Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Trip to Akshardham

I am just back from a trip to the beautiful Akshardham temple in Delhi. For some reason, cameras aren't allowed inside so no pix I am afraid :(

  1. Park inside the complex - charges are Rs. 20/- Only one person can go into the parking lot and mobile phones are not allowed in the complex, so its best if everyone gathers at the enquiry desk. Alos, you can buy a guide for Rs. 5/- at the enquiry desk, it really comes handy
  2. Once inside you can buy tickets to the three shows - Sahajanand Darshan, Neelkanth Darshan, Sanskruti Vihar for Rs. 120/- per adult. The shows take 1 hr 15 min total, waiting time outside should be approx 15 min if you go for the Hindi version; an English show with very few patrons occurs, but only once an hour
  3. There is a nice pure-veg Premavati Food Court inside that is nothing short of being a food factory - even Dosas are delivered JIT - order and takeaway within 20s
  4. There's an Abhishek Mandapam where you can offer prayers, also a souvenir shop where you can buy stuff
  5. There are musical fountains at 6:15 PM (Rs. 20/- per adult sold separately). Other attractions are a nice garden with displays of prominent freedom fighters and Indians in history, as well as a lotus shaped lawn.
The main temple complex is beautifully decorated and architected with marble interiors and red sandstone exteriors. There are intricate carvings on the interior and exterior walls, modelled on the Konark temple, minus the erotic carvings of course :) One difference is that the Konark artisans didnt leave any emtpy patches, these guys do leave occasional small ones. The carvings on the roof reminded me of the Jain temple at Ranakpur, very details and multi-layered, particularly on the inside of the domes.

Overall, the entire trip takes something like 6 hours on a weekday when the temple is empty. Its a must see place but only on weekdays when its less crowded. BTW, for some reason "Drunkards" are listed as banned items, so dont tell these people you drink (if you do :) ) There are also anti-war and pro-vegetarianism displays inside, so be prepared to be assaulted by that too :)

Trip to Sultanpur Sanctuary

Well I am back from my one day trip to Sultanpur is over and I am back in Delhi. Pix are up, you can see them here.Overall, the place and environment is really amazing, you get to see a ton of birds easily, its a really cool place to spend a day... if you can get to it. The road to reach it is a living nightmare. HUDA certainly lives up to their name :) My City's bottom scraped the road like 6 times due to potholes, and I was driving really carefully.

Today I also completed my pre-order of the 5800 - you pay Rs. 2000/- and get the 5800 in first week January '09 for Rs. 20k. As a gift to those pre-ordering, Nokia is giving a discount of Rs. 2k on the phone (er... I am not too sure of this, I might have to end up paying 20k more at delivery, meaing no discount, including booking amount :P), also they are bundliing a pair of Sennheiser LX 90 earphones for only Rs. 600/- as opposed to the "list price" of Rs. 4k ($80) Before you get all excited, Amazon UK is already selling them for £6, which comes to approx Rs. 420/- anyway. Prices in Amazon US are higher ($48 i.e. ~Rs. 2300/-), if it makes you feel better...

Still, with or without freebies, you do get the handset early. Clubbed with my 8 GB 2nd Gen iPod Touch (Rs. 12k in Pallika), I get way more features and storage (16 GB total across both devices) than an 8 GB iPhone 3G, a handset that is not locked to any provider at a total cost equal to a 8GB iPhone 3G (Rs. 32k in India), making for a really good deal. The last date for the pre-order is 31st Dec BTW. (Thank god I didn't buy that Xbox 360 - I would be bankrupt next month if I had)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Secure Passwords Howto

Lifehacker has some interesting tips on how to secure your EMail from hackers. The main tips are choose a better password and obfuscate the answer to security question (which is often the weakest link in the chain)

Alternately, you could use a password manager like KeePass, in which case, you can use Dropbox to sync the password manager across computers, essentially acting as a single sign on application. Another option along the same lines is to use VeriSign's Personal Identity Portal, where you sign in to just the PIP and then it sign you in to all your websites.

I am off to Sultanpur National Park tomorrow, pix soon :) Lets hope getting there is easy... Also, I just found out (from an ad on MapMyIndia of all places!) that people in India can "pre-book" a Nokia 5800 here :)

Lstly, while we are talking about security and stuff, this shows how easy it is to bypass country based IP filters...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Desktop Customization Guide

I am a hardcore Windows XP user. While I have quite a bit of knowledge of Linux, compared to Linux, XP "just works". However, the OS's UI looks rather dated. While there is a Royale Noir theme you can download to make eveything look dark (and Office 2007 can also be made to use a dark theme), its still just some colors added on top of an otherwise bland OS.

For quite some time I have used WindowsBlinds along with Vista Transformation Pack to make my XP machine look like Vista. However, now there are quite a few new options.Also, thanks to the now dead Alky project, it is possible to install the Vista sidebar in Windows XP.

I have two monitors set up on my machine; well I have a LCD TV that acts like a monitor :) I actually don't generally use multi-monitor wallpaper. Instead, I grab images from APOD and set one as background and add the other one as a web item on the desktop - another thing removed from Vista... However, there are some good places on the web to find multi-monitor wallpaper (socwall's my favorite) BTW, any wallpaper or image you download is not going to look good unless your monitor is properly caliberated. I suggest Calibrize or Online Monitor Test. Also, I would recommend turning on Firefox's color management setting.

Lastly, some weird stuff - it seems cutting a white ping pong ball in half, covering your eyes with it and playing white noise on headphones will make you hallucinate :)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas and Gaming

Merry Christmas everyone! Well I have had a very nice Christmas - for some reason, today of all days, the crazy guys at Pallika agreed to swap three old games for three new ones for just Rs. 900/- (I swapped out Assassin's Creed, The Darkness and Devil May Cry 4 for Siren: Blood Curses, Dead Space and Ninja Gaiden Sigma)

I am planning to buy an XBox sometime, but with the new Jasper motherboards just out, having 256 MB of onboard storage and a much lower power usage, buying the old 20/40 GB Falcon (or god forbid is it Zephyr?) model XBoxes that Pallika people are selling right now seems like a bad idea. Also, the ones they are selling dont have NXE installed on them. NXE allows XBox games to be fully installed to HDD. Here is a list of the advantages this brings to some games and how much space is required. This does mean I will lose out on M$'s "Buy an XBox Live Gold membership before Jan 1, get a free game" offer... BTW, did you know the 360 can write its own blog?

Square has released a (not) Final Fantasy game for the iPhone - Crystal Defenders, basically a tower defense game with characters from different FF games in place of actual towers. Its ok if you like that kind of game, not for me though (definitely not at 8 USD). Not that there is a dearth of good games on the iPhone.

I stumbled upon an Indian gaming community recently; its really nice to see fellow desis talk about gaming :) Also, Nokia's N-Gage platform seems to have somehow produced a winner - Reset Generation (also playable in-browser for free) Alas - there is no N-Gage on the 5800

My office is shut down till the 5th, so I will probably have a lot of free time on my hands :) I am off to Dharamsala in early Jan, will probably go to some places nearby/in Delhi before that.

Update 12/26/2008 - Kotaku has just released (via MTV. via Metacritic) the 10 best and worst games of 2008. In a strange dichotomy, 7 of the best games are Playstation games (but not exclusives) and 7 of the worst games are Wii exclusives (ya, I know its wrong to club PS2/PS3/PSP and not club Wii and DS, but hey - this is not a ranking :) )

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ultimate MPlayer Config

MPlayer is an extremely versatile and powerful player that can be used to play just about any type of file. What many people don't know is that it also has a lot of other configuration settings that can be used to improve the playback experience a lot.

So here is a list of settings that I have found to be useful with MPlayer (Only for Windows). Edit the file <mplayer folder>\mplayer\config to use these. Anything after # is a comment
idx=yes            # Index broken files
vo=directx # Render Via DirectX
double=yes # Enable Double Buffering
dr=yes # Enable Direct Rendering
ao=dsound # Audio out via Directsound, earlier was win32
fixed-vo=yes # Attempts to prevent reopening a windows for each file
quiet=yes # Shuts Up Mplayer :) Windows Console is slow, so needed
really-quiet=yes # Even quiter
#ffactor=10 # Draw outline around the OSD font
subfont-autoscale=1 # Scale font as per movie height and not as per diagonal
subfont-text-scale=10 # Use 10% of movie size for subtitles
#osdlevel=1 # By default start with Volume and Seek OSD enabled
priority=abovenormal # Start mplayer with abovenormal priority
framedrop=yes # Drop frames in case of heavy CPU
autoq=100 # Automatically turn off pp filters at high CPU
vf=eq,pp=de/-al,hqdn3d # eq = Brightness and Contrast
# pp=de/-al Default postprocessing without Brightness/Contrast
# High quality denoise filter
af=volume=10 # Make sounds louder. This is in dB
# Max 60 dB = 1000 times the normal sound level
autosync=30 # Use if movie has framerate issues due to A/V sync
mc=0.2 # Maximum A/V sync corrections per fame
a52drc=1 # Adjust volume differences
dvd-device=d: # Device from which DVD movies play
monitoraspect="4:3" # Sets the aspect ratio of the monitor.
# "85:48" For 1360:768 (~16:9)
# Setting to 4:3 forces "square" movies to stretch and fill the screen
#adapter=0 # Sets which monitor to show the video on. 0 = current default
# This is useful for multi-monitor systems where one montor is default
# and want the video to show on the other one.
sid=0 # Subtitles to use
#aid=1 # Audio to use - useful in files with multiple audio sources
Additionally, the file input.conf in the same folder is useful to set up keyboard shortcuts. For e.g, I like using the [ and ] keys for small movements in the movie forward and backward. This is done by adding the following to input.conf:
] seek +3
[ seek -3
Once you start using MPlayer's shortcuts, any other player feels really kludgy. BTW, while mplayer also comes with a built in encoding utility (mencoder), I would recommend you use the tips given here to use VLC to do a lot of interesting things with your media.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sony Shares Drop - Outlook Bleak

Looks like the fallout from Sony's November sales figures is not yet done. CNN Money out saying that the PS3 and Blu-Ray are a sinking ship. This was followed by Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank lowering Sony's rating, causing a drop in shares. Sony is going to lay off approximately 16000 employees this year, 8000 regular staffers and 8000 contractors and part time. While some news outlets did support Sony, overall outlook looks bleak.

The PS3 has been something of a tragedy for Sony - managing to wipe out its dominance of the gaming console market and severely eroding consumer confidence in the company. A look at the comments here on this same news item is indicative of people's mood towards the company.

I myself am a RPG gamer. Considering the PlayStation brand's traditional strength in RPGs, I bought a PS3 and faced a continous string of disappointments. In the end exclusives sell consoles; the PS3 seems to excel at losing them. What's even more disturbing is that when Sony does release exclusives, even high profile ones, the sales are disappointing. Sony seems to have lost the will to succeed; they need to overcome this hubris and get their act together.

I recently bought a couple of games from retailers outside India and had them shipped in - Valkyria Chronicles from ShopTo.net and Disgaea 3 from Play-Asia.com. Amazingly, it was cheaper to buy them from abroad than to buy them in India. Sellers on EBay sell them for as much as Rs 4000 each while you can get them from UK/Hong Kong for around Rs 2500 each. The experience wasnt very smooth - ShopTo delivered the game in 7 days while Play-Asia lived up to the notoriety it has earned of late and took 21 days for delivery.

When you buy a PS3 the Pallika bazaar people will tell you that you can swap a game for Rs 500. When you go to swap it, they will say your game has fallen in value while the new one costs Rs 4000 and ask for Rs 3000 to swap a game that can be shipped form UK for Rs. 2500

Sony provides lackluster support, refuses to repair imported consoles and doesnt bring most games to India at all. There is no Indian PSN store and due to Sony's agreements with MPAA they continue to make it nearly impossible for people to buy games from other region PSN stores while giving ridiculous excuses such as that internet speed in India is too low.

If you go to buy a Blu Ray movie, you will soon realise that Blu Ray movies are region coded and the PS3 is also region locked for movies. Meaning if you buy a Blu Ray movie in India, it will not play on your imported console. Of course, with the Blu Ray of the Dark Knight costing thrice as much as the DVD, I am not sure why I would buy it in the first place. DVDs look good enough on my 32 inch LCD; I am sure many other people feel the same - ergo Blu Ray's lackluster sales.

I strongly advise people to stay away from PS3 if you live in India. Meanwhile I have been told that I can sell the PS3 back in Pallika for 12k. I am tempted to do that, lets see... I am defnintely buying an Xbox soon...

Monday, December 15, 2008

iTunes tips and tricks

I recently bought a second generation iPod Touch, mainly for the app store or rather, the games in it :) Check out a list of the better ones here... I already bought a copy of Vay and have 40 or so downloaded applications (all free ones though) Some apps (Google Earth) are only on the US iTunes store (also you cant download Album Art or use Genius Playlists from the India store) Its not hard to get into the US iTunes store though...

This is a 2nd Generation iPod Touch, so can't be used with third part tools, cant be jailbroken but has an internal speaker, external volume controls, microphone capability and a faster processor.

Over the years, I have gathered a fairly large collection of music, most (all?) of which has no id3 tags, is unsorted and has no album art. Now this doesn't seem to work well with iTunes at all, which for some reason refuses to display folders. So, some tips:
  1. Tag as much of your library and sort it out into folder by artist. One of the best tools for this is MusicBrainz Picard. This amazing app can group your tracks into an album using what little information is available, identify your tracks using their accoustic fingerprinting if all else fails and even download cover art using plugins.
  2. The iPod touch can be used to rate songs in album view mode. If you have your iPod set to manual synch, your ratings will not get copied over to your iTunes library. You can download a nice script to do this for you here.
  3. Use smart playlists judiciously (there is a nice sample set here). I suggest creating one on the iPod Touch to contain all your unrated songs. Then at synch time, use the recently played playlist to rate the songs on your iPod from iTunes itself.
  4. You can set the play order of the songs in a genius playlist to match the sort order in iTunes using the "Copy to Play Order" command.
  5. Pressing Home and Power together will take a screenshot
Check out some other tricks here. BTW, if you ever need to move your iTunes libray (to say another machine), there are a few guides here and there but the best one I found till now is here.

I have just seen Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, and the movie, while good, is something of an exercise in sado-masochism (sort of helpless masochism for Shahrukh's character and sadism to us for watching and enjoying it)

Update 12/24/2008: Here's a guide on how to turn any MP3 into a iTunes Audiobook

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Configuring port forwarding for your PS3

I have a WRT54g v7 and using it with a PS3 is a pain - the router restarts every time you show the XMB, exit a game or for just about any other reason. The only solution is to disable UPnP; since the PS3 needs incoming connections on certain ports, this seems to cause some probems for it. Until recently, I used a horrible ISP that had a transparent proxy in front of my internet connection - meaning I couldnt get any incoming connections in the first place. Also, I use the excellent Ps3 Proxy Server to download games/demos to my computer and then install them on the PS3 via the LAN; till date I have yet to run into any problems with the PS3's network connection

Now however, I have switched to Airtel Broadband, which means, port forwarding is actually useful. So I made my Wireless Router a DMZ machine in the ADSL modem. Then I decided to find out the ports that PS3 needs.

The list is massive and seemingly publisher dependent.
All games published by Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA)may use the following ports for communication with the game servers:

• TCP Ports: 80, 443, 5223, and 10070 - 10080
• UDP Ports: 3478, 3479, 3658, and 10070

For the PLAYSTATION®Network:

• TCP Ports: 80, 443, 5223

• UDP Ports: 3478, 3479, 3658

PLAYSTATION®3 Remote Play (via the Internet) requires:
• If the router in use supports UPnP, enable the router’s UPnP function.
• If the router does not support UPnP, you must set the router’s port forwarding to allow communications to the PLAYSTATION®3 computer entertainment system from the Internet.
• The port number that is used by remote play is TCP Port: 9293

For headset operation, such as USB or BluetoothTM headsets:

SOCOM and SOCOM II U.S. Navy SEALs, along with some other 1st party online sports titles require the following ports for voice chat:
• UDP Ports: 6000 - 6999, 10070

SOCOM 3: U.S. Navy SEALs requires the following ports:
• TCP Port: 80
• UDP Ports: 6000 - 7000, 50000

Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain uses the following port to connect to the game server:
• TCP Port: 3658

PlayOnline and Final Fantasy XI uses the following ports for various functions:
• TCP Ports: 25, 80, 110, 443, and 50000 - 65535
• UDP Ports: 50000 - 65535

Note: Please make sure to enable these TCP/UDP ports in BOTH directions.
Jeez! Port 80 AND 443 incoming? What are you guys doing? One guy on the internet recommended his internet settings

These should work, either that or I put the PS3 in a DMZ on my Wireless router.

BTW, do you know those Airtel ADSL modems are running Linux and you can telnet into them? Also, its surprisingly easy to spoof your MAC address on Windows, meaning you shouldnt rely on MAC filtering for security. The registry hack BTW, (HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Class\{4D36E972-E325-11CE-BFC1-08002BE10318}) works even on devices which seeming dont expose the MAC spoofing option...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Washington Times Swinging at Sony

M$ recently dropped the price of its console to $199. Sony of course, has announced they have no plans to drop price anytime soon - they have to think of their shareholders...

In the current economy, this is hara-kiri. Sales figures support this - in November M$ sold more than twice as many Xbox 360s as Sony sold PS3s. What is even more disturbing is that out of all 3 consoles, it is the only one which showed a decrease in sales since last year.

This of course goes to prove that placing customers behind shareholders never works as a strategy; alas Sony as a company seems too arrogant, stupid or maybe lacking the will to do what it takes to make their brand a success.

These particular numbers seem to have drawn interesting reactions out of - the Washington Post. (Yes, that says "Sabotaging the Sony Playstation 3 market?") Some excerpts:
XBox 360 has made serious inroads by dropping the price of its core system to $199. So how did Sony respond?

By releasing a new version of the PS3 ... that's $100 more expensive. Yes, it comes with a game, and yes, it has more hard-drive space, to which I respond: Who cares? Was the marketplace clamoring for more memory from the PS3? Is that why its market penetration is so low compared to its predecessors and competition? What were the Sony execs thinking?

Ouch - that's gotta hurt. Read some comments here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Yahoo Launchcast to Shut Down

I have been a Yahoo Launch subscriber for 4 years. Over the years, my station has grown to 1000+ artists and 5000+ songs. It has helped me find new artists (it seems I am a big fan of celtic music) although for some reason, just saying country music is OK leads to it playing more and more country music... sigh. There were also other annoyances - it wouldn't play in Firefox because of weird 1990s era code...

Now it seems it is going to shut down. The service will nominally still be there, but the paid Launchcast Plus with customized stations will go away. Sigh... so now its off to Last.FM or possibly I am going to discover music on another social music site and download it to my new iPod Touch. I am not sure if I really want to listen to streaming music anymore - particularly with Yahoo threatening to shut down without providing me with any way download my 8000+ ratings. This is one of the risks of storing your data in the cloud - the company associated may shut down or just decide to lock you out of your own data, with a heavily one-sided EULA leaving you little hope of getting any access to it.

Whether this had anything to do with the recent SoundExchange decision is unknown but its highly likely Sony and its cohorts have managed to trample on another popular service for the sake of shareholders.

I used four Yahoo services - Flickr, Yahoo Mail, Yahoo 360 and Yahoo Launch. Two of them - Launch and 360 are shutting down. I had given up on Yahoo 360 long ago (seen my public page's URL in the link above? brilliant... sheerly brilliant... and they expected people to use that URL to share that page with their friends) and moved, first to JRoller and then to here.

Flickr is basically useless with a free account (most people that I know who are not serious photographers no longer use it to share photos - they use Picasa instead) and I would be rid of Yahoo mail ASAP if it would let me POP mail. I still use the classic user interface (a webapp should act like a webapp, not do faux AJAX stuff that brings the browser to its knees) and no I am NOT paying you to be rid of you.

I wonder what that says about Yahoo as a company...