Archive for the ‘ Review ’ Category

LOST Finale : A review from a die hard fan

So, I watched the finale of LOST last night. Did it answer everything? Most certainly not. Did it answer enough to pass as an ending? Probably. It seems to me that the writers decided, as many people have stated, that there simply could not be a logical explanation for everything. Bear it mind that logical, does not have to equal credible. We ended up with a kind of supernatural ending, which in a way I was kind of expecting anyway.

There were so many aspects of the show that were mysterious, so many ‘what the heck’ moments, but in the end, most of these were swept under the carpet and we were left with a rather limp ending, which in all honesty could have been tacked onto the end of each season and still made sense. There was literally no need to introduce the numbers, or time travel or any of the other wacky and weird things which LOST was known for. Of course they enhanced the journey, but that wasn’t the point. The writers seemed to be egging us on, making us think that in the end, all of these totally barmy ideas, would be boiled down into one single “ah-ha” moment.

It was resolutions like “You became a mother”, which Jacob tells us was the reason for Kate’s name being scratched off the wall, which just seemed so simple and yet so right, that made me love the show. Little subtle hints like this seemed abnormally absent. There were no real answers in the finale. When they began to bring in the Daniel Faraday storyline, with the experiments and physics, I became a little more excited. Finally there was a glimmer of hope that the whole premise of the show could be explained in someway with a scientific background.

Alas, none of this was explained. It felt as if the ending could have been applied to the end of any of the seasons and the show would have been completed just fine. It was like a failsafe, seemingly conceived from the beginning, which rendered everything that had happened in between just moot. Things just didn’t matter. The Dhama, didn’t matter. The numbers, didn’t matter, though there were some hints to the origin of these in some extra material. Shoddy work, in my opinion, it would have been much better to include the origins of these numbers in the main show.

Everyone knew there was never going to be a full explanation for everything. We had to take it for granted that the electromagnetic energy had strange effects, (remember the “box” people?), but at least give us something as a parting gift. Something which shows us that everything had a purpose. Something that explained some of the origins that were made so much of during the seasons and faded away into the ether in the finale. From a spiritual point of view, yah, they probably didn’t matter. The journey is what was important, but for all those people who won’t or can’t feel that way about characters, it felt unfair to leave them with nothing more than a bad taste in their mouths at the end of the this 6 year long journey.

Shortly before the end, my wife and I were discussing possible endings and I have to say I think she came up with a much better ending than the one we were given. Though it may have been slightly more predictable, (well we thought of it didn’t we?) it seemed more LOST like. There would ultimately be some sort of struggle at the end, as we saw, but then all the main characters would flee the island, leaving Jack and Locke sitting together on a beach, in much the same way that we saw Jacob and Smokey earlier in the season. It would have been funny also to supplement this with a plane flying overhead/ship wrecking on the rocks, and the pair looking at each other. It would have lent to the cyclic nature of the show which seemed so prevalent.

Overall, the ending was acceptable, but by no means good, or even great. It’s such a shame that the writers didn’t take the opportunity to really go all out on this and give us an ending we’ll never forget (for a good reason). We were quite keen to buy all the seasons on DVD once the finale was over. Now, I don’t think we’ll bother. Disappointing people, very disappointing.

Review : Cherry Picks of the Month: Foresight Linux

OgI just cannot believe that it has been a month to the day that I proudly signed off on the Cherry Pick of the Month for the second issue of GeekDeck! A whole lot has happened since then and I literally did not have a chance to get a lot of writing done. As if keeping up and committing translations for the GNOME, Xfce and LXDE projects wasn’t enough, I embarked on a 2-week-long roller coaster of a ride at work that just ended this afternoon! Have I mentioned that I am also running for the GNOME Board of Directors? My last adventures took me to a very familiar road, this time in my own backyard so to speak, as I was elected into the Foresight Linux Council and became their Community Manager.
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Review : Lowepro CompuDaypack

peteA while ago my backpack broke. When I say broke, I mean literally in several places. I’d used it for a good few years and it’s straps were torn and the insides disgustingly mucky and decrepit. It had gotten to the point that I was actually pretty embarrassed to have it on my persons. Deciding that towing it 3 metres behind me in a trailer wasn’t going to do anything to improve my image, I resolved that I should buy a new backpack, but what to buy?
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Review : Cherry Picks of the Month: Sliced Bread


This month’s edition of Cherry Picks of the Month has a review of a very special product that will definitely turn many heads. It is one of those products that you proudly claim to be “the best thing since the invention of sliced bread.” At least I think so! 🙂 But first things first:

DISCLAIMER: I am a QA Engineer at rPath, the company behind the technology here presented. This post belongs solely to my person and is not, in any shape or form sponsored by my employer.

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, let us dive head first into software appliances and why you should pay attention to them.

Wikipedia tells us that “A software appliance is a software application combined with just enough operating system (JeOS) for it to run optimally on industry standard hardware (typically a server) or in a virtual machine.” In other words, it is a lean and mean (usually?) GNU/Linux machine stripped down to its bare minimum configuration with a single (or combination of) application that does a very specific job. A good example of this would be a network firewall which is probably the most common type of software and hardware appliances out there.

So what is the big deal, right? Anyone with enough knowledge and time can install an operating system, gut it of all the pieces you don’t need and get it small enough to fit your needs, right? You could then take the application being developed by the other IT guys and manually install it to arrive at a software appliance right. And if you find out that there is a dependency required to run that application, you can always download the source and compile it to make it work. What? The version you installed is not the same used by the IT guys? Ok, you can search for the proper version and compile it again, not a problem. And what if a major security update of one of the underlying components becomes available the day you’re finished building your appliance? Guess you’ll have to download it and install it.

Do you see any problems with building your systems this way? What if you needed literally 1000 of them tomorrow? Do the words “time constraint”, “dependency hell”, and “Seppuku” mean anything to you? If you see yourself nodding affirmatively, then let me introduce you to rBuilder Online, the easiest and most efficient way to build a software appliance, and keep your sanity intact.

In a nut shell, rBuilder Online is a 100% free online “software appliance manufactery” maintained by rPath. A true window to the technology developed by the rPathians, rBuilder Online allows you to create, develop, maintain and (most importantly) deploy software appliances from the comfort of your chair. A very basic appliance can be built and deployed in literally minutes, all requiring only the use of your mouse and some simple decisions such as what platform you want to use (several are currently available, all built with the highly advanced conary package management system), what type of images you want to generate (i.e. ISOs, VMware, Xen, Citrix, EC2, etc) and what packages to include besides the bare minumum. The flash animation below shows how I created a product called GeekDeck based off the rPath Linux 2 platform, chose to generate an EC2 image and added the Apache web server as one of its components (if you cannot see it, please visit this link).

Creating a new appliance

The combination of these choices are all put together into what is called a group, a very detailed compilation of all the packages that make up our product, with dependency tracking down to the file level! Let me say that again: Every file of every single package that make up this product, from the very basic component to its kernel and the packages we added atop is tracked and mapped in the same style a versioning control system does. What that means is that for every customer you ship your product, you will know exactly what files and what versions of these files (and its dependencies and its’ versions and the dependencies of the dependencies and so on and on) are installed on their system. And if tomorrow you rebuild your group and add new content to it, your customers will be able to update their systems and they will get only what you specified on your group! Say goodbye to dependency hell!

It is well worth mentioning that every single appliance gets a web-based appliance management interface that will allow you to not only manage services and configure settings of your system but also keep it up to date with newer versions of your product. Also, rBuilder allows you to manage the content of your product by promoting it to different labels giving you control to move it through different phases of a release cycle, say moving a well defined group from a Development label through QA and eventually Production.

By the way, the EC2 image I built for this demo can be launched from rBuilder Online. Make sure to have a valid Amazon EC2 credentials ready.

I could go on and on about some other cool features that are built in and available free of charge on rBuilder Online, but I’ll stop it here and let you do some research of your own. Better yet, you could opt out of using the community version of rBuilder and instead try the brand spanking new rBuilder Appliance. It is like having your own software appliance at your fingertips! 🙂

Og Maciel is a QA Engineer for rPath and a long time contributor to the translation efforts of several upstream projects. When not spearheading new projects or communities, he likes to fish, watch ice hockey and spend time with his 2 lovely daughters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Review : HandBrake

peteFor a long time, I’ve been looking for something that will take media from a DVD and put it in a suitable format for watching on [insert media device here]. It’s an age old problem, you want your media on a different device, but often getting it there is a problem, especially in the open source world. Sure there are tens if not hundreds of converters, transcoders, encoders and compressors out there, but few have the actual finesse to complete the task. Most seem to use the same framework under the hood too, which often leads me to wonder how one can get it so right, and another can get it so wrong. Having played with ffmpeg and mencoder myself, whilst both are fantastic products, using them can be a little bit of a black art. You have to really understand what you’re doing with video file formats and audio bit rates to make anything decent enough to play on another medium. I have spent many an hour encoding up bits of video and comparing them for quality, with the biggest problem of all being the audio sync.

Enter HandBrake, a fairly new offering to the encoding market. Cross platform on the Windows/Linux/Mac trio, HandBrake offers not only a wide range of features, but probably the easiest and most intuitive interface out there. I’ve tried several other rippers in the past, my previous favorite being dvd::rip, however I could never get a good solid video out of it, plus the interface was exceedingly complex. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m the kind of guy that loves to be able to change every conceivable option, but I also tend to like having a simple interface that can also be used if all I want to do is click-and-go. HandBrake seems to offer the above, and then some. The finer grain controls may not be quite as fine as something like dvd::rip, but it is still perfectly adequate for the task.

I took a reference video that I generally use for testing out new encoders and tried it out. HandBrake claims to be able to take almost any video file, and convert it to a format of your choosing. However, I found difficulty getting videos that it would actually work with it. Maybe it was because I had some videos with funky formats, I don’t know, what I do know is I successfully managed to crash HandBrake several times when giving it one of these videos. The job I really wanted HandBrake for, was taking some videos from an old DVD I had, and converting them to be able to play on my PSP. Thankfully HandBrake actually did a really, really good job at this.

Inserting a DVD and choosing it from the file menu, HandBrake will first scan it for titles before adding them to a drop down box in the interface. The HandBrake screen is split into three sections; The top left rectangle giving a very simple source/destination box, below this is another rectangle of roughly the same size which gives more options for encoding. On the far right is something I call a recipe list, where you can choose your output medium. HandBrake offers four main video formats, H.264, MPEG-4 (ffmpeg), MPEG-4 (XviD) and Theora, and these are customised by selecting one of the recipes. For example, choosing PSP as the output device, will change the video type to MPEG-4 (ffmpeg) and will change the bitrate to 1024. Changing this to the PS3 makes a few modifications, the most noticeable being substituting MPEG-4 for H.264 and upping the bitrate to 2500. The only thing which is a little disappointing is the inability to change the resolution of the resulting video easily, more on this later.

As with many rippers you have the ability to decide what is most important to you and HandBrake is no different here, giving you the option to choose from, Quality, BitRate or Target Size. Usually I find a bitrate that seems to offer good video quality and good file size and this is what I did with HandBrake and found the value to be around 500 for the PSP. Starting an encoding job is quite exciting, as you get to either start it immediately, or put it into a queue. Meaning you can queue up multiple titles from a DVD and leave a disc running overnight if you like.

For a 25 minute video, the file size on the PSP turned out to be around 100Mb. Using another video format, I have previously gotten this number down to past half that size at around the same, if not higher, resolution. To be honest though, HandBrake did a fantastic job and the overall quality of the video was noticeably higher than my previous efforts. What impressed me further was when I put the same video in my media library and played it on my PS3, though the compression was noticeable, the video was really watchable and that was something I never expected, especially with the low resolution that HandBrake pumps out for the PSP.

Overall, there’s not much left to say. For DVDs, HandBrake does a fantastic job of taking the physical media and turning it into a video for use on another media player. Though the file sizes are a little larger than what I used to strive for, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t watch 8 hours of media in a 30 minutes journey, so why do I try to cram that much media in anyway. The number of options available in HandBrake is both impressive and extremely well laid out. My only gripe is the lack of control over the resolution, however on closer inspection, a brave soul can change these details in the .config/presets file. In conclusion, if you need a simple DVD -> file converter, HandBrake definitely makes a great choice.

Review : Cherry Picks of the Month

A new month has started and with it a new selection of interesting applications have caught my fancy. I’m always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas for graphical interfaces, making it a point of flipping through web sites and magazines just to see what other people are doing out there.

This month’s selection include a couple of games, a spreadsheet, a great dynamic debugging tool and a new way of managing your files.

Professor FizzWizzle is a fun, mind-expanding puzzle game, where you take control of the diminutive genius, Professor Fizzwizzle. You must help the professor use his brains and his gadgets to solve each exciting level. Do you have what it takes to get past the Rage-Bots and bring the prof back to his lab? My oldest daughter started playing the demo for this addictive game and soon enough father and daughter were huddled together debating how to best complete the puzzles.

Professor Wizzle

Professor Wizzle

I also recommend FizzBall by the same company, also receiving high scores from my daughter. Have you heard of that old cliché “learn by playing”? This game will definitely validate it for you and your kids.

Pyspread is a cross-platform spreadsheet application that is based on and written in the programming language Python.

Pyspread - The power of Python in a spreadsheet

Pyspread - The power of Python in a spreadsheet

Can you imagine being able to write your own “formulas” in Python and use it in a spreadsheet? Ohhh, the possibilities…

Parasite is a debugging and development tool that runs inside your GTK+ application’s process. It can inspect your application, giving you detailed information on your UI, such as the hierarchy, X window IDs, widget properties, and more. You can modify properties on the fly in order to experiment with the look of your UI. In other words, it is like Firefox’s Firebug extension, but for Gtk applications. Salivating yet?

Checking out Eye of GNOME with Parasite

Checking out Eye of GNOME with Parasite

In order to poke around Eye of GNOME and uncover all the layers that make up the UI, I ran the following from the command line:

GTK_MODULES=gtkparasite eog

I could now freely inspect every single component of the interface and interact with them via a very handy python shell at the bottom of the screen. I highly recommend it!

Finally, GNOME Zeitgeist, a very interesting way of managing files in your desktop. My dad just recently bought a brand new computer (a Mac actually) and paid an extra fee to have a technician come to his place and transfer all of his contents, thousands of digital photos and music accumulated through the years, from the old computer to the newer one. Once all of his files were safely transferred and the old computer conveniently put to use as a door holder, he was presented with an interesting problem: he had absolutely no idea where his media was!

Smart file management with GNOME Zeitgeist

Smart file management with GNOME Zeitgeist

This is where an application like GNOME Zeitgeist comes in handy. The physical location of files in your operating system should not be of concern to a desktop user. Ask him when he took a picture or recorded a song, and you may get a better answer: “It was the first week of March, 2009”. Now, ask which folder/partition that file resides and you’ll be out of luck! Being able to search by date and tags is a very interesting way to deal with the proliferation of multimedia files accumulated through the years and this project is well worth watching (literally, watch the video here).

Review : PhotoShock Canvases

Price : £39.99
Size : 80 x 51cm
Style : Framed
Res : 300 dpi

Pros : Amazing quality, well made, fade resistant for 100 years
Cons : You will just want to keep buying more.

Never before have I been so excited about receiving a piece of art. Now I know what you are thinking, art? ART? This is a magazine about technology and all things geek. Does art really have a place here? Well a) yes of course it does, and b) when you combine Art and Gaming, then most definitely it does.

Recently whilst scanning for presents for my wife for mothers day I came across a canvas on I’d run a generic search for final fantasy, (yes we’re big fans), and stumbled upon something wonderful. The canvas was an 80x51cm framed image of Lightning from the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII game on the PS3, sitting on a sofa and holding what appears to be a very similar to a gunblade from Final Fantasy VIII.

I was really in two minds whether to get it or not, I had no idea about the quality or anything. A few days later I re-visited the site and found amazon had hiked the price. I was not impressed and decided to leave it. I told the missus about it a few days later and she, like me, fell in love with the piece, so we went back to amazon to buy it. Shock Horror, it had gone. We were a little heartbroken…..just a little. We found the manufacturers website, PhotoShock, and found they sold them online, straight from their own shop. Eager to learn more, we emailed the guys at PhotoShock and asked for some details about the printing.

A few days later we received a reply stating that the printing was 300dpi. None too shabby. We just couldn’t hold ourselves back any longer, so we ordered it. I must point out here, that the canvas we ordered was actually in stock. Most are made to order and take around 7 days, according to the PhotoShock website. It was dispatched on the Friday by recorded delivery and arrived late Monday morning. Not bad Royal Mail! Interestingly, PhotoShock will send canvases worldwide, but shipping is free in the UK. Another bonus.

Some canvases are available in both framed and unframed varieties. We chose the framed version which cost around twice the price, but was well worth it. The frames are hand made and we were eager to see what it would be like.

It arrived in a large box, roughly the same size as the canvas itself, but a little larger as expected. Inside, the canvas was first wrapped in brown paper, before being wrapped again in bubble wrap. I was a little concerned to see that the brown paper and bubble wrap were only covereing the front of the framed canvas, but on reflection if something were to pierce the back side of the box, it would have to travel the thickness of the box to hit the canvas. Protecting the front is most important against knocks. If the unthinkable happens and something goes through the box, chances are the canvas will be ruined anyway.

On seeing the canvas for the first time I was thoroughly impressed. The colours are very rich and the detail is fantastic. It helps that the CG image is of good quality to begin with. In fact scratch that, the image is of amazing quality and clarity. PhotoShock state that the printing resolution is 300dpi, which appears to be the case, however I did notice some slight pixelation on a few areas of the image. To be perfectly honest this is something that would never have been noticed unless one was as eagle eyed as myself and spent 15 minutes looking at a canvas in a bright light at about 3cm from my face. In normal viewing conditions, you’d swear she was right there in the room with you.

The frame is very well made, yet exceedingly lightweight, which made hanging it easy, an presumably cut down on shipping costs. The hook bar on the back may have been a mite too far over in one direction, but it hangs straight nonetheless. The canvas is fade resistant for 100 years, which, assuming I don’t suddenly become immortal, means I’ll enjoy it for the rest of my life.

Overall there is really no bad points about it. The canvas and frame were exactly what was described and appear to be finely crafted. The price we paid was £39.99 which included a framed, 80x51cm canvas, including shipping inside the UK. To be honest for the product, I’d call this a steal. I have never wanted a piece of art so badly as I did this.

PhotoShock do a wide variety of gaming, movie and tv canvases, with a few other miscelaneous ones thrown in for good measure. If I won the lottery tomorrow, a good few thousand would probably be spent on a large number of canvases. We have been totally impressed by the canvas and the service we have received from PhotoShock. Maybe they’ll send us another one to review…..oh go on….you know you want to.