Tomer Gabel's annoying spot on the 'net RSS 2.0
# Sunday, 30 October 2005
I haven't had much time on my hands lately, what with buying a car, moving into a new place (a nice large flat in Haifa), work and starting university (at the Technion). Coupled with the fact that I've stopped working full-time and that I'm eagerly awaiting the new Visual Studio 2005 (due to come out on November 7th), the direct result is a very low rate of posting lately.

Despite all of the above, I've managed to snag a few hours of gameplay and have a few comments to make:

  • The F.E.A.R demo was absolutely terrific. Admittedly my (now two year-old) machine is no match for the souped up 3D engine, but it still managed perfectly playable (>40) framerates at 800x600 at very high detail levels. This will not do so I expect to buy a new console/machine pretty soon (probably the latter, I'm not very fond of consoles), but regardless the hour or so of gameplay featured in the demo was very satisfying indeed. The graphics are absolutely top-notch and the bullet-time effect is finally something to write home about (although it seems more like a last-minute addition than a feature based in solid design) and the gameplay is very good indeed.
  • I also played the Serious Sam 2 demo and enjoyed it quite a bit. It's not as slick and tongue-in-cheek as the first game was, but the 30-minute-odd level was very fun indeed. This time, however, the 3D engine is anything but revolutionary; it's decent enough, but not quite as fast and not quite as good looking as some of its competition (F.E.A.R, Doom 3, Half-Life 2 come to mind). My laptop (Dothan 1.7GHz, Radeon 9700 Mobility) couldn't handle more than medium detail at 1024x768; considering that the game isn't really visually groundbreaking (the laptop handles HL2/Doom 3 fluently) this isn't very encouraging.
  • Half Life 2: Lost Coast is out and kicks a lot of ass. Aside from the top-notch map design (which isn't annoying, stupid or frustrating like some parts of HL2 itself), the new HDR mode is absolutely stunning. On my gaming machine (same one that couldn't handle F.E.A.R...), as long as I don't run with AA everything is very smooth and looks beautiful. There is also a nifty commentary feature which allows you to hear (on demand) audio commentary by the team responsible for the game. On the negative side, Source is still a horrible mess as they haven't fixed the millions of caching and sound issues, and the loading times are dreadful to boot. Plus, 350MB for a demo based on pre-existing resources seems a bit much.
  • I had amazingly high expectations from Indigo Prophecy considering all the hype. To make a very long story short, it got uninstalled about 5 minutes into the tutorial. The controls are horrible, horrible to the point where I couldn't figure for the life of me what the hell the tutorial wants with me. Aside from the already convoluted interface, the tutorial at some point wants to "test your reflexes"; it does this by showing you a sketch of a D-pad controller (I guess the game was originally devised for consoles...), and at the opportune moment one of the controller buttons lights up and you have to press the same button on your actual controller as fast as possible. As the reigning deathmatch king in the vicinity I think I can safely say that my reflexes were NOT the issue here, not after about 20 attempts by myself about about 20 more by my brother. Either the tutorial does a terrible job at conveying what it is you're supposed to do, or the game is simply badly programmed. Either way, removed, gone, zip, zilch. Unless some future patch seriously alters the control scheme I'm not touching this game with a 60-foot pole. This only goes to prove my theory that consoles are directly responsible for the lower quality of PC titles today; not because of technology, not because of cost, but simply because of shitty controls originating in consoles and badly ported to the PC. Want a counter-example? Psychonauts has absolutely perfect controls, even on the PC.
  • I spent about 25 minutes watching my brother play Shadow Of The Colossus on the PlayStation 2. Graphically the game is very impressive, however it tries to do a lot more than the aging PS2 platform can really handle; I've seen framerates in the 10-15 range, which for a straightforward console title is simply not cool. I haven't actually played the game, but from watching my brother I can safely say that the controls are either poor or difficult to get a handle of, but a couple of days later my brother said that the real problem is simply an ineffective tutorial and "it's really quite alright once you get the hang of it." Gameplay-wise it didn't seem overly exciting, but I may yet give it a shot at some point.
  • After a couple of hours playing Five Magical Amulets I believe I can safely conclude that, while I appreciate that it is a labour of love and a lot of work went into making it, it's simply not a good game. The plot is very simple and uninspired; some of the dialogs are very poorly written; the quests are either too simple and easy to figure out or simply make very little sense (minor spoiler: combining the fly and the pitch made some sense, but the bag?!) and the graphics are very amateur. The whole game is Kyrandia-esque but without the high production values, although in its defense the music is actually quite good. Bottom line: there are better independent games for sure. The White Chamber is one.
Sunday, 30 October 2005 19:47:48 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
Gaming
# Thursday, 27 October 2005
I gave OpenOffice.org 2.0 a spin today; I installed it, started up Writer, imported a >6MB Word document spanning well over 100 pages with lots of graphical content, edited huge chunks of it (including vast modifications, new pages, internal links, cuts and pastes from various sources etc.) and found it to be mostly superiour to Microsoft Word 2003.

For starters, the menus make a hell of a lot more sense than the obfuscated Word system of nested option dialogs. It was a lot easier to find stuff in the menus, and - much more importantly - everything worked from square one. I hardly had to touch the options (only to reassign Ctrl+K to "insert hyperlink" - an old habit from my Word days) and I could play the software like a finely tuned piano. I found it superiour to Word in many subtle ways: for example, the Navigator (F5 by default) turned out to be invaluable for said document (which is tightly hierarchical and very long and complex); linking was almost as good, requiring just one more keypress than Word for internal links within the document; formatting and reformatting was made a lot easier with HTML-like formatting options and built-in keybindings (such as Ctrl+0 for default formatting, which I found invaluable) and the whole shebang was rock-stable. Now that's what I call open source done right!

I did have a few gripes, obviously. For starters, I couldn't find a "Navigate Back" button anywhere (in Word I remapped it to Ctrl+-, in lieu of Visual Studio 2003) which I sourly miss. Believe it or not, the only other gripe I have is with the loading/saving system: the loading/saving times are considerably higher than Word, particularly for imported/exported documents (i.e. loading or saving a Word-format doc file). Word appears to implement some sort of delta-save mechanism, because when editing the same document with Word subsequent saves via Ctrl+S (which I do about twice a minute due to paranoia, same with Visual Studio 2003...) were considerably faster (sometimes 1-2 seconds instead of almost 10). However, remember that this is a huge document we're talking about - I've rarely edited 100-page documents, or even seen them being edited. Not in my profession anyway.

I've yet to give Calc and Impress a spin, but if Writer is anything to go by I expect to be blown away. Until Office 12 comes along I doubt I'll be firing up Word very often.

Thursday, 27 October 2005 18:02:25 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
Software
# Tuesday, 25 October 2005

So I found myself in the predicament where a particular class I was using had multiple event sources and I was attempting to fire those events. I encountered two issues, the first of which was that I was trying to invoke the delegates from an outside class, which is impossible even though they're public:

An event can be used as the left-hand operand of the += and -= operators (Section 7.13.3). These operators are used, respectively, to attach event handlers to or to remove event handlers from an event, and the access modifiers of the event control the contexts in which such operations are permitted.

Since += and -= are the only operations that are permitted on an event outside the type that declares the event, external code can add and remove handlers for an event, but cannot in any other way obtain or modify the underlying list of event handlers.

(via MSDN)

This means I had to implement an OnEvent() triger method on the provider class for all events, even though the provider class was intended merely as a container and the events were intended to be fired elsewhere (think of a remotable event container and a seperate execution piepline). This meant I had to provide a lot of boiler-plate code in both consumer and provider classes to make use of these events. I would've written a generic method to handle this which accepts a Delegate parameter; enter the second issue: you'll notice that a non-specialized delegate (Delegate as opposed to, say, an instance of AsyncDelegate) does not have a BeginInvoke method. After a little research I've found some inspiration in Eric Gunnerson and Juval Lowy's classic TechNet presentation on C# best practices, however that particular implementation wasn't convenient for my uses, nor was it compliant with .NET 1.1 specifications (which require that you call EndInvoke on any asynchronous invocation to avoid resource leaks). I eventually went on to write a class that'll do the work for me.

The basic idea is to call the delegate's BeginInvoke and EndInvoke methods via Reflection. To invoke a method via Reflection you (obviously) require an invocation target; this wouldn't be an issue if the target hadn't been an event. Apparently the EventInfo class returned by Type.GetEvent() has no provision for obtaining an actual instance; instead, you have to obtain the event instance as though it were a field. Check out the following code:

// Gather requisite Reflection data

private Type m_handler;
private object m_eventInstance;

...

m_eventInstance = target.GetType().GetField( eventName, BindingFlags.Instance | BindingFlags.NonPublic ).GetValue( target );
m_handler       = target.GetType().GetEvent( eventName, BindingFlags.Instance | BindingFlags.Public    ).EventHandlerType;

// Call BeginInvoke

m_handler.InvokeMember(
"BeginInvoke",
BindingFlags.Instance | BindingFlags.Public | BindingFlags.InvokeMethod,
null,
m_eventInstance,
paraList.ToArray()
);

You can find a complete AsyncHelper class and associated (very minimal) example code here. Note that at current delegates with out or ref parameters are not supported; these could be inferred by Reflection and added to the EndInvoke method call, but I fail to see how calling such delegates asynchronously in a generic fashion would be useful.

Tuesday, 25 October 2005 17:59:40 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
Development
# Sunday, 23 October 2005
I wonder if bitrate is to bits what titrate is to...
Sunday, 23 October 2005 15:44:02 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
Personal
# Wednesday, 19 October 2005
Seen quite a few movies recently. Here's a bunch of stuff:
  • The Life Aquatic is a unique movie. Not quite comedy, not quite drama, it still manages to be interesting, never dull, often hillarious and even moving at times. It tells the (fictional) story of oceanographer Steve Zissou (played by Bill Murray) in his last great adventure: trying to find and kill the shark that ate his life-long friend Esteban. Although this may sound like a modern-day Moby Dick, the rest of the movie certainly isn't. With an insane cast including Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Michael Gambon this movie seemed to have faded into obscurity simply because it is so odd and unusual most people simply can't figure it out. Recommended.
  • Versus is a Japanese action flick which includes Yakuza, zombies and supernatural forces. Despite terrific action scenes and some amusing characters (particularly the, er, protagonist) it completely fails to mesmerize; unlike some of its Chinese counterparts (such as Black Mask) the movie doesn't flow, it just drones on and on into monotony. Stay away.
  • Four Brothers is the story of, well, four unlikely step-brothers (two white, two black) whose mom is shot down by gangsters and they seek revenge. Although the base plot is pretty standard fare the movie itself is very well made; it reminded me strongly of The Boondock Saints (itself a highly recommended movie). Four Brothers isn't quite as good but still works very well and manages to combine comic relief with some drama and lots of action. Recommended.
  • Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is a hillarious movie with Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. I usually dislike Stiller intensely, but in this particular case it works very well. The (relatively stupid) plotline pits Peter La Fleur (Vaughn) as a proprietor of Average Joe's Gym, a gym for people just like you and me (well, not really - I hope I'll never be as pathetic) facing foreclosure, against White Goodman (Stiller), owner of Globo "We're better than you, and we know it!" Gym who's trying to take over Average Joe's. Fast forward a bit, you got the guys at Average Joe entering a dodgeball tournament to win a reprieve from Average Joe's mounting debts; Rip Torn in one of his most bizarre and hysterical roles yet; great actor chemistry and goofball humour which all adds up to a really fun movie. It's not quite as good (or satirical) as BASEketball but it's great fun never-the-less.
  • I saw the first two episodes of Planetes and couldn't figure out what the big deal was; my brother (who usually knows his stuff) spoke very highly of the series but the episodes I watched bored me so badly I stopped watching in the middle, instead preferring to finish playing The White Chamber.
  • In other news, Serenity will be coming to Israeli theaters sometime in mid-November. Hoozah! Since the tickets to the screening at Icon were long gone by the time I tried to order this means I might yet get the chance to watch the movie, and might even do some catching up on Firefly beforehand.
Wednesday, 19 October 2005 12:12:19 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
Movies
# Monday, 17 October 2005
Here's today's tidbits. I don't have much time so I'll keep the list relatively short (it currently amounts to about 10% of the stuff I have in my "pending" file):

    Development

  • Here's a bizarre trick (via Ayende): apparenly when binary-searching an array (via Array.BinarySearch) if the specified value is not found, you can get the index of the next largest value by bitwise-complementing the result (index =~ index;). Convoluted, but useful.
  • Here's a cool shell extension improvement from Jeff Atwood called Clean Sources Plus (based on the original codebase by Omar Shahine); it allows you to "clean up" a VS.NET solution from intermediate files and source control bindings for sharing with other developers. Dead useful.
  • Fascinating discussion in response to Jeff's post about eliminating the user field from login screens. Personally I don't think there's anything wrong with the current system (I read the post too late to participate meaningfully in the discussion), but there's a lot of interesting stuff to read there.
  • Nifty demonstration of basic CSS 1.1 and JavaScript. It doesn't work in Internet Explorer because IE does not support alpha in PNGs (a very annoying limitation in itself) and does not fully implement DOM events.
  • I stumbled upon an old article by Joel, which states something so absolutely obvious most people completely fail to realize it: people (and programmers specifically) are only very good at doing one complex thing at a time. Giving a programmer (even a good one) more than one project, or alternatively interrupting his project for "right here, right now" kind of work, is hazardous to his or her productivity. It reminds me of Fred Brooks' excellent The Mythical Man-Month; in retrospect the conclusion is just so obvious it seems almost impossible that people didn't realize it at the time.

    Stuff

  • DARPA challenge finally beaten! This is a huge event for robotics fans, which I'm not - however I recognize that this is a landmark in AI and robotics. Impressive stuff.
  • My next keyboard is probably going to be the new Microsoft Natural Ergo 4000. I intensely dislike most keyboards out in the market these days (still use a Microsoft Natural Elite or IBM Model M) and it would be a nice change of pace to get a new Natural with added features (padded wrist-pad, standard page-up/down cluster etc.) which doesn't suck. I hope the tactile response is at least as good as the Elite's. I was looking to get one of those, but apparently only Dagesh carry those in Israel so far (for 380 shekels, shipping included ~ $75 + VAT); I would get it from eBay, but it won't cost any less and it's a warrantee nightmare. Guess I'll just wait.
  • Here's an interesting concept: labs.zarate.org allows you to create passwords on a per-site basis by providing a master password and target URL. It works by MD5-hashing the master-password with the site URL. Cool idea and seemingly quite secure (assuming the hashing function is strong enough; considering the general quality of passwords people use, I'd say it's about 1,482,918 times better).
  • The Flying Spaghetti Monster is apparently old news, but completely hysterical never-the-less, particularly in today's age of religious zealots and their "intelligent design" dogma.

    Politics

  • Assuimg this article is to be believed, post-Taliban Afghanistan is about to put a journalist on trial for charges of blasphemy. You'd think that the US with its self-proclaimed desire to bring democracy to the world would not have left a radical Islamic government in Afghanistan. You'd be wrong.
  • UK Labor party member Walter Wolfgang, 82, was forcibly ejected from a conference for heckling the foreign secretary. This in itself is common in stupid political strife; what worries me is that a second delegate (Steve Forrest) who protested the treatment was also forcibly ejected and then denied access to the venue under the powers of the Terrorism Act. If said act can be used to circumvent lawful political activity by democratically-elected public officials, I cringe at the thought of what kind of power it gives the police over, say, an ex-Israeli army officer visiting London.
  • A Delaware public official lost in court against an anonymous blogger who posted what said official perceived were defamatory comments against him. The court ruled that the blogger's ISP may not expose his identity, which I consider a major win for free speech. Too bad other courts are not quite as sensible.
Monday, 17 October 2005 13:56:29 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
Personal
# Sunday, 16 October 2005
About a month ago I invited a bunch of people to an impromptu LAN party to be held at my parent's house (as they were out of the country at the time). Despite some organizational hurdles (primarily the lack of a network switch with enough ports) we eventually managed to overcome the party was sweet, short and to the point.


Omer playing StarCraft

During the course of about 20 hours we played loads of Call of Duty, some StarCraft: Brood War, a bit of WarCraft III and a whole lot of my personal favourite: UT2k4. UT flavours included regular deathmatch, quite a bit of Onslaught (not my favourite of gaming modes, but nevermind that), a little bombing match and what I consider the best gaming-mode: instagib deathmatch. It's hillarious, and you can't beat the andrenaline rush (well, except maybe Q3 DM17 with 5 bots at hardcore).


Myself, concentrating on a round of UT

As usual we saved StarCraft for the wee hours of the night. The two games I played prove that I can still hold my own; my personal preference is for team melee where I control base contruction and expansion at first and combat later, with a second player supporting me on construction and exploration at first and maintenance later. I find that I'm extremely capable when it comes to fast micromanagement but am terrible when I have to do more than one big task at once (for example managing combat while micromanaging fleet construction). Playing with my brother that way was an extremely effective combination and we took the game by a large margin, which was very satisfying.


Oren next to Call of Duty

My personal forté is first person shooters though, so it's no surprise that's what I played the most (I couldn't be bothered joining in on WarCraft III). We played Call of Duty and UT2k4 for several hours each; Call of Duty proved to be an excellent multiplayer game, but only if there are a lot of players in the game. 8 players are enough for a good game, but say 5 or less simply aren't enough to keep the action up and the game becomes very dull indeed.

I wish I could convince the others to give Tron 2.0 a multiplayer spin, but other than that I don't even know where to start in looking for good multiplayer games. Halo proved to be a big disappointment for me (way too slow - not in performance but in gameplay - and too much emphasis on vehicles) and trying Counter Strike: Source for a bit only strengthened my resolve not to play tactical shooters.

Sunday, 16 October 2005 18:29:16 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
Gaming | Personal
# Tuesday, 11 October 2005
Am I the only one going insane over the time it takes for the average IDE to load these days? It takes Visual Studio 2003 up to ten seconds from click to functionality, and with ReSharper installed (which I consider a must-have) it takes ever longer. In the days of multiple-gigaherz machines with multiple-gigabytes of RAM and souped-up, quad-rate busses, why the hell do I have to wait for my development environment to load?

Mind you, VS2003 is not the worst of the bunch; Eclipse used to be the slowest-starting app I've ever seen up until version 3.1. Now it's more or less on par with VS2003. NetBeans lags behind in the performance department. Looking at the VS2005 beta 2 (I haven't tested the RCs) it looks like Microsoft has improved performance - at least startup performance - drastically. I certainly hope that's the case. Since I usually work with 3 or more instances of VS2003 open concurrently any improvements to its performance or memory footprint would be welcome in the extreme.

Tuesday, 11 October 2005 09:38:16 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
Development
# Sunday, 09 October 2005
A product I'm working on consists of a primary component and two sattelite components. The sattelite components are designed to run remotely and communicate with the primary component via .NET Remoting. The product is currently undergoing a QA cycle, and the QA team had a bizarre issue to report: when the system is configured to run on localhost and the network cable is disconnected while the system is up and running, remoting requests fail (they reported that the primary component fails to notify the satellite component instances to shut down, but it was actually the same with any remote call). My immediate response was "huh?" but subsequent local testing assured me that they weren't smoking anything illegal.

After quite a bit of research (this is a seemingly little-known issue with .NET Remoting) I managed to come some interesting insights into .NET, but only one relevant post I managed to find after playing with Google Groups a bit: apparently when Windows detects a network cable disconnect (via a feature called Media Sense) it "removes the bound protocols from that adapter until it is detected as "up" again". The only workaround I could find was to completely disable Media Sense, which needless to say is a very unwelcome solution.

I suppose the obvious question is "why the hell does Media Sense shut down localhost connections?" I'm often dumbfounded by bizarre design decisions in Microsoft products, but this one may just necessitate adding a really awful hack to our installation procedures on clients' sites, which just sucks.

Sunday, 09 October 2005 15:02:05 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
Development
# Thursday, 06 October 2005
And now for the rest of it.

General Stuff

  • The Deer Park (Firefox 1.5) beta has been out for a couple of weeks now and is very stable and fast; beta 2 is due to come out any minute now. Despite the lack of a compatible Noia 2.0 eXtreme (my favourite Firefox theme) I highly recommend the upgrade.
  • Fasterfox is a major performance tweak for Firefox. We don't have the fastest internet connection here so it's difficult to tell how effective it is, but I'll try and gauge it over the next few days anyway.
  • Metal Gear Solid fans owe it to themselves to hear virt's remix titled My Frequency Is 140.85.
  • Martin of Tipmonkies (heh. Tipmonkies. Heh.) published a list of free disposable e-mail address services. My personal favourite is DodgeIt.
  • Finally, Serenity seems to be doing rather badly financially. I haven't seen the movie yet (and I doubt I'll get to see it in the Israeli theaters, with all the crap movies taking valuable theater space) but I have a very good feeling about it, and I hate to see anything original, interesting or (in Firefly's case) underdog do badly.
  • Mystified by Virgill is awesome. For that matter, so is elements. The guy knows his shit.

Politics

  • It bothers me a great deal when American agencies (or goverment agencies in general) presume to tell me what I'm entitled, or not entitled, to. As far as I'm concerned the default should be "I can do whatever the hell I want as long as it's not declared illegal", not "I can do whatever is declared legal". Very important distinction. So it's no surprise I was really pissed off to read an FCC document in which a statement began with "consumers are entitled to run applications and use servics of their choice". Thanks! I always wanted a government to officially allow me the liberties I've always taken for granted. But that's nothing compared to the rest of the statement: "... subject to the needs of law enforcement." You know what? To hell with the needs of law enforcement. I won't have police/FBI/shabak/whatever goons telling me what programs I can or can't use. I realize that it's like that in practice (the old issue of >128-bit RSA encryption not allowed outside the US, for one), but it's no excuse to make it official policy. I'll run whatever the hell I want on my machine. If it's illegal, have the police come up with sufficient justification for a search warrant, signed by an independant judge.
  • The US Patent Office upholds a patent owned by Eolas, which has bearing on their case against Microsoft. I don't know the details of the patent and don't care. Ideas and thoughts should not be patentable, as simple as that. As Florian Mueller puts it (direct quote from the linked article):
    Pro-patent politicians told us that broad and trivial patents can be invalidated. If even Microsoft with all of its resources doesn't always succeed in that, what can smaller companies do?
  • Apparently a single, disabled mom has found the strength to sue the RIAA back for wrongful legal practices. Any dent in the RIAA litigation behemoth is a good thing in my book.
  • An ISP owner from Oklahoma wins a $10M lawsuit against a known spammer. It's doubtful he'll be getting any of his money, but the precedent-setting case is good in the long run anyway.
Thursday, 06 October 2005 15:55:14 (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
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