Monthly Archives: January 2012

SOPA, PIPA and the Insanity of the US Copyright System.

For over 100 years rights holders have resisted any changes to their business models brought about by changes in technology. From a business perspective its hard to blame them, I mean who wouldn’t do everything in their power to ensure you could keep making money, but history has shown that no matter how hard they fight it they will eventually lose out. Realistically the world has moved on and instead of attempting to keep the status quo rights holders should be looking for ways to exploit these new technologies to their advantage, not ignore them or try to legislate them away. Indeed if other industries followed suit you’d have laws preventing you from developing automated transport to save the buggy whip industry.

The copyright system that the USA employs is a great example of where legislation can go too far at the request of an industry failing to embrace change. At its inception the copyrights were much like patents: time limited exclusivity deals that enabled a creator to profit from their endeavours for a set period of time after which they would enter the public domain. This meant that as time went on there would be an ever growing collection of public knowledge that would benefit everyone and not just those who held the patent. However unlike the patent system copyrights in the USA have seen massive reform in the past, enough so that works that would have come into the public domain will probably never do so.

Thankfully, whilst the copyright system might be the product of an arms race between innovators and rights holders, that hasn’t stop innovation in the areas where the two meet. Most of this can be traced back to provisions made in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that granted safe harbour to any site that relied on user generated content. In essence it put the burden of work on the rights holders themselves, requiring them to notify a site about infringing works. The site was then fully protected from legal action should they comply with the request, even if they restore the offending material after receiving a counter claim from the alleged offender. Many sites rely on this safe harbour in order to continue running on the web because the reverse, them policing copyright themselves, is both technically challenging and resource intensive.

However just like all the technologies and provisions that have been made for the rights holder industry previously those safe harbour provisions, which enabled many of the world’s top websites to flourish, are seen as a threat to their business models. Rights holders associations have said that the DMCA as it stands right now is too lenient and have lobbied for changes that would better support their business. This has come in the form of 2 recent bills that have dropped in both houses: the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the house of reps. Both of these bills have attracted heavy criticism from the technology and investment sectors and it’s easy to see why.

At their core the bills are essentially the same. Both of them look to strengthen the powers that rights holders have in pursuing copyright infringers whilst at the same time weakening the safe harbour provisions that were created under the DMCA. Additionally many of the mechanisms described in the bill are at odds with the way that the Internet is designed to work, breaking many of the ideals that were set out in order to ensure ubiquitous access. There’s also many civil liberty issues at stake here and whilst bill supporters have assured everyone that they don’t impact on them in any way the wording of the bill is vague enough to support both interpretations.

The main issue I and many others take with these bills is the shifting of the burden of proof (and thus responsibility) away from the rights holders and onto the web site owners. The changes SOPA advocates mean that web site administrators will be responsible for identifying copyrighted material and then removing it from their website, lest they fall prey to having their domain seized. Whilst this more than likely won’t be the downfall of the sites that made their fame inside the safe harbours of the DMCA it would have a chilling effect on start-ups looking to innovate in an area that would have anything to do with a rights holder group. Indeed it would be the sites that have limited resources that would be hit the hardest as patrolling for copyright infringement isn’t a fully automated process yet and the burden could be enough to drive them under.

It’s also evident that SOPA was put together rather haphazardly when some of the most known copyrights infringement sites, like The Pirate Bay, are actually immune to it. Indeed many sites that rights holders complain about aren’t covered by SOPA (just by the current laws which, from what I can tell, means they’re not going anywhere) and thus the bill will have little impact on their activities.

You might be wondering why I, an Australian who’s only ever been to the USA once, would care about something like SOPA. Disregarding for the moment the principle argument and the fact that I don’t want to see the USA technology sector die (I could justify my point easily with either) the unfortunate reality is that Australia has a rather liberal free trade agreement with the USA. What this means is that not only do we trade with them free of tariffs and duties but we’re also obliged to comply with their laws which affect trade. SOPA is one such bill and should it pass it’s highly likely that we’d be compelled to either implement a similar law ourselves or simply enforce theirs. Don’t think that would happen? A leaked letter from the American ambassador to Spain warned them that not passing a SOPA like bill would see them put on a trade blacklist effectively ending trade between the two countries.  This is just another reason as to why everyone, not just Americans, should oppose SOPA in its current form.

The worst part of all of this is the potential for my site, the one I’ve been blogging on for over 3 years, to come under fire. I link to a whole bunch of different places and simply doing so could open me up to domain seizure, even if it wasn’t me putting the link there. I already have limited time to spend on here and the additional task of playing copyright police would surely have an impact on how often I could post and comment. I don’t want to stop writing and I don’t want people to stop commenting but SOPA has the very real potential to make both those activities untenable.

So what can be done about SOPA and its potential chilling effects on our Internet ecosystem? For starters if you’re an American citizen write your representative and tell them to oppose SOPA. If you’re not then the best you can do is help to raise awareness of this issue, as whilst it’s a big issue in the tech circles, even some of the most versed political pundits were unaware of SOPA’s existence until recently. Past that we just have to hope we’ve made enough of an impression on the USA congress critters so that the bill doesn’t pass, at least in its current form. The hard work of many people has made this a very public issue, but only continued pressure will make it so it won’t damage the Internet and the industries it now supports.

EDIT: It appears that the strong opposition has caused the American congress to shelve SOPA indefinitely. Count that as a win for sanity.

Star Wars The Old Republic Screenshot Wallpaper Voss Mystic Trials

Star Wars The Old Republic: An Engrossing, Well Polished MMORPG.

I’ve played my fair share of Star Wars games over the years. I can remember playing one on my trusty Nintendo Entertainment System which was just your basic platformer but was still enough to keep me captivated way back then (I was 6 at the time). More recently I indulged in the Jedi Knight Academy series of games which, to their credit, were actually quite fun and had a half decent story about them. I did not however get into Star Wars Galaxies, having heard how atrocious it was. Star Wars: The Old Republic however caught my attention from the get go mostly because BioWare was going to be the one developing it. I’ve always enjoyed their RPGs so it follows that their MMORPGs should be no different. Thus I pre-ordered my collector’s edition from Amazon months ago and I’ve been playing it ever since.

SW:TOR puts you 300 years after the events that occurred in the single player game Knights of the Old Republic which is still some 3,500 years prior to the events that take place in the original Star Wars movies. The Sith have returned in full force, retaking their old home of Korriban and re-establishing their Sith order. You then get to decide which faction to play for, The Republic or The Empire, and your choice will drastically change the story that unfolds before you. For reference I was a Jedi Knight base class and choose the Guardian specialization, putting me as a tank/dps. Your choice of advanced class doesn’t appear to influence the story however, just the archetype role you’ll fill.

Character customization is definitely a step above what I’m normally used to seeing in a MMORPG but is still somewhat lower than what you usually find in traditional RPGs. Most of the choices are from pre-set options so whilst it’s unlikely that you’ll find 2 characters that are completely identical there’s a very good chance you’ll notice someone running around with your face at one point, leading to some rather awkward moments. Still there’s enough variation in both your base character model as well as armour types to ensure that you won’t feel like you’re playing in a clone army.

On first impression the graphics of SW:TOR are nothing to write home about, especially when compared to the stunning visuals of some recent RPGs. Still much like World of Warcraft the stylization that has been used throughout the game means that it doesn’t detract from the experience. Of course, as with any MMORPG, graphics usually have to be stepped down in order to cope with the potential for huge numbers of players to be on screen at any one time. Indeed I’ve experienced some slowdown in the more populated areas (<30 people) but for the most part the graphics are the right balance of pretty and performance.

All that being said however some of the environments that are set up within SW:TOR did trigger my sense of awe. The screenshot above was just the first such example of where I stopped in my tracks and just took in the world for a while. It really did make me feel like I was part of something much greater than myself, something where the scale was far beyond just what was being presented to me at the time. However it would all be just simple eye candy if it weren’t for the story that underpins your entire reason for existing in this vast universe.

Now for most traditional MMORPGs the idea of an over-arching story line usually only goes as far as one particular level bracket. I can remember this quite clearly from my time with World of Warcraft where each area would have its own unique story but the connections between them were either tenuous or non-existent. SW:TOR on the other hand has a series of class quests that are in essence the driver for you to go from one planet to another. They’re far from a simple advancement device though as there are many times when you’ll be whisked away from the known planets on your map to other locations, sometimes for hours at a time.

Indeed SW:TOR could very easily be played as a single player RPG for those who’d like another fix of Star Wars goodness but were turned off by the MMORPG title. Sure there’s no escaping the fact that there’s countless “Kill X enemies” or “Gather Y of Z item” kinds of mission in there but should you not be too concerned with levelling as fast as you can they can be, for the most part, skipped entirely. A good chunk of the missions have some kind of unique mechanic or are broken up by enough cut scenes to make them feel a lot less grindy than their counterparts in other MMORPGs. Indeed there were times when I was playing simply because the story was driving me to, not the urge to get to max level and start gearing my character. I can honestly say I’ve never had that in a MMORPG before.

Levelling is actually quite enjoyable and doesn’t feel like a barrier to the real meat of SW:TOR. Unlike most MMORPGs where getting max level takes months of herculean effort you can easily reach max level in around 3 to 4 days played if you put your mind to it. My trip to max level was decidedly more leisurely but even I was able to knock out a max level character in under a month of play. This again reinforces the idea that SW:TOR would in fact make a great single player game that you could play through and be done with afterwards. That is, of course, how they’ll hook you in but I’ll be damned if it isn’t true.

The space missions also serve as a nice break from the usual tedium of questing. They’re something of a point and click adventure with the camera running along a set path with you being free to move around inside it. Initially they’re a walk in the park, especially for experienced gamers, but as you progress there will be ones that will challenge you. Like most things though you’ll eventually overcome the challenge and you’ll have to wait until you pass a certain level before you get another challenging one, but they’re still refreshing if you’ve been questing endlessly for a couple hours.

Your space ship also functions as a melting pot for you and your companions as well as being your transport between questing areas. I think this is probably why the questing in SW:TOR felt so fluid as each planet has a specific level bracket and could be travelled to with very little hassle. It also meant there weren’t any strange transition areas like there are in other MMORPGs when the designers tried to meld say a vast desert with a dense jungle (think Desolace to Feralas in WoW). It’s also quite nice to have the external camp to interact with your companions as their story lines (and potential romances) are quite interesting in themselves.

The experience however is not exactly trouble free. Shown above are two common glitches that I would routinely encounter, the one on the left moreseo than the right. There are quite a few graphical glitches that crop up from time to time but thankfully none of them too severe and are usually temporary. The second one shown above is a more extreme (but hilarious) example of the camera angles for cut scenes going all whacky and sometimes glitching out you or your NPCs armour. Mostly it would be my cape being stuck in my torso, but there’s also been people missing, voice overs not playing and characters not moving their mouths when talking.

There’s also some issues with lag, but not the ones you’d think. Even though BioWare didn’t release SW:TOR in Australia because of lag concerns I routinely get sub 200ms pings to the server, better even than I got in World of Warcraft (before I started using a tunnel, though). However there were still a few occasions when the server and my client would get out of sync, sending my character into a flurry of stepping forward only to be slingshot back. This would continue for up to 30 seconds at a time making for some rather frustrating moments.

PVP is something of a mixed bag at the moment thanks to the end game version of it still being a work in progress. You can participate in PVP from level 10 and currently everyone is thrown into the same bracket together. Everyone’s stats are boosted up to the highest level participant however so you can be somewhat competitive even when you’re just starting out. There are 3 different scenarios (capture and hold, timed race to the end and, in essence, football) so there’s not a whole lot of variety and it does start to feel repetitive after an hour or so. Still you’ll receive credits, experience and tokens towards PVP gear for participating so it’s well worth doing them, even if PVP doesn’t interest you at all.

The end game PVP appears to be an attempt to copy the ideas that Warhammer: Age of Reckoning brought to the table with Realm vs Realm PVP. There’s one world called Illum that’s basically up for grabs for either side should they want to have it. You can capture it by holding objectives although it’s not entirely clear what you get for doing so. This would be great except that currently open world PVP doesn’t award valor (PVP rank points) and there doesn’t appear to be any kind of bonus for holding Illum. Thus the end game PVP is reduced to people sitting at the objectives long enough to complete their dailies and then leaving, usually not even attempting to engage each other. I won’t complain about the free loot but it does feel somewhat pointless as there’s no reason to be there than for the dailies.

Compared to other recent MMORPG launches Star Wars: The Old Republic really stands out as one where the developers did their homework and worked hard to deliver an experience that was on par with those that were currently on offer. Sure its not as complete or as polished as others are now but for a first release it’s actually quite phenomenal, easily beating the initial release experience I’ve had with nearly all other MMORPGs. There’s still a lot of things where they could improve but overall the current game is more than enough to cement their position as a solid contender and I can see myself continuing to play it for a good couple months after this review.

The question many people ask is though, will this take the crown as MMORPG king away from World of Warcraft? I don’t think it will, but not because of any fault with the game itself. All the other WoW killers out there were fundamentally flawed at launch, usually lacking content or sufficient polish. World of Warcraft is the opiate for the MMORPG masses and the only ones capable of taking it down are Blizzard themselves and indeed it looks like they will with Diablo III and the mysterious Project Titan. SW:TOR however is a strong contender to be second place to them, and not just the distant second that many have been before it.

Star Wars: The Old Republic managed to re-ignite that same sense of passion, wonder and fulfilment that I first felt all those years ago when I made my first tenuous steps into the world of MMORPGs. It really is a wonderful feeling going through a new world for the first time, especially one that’s as rich as SW:TOR. I can’t see myself getting as addicted as I did back in my MMORPG heydays but that’s probably just me getting older more than it is the game being any less addictive. For Star Wars fans, MMORPGers and RPG fans alike SW:TOR is definitely worth checking out, even if you ignore that whole online part.

Rating: 8.75/10

Star Wars: The Old Republic is available right on exclusively on PC for $62 which includes 1 month of game time. Game was played entirely on PC with around 5 days (120 hours) of total play time and reaching the level cap, 50. 

Overcoming Subconscious Beliefs.

I like to portray myself as a wholly rational kind of person, one who takes in all the available evidence before making a conclusion. It’s actually rather inhibiting when I’m writing something as there are a lot of times when I have an opinion on something (and feel it would make a good post) but the amount of research required to either confirm or deny my point of view is prohibitive. Despite this though I’m still riddled with many internal biases towards certain subjects and no matter how good the evidence is on one side I’ll still get some horrible cognitive dissonance when I think about them.

The best example I can think of was my previous (mostly unknown and unspoken) stance on global warming. Up until around 2 years ago I had this deep rooted feeling that whilst climate change was happening the notion that we had anything to do with it, or even that it was that big of a threat to us, was just some form of hyperbole from the environmentalists. This wasn’t helped by my favourite pair of magicians, Penn and Teller, running with the idea that man-made global warming was bullshit on their show. Indeed even up until a year ago whilst my conscious self would take the evidence based approach I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that I was wrong on some level.

One notion I’m still wrestling with is the idea of free will in a deterministic universe. I took the idea of free will as a given and much of society is based around the idea that we’re directly responsible for the actions we undertake. On the other side of the coin however we have a universe which, as far as we can tell, is almost wholly deterministic. This means that everything, from the motion of the stars to my motivation for writing this very blog post, arise from a strict set of rules that don’t change. The notion of the universe being deterministic then is devastating to the idea of free will, unless you rationalize it out in some way.

For now that’s the part I’m still struggling with, figuring out whether I rationalize it away or if I take the hard determinism route and just straight up say free will doesn’t exist. Eventually I’ll find something that convinces me or some key argument will wear away at me until I come to a conclusion. Strangely though it probably won’t be a conscious “yes this is my opinion now” moments, more one day I’ll no longer feel the cognitive dissonance that I usually feel when the subject comes up and then I’ll know that I’ve changed one of my subconscious beliefs. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon though as I’ve been wrestling with this idea for the better part of a year now.

I find this interesting as even though I try my darnedest to be a fully rational actor I still can’t escape the rule of beliefs that I hold for no reason in particular. The key then is understanding when you have a belief like that and then working to either fully accept it (if you agree with it that is) or working to convince yourself otherwise. For me the effort of maintaining the right belief consciously eventually won out but it’s definitely one of the more mentally exhausting processes I’ve undertaken. Once I was aware of this process though it became a lot easier, well at least for all the smaller issues anyway…

God of the Gaps.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who are incredibly smart and religious. To me they seem to be diametrically opposed as education goes up the evidence for God’s existence starts to come under question, usually to the point of pushing people to be either agnostic or atheist. For me it was mostly my distaste for the study of religion (I found it boring) and the ham fisted approach that my science teacher had to reconciling the Anglican school teachings with actual science.

For those both gifted and religious the most common explanation I get is the things we can’t yet explain come under the purview of a god or the God. I watched a video of an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently that sums up why that approach is fundamentally flawed:

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Taken to its logical extreme, as in as our knowledge approaches the limit of all we can ever know, God then can only exist in infinitesimally smaller gaps. Logically then the belief in such an entity seems irrational as God is then just an ever shrinking pocket of ignorance. You can of course neatly sidestep this argument by saying you fully believe in your faith regardless of what science says and I’ll neatly sidestep any argument with you on the matter because I’m sure neither of us will walk away happy from it ;)

Diablo III on Consoles? Colour me Intrigued…

One of my most hotly anticipated games for this year, and I know I’m not alone in this, will be Blizzard’s Diablo III. I can remember the days of the original Diablo, forging my way down into the bowels of the abandoned church and almost leaping out of my chair when the butcher growled “Aaaahhh, fresh meat!” when I grew close to him. I then went online, firing up my 33K modem (yes, that’s all I had back then) and hitting up the then fledgling Battle.Net only to be overwhelmed by other players who gifted me with unimaginable loot. I even went as far as to buy the only official expansion, Hellfire, and play that to its fullest revelling in the extended Diablo universe.

Diablo II was a completely different experience, one that was far more social for me than its predecessor. I can remember many LANs dedicated to simply creating new characters and seeing how far we could get with them before we got bored. The captivation was turned up to a whole new level however with many of us running dungeons continuously in order to get that last set item or hoping for that extremely rare drop. The expansion pack served to keep us playing for many years after the games release and I still have friends telling me of how they’ve spun it back up again just for the sheer thrill of it.

Amongst all this is one constant: the torturous strain that we put on our poor computer mice. The Diablo series can be played almost entirely using the mouse thanks to the way the game was designed, although you do still need the keyboard especially at higher difficulties. In that regard it seemed like the Diablo series was destined to PC and PC only forever more. Indeed even though Blizzard had experimented with the wild idea of putting StarCraft on the Nintendo64 they did not attempt the same thing with the Diablo series. That is up until now.

Today there are multiple sources reporting that Diablo III will indeed be coming to consoles. As Kotaku points out the writing has been on the wall for quite some time about this but today is the day when everyone has started to pay attention to the idea. Now I don’t think there’s anything about the Diablo gameplay that would prevent it from being good on a console, as opposed to StarCraft (which would be unplayable, as is any RTS on a console). Indeed the simple interface of Diablo’s past would easily lend itself well to the limited input space of the controller with few UI changes needed. What concerns most people though is the possibility that Diablo III could become consolized, ruining the experience for PC gamers.

Considering that we’re already got a beta version of Diablo III on PC it’s a safe bet that the primary platform will be the PC. Blizzard also has a staunch commitment to not launching games until their done and you can bet that if there were any hints of consolization in one of their flagship titles it’d be picked up in beta testing long before it became a retail product. Diablo III coming to consoles is a sign of the times that PC gaming is still somewhat of a minority and even titles that have their roots firmly in the PC platform still need to consider a cross platform release.

Does this mean I’ll play Diablo III on one of my consoles? I must say that I’m definitely curious but I’ve already put in my pre-order for the collector’s edition of Diablo III on the PC. Due to the tie in with Battle.Net it’s entirely possible that buying it on one platform will gain you access to another via a digital download (something Blizzard has embraced wholeheartedly) and I can definitely see myself trying it out just for comparison. For me though the PC platform will always be my primary means by which I game and I can’t deny my mouse the torturous joy that comes from a good old fashioned Diablo session.

You Make Your Own Education (or Can You?).

Over the weekend the wife and I watched a documentary on the American education system called Waiting for Superman, here’s the trailer:

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The documentary dives deep into the American public education system and the crux of it is that whilst there are some fantastic public schools there the problem is that space at those schools are limited. In order to resolve this situation the government has legislated the only thing that can be equally fair to all involved: public schools with more applicants than places must have a lottery to determine who gets in and who doesn’t. It’s eye opening, informative and heart wrenching all at the same time and definitely something that I’d recommend you watch.

The reason it hit home for me was because of the parallels that I could draw to my own education experience. My parents had had me on the waiting list for one of Canberra’s most respected private schools since the day I was born. I went to a public school for my initial education but I was always destined for a life of private education. However upon attending that school I was miserable, the few friends that did make the transition to the same school abandoning me and the heavily Anglican environment (with mandatory bible studies classes) only making things worse.

The straw that broke my parent’s back was when I made my case for transferring me to a public school where most of my friends had ended up. They couldn’t get through to me that the private school I was going to was the best place for me to be educated but one thing I said changed their minds: “You make your own education”. I still wonder if I actually uttered those exact words or just something along those lines (I don’t have a vivid memory of that incident, but my parents say it was so) but that was enough for them to let me transfer. If I’m honest the transfer didn’t make things any better, although I told myself differently at the time, but suffice to say I can count myself amongst the few who did make it to university after going to that school. Heck you might even say I’ve been successful.

Anecdotally then public education system in Australia seems to work just fine. The schools I went to had a rather rough reputation for not producing results (and indeed my university entrance score was dragged down a good 5 points due to my attendance there) but there were students that excelled in spite of it. However when watching Waiting for Superman I got this sinking feeling that in the USA they might not even have the chance to make their own education simply because the schools are set up for failure. Indeed my own success might have blinded me to the fact that the schools I went to were set up in such a way, leading me to believe there was no problem when there was one.

Cursory research however shows that, at least for Australia, this isn’t the case. Indeed the biggest indicators of child’s success at school and their pursuit  of higher education is largely dependent on non-school factors. Following on from that idea it’s not just you who makes your education, but your entire social structure that supports it. Bringing that back to my experience shows then that it was my strong family support that lead for me to do well and my late found group of friends who led me to excel at university. In that respect I should feel incredibly lucky but in reality it’s got little to do with luck and more to do with a whole lot of dedicated effort on the parts of everyone who had been involved in my life during my education.

Still we should be thankful for the education system that Australia has, especially when you compared it to what it could be. I’m still a strong believer in those words I uttered well over a decade ago and whilst they might not be applicable everywhere in the world they are definitely applicable here.

Sortilio updated main window

Sortilio Update: It’s Just Better All Over.

So like most products that a developer creates with one purpose in mind my first iteration of Sortilio was pretty bare bones. Sure if you had a small media collection that was named semi-coherently it worked fine (like it did for my test data) but past that it started to fall apart rather rapidly. Case in point: I let it loose on my own media collection, you know for the purposes of eating my own dog food. It didn’t take long for it to fall flat on its face, querying The TVDB’s API so rapidly that the rate limiter kicked in almost instantaneously. There was also the issue of not being able to massage the data once it had done the automated matching portion as even the best automated tools can still make mistakes. With that in mind I set about improving Sortilio and put the finishing touches on it yesterday.

Now the first update you’ll notice is the slightly changed main screen with a new Options tab and two extra buttons down in the right hand corner. They all function pretty much as you’d expect: the options tab has a few options for you to configure (only one of them works currently, the extensions one), save will export the current selection to a file for use later and load will  import said file back into Sortilio. The save/load functionality is quite handy if you’d like to manually go in there and sort out the data yourself as it’s all plain XML that I’m sure anyone with half a coding mind about them would be able to figure out. I put it in mostly for debugging purposes (re-running the identification process is rather slow, more on that in a bit) but I can see it being quite useful, especially with larger collections.

As I mentioned earlier whilst the automated matching does a pretty good job of getting things right there are times when it either doesn’t find anything or its got it completely wrong. To alleviate this I added in the ability for you to be able to double click the row to bring up the following screen:

Shown in this dialog is the series drop down which allows you to select from a list of episodes that Sortilio has already downloaded. The list is populated by the cache that Sortilio creates from its queries to The TVDB so if it managed to match one file in the series correctly it will have it cached already so you can just select it and hit update. Sortilio will then identify other files that had the same search term and ask if you’d like to update them as well (since it will have probably got them wrong as well). Should the series you’re looking for not be available you can then hit the search button which brings up this dialog:

From here you can enter whatever term you want and hit search. This will then query The TVDB and then display the results in a list for you. Select the most appropriate one and then hit OK and you’ll have the new series assigned to that file.

Under the hood things have gotten quite a bit better as well. The season string matching algorithm has been improved a bit so that identifies seasons better than it previously did. For instance if you had a file that was like say battlestar.galactica.2003.s01e20.avi Sortilio would (wrongly) identify that as season 20 because of the 2003 before the series/episode identifier. It now prefers the right kind of identifiers and is a little better overall at getting it right, although I still think that the way I’m going about it is slightly ass backwards. Chalk that up to still figuring out how to best do string splitting based on a regex.

Now on the surface if you were to compare this version to the previous it would appear to run quite a bit slower. There’s a good reason for this and it all comes down to the rate limit on The TVDB API. After playing around with various values I found that the sweet spot was somewhere around a 2 second delay between searches. Without any series cached this would mean that every request will incur a 2 second penalty, significantly increasing the amount of time required to get the initial sort done. I’ve alleviated this somewhat by having Sortilio search its local cache first before attempting to head out to the API but that’s still noticeably slower that it was originally. I’ve reached out to the guys behind The TVDB in the hopes that I can get an excerpt of their database that I can include within Sortilio that will make the process lightening fast but I’ve yet to hear back from them.

So as always feel free to grab it, have a play and then send me any feedback you have regarding it. I’ve already got a list of improvements to make on this version but I’d definitely call this usable and to prove a point I have indeed used it on my own media collection. It gets about 90% of the way there with the last 10% needing manual intervention, either within Sortilio or outside cleaning up after it has done its job. If you’ve used it and encountered problems please save the sort file and the debug log and send them to me at therefinedgeek@gmail.com.

You can grab the latest version here.

[NOTE: There is no link currently because gmail barfed at the file attachment I sent myself to upload this morning. Follow me on Twitter to be notified of when it comes out!]

Tiangong-1 and X-37B distance

Is The X-37B Tracking China’s Efforts in Space?

The USA has always been wary of China’s ambitions in space and I believe it’s mostly for all the wrong reasons. Sure I can understand that the fact that China’s space division is basically a wing of its military might be cause for concern, but the same could be said for the fact that the USA’s Department of Defense’s budget for space exploration exceeds that of NASA’s. Indeed the USA is worried enough about China’s growing power in space and other industries that there’s already been speculation that it could spark another space race. Whilst this would be amazing for a space nut like myself I really wouldn’t wish that kind of tension on the world, especially when the USA is struggling as much as it is right now.

Of course that tension is enough to spark all sorts of other speculation, like for instance the true nature of the mysterious X-37B’s mission. It’s payload bay suggested that it was capable of satellite capture, an attribute shared by it’s bigger cousin the Shuttle, but its previous orbits didn’t put it near anything and it didn’t really have enough delta-v capability to be able to intersect with anything outside a few degrees of its own orbit. However since then there’s been a couple launches and one of them is smack bang in the X-37B’s territory.

The craft in question is none other than China’s Tiangong-1.

Yesterday the BBC ran an article that speculated that the USA was using the X-37B to spy on Tiangong-1. Now initially I dismissed this as pure speculation, there are far easier ways for the USA to spy on a satellite (like using one of their numerous other satellites or ground based dish arrays) than throwing their still experimental craft up in a chase orbit. However checking the orbital information for both Tiangong-1 and the X-37B shows that they do indeed share very similar orbits, varying by only 0.3 of a degree in inclination and having pretty similar apogees and perigees. Figuring this is the future and everything should be a few Google searches away from certainty I set about finding out just how far apart these two satellites actually are to see if   there was some possibility of it being used to spy on China.

To do this I used 2 different tools, the first being n2yo.com a satellite tracking website. This site allows you to input the satellites you want to track and then displays them on a Google map. Once I have that I can then use another tool, this time from findpostcode.com.au which shows me the distance between two points (which thankfully also takes into account the fact the earth isn’t flat). So firstly here’s a picture of the two orbits overlapped:

So as you can see they do indeed share very similar orbits but there does seem to be an awful lot of distance between them. Just how much distance? Well the second picture tells the full story:

Just over 14,000KM which is greater than the diameter of the earth. What this means is that if the X-37B was being used to spy on Tiangong-1 it would have to peer through the earth in order to see it, something which I’m pretty sure it isn’t capable of. Also if you look at the first picture you’ll also notice that Tiangong-1 actually passes over the USA as part of its normal orbital rotation, putting it well within the purview of all the ground observations that they have control of. I’ll note that the distance between Tiangong-1 and the X-37B won’t remain constant, but they will spend a good portion of their lives apart. Enough so that I don’t believe it would be particularly useful for reconnaissance. Additionally unless the USA knew which orbit that Tiangong-1 was going to use (possible, but we’re getting deeper into conspiracy territory here) then technically Tiangong-1 launched onto the X-37B’s orbit and not the other way around (it has not changed its orbit since the second launch, unlike it did the first time).

Honestly the idea that the USA was using the X-37B was definitely an interesting prospect but in reality there’s really no justification apart from conspiracy theory-esque hand waving. The USA has far better tools at their disposal to spy on China’s fledgling space industry than a single run experimental craft that’s only on its second flight. The orbits also put them at a fair distance apart for a good chunk of the time (as far as I can tell, at least) as well making it even less likely that the X-37B is being used for spying. Still it was an interesting idea to investigate, as is most things to do with the ever mysterious X-37B.

Why I’m Glad Ocean Marketing Got What They Deserved.

Like many in my social demographic I was bullied a lot in my formative years. My parents struggled to understand it because from an early age I had always been a popular child and the transformation into a recluse, depressed and anxious teenager left them wondering what they had done wrong. In truth they’re blameless for the situation (indeed the few months I spent at private school are the root cause of me being an Atheist) and I squarely point the finger at the other children who I went to school with who delighted in tormenting me. Thankfully I eventually outgrew these friends and overcame my depressive self to become the person that I am today. Of course I haven’t forgotten those years and they have formed a core belief that bullying isn’t to be tolerated, in any of its forms.

Enter the latest story to sweep the Internet headlines, a tale of extraordinarily bad customer service. For the TLDR crowd who’ve also been under a rock (or recovering from the festive season) in essence it boils down to a marketing firm handling a customer poorly, talking himself up to no end and, in all honesty, exhibiting the same kinds of behaviour that your typical school yard bully does. For anyone who’s done any kind of customer facing work you’ll know not to act to customers in this way, especially when you or your company is in the wrong about something. When I first read it I wrote it off as just one lowly peon (who I assumed spoke English as a second language) talking a big game in order to get a customer to stop speaking to him, but it’s so much more than that.

Paul Christoforo, the only person behind the single person Ocean Marketing operation, doesn’t just exhibit contempt for this one customer he seems to have quite a history of it. Being unable to handle customer complaints is one thing though but soon after the disaster began and N-Control dropped Christoforo as their PR representative did he attempt to extort them whilst holding their social media accounts hostage. Then he has the audacity to do an interview with MSNBC in which he plays himself to be the victim in all this, still showing no remorse for his past actions and only admitting to being sorry that he got caught.

Does this make the reaction that the Internet gave him justified? Owen Good’s opinion piece on Kotaku argues that it wasn’t and engages in a healthy amount of blaming the victim in this. Whilst I agree that no one has anything to be proud of in this whole Internet shit fight I do believe that Christoforo got what was coming to him, simply because he’s been incapable of showing remorse, compassion or any hint that he might change his ways in the future. People who act like that need to be taught that it’s not ok to behave like that, especially when you’re the one marketing a product to the wider world. Unfortunately it seems that even in this catastrophic failure Christoforo has failed to learn his lesson and will likely repeat his woeful behaviour with future clients (if any will have him, which I hope they won’t).

For someone like me who’s dealt with people like Christoforo in both professional and informal capacities I can say that I have zero sympathy for them when they get their comeuppance.  The bad customer service is one thing, I can wholly justify his dismissal on those grounds alone, but the pathological lying, inability to empathize with the customer and above all failing to learn anything from an experience that would leave most people humbled for the rest of their lives leaves me little common ground on which to empathize with his situation. Bullies like Christoforo that make no effort to redeem themselves are not worth our sympathy, and you should give them none.

Audiophiles, Cables and the Quality Delusion.

When I worked at Dick Smith Electronics I had one of the greatest staff benefits around: all items in the store could be had for cost price plus 10%. This meant for heavily marked up items (the most common things being add-ons or bulk items) I could get them for a steal, sometimes an order of magnitude lower than what the sticker price was. One particular area where this came in handy was audio/video cables as they were routinely 10x~20x their cost price. Being the budding audiophile that I was these cheap cables were a godsend, allowing me to hook up my various bits of AV equipment for a fraction of the cost. One thing started to become apparent though, the shelf price difference between the premium cables (them fancy gold plated, oxygen free copper deals) was no where near the gap in their cost price, leading me to wonder what the difference really was.

Once I began my studies at university however the differences, or more aptly the lack thereof, became quite apparent. Indeed there was little difference between those cables, especially when used in real world circumstances. Further I was confounded by the idea that digital signals, ones carried by optical TOSLINK connectors, could be somehow influenced by the transmitting cable. In my own tests with some of the cables from the store and the same cable that came with my MiniDisc player (yes, I spent way too much on one) I couldn’t find any differences in the resulting recordings, despite the store cables being noticeably thicker.

The reason for this is, whilst there’s a little bit of room to argue that a better quality cable will produce a better quality signal for analog, a digital signal either makes it through completely or not at all. The cable quality then, whilst needing to be above a certain threshold for it to work, makes no difference whatsoever once its past said threshold. This hasn’t stopped the premium cable manufacturers from claiming otherwise however charging rather ludicrous for products that amount to, let’s be honest here, nothing more than a $5 cable. I’d also go as far to say that  premium cables for pure analog signals aren’t worth it either, especially at the price point that some of them command.

Of course I don’t believe you should just take my word for it (however compelling you might find it to be) nor do I advocate running out and spending wads of cash on cables to see if there’s a difference. Instead just have a look at posts like this one on Audioholics where self proclaimed audiophiles could not reliably distinguish between a premium speaker cable and ordinary speaker wire (and even coat hanger wire). Indeed anyone who’s attempting to sell you cable based on the idea that it will somehow improve the quality of the picture or sound on the other end is either deluded, misinformed or simply ignorant of the underlying science that governs modern audio visual equipment.

There will be those who will say that I don’t understand the differences and that there’s tangible benefit in getting these ludicrously over priced cables. In all seriousness those expensive cables might actually sound better for them, through some wild psychoacoustic  placebo effect where they’re actually willing themselves into believing that its better. It’s an unfortunate situation for them as the cheaper cables (as long as they’re aware of them) will in fact sound worse. It’s from these people that the premium cable manufacturers will continue to extract value and unfortunately I don’t believe there’s a whole lot that can be done about it.

So if you’re on the fence about getting those expensive cables or if you don’t know if you should then the answer is pretty clear: don’t. Your cash is much better spent on a higher quality TV set or speakers than it ever will be spent on cables to connect those devices together. Should a salesman tell you otherwise ask for a demo of them side by side and see if you can spot the difference yourself. If you do then I won’t stop you from buying them, but know that in reality the difference is all contained within your head.