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Petri Wessman's weblog

Sword of Caine and other stuff

Just to remind people: the Sword of Caine prerelease is approaching fast, be there this Saturday (17.3.) at 10am or miss out. An entry fee of 20e gets you 12 boosters (6 x SoC, 6 x 3rd ed), the tournament deck will be build (only) from these cards. Three rounds, no finals. More info on the VTES page.

Should be a fun event, the new cards look pretty cool. More power for the Black Hand… what’s not to like? There are also a couple of cards in there with interesting mechanics, they let you ambush vampires who hunt without it being an action, and do damage to vampires who have previously cast a lot of votes. Hunting with massive stealth is no longer all that safe (or even a way to cycle stealth), and the old Awe + Voter Cap combo just got a small bit riskier. We’ll see if these have any effect on the metagame.

Lots of stuff happening around here. Yesterday I spent 6 hours doing rapier, and then joined the others to check out a house that’s on sale (yes, we’re shopping for a house). Didn’t like the house, but did leave an offer for another one that we did like, now we’re waiting to see how the seller reacts. A bit scary, but fun. No details here yet, sorry, I’ll post links if and only if the deal finalizes :).

In other news, a bunch of games coming up. Tomorrow we’re (finally) playing a bit of Exalted, then on Sunday I’m running the Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 scenario for a bunch of friends (cabbage soup and vodka optional), and next week’s Thursday is again allocated for Exalted.

Oh, and I have a new computer – or to be more precise, a new combination of new and old parts. Working very well except for some memory issues, I’m getting some faster memory today which should fix things. More on this later, when everything is running smoothly (one hopes).

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The high cost of living

Hmph, my decision to minimize spending so I could zero my Visa debt at some point is off to a rocky start. First in the line of “give me money!” events is my dentist – a recent chipped tooth prompted me to finally go to a checkup after lots of procrastination. Result: two new fillings and some cleanup work, and a hefty dental bill. It’s a private clinic, very nice but costly even though Kela does pay a part of that bill back later.

By the way, starting the day with a visit to the dentist isn’t that bad. Usually, the rest of the day seems quite rosy in comparison.

Next up in the cash sink department is my (home) computer. It’s been getting steadily worse, and all signs point to a motherboard error; “something somewhere has broken down”. Now, it’s an old mobo and processor and has been my performance bottleneck for quite a while now. On the other hand, I had hoped to limp along with it for a while yet, that’s why I recently upgraded my graphics card to a modern card with an AGP connector… and now a card with a PCI-e connector would be much easier to fit in. Oh well.

I looked over my options, and with some help from Jari found a set of components that should upgrade my computer to something relatively modern: a nice backward-compatible ASRock microATX mobo, E6400 Core 2 Duo processor, Antec HTPC microATX case, Zalman cpu fan, Seagate 320g SATA drive, and some cabling and replacement 120mm fans for the case. The cost wasn’t bad, 540e for the whole pile, and the result should be a nice, fast computer with a small(ish) form factor and low heat. The new mobo can use my (old) DDR400 memory, so no need to upgrade those. Being able to throw away the broken old mobo, Atlon XP and crappy ATA drives will be nice. Well, maybe not literally “throw away” except for the mobo, but still.

Like the dentist thing, this isn’t really an optional purchase, having a working computer at home is pretty much a must for me and this was the close to the cheapest compromise I could think of. Sure, I could have shaved some more euros here and there, but it didn’t seem worth it. On the plus side, maybe now my graphics card can perform like it’s supposed to, the old processor was a big bottleneck for a lot of stuff. We’ll see. right now the critical thing is getting a computer that works and is stable. Performance is just a nice extra.

I’ll have to struggle along with the old computer for at least a week, still, some of the components will take Verkkokauppa a bit of time to get.

… and of course, just when I decided to cut down on purchases, Amazon and Chaosium both decided to deliver piles of books I had ordered quite some time ago and almost forgotten about. Oh well, they are already paid for, can’t complain. More stuff on the (rpg) reading pile:

  • Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37: a Chaosium monograph detailing a Cthulhu scenario set in Stalin’s USSR. Read this over the weekend and liked it, seems like a fun (and grim) oneshot scenario to run for a bunch of comrades. Vodka optional.

  • End Time: another monograph, this one about a future where the stars have become (almost) “right” and the Old Ones have done their thing. The last remnants of humanity huddle on Mars, and things are generally not going well. This isn’t a “ready” product, it’s a snapshot of the things that got written for a discontinued Pagan book. Some interesting ideas here, though it’s a jumble and typoes and other mistakes abound. Could be used as the framework for a “Cthulhu on Mars” game.

  • The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep: a hardcover reprint of the old classic campaign. Haven’t read this yet, but it’s supposed to be pretty good. Too bad I missed out on the reprint of Beyond the Mountains of Madness, there’s supposed to be another reprint on the way but we’ll see…

  • Compass of Celestial Directions I: The Blessed Isle: the only 2nd ed Exalted sourcebook I was missing. So far, all the 2nd ed books have been really good. Overall, the are much better organized and written more clearly than the 1st ed books. The first edition does win out on flavor, sometimes, so I’ve also read most of those just for the “fluff”, even the ones that have been superceded by the new books. Read Aspect Book: Fire over the weekend and it proved to be yet another good read. Some people hate the caste/aspect books because they are “only” tales told from the perspective of 5 different characters, with minimal “crunch”. I like them for precisely that reason, I find they make the world come alive much better than pages of dry explanation text. Then again, I’m one of those people who actually enjoys gaming fiction, so take this with a grain of salt (or two). YMMV.

  • Pandora’s Book and Strange Alchemies: the two continuation books for Promethean. The core book made such a positive impression on me that I want to read more. Interesting game, if quite strange in several ways.

So… maybe now I get back to “spend less money”. One can always hope.

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It's alive!

…sortof.

Back at work, feeling mostly ok bar the runny nose and a small cough. Someone reorganized some of the cubicle walls and shelves while I was away, and somehow the tiny change has made this small office much nicer and more full of light. Me likes. That and the nice weather outside combine to make me feel pretty positive this morning (despite that damn runny nose).

Didn’t get much constructive done on Sunday and Monday, but did manage to read a bit (the new Exalted sourcebook White and Black Treatise was surprisingly good) and watched a ton of TV stuff that had been piling up on my hard drive. Dexter, recommended to me by many people, was very good – I wasn’t totally sold initially, but it grabbed me quite fast. Haven’t read the books it’s based on (Darkly Dreaming Dexter and others), but the character of Dexter, portrayed brilliantly by Michael C. Hall from Six Feet Under, is what drives the show: a forensics analyst who is also a serial killer. And he’s the good guy here. Pretty twisted, lots of dark humor, and an interesting plot… recommended. Not for the squeamish, though.

Besides Dexter, I watched the latest episodes of Heroes, Veronica Mars, 24, Desperate Housewives, Supernatural and others. All good stuff, and just the kind of light entertainment you need when you’re home sick.

On a less positive note, my computer has been acting up lately. For a while now it has refused to shut down properly (I have to use the hard power switch at the back) – that one I attribute to the new DVD drive, I think my BIOS doesn’t like it for some reason. On Sunday, however, the whole USB interface started acting up and my mouse and keyboard started either locking up or rebooting at random intervals. This happened on both Windows and Linux, and seemed to be related to heat and CPU activity, the machine had been on for quite a long time at that point. Playing EVE was quite impossible, after about 5 minutes the mouse would always lock up. Hmph. The whole thing is old by current standards, could very well be that I’d need to replace my motherboard and CPU with something less antique. The bad thing is that I would also need to replace my hard drive, memory and probably some other stuff too… we’ll see.

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New graphics card

Finally got my new 7600GT card from Bulldog yesterday, now I can finally use my computer without random screen garbage getting in the way. Seems like a good card, it’s quiet and the performance is much better than my old Radeon 9800pro. I got a score of 5124 from 3dMark05, and 2509 from 3dMark06 – not bad. My 2GHz Athlon XP processor is now the bottleneck, methinks. In any case, I can now enable some more eye candy in F.E.A.R. before it becomes a slideshow and 3x fsaa in EVE with no slowdowns.

It’s scary how fast these things evolve.

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Radeon 9800 BOOM

Well, my couple-year-old Radeon 9800 pro decided to call it quits last weekend – I was playing Eve, finishing up a lvl3 mission, when suddenly the screen filled up with garbage and static. I could just make out what was going on in the game and managed to finish up the mission and dock, but the graphical mega-glitch continued. At first I thought it was just the 3d portion, but 2d has also started to degrade; I’m forced to conclude that the card is pining for the fjords.

It possibly “just” a blown condensator or something, but I lack the electronics skills and equipment to fix it. And no, it’s not a heating issue, the case internal temperature is quite reasonable and the card fan is functioning fine.

So, I proceeded to shop for a new card… and quickly found out that AGP is being phased out, most of the new stuff is PCIe. Since I don’t feel like upgrading my motherboard and potentially other stuff too, I had to limit myself to the AGP options. Verkkokauppa in Helsinki had nothing reasonable to offer but Bulldog in Tampere had a GeForce 7600GT card for 199e. Since that card is apparently good bang for the buck according to reviews, I promptly placed an order and now I’m just waiting for it to arrive (the card was marked as “we can get it from distributor in a few days”, we’ll see).

The good thing about all this is that the 7600GT represents a nice performance upgrade from the Radeon… maybe I’ll even be able to play F.E.A.R. with decent framerates now. Or maybe that’s too much to ask.

I think I’ll build a totally new gaming rig one of these days, maybe sometime next year. Upgrading the current computer isn’t really an option after this, I’d need to replace pretty much everything. It’s scary how fast bleeding edge stuff becomes old, it wasn’t all that long ago since a Radeon 9800pro and nForce chipsets were hightech. So it goes.

For my next machine, I want something that is reasonably quiet & cool and has serious gaming muscle. Maybe something based on the new Intel Core 2 chipset, perhaps with water cooling. Or not, these things advance so fast, no telling what’s the smart thing to buy next year.

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More specific Maxtor drive specs

Some more info from DataPrey, it seems that the actual “must match” data of the drive I’m looking for is the following:

Maxtor
Model: 33073H3 
Code: YAH814Y0 
N,M,B,E 
PCB code: C9DLA

The other codes are not that important. Pity, since I managed to track down one eBayer with drives that matched everything except that “N,M,B,E” code. Back to the hunt, but it’s looking pretty iffy I have to say.

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No luck with data recovery, but...

DataPrey threw in the towel with the disk recovery, saying that they were unable to fix it, sorry.

However, since they had earlier told me that the problem revolved around getting a spare matching disk, I called them and asked for details. Well, turns out that yes, the problem was their inability to find an exact match for the disk, and they had closed the case because they were unable to resolve it in the maximum promised time.

As for the problem, turns out that at the time this disk was made, Maxtor was in the habit of changing the internals of the drives all the time, even within one model. So in addition to needing a Maxtor model 33073H3, it needs to be a very specific instance of that model. (3-4 other things also need to match, in addition to the model number).

Anyway, DataPrey has a long-term “seeking component X” list, so we put this drive there and reopened the case for the time being. They will continue to scan for matches for this drive, and they’ll send me the exact drive details needed so I can hunt for a match on my own, too. The world is a big place, and you never know, I might get lucky on eBay (DataPrey polls eBay too, now and then :).

So for now it looks like the data won’t be coming back. But there’s a small glimmer of hope, still.

As I was writing this I got email from DataPrey with the info, so I’ll jot that down here too. The drive needs to match to:

Maxtor
Model:33073H3
hda:13A
pcba:03A

and it would be nice if it would also match to:

unique:11A
Code:YAH814Y0
N,M,B,E 

Those codes can be found on the label that is attached to the disk. If anyone has an old Maxtor (30,7 GB) drive that matches to those specs, I’d be very interested in it. I already sent queries to the few matches that I found on eBay.

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New firewall

On Saturday I finished reading Linux Firewalls, and promptly got to work writing version 2.0 of the new server firewall. The book was very good – while it didn’t teach me all that much totally new (I’ve been tinkering with iptables for years), it did present a lot of “best practices” and scenarios. My favorite thing about the book was how it condensed various protocols and scenarios into tight recipes, so I could just go, “hmm, I want to enable DHCP for my LAN, what’s the bare minimum I need to allow for that?”… and find a nice, concise answer. I guess the biggest boon I got from the book was tips on how to tighten up the firewall; it isn’t all that hard to write a simple firewall, but it gets tricky fast when you want to block and check all that you possibly can without impeding the server systems or users of the local LAN in any way. Good book, I can warmly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the subject.

Anyway, I spent a large part of Saturday building a new firewall. Took quite a bit of effort and required some mishaps (like me locking myself out of NFS for a while) before it was working and polished… but now I have a pretty nice and tight new firewall setup, with filtering on INPUT, OUTPUT and FORWARD chains. My previous firewalls have only had INPUT rules, the new one has OUTPUT added to check that the server communicates to only those services it’s supposed to (makes life harder for potential intruders). Also added some light FORWARD filtering, mainly anti-spoofing sanity checks and a block on SMTP traffic (to catch and stop possible spam robots in LAN). All it all, I’m pretty satisfied with the setup.

I also have logcheck and aide running on the system, along with various other boobytraps, intended to give me warning of any intrusion attempt (or even a successful one). I have no illusions about being able to stand up to a serious, targeted custom attack, but that’s not a very likely scenario in any case. The intention here is to armor the system against automated attacks and script kiddies, and make life as difficult as possible even for successful intrusions that haven’t elevated to root yet. On that latter note, I intend to look into the GRSecurity extension and PaX one of these days, ideally I would massively reduce the rights that high-risk user accounts (apache, mainly) have in the system. One thing at a time.

Security is always about layers and procedures, and it’s always a tradeoff between it and ease of use. There are limits to how far it’s reasonable to go in a home server setting in any case. But it’s fun to tinker.

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Disk recovery update

Got a situation update from DataPrey on the disk recovery attempt, with a nice technical explanation of the problem. Turns out the “service zone” of the disk had developed a physical fault, and even though the fault is tiny in size, since the disk “boots” internally from the service zone, any fault in it means that the disk flat-out refuses to work and just bangs the reading heads around. It’s sort of like the BIOS in a PC getting zapped.

This explains the sudden, no-warning crash of the disk – the fault was miniscule, it was just in the worst possible place.

The normal procedure is to hunt down a disk that is exactly the same model as the broken one, and copy the microcode from there. Problem is, this is an old 30G Maxtor disk that wasn’t too common even back then, let alone now, and finding a “donor” disk is proving to be troublesome. They have some leads (4 of them), but they need to find an absolutely exact copy. If they do, recovery should be possible. If they don’t, it will be extremely hard or flat-out impossible.

So we’re still waiting, we should know the status by next week.

Whatever happens, I’m impressed with the professionalism in the feedback I get from DataPrey, these guys at least sound like they know what they are doing.

Added: on the very slim hope that someone might have one lying around, the disk in question is a 30,7 gig (yes, tiny) Maxtor ATA drive, model 33073H3. It’s about 6 years old, and was originally sold with the “Maxtor Diamond Max” label.

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Typo

Ok, I’ve been playing around with Typo a bit now and it seems a lot nicer than Wordpress. A lot of the “nicer” comes from it being written with Ruby On Rails, which is a kick-ass platform, especially when compared to the steaming pile of dung that is PHP. Don’t get me wrong, WordPress is very nice – but Typo suits me more.

It helps that I’ve done some stuff with Rails, and I know how the framework is organized and is intended to work. This, together with Ruby being a nice and concise language, makes peeking under the hood in Typo a pleasant experience, as opposed to the “aaaagh, I want to claw my eyes out!” reaction I get from PHP and WordPress. I’m already thinking of writing a sidebar plugin or two, they seem pretty straightforward. I also want to add a text filter to generate DriveThruRPG links easily.

The installation and setup was pretty straighforward, the new installer defaults to a Mongrel server which suits me fine. I ended up with Mongrel listening to a port on the local interface, with Apache proxying requests that way. Rails is not thread-safe, so Mongrel wraps most of the app in a sync block – which is fine for a small site like this, but would not scale for more traffic. Luckily, Mongrel has support for running a cluster of Mongrel instances, and Apache 2.2 and later have a load balancing proxy module that is reported to work. I don’t need that now, but it’s good to know that stuff like that exists. All in all, it seems that the Mongrel + proxy solution is a very painless way to deploy and administed Rails apps. Nice. Production deployments have always been the slightly ugly side of Rails, up to now at least.

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