One of my ongoing interests is NTP, the Network Time Protocol, the protocol used to set a computer's clock. It's one of the oldest protocols on the net and it's something of a miracle. A few 76 byte UDP packets is enough to set your clock to within 100ms of universal time.
Back in 1999 I did a class project surveying the NTP network. I was excited to find today that someone benefitted from my work, doing a new NTP survey in 2005. The results aren't too surprising. The number of visible NTP servers doubled in six years. Time serving has gotten more accurate and network delays are lower now. There are proportionately fewer stratum one clocks and they are about twice as busy. In general the good ol' NTP network is just getting better with age. It's comforting.
One big change since 1999 is that modern operating systems all come preconfigured with NTP clients. Macs, Windows, and Linux machines all set their clocks from the Internet out of the box. I contribute to this; I put my own server into the NTP pool used by lots of clients, particularly Linux machines. Unfortunately basic survey methodology can't really learn much about those clients. I'm starting to study the client population a bit with my pool server, some graphs are here. I'm seeing something like 30,000 to 100,000 different clients a day.
I write a lot about video games here. Partly because I'm a gaming nerd who enjoys games. Also because I think games are an interesting art form, the first uniquely new medium since cinema. Games have visuals, and sound, and story. And games have something new, interactivity. When those elements come together well it's impressive.
In yesterday's NYT Daniel Radosh has a thoughtful op/ed about games as art. He believes, but he claims that games today mostly don't achieve artistic merit. They're trying too hard to be like movies, the typical achievement gameplay is too simplistic, etc. I can't exactly disagree.
His hook is his critique of $170M-on-release Halo 3, which "does not succeed as a work of art because it does not even try". Again, I agree. The Halo story is clumsy and poorly told, the visual settings are beautiful but lack poignancy, the music is meh. Halo is a very well crafted piece of gameplay, though, and I respect that part of the gamemakers art.
By contrast to Halo, I keep thinking back to Bioshock. That game, I think, does achieve artistic merit. Mostly in the cinematic form; the art direction is truly phenomenal and the story is good. And the gameplay in Bioshock is also quite brilliant, particularly the interaction between the physics and AI. It all comes together pretty well, and Bioshock is impressive.
Early cinema has its recognized brilliant movies: Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane, M, Metropolis. We don't yet have the perspective in games to crown clear winners, but I think most game fans have ten to twenty candidates in their heads. Just because Halo 3 is a guilty Busby Berkeley pleasure doesn't mean the game medium isn't finding its artistic roots.
See also destructoid
I succumbed to the Halo hype and bought a copy on opening day. It's a fun game, particularly the cooperative multiplayer. Nothing like Bioshock in terms of artistic merit, but good AI and strong gameplay.
But there's one big problem in the game; it looks kinda crappy on HD screens. Huge jaggies everywhere. I've read different explanations as to why; either the max resolution is only 640p (I don't quite buy it; 720p is way more likely. Update: Bungie confirms they render at 1152x640) or else they've limited themselves to simple 2xAA instead of better anti-aliasing. (A friend tells me his beautiful Xbox 360 game does edge detection and smoothing. Cool!)
I guess it's a tradeoff; they have some impressive HDR lighting and very complex models and the framerates have to be solid. And of course once the bullets are flying you're not watching the jaggies. Still, it's a shame.
Huge congratulations to Saul Griffith of Squid Labs for winning a MacArthur fellowship. Commonly called the "genius grant", it's one of the most prestigious fellowships possible for unusually creative people. $500,000 to spend as you see fit is an awfully nice thing of course. Even better, it's a unique recognition for people whose expertise is odd enough to typically not "fit in" with their more conventional colleagues.
Saul's in good company this year, including the amazing soprano Dawn Upshaw. I mostly follow computer science; previous MacArthur fellows in that area include Tim Berners-Lee, John Holland, Karl Sims, even rms. All amazingly innovative thinkers.
Saul was one of the brilliant people that made the MIT Media Lab great. It's not easy to characterize his work except to say he figures out how to fabricate incredibly innovative and clever things like low cost eyeglasses and hand cranked generators. One of my favourite memories from Boston was flying his hand-made kites, strong enough to lift me off the ground and let me fly. Just an amusement, but typical of the joy Saul brings to his work.
See also Tim O'Reilly's appreciation
Have you ever watched skateboarders trying to perfect a trick? They try the same thing over and over again, five, ten times until they finally nail it. EA's new game skate. is exactly like that. You try tricks over and over, reloading in the exact same spot until you get it. It can be frustrating, but it's satisfying when you finally nail it and get a bit of video to keep.
The innovation in skate is a fantastically detailed physics and control engine. Instead of doing tricks Tony Hawk style by mashing lots of buttons, skate requires you to precisely control two analog joysticks to move your body and board around. The controls feel quite natural, if difficult to master. The physics are quite detailed, too. Your board must have at least 30 simulated surfaces interacting with walls, rails, etc as you grind and pop around.
Most games are very generous with player input; the game tries to guess what you meant rather than doing a literal interpretation of your motions. skate is mostly the opposite. The result is the progress you make in the game as you learn harder tricks is not through virtual powerups; instead you learn better muscle and reaction skills in your hands. It makes gameplay quite demanding rather than a sugary pleasure like SSX, but it's quite interesting.
skate also has a neat video editing feature that makes it easy to share your tricks and bails online. And I like the laid back skater feel of the game, a contrast to the X-treme!!! cop-punching antics of the newer Tony Hawk games. It's fun just to load up and cruise around the town and play with the incredibly detailed physics.
The Tomato firmware for routers seems to be good software. It's a simple replacement firmware for the Linksys WRT54GL and a few other Broadcom based routers. It's tightly focussed on being a good router, nothing more. And it has decent documentation.
The main feature it has over most routers is Quality of Service routing. The default configuration once you turn it on gives priority to DNS requests, small Web requests, and outbound ACKs. That last feature is really important; it should solve problem that a single upload totally kills all downloads on an asynchronous connection like residential DSL. I also tweaked it to give ssh and ntp priority.
Tomato isn't going to solve my problem of flaky router hardware, but at least the software may work sensibly. The QoS feature should be a significant improvement. Hopefully some day a consumer router manufacturer will get smart and build QoS in to their products.
I like my hosting service provider, Layered Technologies. $100/month or less for a dedicated Linux box with minimal support. Great for my hacking projects.
Unfortunately they just notified me by email that they had a security break in their support system that may have exposed login information for thousands of their customers. The notification was responsibly delivered. The breach could be disastrous.
Layered Tech had a support policy of asking for your root password everytime you filed a support ticket. This is why you don't do that.
Jeff Minter's new Xbox Live Arcade game Space Giraffe is brilliant. It's nominally a Tempest-like shooter with some gameplay subtleties. But what it really is is completely fucked up. If you have an Xbox 360 check out the demo. If you don't, this video gives an idea. comparison to Ulysses. A bit impenetrable, but deeply rewarding.
I love Xbox Live Arcade; they're cultivating a catalog of inexpensive games with creative visuals and fun casual game play. A game like Space Giraffe has no hope as a traditional release, but as a $5 Xbox download? No problem. Lumines is also brilliant on XBLA and GEON: Emotions looks promising.
My Netgear FWG114P router has failed three times in the last two days, requiring a reboot. Last time was locked up dead, couldn't even ping the router over the LAN. It's working now, but in my experience once these things start failing they have a week before they die entirely.
My friends now make fun of me for how often I complain about routers on my blog. But WTF? Why do all my routers die in a few months? I'm not doing anything that strange with them. My only thought is that the 80° server closet they're in is causing heat problems. But that's nowhere near out of the 104° spec.
I'd thought paying extra for Netgear blue box hardware would help, but I guess not. My next option is to either go with a Draytek 2800G at $200, hoping for reliability, or else go back to a junky Linksys router with the hopes that Tomato firmware will make it work reliably.
Mozy is good software. It's a simple online backup solution for Windows or Mac. Files are quietly backed up to their remote server with no hassles. There are a zillion companies doing remote backup now, I haven't tested them all because Mozy works just fine for me. (I'd consider rsync.net for a hacker solution).
Mozy solves most of the hard problems of online backup. Basic install and configuration is simple. The backup client manages bandwidth well, including a configurable throttle. Restores are easy, including multiple snapshots in time. And the backup client just runs automatically, efficiently uploading only changed files. I don't even notice it's there.
I have some minor complaints. Mozy's backup sets for basic things like email or spreadsheets are fine for casual users, but advanced users have to hunt for the "advanced backup set features" in the options to choose specific directories on their own. The first time you open the configuration options takes 5+ minutes as it scans your hard drive. And the Virtual Drive restore seems to be ridiculously slow; fortunately the web restore worked much faster.
Quibbles aside, Mozy is a great solution for backup. MozyFree lets you back up 2 gigs for free. MozyHome gives you unlimited backup for $5/month for personal use and MozyPro gives you commercial use for $4/machine and $0.50/gigabyte.
AMC's new TV series Mad Men is completely fantastic. It's a period ensemble drama about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1960. It first sounded a bit dumb, but it's beautiful and brilliantly written and terrific television.
The period setting is amazingly well executed. 1960 is just far enough back to be somewhat mythical while still familiar. And because that era has generally been neglected it's fertile ground for a new drama. Incredible costumes, hair styles and furnishings make the show beautiful. And the writers' delicious indulgence in forbidden things like sex and drinking at the office, smoking, and awkward racist jokes is both uncomfortable and slightly wistful.
And the writing is intelligent, not the stupid pandering that passes for most TV. For example, the centerpiece of the third episode is a suburban kid's birthday party. The desparation and discomfort of the parents is just devastating, but it's not thrown in your face so much as exposed through a series of vignettes. Great storytelling.
I must remember when doing small hack projects not to write code that downloads some web page every minute and writes it to a file on disk. Fortunately Linux no longer chokes on giant directories, but a directory with 500,000 files in it is not very useful. Even worse, I'm making two backups of these useless files, one offsite.
What do you do if your Subversion server URL or repository location changes and you want to update a checked out copy on your client? The solution is the magic command svn switch --relocate.
iTunes updated itself again today. And once again the update experience is awful. It took 5 minutes, the promised 4 meg filesize somehow ended up being 50 megs. When the update is done I'm informed I have to reboot. It put a launch icon on my taskbar again. And it's no doubt made itself the default app for all my music and video files, again, despite being told not to. Oh yeah, and more Quicktime crap installed again. Hello, browser crashes.
Fuck you, Apple. Is there a good Windows alternative to iTunes that supports iPhones? All I need is to backup the phone and copy music and video to it. iTunes sucks.
The Larry Craig story just gets weirder. He may not resign afterall and there's a leaked voicemail between Craig and his lawyer discussing the matter. The poor man is exploding in front of us. Here's a letter to him, I hope he gets it.
There are no takebacks in public politics. You can't plead guilty to a misdemeanor and then say "oops, my bad". You can't publicly announce your resignation and then say "hmmm, I've changed my mind". You are screwed.
Do us a favour. Spend six months in Palm Springs getting your act together. Or Provincetown, if you prefer the sea. Read some books, get a tan, take that cute boy who smiled at you all evening at the bar home to your rented cottage and have a one night stand. Meet a tall handsome rancher on vacation from Montana and fall in love. Relax, come out. Being gay is good!
Then come back to politics and take down the Republican bastards who abandoned you in your darkest hour. Look Mitch McConnell in the eye and tell him what's "unforgivable" is the years of anti-gay hate mongering of your former Republican party.
Idaho probably won't take you back, but I bet California would welcome you. Heck, our governor used to pose nude for gay magazines. There's no takebacks, but there are second chances for closeted gay men.
My blog has become a place for carefully written essays. I like what I'm writing but it's not very personal. So here's some casual news about Nelson.
I've been working part time for the past few months as an engineering advisor to Twitter. It's been great being in a startup environment. Twitter has a neat product with some interesting technology challenges. And a great engineering team who have come up with some very clever solutions. It's been fun helping them out, I'm planning to do some advising and consulting for other interesting startups as well.
Despite appearances I have not moved to France. We don't even have a plan for our next visit yet. If circumstances permit I hope to spend a month or two there every year, but I'm not moving permanently.
I bought a house! After living six years in a pleasant but dull suburban part of San Francisco between West Portal and Glen Park, Ken and I were ready to be more central. So we're moving to Noe Valley, a few minutes walk from the commercial center on 24th and a convenient Muni ride to downtown SF. We're spending a few months redoing the kitchen and bathroom before moving. If you know any good contractors, handymen, arborists, etc in San Francisco, please mail me!
If you're a friend of mine and want to keep up on daily personal news, you may want to follow me on Twitter. I'm not too diligent or erudite, but Twitter is an awfully handy way to tell folks what I'm doing right now.