and the rest of the team managed to escape uninjured. However it soon hit me that this was not a situation the developers had ever considered. I was forced to continue very slowly along the road by foot, but the entire time my allies kept repeating something like “quick, we need to beat them to the satellite control station” or some darn thing – over and over and over. There were other completely out of place comments made along the way as well, as if we were still driving. But there was no truck.

After walking for what seemed like forever (which actually reminded me a lot of Far Cry 2 – one of the other very few games I found too dull to ever finish), we ended up coming to another truck with a manned gun on top. The distance was too far without cover to be able to do it any real damage, and eventually I died.

A few seconds later, I had respawned to a position not far from where the truck had previously fallen into the frozen lake… but without the truck! What was I supposed to do? Spend 10 minutes walking the long road on foot again just so I could probably die in the same way again? No – the game had other plans for me. Instead, it had sent not one, but two armed trucks with manned guns on top to chase us right off the bat. This was in an area where there was absolutely no cover, in a game where there is no prone option. The trucks were too far away for grenades to hit, so it was darn near impossible to survive just a few seconds without getting killed again!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the game had spawned me right next to an out-of-battle area. In Bad Company 2, if you walk into an out-of-battle area, you get a countdown timer appear in the middle of the screen and you have just 10 seconds to return or you are automatically killed. The problem was, the trucks firing upon me were driving directly from the out-of-battle area. If I ran close enough to the trucks to make a grenade throw count (while using my squad mates as shields) I figured I might have a chance, but no… the game will make sure I’m killed for running into the out-of-battle area that the computer keeps killing me from. Unbelievable.

Eventually, I realized that if I used one of my automatic weapons to aim for the gunner on each truck, I can actually take them out – again, if I use a squad mate as a shield to stay alive. I managed to do this a couple of times, all the while being repeatedly told over the speakers to stay out of the open – despite there being absolutely no cover in the area. The trucks would continue rolling for some distance – seemingly they had no driver. Unfortunately, they would always stop just short of leaving the out-of-battle area, but I figured they were close enough that I could just sprint to the truck and drive out in 10 seconds… which brings me to yet another bug – you cannot enter a vehicle in an out-of-battle area. The screen says “Press E to enter vehicle” or some such, but it simply does not respond. Possibly the developers never intended for there to be a vehicle in an out-of-battle area… who the fuck knows. After wasting *way* too much time on this, I gave up and restarted the level.

I don’t think I’ve ever swore on my blog before, but that’s just how pissed of this game has made me.

Want to know something else funny? Check out this Atomic review of Dead Island. I finished this game without any problems, and claim it is one of the most stable games I have ever played. No crashes, no glitches (except for the occasional enemy hand sticking through a wall), it was basically bug-free from my perspective, so much so that I was impressed. And so what does Atomic do? Why they go and bag it for being buggy of course! I wonder if we live in parallel universes or something. However, given Atomic had been bagging Dead Island for so long prior to its release, and given how they treat Bad Company 2 as though its the best game to ever grace the PC, I’m a little skeptical.

I’ve got many issues of Atomic on my shelves. I’ve been to Atomic events, and regularly scan the website for news. For a while, I even used to be a subscriber. But as of late, Atomic has just been giving me *way* too many of these WTF moments. Here’s another example – Atomic says “you can now buy PDFs of each issue on Zinio”, but then scroll to the comments section. Hawkeye states “It is PDF format, but yes, as special Zinio version, so that we don’t have folks just passing around raw PDFs.” Looking at the Zinio FAQ page, it is clear that you do not get a PDF but a proprietary ZNO file which requires a Zinio Reader program to open (and is not compatible with most of my devices, but that’s another story). Even when this issue was pointed out, Hawkeye refused to correct the article so it continues to mislead readers to this day.

Since Atomic is knowingly and wilfully engaging in false reporting where they are the direct beneficiaries of said error, it is reasonable to assume that the same could be said of any article they have ever written. And if Atomic does this, we can be darn sure Game Informer does as well given their close ties with EB Games – which explains why I have almost never seen them rate a game EB Games sells badly. There is also strong evidence that GameSpot behaves in this manner.

It’s beginning to look more and more like I need to completely ignore what games the masses buy, and what game reviewers say if I want to maintain any level of interest in serious PC gaming. I do not like where things are heading.

What does everyone reading this think? I’m especially interested in what older gamers have to say, that are dedicated to the PC platform. Is this just me, or are the heavy weights of the industry such as EA and EB potentially pushing everyone else (outside of free software and indie game companies) to sacrifice professionalism and soul in an attempt make PC gamers a smaller segment and (eventually) possible to ignore completely?

Update 2011-11-21: By starting the level from the beginning, I was able to continue the single-player story mode. However, there were many more bugs that awaited. Everything from crashes, to boxes falling through characters *during cut-scenes*, to sub-titles being horribly out-of-sync with audio, to enemy characters appearing out of thin air, to enemy characters being impossible to kill only to eventually vanish, to cut-scenes suddenly deciding to start playing at 1 frame per second… OMG what a train-wreck. This is *by far* the most buggy game I have ever played on any platform ever – and I haven’t even started on multiplayer! To be honest, I’m not sure I want to bother.

Battlefield 3 looks like it’ll be the same deal – a good console game maybe, and a crap PC title. As early evidence of this, EB Games isn’t even bothering to sell a Limited Edition PC version.