Site migration once again

Moving this blog and all other related services to a new server. Hope to see everyone sooner than later.

Projects I’ve got going on for the month of May include

  • a new position at work
  • additional patches for XenonMKV, with a new version scheduled for the end of the month
  • catching up on other web development tasks

DreamSpark for UW students – no ISIC needed now!

With the University of Waterloo’s migration to WatIAM (a new integrated authentication system), it’s now possible to verify student status for Microsoft’s DreamSpark program without getting an ISIC from Travel Cuts. The MSDNAA site for UWaterloo only offers a few limited applications so DreamSpark is a very appealing resource.

Here’s the drill, up until now: since Canada is apparently a third-rate country even after two speeches from Bill Gates, proof of student status had to be obtained using an International Student Identity Card. Allegedly the only place to get these is at Travel Cuts, an agency in the University Plaza. To get this card, you need a passport photo ($10) and proof of student status.

What’s particularly irking about the cartel that is the travel agency business is the demand for either a transcript from QUEST or tuition statement – just showing a student card won’t do it. As someone who is reasonably concerned about privacy, I’m not a fan of a travel agency knowing my courses and grades. And I especially don’t want someone in that business knowing how much I pay for tuition; it’s a data mining adventure and a half.

This magic is now apparently made possible through Shibboleth – a single sign-on package that allows a remote server to verify credentials. Just sign in to DreamSpark with a Windows Live ID account, hit Verify, and pick University of Waterloo as the related school.

Goodies from this program that you might be interested in include full ISO’s and legitimate product keys for:

  • Visual Studio 2005 and 2008 Professional
  • Windows Server 2003 and 2008 Standard (the 2008 keys work on a 64-bit version as well; the ISO is only 32-bit, but if you’re ready to install Server 2008 I’m sure you can find an x64 ISO somewhere online.)
  • XNA Game Studio 3.0 – with 12-month subscription to the Creator’s Club (equivalent value $99US)
  • SQL Server 2008
  • Expression Studio 2

Go and enjoy!

Flying to Vegas, or “incompetence all around”

Since I never get to do anything fun anymore, I jumped at the opportunity to head to Las Vegas for a few days. After all, things in Vegas promised to be great – even if it meant staying in close proximity with my parents with whom I now have a strict once-per-week visitation schedule. But a free vacation’s a free vacation, and I’ve missed trips to both Newfoundland and California due to obnoxious exam schedules.

I’d now like to impart the events of Thursday, February the 12th, based on what I can only assume is sheer incompetence on a grand scale. I think the day involved some of the least helpful individuals since talking to anyone from Guidance in high school.

First, we booked our flight out with Sunwing Airlines, based on them having the cheapest direct flight to Sin City. The name is not necessarily an effort in branding magic and implying quality, but their site claimed they flew 737-800 aircraft – and who am I to argue with a well-understood plane number like that?

Check-in at YYZ (at FIVE OH CHRIST ON A CRACKER AM) was uneventful. The line moved reasonably quickly, and clearing US Customs was actually the easiest part of the process. The only stumbling block in the terminal was when the check-in agent insisted that I needed a separate customs form since my address is no longer the same as my parents’. (Strike one: you only need one form per family, and strike two: the guy with the shaved head at US customs didn’t give two figs – we were all travelling together.)

This is where the incompetence begins.

So we’re sitting in a 737 on the tarmac, waiting for takeoff instructions. We don’t actually begin taxiing out to the runway until about 7:15am, and then had to wait in a line of other planes. Captain Pikey (who spoke as quickly and as incomprehensibly as Brad Pitt in Snatch) indicated that since it was raining, they only had one runway open for departures. Our plane ended up in line position two before the runway, which I will depict with something other than text:

Takeoff Attempt 1 with Windsock

Note the windsock and obvious wetness. We then turned the corner and were about to circle into position.

Lineup, attempt 1

There are several planes waiting behind us. The time is now 7:45AM, a good three-quarters of an hour before our scheduled departure. For a special bonus, here’s a picture of me looking like I do at that godawful time.

Jake, awake in the plane at early o'clock.

We get up to the point where our plane should have turned, and Captain Pikey ignores the runway and barrels on straight ahead. A few minutes later he announces that someone from air traffic control noticed that our plane’s maintenance hatch was open, and that a mechanic would have to close it before we could depart. He assured the passengers that once this seemingly trivial operation occurred, we could immediately resume takeoff.

Time continues to pass. It is now 8:39AM Eastern, a good hour and a half beyond our departure time. Pikey returns with unfortunate news: since we’ve been pissing all of this time away on the tarmac, the plane has blown through its reserve fuel supply. We have to return to the gate to top up before departing. He also fails to mention that we will wait in line again for this privilege.

Did I mention there was no fuel truck at the gate, or that the attendant took his sweet time filling up the tank and getting the hell out of the way? It ended up being about 9:45 AM before the plane’s wheels actually left asphalt.

Other atrocities committed during our 4.5 hour flight included:

  • Complimentary breakfast, consisting of either scrambled eggs or french toast. Being aware of how easy it is to screw up eggs in an aviation scenario, my parents and I opted for the french toast. Said toast was two pieces of rubbery bread, adorned with plastic cherries avec mysterious red corn-syrup (like you might see on a cheap cherry cheesecake.) Vile all around.
  • Complimentary breakfast also included weak orange juice, some reasonable organic yogurt, and a pre-buttered mini-croissant.
  • Complimentary breakfast did not include coffee (only tea), even though we were promised said beverage at the beginning of the flight. Why is this, you ask? The flight attendant claimed that someone on the plane was allergic to coffee. I would legitimately like to hear a reason why all passengers must be quarantined from drinking coffee, considering half the plane brought Tim Hortons on. Hell, I only had a sandwich from there this morning and my hands still smell like coffee. And who the hell is allergic to coffee?
  • The woman behind me kept nudging my seat intermittently. Look, I know it’s cramped and if you have to stretch do so, but you looked like you were forty. I’d understand kicking the back of my seat if you were six, even though I wouldn’t be any more tolerant.

Several hours later, though, we were rewarded with the landing view of Las Vegas Boulevard.

Landing, picture 1.Landing, picture 2.

More to follow, pending interest.

A few years late, but Half-Life 2 makes me ill.

I’ve just purchased the Orange Box from Steam, given that it’s now priced down to a quite reasonable $29.99. Unfortunately I recall the last time I borrowed a Steam account to play the game and suffered incredible motion sickness after about an hour of playtime.

The problem isn’t the refresh rate – it’s the field of view, which is 75 degrees. This is much narrower than the 90 degrees typical to most first person shooters, and the problem is exacerbated on a large monitor with a decent video card.

For my own reference, here’s how to fix this problem:

  • Click Options / Keyboard / Advanced and check the “Enable developer console (~) key” box.
  • Return to the game.
  • Call up the console by pressing the tilde (~) key and type the following commands:
    sv_cheats 1
    default_fov 90
    fov 90

(Updated Feb. 3/09 to include default_fov command.)

BlackBerry Media Sync for Mac now available

If you haven’t caught the news from one of your usual sources, BlackBerry Media Sync for Mac is now available in a preview version. (It works just fine for me, though – OS X 10.5.6, Bold, 8GB microSD card and a ridiculously sized iTunes library of 25,682 songs.)

One option I’d suggest avoiding (depending on library/media card size) is the “Automatically fill free space” checkbox. Due to the way that the onboard media player parses files, a lot of single unrelated tracks can cause a lengthy initial parse time on the device. This wait may have improved since this build was released, but I’d suggest creating a Smart Playlist or two before using this utility.

I honestly didn’t expect to see this program released until the new year, but it’s awesome that it’s now available to the general public. Hope it works for you!

Mashable fails it hard; Twitter is not THAT important.

I honestly don’t know why I subject myself to Mashable‘s content in a set of regular RSS subscriptions; I may have to unsubscribe from it just to prevent a blown vessel. I’ve briefly mentioned the site before in a similar vein, but today’s insipid read was a simply delightful piece about how brands belong on Twitter.

Let’s put this in perspective here, so everyone’s on the same page about the importance of these things. Twitter is a short messaging service that allows people to relay their LiveJournal status/presence messages to any number of friends (a typical day might go: “eating a Filet-O-Fish”, “regretting eating that Filet-O-Fish”, “feeling slightly better after expelling gas caused by that Filet-O-Fish”, “buying a new keyboard after I projectile vomited that Filet-O-Fish”.) Twitter used to send SMS to your cell phone for quick responses – like when Major Nelson hands out free Xbox Live Marketplace codes – but no longer does that because they can’t keep pissing money away to the carriers.

Filet-o-Fish CC licensed

Used under Creative Commons license from Adam Kuban

In short, it’s a service giving you easy access to people’s most inane parts of their lives. A service that exists only to provide status updates, which is a service that companies like Facebook consider one small feature of their site. It’s also a service patronized by zealots who think that a graphic indicating downtime is worthy of its own entry in a dictionary.

Which is why the heading “Twitter is the New Phone Company” made me nearly blind with rage.

Listen, Twitter is a small Web 2.0 service that was rumored to host their entire backend with three MySQL boxes, and their front end with everybody’s favourite language, Ruby on Rails. They’ve figured out a way of relating “@token” to another token somewhere in a table, and even then only if it’s the first thing parsed in the message. Even going as far as to call Twitter a “social utility” is exceedingly generous. You’re nowhere near a phone company unless you’re providing the infrastructure. Remember how I can’t get SMS on my cell any more (or for that matter, instant messages)? Twitter is most accurately a slave to the phone companies.

Let’s cherry-pick some quotes from the article:

I believe it was Chris Brogan who recently Tweeted that he follows so many people because he thinks of Twitter as the new phone company.

I’m finding that a hard statement to reconcile. The phone company doesn’t care how many friends you have, who you listen to and what you say over the service. That’s for the Secret Service to decide. If anything, the phone company would prefer that you contribute to their bottom line by paying bills on time (Twitter’s free); making numerous long distance calls (Twitter’s free) and buying up all their extended services (Twitter’s FREE.) There’s no “freemium” model that most starry-eyed entepreneurs have staked hundreds of thousands of venture capital on. You can’t just compare a Web service to a physical utility without giving an example.

It is certainly a useful utility that might even grow up to be even too useful and powerful to ever be meaningfully monetized.

The entire point of the article is that brands can make money off this service. Constant positive communication helps build lifelong customers. It transforms your product or service from a “want” into a “need”. Why would it be so impossible to monetize the backbone that powers this communication? Here’s a business idea: feature prominent companies using the service for a monthly fee. Or perhaps a paid index of companies offering particular services and people authorized to speak on their behalf. It’s something that works pretty well in the telephone world.

Yellow Pages - CC licensed

Used under Creative Commons license from metrostation

I understand that it’s popular to side with the hippies in this matter – people who believe Web services are powered by fairy dust and pleasant dreams. We’ll start seeing more of these services going under as these unrealistic expectations grind to a halt. MySpace’s existence proves that it’s possible to gain media coverage and rake in the coin based on people being emo in a public forum. They, however, have actual financial backing and deals with content providers. Twitter has no such thing.

Not that it can’t happen but Twitter has become such an extremely dynamic form of communication that it may transcend that simplistic, “where is your business model” mentality.

Just because the question of business model is simplistic doesn’t mean it’s not apt. There’s a clear business model for a phone company – sell value-added services to chumps (long distance, three-way calling, voicemail) and provide a connection for a monthly fee. Twitter’s seems to be “hope to get bought out, and sell advertising in Japan.”

Protip, Mashable: if I hear the word “tweeple” ever again, I will take some piano wire and garotte the next iPhone-tapping social media whore I see. And it will be justly deserved.

Running a SOCKS5 proxy tunnel for selective Internet traffic

To avoid incurring the wrath of the annoying Rogers packet-injected “over your cap” message, I use two Internet connections to manage our bandwidth usage per month. As well as the 95 GB capped 10Mbps/1Mbps Rogers Extreme plan, I also subscribe to TekSavvy’s 5Mbps/800kbps Residential Dry DSL with the Unlimited option. These services each link into a router and are configured as such:

Network Setup of Hastiness

Continue reading

Seagate drops warranty from 5 to 3 years on bare drives

Just got an email from Seagate’s reseller partner alias. (They like to send out a number of emails once you’ve returned a drive or two.) Effective January 3/09, warranties for ‘bare’ drives – mostly available from resellers such as NCIX and Canada Computers – will shrink from 5 years to three. Existing purchases and purchases before this date will maintain five years of coverage. As a consultant, I’ve purchased this type of Seagate hard drive for myself and clients exclusively over the past seven years.

This warranty reduction is a drastic change. (You can see Seagate’s new table of coverage on their site.) A 5 year warranty on a drive is a statement of quality – that the manufacturer recognizes a potential 1-2% yearly failure rate and is willing to account for it. Replacing the drive for no cost won’t help get your data back, but having to pay for another drive on top of losing files is an insult following injury. (Most new systems I configure have a RAID-1 setup, which gives an additional level of security in the event of drive failure.)

Unless this policy changes, come January 2009, I’ll begin recommending Western Digital Caviar Black bare drives for new systems and any upgrades to my sufficiently-large RAID setup. These drives continue to have a 5-year warranty and currently sell for less money than the Seagate equivalent.