Monthly Archives: July 2012

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Pushing Through The Self Hate Barrier.

I’ve been on a bit of a rediscovery of photography of late, driven by my desire to fulfil the promises that my red-wine laden self proclaimed loudly over the Internet just a couple months ago. I’ve always had something of an interest in it dating back to the time when I wanted to capture my wife and I’s first trip overseas together all those years ago. However that interest was put aside for other things that seemed more important at the time: attempting to build my own start up, trying to build 100% passive income streams and all manner of things that, more often than not, left me burnt out and wondering why I had bothered in the first place.

I’ll have to admit that my knowledge of photography was average when I first started out on this journey, although I didn’t know that at the time. Ever since then I’ve been feeding myself on a steady diet of Wikipedia articles, photography blogs and lurking continuously on the photography subreddit. In that time I’ve come to realise that many of the assumptions I made about certain things, like the reasons why people spend so much on Leicas or why the TSE lenses are actually useful, were totally wrong and that’s had me doing a hell of a lot of self reflection.

The biggest thing to come of this seems to be an incredible distaste for nearly every picture I’ve taken since I first laid my hands on my new bits of camera equipment. I should have expected this, I even blogged about this very phenomena twice in the past, but it seems that every time I set out with the best of intentions I end up looking back at all the pictures I took and feeling like I’ve wasted my time. It’s a really painful feeling, especially when you’ve hyped up everything in your head before hand.

The reality of the situation is actually something that everyone who sets out to improve themselves goes through: the stage where you realise what it takes to be the thing you want to become and the desperation in knowing that you’re no where near there yet. This isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s in fact a critical step to progressing forward as up until this point you were operating on the rush of starting out in new territory, picking up a few quick wins but still being blissfully unaware of all the challenges that lay ahead of you. This self realization is usually what kills most people’s motivation to continue on in a particular pursuit but realistically this should be the point where you push through the pain barrier in order to make it to the other side.

Unfortunately there’s no quick fix solution other than pressing on in spite of your feelings to the contrary. You’d think having been through this process twice in recent memory that I would’ve predicted this feeling of ennui and planned accordingly but for some reason I just…didn’t. Thankfully other parts of my personality, namely the fiscal one, scream loudly enough to force me to continue on. I absolutely detest the feeling that I’m simply doing photography for the sake of getting my money’s worth out of the equipment I bought but it’s enough to keep me going and hopefully enough to drive me through to the other side.

This post will also form part of the strategy for me to keep on developing as a photographer. I’ve already put myself in many situations that I wouldn’t have otherwise for the sake of photography and, whilst I might not feel like I’m doing anything of worth at the time, I have produced some pictures that, on reflection, do meet my criteria for being “good”. I keep making a promise to myself that I’ll do 1 post here a week based on my latest photographic excursions and maybe its time that I made good on that instead of getting caught up in a circle of self loathing.

Yeah, I think its time.

Reworking The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

Anyone who’s been on the Internet for a while will be familiar with the idea that anonymity can to the worst coming out in the general populace. It’s not hard point to prove either, just wander over to any mildly popular video on YouTube and browse the comments section for a little while and you’ll see ready confirmation of the idea that regular people turn into total shitcocks the second they get the magical combination of anonymity and an audience. The idea was most aptly summed up by Penny Arcade in their Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory strip, something that has become kind of a reference piece sent to those poor souls who search for meaning as to why people are being mean to them on the Internet.

However it seems that the equation might need some reworking in light of new evidence coming from, of all places, South Korea.

I’ve long been of the thought that forcing people to use their real names would work in curtailing trolling to some degree as that removes one of the key parts of the fuckwad theory: anonymity. Indeed a site much more popular than mine said that the switch to Facebook comments, whilst dropping the total number of comments considerably, was highly effective in silencing the trolls on their site. Just over a year later however the same site posted an article saying that there’s considerable evidence that forcing users to use their real name had little effect on the total number of troll like comments citing research from South Korea and Carnegie Mellon. I’ve taken the liberty of reading the study for you and whilst the methods they employed are a little bit… soft for determining what a troll post was they do serve as a good basis for hypothesizing about how effective real name policies are.

If there was a causative link between forcing people to use their real names online and a reduction in undesirable behaviour we would’ve seen some strong correlations in the Carnegie Mellon study. Whilst there was some effectiveness shown (a reduction of 30% in the use of swear words) taken in the context that troll posts only account for a minority of posts on the sites studied (about 13%) the overall impact is quite low. Indeed whilst TechCrunch did say that Facebook comments silenced the trolls they may have called it too early as the study showed that whilst there was a damper initially, overall the level remained largely static after a certain period of time.

What this means for the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory is that the key part of the equation, anonymity, can be removed and much the same result will be had. This is a somewhat harrowing discovery as it means that the simple act of putting a regular person in front of an audience can lead to them being a reprehensible individual. On the flip side though it could also be more indicative of the people themselves as the study showed that only a minority of users engage in such behaviour. It would be very interesting to see how that compares to real life interactions as I’m sure we all know people who act like online trolls in real life.

In light of this new evidence my stance on using real names as a troll reduction method is obviously flawed. I was never really in any favour of implementing such a system (I considered using Facebook comments here for a little while) but I thought its efficacy was unquestioned. My favourite method for combating trolls is a form of timed hellbanning where by the user will not appear to everyone else but to them they will appear like they are contributing. It’s a rather ugly solution if you permanently ban someone but time limited versions appear to work to great effect in turning trolls into contributing users.

It may just be that trolling is an inevitable part of any community and the best we can do is remediate it, rather than eliminate it.

The Cardboard Bike: Breaking Traditional Material Conceptions.

You know what gets me excited? Projects like this one that break our usual paradigms, reshaping the way we think about a particular problem space:

Anyone who’s done some industrial design or materials science will tell you that strength is a relative thing. There’s a whole bunch of materials that are “stronger than steel” but that trait usually only applies to a particular trait that the supposed better material excels at. Cardboard, whilst not being able to boast anything strength gains over steel, has the rather awesome advantage of being cheap, light and almost limitlessly available. Constructing durable, reusable products out of it is something that I haven’t really seen done before and a cardboard bike shows that it can be a very capable material when you carefully engineer around its shortcomings.

Honestly when I first heard about this idea I was pretty sceptical. I figured that it was probably some kind of one off (which it is, currently) that wouldn’t work outside some very specific conditions. From the video though it’s quite clear that the bike is quite capable of replacing a regular fix speed bike without too many troubles. The next steps would be to include gears to make it a bit more usable, but for a first prototype of a production design its pretty spectacular.

The kicker of all this is just how cheap such bicycles could be. Whilst I doubt that the $90 price could be hit with all the work being done by hand I could very easily see something that’s being factory produced hitting that target. Gafni’s idea then that the bike would be “too cheap to steal” is an intriguing one as the black market for such an item would be incredibly low. I mean would by one second hand for $30 when the new one could be had for $60? I think not and crack fiends around the world aren’t going to work that hard to sell something like that when a GPS worth an order of magnitude more is just one window away.

Everything about this project is exciting to me. The radical use of materials, the incredible amount of engineering and the wider social impacts that such an invention could have. Should these eventually become available you can be assured that one will make it into my home, just because of the ideals it represents.

I Find Your Lack of Financial Knowledge…Disturbing.

I wasn’t always interested in the world of finance and making money work for you. No for a very long time I was the product of my not-so-well off parent’s financial education: save everything you can so you can buy a house one day and then use every spare dollar you have to pay it off. If I’m honest that advice is probably the best advice most people can take as it appears that anything more exotic than that gets thrown in the too hard basket along with any notion of fiscal responsibility. However it seems that there’s a distinct lack of financial knowledge prevalent in Australia (although if I’m honest it’s not unique to us) and the number of articles that keep popping up showing this have really got me worried.

Most of the ones that have been crossing my path recently (from news.com.au and yes I know, I should stop. I have a problem) are regarding Australians, both young and old, voicing their concerns over their superannuation. It appears that some Australians believe that their inheritance, you know that supposed financial payment you get when your loved ones  die, will be their saviour come retirement time. Other’s are worried that their super won’t be enough for them when they retire, which is a valid concern for many, but such worries are usually born of poor planning without a thought given to what retirement and superannuation are really for.

I’ll forgive my generation for not knowing this but there was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when superannuation wasn’t a guaranteed thing. Indeed it wasn’t until 1992 when the Keating government legislated for compulsory superannuation that it became required for employers to contribute a percentage, then 3%, of their employee’s income into superannuation funds. It was a long game manoeuvre as the next 2 decades were going to see many of the baby boomer generation move into retirement. The pension system would be unable to cope with so many retirees and thus the government hoped to head this off at the curve by making everyone save for their own retirement (and created the oft-quote “self funded retirees” sound bite).

For all of my generation they will have spent their entire working life contributing to a super fund and whilst it probably isn’t anything to write home about at the moment it will be quite something when it comes time for them to retire. I ran some quick numbers using the median Australian wage as a base ($66,820 if you’re wondering), the current 9% super contribution and a modest super return rate of 5% per year (the average is closer to 6.5%). If we say that the average Australian has a working life of 45 years, from the age of 20 to 65, then they end up with a rather healthy sum of $960,000 in super when they finally reach retirement age. At 5% return rate per year this means a retiree can draw down almost $50,000 per year without eating into their super at all. This is about 71% of their working life income which wouldn’t be too bad considering you’d expect their expenses would be a hell of a lot lower.

The situation for people not in my generation is completely different however as many of the assumptions I made can’t be said for everyone else. I haven’t even touched on things that can increase that final figure dramatically (like super co-contributions) which would make retirement even easier. Still the point stands that anyone in my generation in Australia who thinks they won’t have enough to retire on obviously has little idea about real financial planning.

As for those nearing retirement and wondering if they have enough super I can’t really say much without knowing their situation (there’s a whole mess of variables that can change things dramatically when you’re within 10 years of retiring) but the fact that there are people worrying about it should serve as a warning to the rest of us. It’s not something you should be thinking about when retirement is looming over you, although that seems to be the norm around here.

I really could go on for quite a while longer about this but I think I’ve already driven my point home. Us Gen Y’s are going to be pretty well set up for retirement when the time comes and anyone who’s relying on some kind of influx of cash in order to retire has more than one kangaroo loose in their top paddock. I’m not saying you need to fret about it every day but if you keep an eye on your super, keep those home loan repayments up and keep your bad debt low then you’ll really have nothing to worry about. Not doing this will leave you in the same situation as many baby boomers are now finding themselves in and you’ll find no sympathy from me should you ignore the lessons to be learned from their plight.

iOS Poised For The Enterprise? Sir, I Think You Went Full Retard.

There’s no denying the success Apple has enjoyed thanks to their major shift in strategy under Steve Jobs’ reign. Before then they were seen as a direct competitor to Microsoft in almost every way: iMacs vs PCs, MacOS vs Windows and at pretty much every turn they were losing the battle save for a few dedicated niches that kept them afloat. That all changed when they got into the consumer electronics space and began bringing the sacred geek technology to the masses in a package that was highly desirable. There was one aspect of their business that suffered immensely because of this however: their enterprise sector.

Keen readers will note that this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Apple’s less than stellar support of the enterprise market and nothing has really changed in the 8 months since I wrote that last post. Apple as a company is almost entirely dedicated to the consumer space with token efforts for enterprise integration thrown in to make it look like their products can play well in the enterprise space. Strangely enough it would seem that this token effort is somehow working to convince developers that Apple (well really iOS) is poised to take over the enterprise space:

In the largest survey of its kind, Appcelerator developers were asked what operating system is best positioned to win the enterprise market. Developers said iOS over Android by a 53% to 38% margin. Last year, in its second quarter survey, the two companies were in a dead heat for the enterprise market, tied at 44%.

In a surprise of sorts, Windows showed some life as 33% said they would be interested in developing apps on the Windows 8 tablet.

Now there is value in gauging developer’s sentiment regarding the various platforms, it gives you some insight into which ones they’d probably prefer to develop for, however that doesn’t really serve as an indicator as to what platform will win a particular market. I’d hazard a guess (one that’s based on previous trends) that the same developers will tell you that iOS is the platform to develop for even though it’s quite clear that Android is winning in the consumer space by a very wide margin. I believe there’s the same level of disjunct between what Appcelerator’s developers are saying and what the true reality is.

For starters any of the foothold that iOS has in the enterprise space is not born of any effort that Apple has made and all of it is to do with non-Apple products. For iOS to really make a dent in the enterprise market it will need some significant buy in from its corporate overlords and whilst there’s been some inroads to this (like with the Enterprise Distribution method for iOS applications) I’m just not seeing anything like that from Apple currently. All of their enterprise offerings are simplistic and token lacking many of the features that are required by enterprises today. They may have mindshare and numbers that will help drive people to create integration between iOS products and other enterprise applications but so does Android, meaning that’s really not an advantage at all.

What gets me is the (I’m paraphrasing) “sort of surprise” that developers were looking to Windows 8 for developing applications. Taken in the enterprise context the only real surprise is why there aren’t more developers looking at the platform as if there’s any platform that has chance at dominating this sector it is in fact Windows 8. There’s no doubting the challenges that the platform faces what with Apple dominating the tablet space that Microsoft is only just looking at getting into seriously but the leverage they have for integrating with all their enterprise applications simply can’t be ignored. They may not have the numbers yet but if developer mindshare is the key factor here then Microsoft wins hands down, but that won’t show up in a survey that doesn’t include Windows developers (Appcelerator’s survey is from its users only and currently does not support Windows Phone).

I’ve had my share of experience with iOS/Android integration with various enterprise applications and for what its worth none of them are really up to the same level as native platform applications are. Sure you can get your email and even VPN back in to a full desktop using your smartphone but that’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. The executives might be pushing hard to get their iPads/toy dujour on the enterprise systems but they won’t penetrate much further until those devices can provide some real value to those outside of the executive arena. Currently the only platform that has any chance of doing that well is Microsoft with Android coming in second.

None of this means that Apple/iOS can’t do well in the enterprise space, just that there are other players in this market far better positioned to do so. Should Apple put some focus on the enterprise market it’s quite likely they could capture some market share away from Microsoft and their other partners but their business models have been moving increasingly away from this sector ever since they first release the iPod over a decade ago. Returning to the enterprise world is not something I expect to see from Apple or its products any time soon and no developer sentiment is going to change that.

How DirectX 11 Can Look This Good.

First up have a gander at this beautiful tech demo that uses DirectX 11’s rasterization and post-processing engine to produce some truly spectacular looking images:

YouTube Preview Image

If you want to have a play with it yourself you can download the demo from the creator here. The recommended specs for it aren’t exactly mainstream though so it might not run particularly well on hardware that’s a couple years old now. Whilst I haven’t had a go of it myself yet there are a couple things that I picked up on in the video that I think are  interesting, mostly because they give us some insight into how we perceive things as being realistic or not.

For starters you’ll probably notice the large amount of blurring that’s present in the video with the only portion of the image that’s always clear being somewhere in the middle of the screen. In photography terms this is referred to as the depth of field of an image or put more simply the area of the image that’s in sharp focus. For the tech demo the depth of field is incredibly shallow most of the time which, whilst not being done in order to make rendering faster (it in fact makes it slower as the whole scene has to be rendered then blurred), it does have the effect of making the scene look at lot more realistic than it would otherwise.

Now I’m not completely sure why depth of field works so well for making generated images appear realistic but the research I’ve dredged up seems to indicate that it has some to do with depth of field being used by our brains as a visual cue. Since most generated images are viewed on a 2 dimensional plane there’s no real depth to any of the images (does a picture of a hallway look like it’s continuing on through the monitor?) but replicating the depth of field seems to trick our brains into thinking it’s more realistic than it is. I’d bet that the demo wouldn’t be looking anywhere near as good if the depth of field wasn’t present and I’ll have to give it a look over to see if there’s an option to turn it off for comparison.

There’s also some other sneaky tricks being used in there like the use of rigid bodies for all of the things being rendered on screen. Whilst the physics appears to be very realistic it’s probably the simplest kind of interaction to model given that a hard object on a hard surface is about as close to ideal as it can come. As far as I can tell there’s either only a single or small number of lighting sources present in the scene which would make the whole thing a lot faster to run.

All this being said however it doesn’t detract from just how good this tech demo looks. There may be a ton of tricks used to get this looking the way it does but that’s what computer graphics are all about: finding those tricks and then using them to our advantage. Whilst you probably won’t be seeing many games based around this kind of tech for a while (the system specs alone are prohibitive) it does show what current generation computers are capable of producing and should excite you about the future possibilities.

Sol Exodus Screenshot Wallpaper Upgrades

Sol: Exodus: Short, Sweet, So Much More Possible.

I’ve always loved space simulators, even before I discovered my passion for all things space related some years ago. For the last 2 times I’ve found myself between Internet connections at home I’ve always found myself playing through the campaign of Freelancer at least once just because there’s something so incredibly satisfying about the experience. Few games have close to generating that same feeling even though there’s been quite a few that tried (DarkStar One and Evochron Mercenaries come to mind). Sol: Exodus is a recent title in the space sim genre and it came as part of one of the Indie Bundles currently going on steam. From what little I had heard about it Sol: Exodus looked decent enough to warrant me giving it the once over.

Sol: Exodus takes place 500 years into the future where humanity has devastated our home planet and we have instead become a space bound race. You play as Commander Michael David, a well trained space pilot who’s been tasked with protecting the last hope for humanity: a series of science vessels designed to scout out potential planets for settlement. Just as the scientists relay the exciting news that they’ve found a planet that would be suitable your fleet comes under attack by a religious zealot group who are hell bent on ensuring that humanity stays bound to space. You and your command ship survive and this begins your journey into bringing them to justice whilst also bringing about humanity’s salvation.

The graphics of Sol: Exodus are a mix of very nicely done spacescapes coupled with rather rudimentary level models and textures for everything else on screen. Now I won’t be unduly harsh on the developers behind Sol: Exodus because of this, there’s only so much you can do with such a small team, but it bears mentioning that the art work isn’t anything stellar. Couple this with the almost pixel art level renditions of the character portraits and the game feels like it was released around the same time as my go to favourite Freelancer more than it does for a title of the present day. Still the backgrounds are usually quite pretty so they win back some points for that.

The main game mechanic of Sol: Exodus is good old fashioned space dogfighting with a couple mini-games thrown in to break up it a little bit. It functions pretty much as you’d expect, you have a targeting system that paints target after target for you to gun down and you can do so with either your homing missiles (which have a limited supply) or you can try to mow them down using your unlimited ammunition gattling gun using the provided aim ahead reticle. Apart from that there’s not that much more to it (apart from the mini-games which I’ll get into later) and for the most part it works well save for a few little quirks I think need to be mentioned.

Like all space games with dogfighting in them (apart from games like EVE Online where you’re movement is almost irrelevant to the combat) you’ll spend a great deal of time chasing enemies from behind, sending torrents of bullets and missiles after them. The AI is unfortunately somewhat rudimentary and whilst they provide a decent challenge, especially the later elite ones, they are quite dumb and will gladly fly to their deaths by ramming into any obstacle that happens to be near by. This could be your ship, an NPC ship or anything that has collision detection on it. Whilst it’s not really possible to get them to fly into stuff by baiting them into it you’ll be likely witness to dozens of them driving their crafts into inanimate objects just for the hell of it. It’s amusing but a sign that the game AI is only half baked.

The mini-games I’ve referred to usually take the form of a scramble pad that pops up which displays a whole lot of random characters. After a couple seconds 3 letters will be highlighted and then you’ll be presented with a list of similar codes and the code that was just displayed, leaving you to chose the correct one. In all the times the game came up I only stuffed it up once but that came down to the font of the game having quite similar characters for 1 and I. Once you choose the right code you can then perform some function on the device you just hacked, usually disabling something or downloading blueprints.

The blueprints function as a sort of unlock that allows you to take down the larger capital ships that you’ll come across from time to time. Once you have the blueprints parts of the craft will become highlighted in red with a big “Weakness Point” dialog hovering over the top of them, showing where you need to start hammering away. You don’t seem to need to hit all the weak points in order to take down a craft though so if you’re strategic about it you can take them down quite quickly. It’s a pretty cool, if completely unoriginal, idea although it does feel quite samey after you do it a couple times.

There’s also an incredibly simplistic upgrade system that gives you the choice of upgrading your weapons, giving you more missiles and allowing you to fire the canons longer before overheating, your armour or your afterburners.Out of the 3 upgrades the most useful is, of course, the weapons as whilst the armour upgrades are handy you in fact don’t really need it as you can repair at your capital ship at any time during the mission. There are missions when your capital isn’t there but once you get to them you’ve probably already upgraded your weapons to max and then you can easily spare some points for armour upgrades. The speed boost upgrade seems rather useless as the default one is pretty much sufficient as long as you use it wisely.

The upgrade points come to you when you complete a mission and should you hit on an extra objective you’ll get 2 instead of 1. Unfortunately this isn’t made clear to you before the mission and whilst you can kind of guess what the objective is there’s really no way to know what you should prioritize if you’re hungering for those upgrades (or achievements, but you can just read them in the steam profile). I think there was only 3 missions where I didn’t manage to get the extra upgrade points, so it’s probably moot anyway.

The story is pretty uninspired being a rather generic space opera kind of deal with a dash of religious commentary thrown in just for good measure. The characters are given little back story or development and whilst it’s fully voice acted (commendable given its indie nature) there’s nothing really notable about the performances. Suffice to say if you ignore the story completely I don’t think you’d really be missing out on anything and the fact they committed the cardinal sin of leaving the ending open (they even said TO BE CONTINUED at the credits screen) leaves me the only option of saying you’re probably better off for doing so.

In the end Sol: Exodus feels like a good starting point for a space simulator game, one that could be so much more than it currently is. It’s incredibly short, even by indie standards, and there’s no multiplayer to speak of, something which would have made the short campaign length more understandable. Granted Seamless Entertainment are a small studio and should be commended for getting to this point but the fact remains that Sol: Exodus isn’t much more than an afternoon’s distraction and feels like it would be much better suited to the iOS/Android platform than the PC it resides on. Maybe we’ll see more from the developers in the future where they use all the investment in Sol: Exodus to produce something that has a lot more meat to it than their latest title does.

Rating: 6.0/10

Sol: Exodus is available on PC right  now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 2.5 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.

BitCoin Price Chart 23012012 to 19072012

The Last Thing BitCoin Needs: Rising Exchange Rates.

In regular financial markets the value of a country’s currency is a great marker for how well it’s doing in economic terms. The surge in value of the Australian currency over the past 2 years demonstrates how strong our economy was in comparison to the rest of the world, mostly thanks to our strong capitalization of our banks couple with some pocket change from the mining and resources boom. However there’s one particular exchange rate where the value of the currency is actually irrelevant to the strength of the underlying economy and a high trading price actually signals that there’s something going horribly wrong. The economy I’m referring to is the one of the online cryptocurrency BitCoin.

Long time readers will know that I was very skeptical about the idea at first as it harked back to the days of other online currencies that were ripe for exploitation and all of which inevitably fell down, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. My concerns were mainly centred around the immense amount of wealth that that was concentrated in the hands of the early adopters but over time it shifted to the crazy exchange rates that BitCoins were attracting which inevitably lead to the price crash that happened in the middle of last year. Since then I’ve been more bullish on the idea of BitCoins because the price has remained steady whilst transaction volumes have started to rise, showing that BitCoins can actually function as a proper currency and not a speculative investment vehicle.

However over the last month or so BitCoin’s exchange rate has been creeping up steadily and the last week alone has seen massive gains in the current trading price:

As you can see for the past 6 months or so the price of BitCoins has been relatively steady, trading at around $5 for a good length of time. However just over a month ago the value started to slowly tick upwards and the last two weeks have seen that value explode in some rapid gains, culminating in a massive jump of almost 20% in under a week. Whilst it’s nothing like the speculative bubble of last year it does raise concerns that the stability of the BitCoin currency was short lived and the speculators have come back to the market looking to derive some more short term gains from the market they successfully pillaged last year.

Increases like this remind us of the unfortunate fact that at its current size the BitCoin market is still volatile as there are strong correlations between large transaction volumes and huge swings in the exchange rate. This is not a desirable attribute for a currency and is much more amenable to speculative trading, something which has burned BitCoin users in the past. Indeed a rising BitCoin value should cause a rational actor to hold off using is as a currency as they would instead want to hold onto them for as long as possible in order to extract the maximum amount of gain out of them. Such thinking is what lead to the BitCoin price to reach such dizzying heights last year and this last bump in the price has the potential to do it all over again.

For BitCoin’s sake I hope this isn’t the case as there are many innovative companies betting their core business on the BitCoin idea and a volatile market could easily spell the end for them. It’s quite possible that these latest bumps are just blips on the radar but the steady rise over the last month or so really has me worried about a repeat of the speculative bubble that happened last year. Can the BitCoin market correct for this kind of behaviour? Will passionate BitCoiners get roped back into the idea that their BitCoins are investment and not a wealth transfer vehicle? I don’t have straight answers to these questions but the next couple months will show if the BitCoin market can learn from the mistakes of its past and hopefully overcome them to become the real virtual currency it has always strived to be.

Configuring Dell Server BIOS Remotely Using WSMAN and WinRM.

I have the pleasure of configuring some Dell kit without the use of a pre-execution environment. This presents quite a challenge as many of the management tools are designed to run within such an environment or an installed operating system which means that my options for configuring these serves is somewhat limited. Thankfully for most of the critical stuff Dell’s RACADM tool is more than capable of managing the server remotely however it unfortunately doesn’t have any access to the system BIOS where some critical changes need to be made. Thus I was in need of finding a solution to this problem and it seems that my saviour comes in the form of a protocol called Web Services Management (WSMAN).

WSMAN is an open protocol for server management which provides a rather feature rich interface to your hardware for getting, setting and enumerating the various features and settings on your hardware. Of course since its so powerful it’s also rather complex in nature and you won’t really be able to stumble your way through it without the help of a vendor specific guide. For Dell servers the appropriate guide is the Lifecycle Controller Web Services Interface Guide (there’s an equivalent available for Linux) which gives you a breakdown of the commands that are available and what they can accomplish.

They’re not fully documented however so I thought I’d show you a couple commands I’ve used in order to configure some BIOS settings on one of the M910 blades I’m currently working on. The first requirement was to disable all the on board NICs as we want to use the Qlogic QME8262-k 10GB NICs instead. In order to do this however we first need to get some information out of the WSMAN interface in order to know which variables to change. The first command you’ll want to run is the following:

winrm e http://schemas.dmtf.org/wbem/wscim/1/cim-schema/2/root/dcim/DCIM_BIOSEnumeration
-u:root -p:calvin
-r:https://[iDRACIP]/wsman -SkipCNcheck -SkipCAcheck
-encoding:utf-8 -a:basic

Which will give you a whole bunch of output along these lines:

DCIM_BIOSEnumeration
    AttributeName = EmbNic1Nic2
    Caption
    CurrentValue = Enabled
    DefaultValue
    Description
    ElementName
    FQDD = BIOS.Setup.1-1
    InstanceID = BIOS.Setup.1-1:EmbNic1Nic2
    IsOrderedList
    IsReadOnly = FALSE
    PendingValue
    PossibleValues = Disabled, Enabled

DCIM_BIOSEnumeration
    AttributeName = EmbNic1
    Caption
    CurrentValue = EnabledPxe
    DefaultValue
    Description
    ElementName
    FQDD = BIOS.Setup.1-1
    InstanceID = BIOS.Setup.1-1:EmbNic1
    IsOrderedList
    IsReadOnly = FALSE
    PendingValue
    PossibleValues = Disabled, EnablediScsi, EnabledPxe, Enabled

Of note in the output are the AttributeName and PossibleValues variables. In essence these represent the current and possible states of the BIOS variables and all of them can be modified through the appropriate WSMAN command. The Dell guide I referenced earlier though doesn’t exactly tell you how to do this and the only example that appears to be close is one for modifying the BIOS boot mode setting. However as it turns out this same command can be used to modify any variable that is output by the previous command so long as you create the appropriate XML file. Shown below is the command and XML file to disable the first 2 embedded NICs:

Code:
winrm i SetAttribute http://schemas.dmtf.org/wbem/wscim/1/cim-schema/2/root/dcim/DCIM_BIOSService?SystemCreationClassName=DCIM_ComputerSystem
+CreationClassName=DCIM_BIOSService
+SystemName=DCIM:ComputerSystem+Name=DCIM:BIOSService
-u:root -p:calvin
-r:https://[iDRACIP]/wsman -SkipCNcheck -SkipCAcheck
-encoding:utf-8 -a:basic -file:SetAttribute_BIOS.xml

SetAttribute_BIOS.xml:
<p:SetAttribute_INPUT xmlns:p="http://schemas.dmtf.org/wbem/wscim/1/cim-schema/2/root/dcim/DCIM_BIOSService">
<p:Target>BIOS.Setup.1-1</p:Target>
<p:AttributeName>EmbNic3Nic4</p:AttributeName>
<p:AttributeValue>Disabled</p:AttributeValue>
</p:SetAttribute_INPUT>

This appears to work quite well for individual attributes but I’ve encountered errors when trying to set more than one BIOS variable at a time. This could easily be due to me fat fingering the input file (I didn’t really check it before troubleshooting it further) but it could also be a limitation of the WSMAN implementation on the Dell servers. Either way once you’ve run that command you’ll notice the response from the server states that the values are pending and the server requires a reboot. Now I’m not 100% sure if you can get away with just rebooting it through the iDRAC or physically rebooting it but there is a WSMAN command which I can guarantee will apply the setting whilst also rebooting the server for you. Again this one relies on an XML file for it to succeed:

Code:
winrm i CreateTargetedConfigJob http://schemas.dmtf.org/wbem/wscim/1/cim-schema/2/root/dcim/DCIM_BIOSService?SystemCreationClassName=DCIM_ComputerSystem
+CreationClassName=DCIM_BIOSService
+SystemName=DCIM:ComputerSystem
+Name=DCIM:BIOSService
-u:root -p:calvin
-r:https://[iDRACIP]/wsman -SkipCNcheck -SkipCAcheck
-encoding:utf-8 -a:basic -file:CreateTargetedConfigJob_BIOS.xml

CreateTargetedConfigJob_BIOS.xml:
<p:CreateTargetedConfigJob_INPUT xmlns:p="http://schemas.dmtf.org/wbem/wscim/1/cim-schema/2/root/dcim/DCIM_BIOSService">
<p:Target>BIOS.Setup.1-1</p:Target>
<p:RebootJobType>2</p:RebootJobType>
<p:ScheduledStartTime>TIME_NOW</p:ScheduledStartTime>
<p:UntilTime>20131111111111</p:UntilTime>
</p:CreateTargetedConfigJob_INPUT>

Upon executing this command the server will reboot and then load into the Lifecycle Controller where it will apply the desired settings. After which it will reboot again and you’ll be able to view the settings inside the BIOS proper. It appears that this command can be used for any variable that appears within the initial BIOS enumeration so using this it is quite possible to fully configure the BIOS remotely. You can also access quite a lot of things within the iDRAC itself however I’ve found that RACADM is a much easier way to go about this, especially if you simply dump the entire config, edit it, then reupload it. Still the option is there if you want to use the single tool but unless you’re something of a masochist I wouldn’t recommend doing everything through WSMAN.

All that being said however the WSMAN API appears to cover pretty much everything in the server so if you need to do something remotely to it (hardware wise) and you don’t have the luxury of a PXE or installed operating system than its definitely something to look into. Hopefully the above commands will get you started and then the rest of the Dell integration guide will make a little more sense. If you’ve got any questions about a particular command hit me up in the comments, on Twitter or on my Facebook fan page and I’ll help you out as much as I can.

Conscientious Objection to Vaccinations? What The Fuck Australia.

For a while I was lulled into thinking that Australia was becoming some kind of rational place thanks to all the progress we had been making. After years of campaigning, blogging and whining about it to friends we’re less than 6 months away from having a R18+ rating for games in Australia. The government also seemed to become more aware of people acting irrationally and decided to do something about it, removing the family tax benefit for parents who refused to vaccinate their kids. Sure we still had a long way to go but the beginnings of a rational, logical government seemed to be sprouting up everywhere and for a time I was happy.

All it took was one news article to bring that all down in one sweeping blow. I’ll let the exerpt speak for itself:

While parents have been warned they will lose their payment and the childcare benefit if they do not fully immunise their children, they are also being told exemptions will be given to objectors.

All they have to do to still receive the money is fill out a form supplied by the Federal Government.

The Federal Government’s Department of Human Services website outlines the immunisation requirements.

It reads: “To meet the immunisation requirements, children will need to be fully immunised, be on a recognised immunisation catch-up schedule, or have an approved exemption.”

You can imagine how furious this made me.

So last November when I blogged about the Australian government taking away tax benefits for people who refused to vaccinate their children I thought it was a no holds barred approach: if you refuse to vaccinate you lose the money, simple. Turns out that’s not entirely the case as whilst if you do refuse to vaccinate you will lose the benefit that will only happen should you fail to fill out he conscientious objection form available from DHS. If you fill out that form then you’re right as rain and you’ll get the full tax benefits as if you had fully immunized your child even though you haven’t.

To me that seems more like a punishment for the ignorant and unaware, not people who don’t want to vaccinate their children.

Indeed it makes the whole policy null and void as the anti-vaxers are a vocal movement, with posts like these reaching a wide audience. Realistically if the government was serious about this legislation there wouldn’t be any exemptions at all and the anti-vaxers would have to endure both the physical and fiscal consequences of their actions. Instead now all we have is anti-vaxers wasting the time of doctors in order to get them to sign a form so they can then reclaim the money that they shouldn’t be entitled to and that makes me incredibly furious.

You see whilst the Australian Vaccination Network might like to think that there’s two sides to the vaccination debate they are in fact clearly wrong. The old pretence of vaccinations causing autism is patently false and anyone pointing to data saying that there have been more cases of autism since their introduction forgets the fact that diagnosing austim spectrum disorders has been an area of scientific investigation ever since it was introduced. Any increase in the condition’s prevalence is far more likely due to the umbrella of ASDs spreading than vaccinations or some other mysterious environmental factor.

Worse still are the proponents who think vaccinations aren’t the best way to develop a healthy immune system and that it can be had through a healthy diet or some other rubbish. Vaccines work because they give your immune system the tools with which to destroy the disease before it can take hold and the only other way to get a similar level of immunity is to catch the disease. For some vaccinated diseases this might not be too bad (chicken pox has only recently had a vaccine developed as the symptoms are very mild for children, however they can be deadly for adults) but for things like small pox, polio and other nasty diseases vaccination is the only safe way to get immunity. There are other diseases for which no immunity develops after you’ve caught it (pertussis or whooping cough) which means you could very well catch the same disease repeated times without strengthening the immune system at all.

I will wholeheartedly defend the parent’s rights to do as they will with their own bodies but the second they start to make decisions about their child’s (and indirectly all other children that interact with them) health then I believe the government has every right to step in and intervene. The fact of the matter is that refusal to vaccinate your child isn’t a decision that affects your child it puts every other child near them at risk. Herd immunity only goes so far and we’ve seen far too many tragic incidents where parents of children who can’t be vaccinated yet (because they’re too young) die because another child would could have been vaccinated wasn’t and then transmitted a fatal infection to them. Not vaccinating your children is a completely selfish decision and I believe the government has every right to punish you for it.

How you can claim to have a concious and object to protecting your child with scientifically proven and tested methods is beyond my comprehension. There is no scientific argument that the anti-vaxer movement can bring forward that supports their view, it’s all based on the emotion of those who believe vaccines are responsible for something that they’re not. I can understand their frustration, I used to work with special needs children and it can be truly heart wrenching at times, and the need to look for a source of blame is incredibly strong. However I can’t condone them blaming vaccines for anything but making their child cry when they get the injection as there’s no evidence to support it and abstaining from them puts their child and all other children around them in serious danger.

Seriously Australia, don’t support this kind of bullshit. It’s our kids who will pay the price.