The New Computer – “Wanna turn up the heat?”

  on November 8th, 2007

Firebat - The New ComputerFirebat is under construction as I type. Firebat? Yes, that’s the name of my shiny new computer. My first new desktop machine in a good four years or so (Mac Mini not counting, as that’s really just a web terminal in the living room and a chance to play with PowerPC based Linux).

Why Firebat? I try to name my computers after things from some of my favourite old computer games. First there was my Atari ST, named Benson – after the sarcastic computer from Paul Woakes’ amazing Mercenary games of the era. Then came the Atari Falcon, named Benson 2, aka Benson Junior. My first PC, in about 1997, named Benson 3 – can you see a theme here? Benson 3 is still in use today, as my IPCop firewall, but now named Jameson, after Commander Jameson from Elite. Benson 4 was originally a Pentium 2 machine, my first home built machine, but has seen so many upgrades over the years that about the only remaining original parts are the case and floppy drive (and name!) Benson 4, aka B4, is still in good use as my secondary desktop machine and also running Ubuntu Studio to record the podcasts. Benson 5 is, for this second at least, my primary desktop. B5 is the last of the Benson computers. That’s for no other reason than as a reference to Babylon 5 – the last of the Babylon stations. My two laptops are named after Myst objects, the latest being called Kormahn. Finally, my home server is called Threepwood, after Guybrush from the Monkey Island series. There are other machines but they have boring names like Mac Mini and Zaurus. Yes, my electricity bill can be a little high…

I still haven’t explained Firebat, though, have I? I needed another classic game from my past. Something I spent far too much time playing. There are a good few but not many suggested a decent name for a computer. Populous? Civilisation? Quake? Diablo 2? Hardwar? Evil Genius? Black and White? Tomb Raider? None of those leapt out at me as a source for the name. I didn’t want to call my computer Lara Croft! How about Warcraft 2 or 3? Nah, I wanted something more Sci-Fi. StarCraft! Of course! Kerrigan? Protoss? No. Firebat – yes. A silly sounding name but I took an instant shine to it!

So, Firebat is still installing. Windows XP – this is as much, if not more, a gaming machine than anything else. I considered Vista but there appears little or no benefit to DirectX 10 right now, the only possible reason to consider the appalling bloat that is Longhorn. I’ve also got Fedora 8 being torrented down right now, another few hours to go. Coincidentally, Fedora 8 was just released today – perfect timing for dual booting on Firebat.

For the statistics interested people out there, this new machine is running an MSI P35 Neo motherboard, an Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 CPU, 2GB of DDR2 800Mhz RAM, a 500GB SATA HDD and (my favourite bit) a BFG nVidia 8800 GT OC (512MB). I wasn’t sure if that graphics card would hold up the order a few weeks as these new 8800 GT cards are THE card of the moment, high end performance for mid range price. They are selling out quicker than they get in stock at the moment. I got very lucky! I look forward to testing this machine with 3DMark and the like. It should put B5 to shame!

I should also point out that this machine being bought/constructed was not influenced by the Dunn’s recent purchase of a new machine. Really. I just got fed up with B5 freezing up two or three times an evening while I was playing World of Warcraft. Probably just an underpowered PSU, given all the drives I’ve got inside it now, but it was time for an upgrade anyway! Once Firebat is up and running I may fiddle around with B5 and may well end up fixing it. In the meantime I’ll have something a little speedier and, hopefully, rather more stable!

“Need a light?”



Calm Between the Storms

  on July 10th, 2007

LUGRadio Live (image by Jono Bacon)Last weekend was LUGRadio Live and next weekend is Star Wars: Celebration Europe. It’s a busy and expensive month, yet again!

LUGRadio Live 2007 was a two day event, up in Wolverhampton, organised (with a lot of help from fans) by the chaps behind the LUGRadio linux podcast. As ever this wasn’t a corporate event, this is run for Linux and Open Source fans by Linux and Open Source fans.

This is the third such event now, the first (two years ago – it’s an annual event!) was only the one day. Last year it became a two day event and this year carried on that format. Unlike last year I decided to only do one day this time. Most of the significant (to me, at least) activities were happening on the Saturday, so it was an easy choice between that and the Sunday.

It was, as ever, a good event. It felt like a similar number of people as last year, perhaps a handful less, certainly not another big jump over expectations as the last two years have given with attendee numbers. It appears to have found its level in that regard. I doubt the torrential rains over most of the past month helped attendance any. Ironically that weekend was the most sun we’ve seen in what feels like months!

Anyway, I’ll be doing a proper write up for the next Staggering Stories Update (due 23rd of July). In the meantime I just want to lament the loss of another LUGRadio presenter. A few weeks ago, founding LUGRadio team member, Matt Revell, announced he was leaving the show. Now another member of the team, Ade Bradshaw, has announced his retirement – live on stage. In fact I wasn’t quite sure what he’d said at first and I don’t think I was alone. As I recall, it wasn’t until Aq complained about our lack of reaction that I really knew what I thought I’d heard was true! Oh no, not another one, was my immediate thought. Both Matt and Ade have cited lack of time as the reason. As someone who every few weeks must do a Staggering Stories Update I think I know how they must feel. In my case it isn’t so much the amount of work (though that can get to me at times) it is more the unrelenting schedule – even if updates are a month apart, as these days, the constant beating of that drum does get to you! It also makes me wonder about our own podcast efforts. Right now, for me at least, it isn’t too demanding – the evening before the recording I shift kit around and setup. Then there’s the evening of the recording. Then an evening of listening to the result (and listening to it at least twice more before the update, once to check the MP3 encoding and once for the Ogg Vorbis version). It’s certainly a lot tougher on Tony, who is right now editing down the second podcast. LUGRadio is every two weeks, we are a once a month podcast. Will once a month get to us as their fortnightly ones have? Unlike the LUGRadio team, we don’t have any obvious pool of replacement people. We’ll just have to see how it goes. But back to those LUGRadio chaps. Both Matt and Ade will be missed. When LUGRadio returns after its summer break it may feel like quite a different show. Probably no less entertaining but not quite the same, nonetheless.

Onto next weekend, then. Friday is the first day of the Star Wars Celebration Europe convention. Finally my ticket has arrived and there are also now some details on what to expect. It appears there are effectively 3 stages with events during the 3 days. Looks like there is some interesting stuff going on, too. I was beginning to worry that it might be little more than a hall full of stands. Here’s the three main stages and their events:

Hopefully there are no extra fees in regards to any of these stages – being a George Lucas inspired event I wouldn’t be surprised! With luck I will be able to blog sometime over the weekend to give you my initial impressions. May the mysterious sauce be with me!



Little Red Roaming Book

  on June 29th, 2007

Samsung Q35 RedIt came almost from nowhere but suddenly, on Wednesday morning, I decided to get a new laptop (or notebook, if you prefer). The next morning, yesterday morning, a kindly courier arrived with my big red book. It’s a Samsung Q35 Red. Actually it is anything but big and it’s only red on the lid. I’ll tell you what it wholly is, though, it’s one fantastic little machine.

What made me decide, almost on the spur of the moment, to get a new laptop? Holidays. Well, holidays and similar traveling. In about six weeks I’ll be staying for a week in the Isle of Man Hilton. Like most decent hotels these days it has full Internet access, in the rooms as well as the lobby/bar areas – or so the website tells me. I’m not sure if I will actually have much spare time to hang around the hotel but any free moments I get I hope to be either blogging or working on Staggering Stories. Then there’s LUGRadio Live in just over a week and then a Star Wars Convention in London the week after. For all this I need a decent light laptop with wireless support…

My old laptop has served me well over the past few years but after an unfortunate incident, when it sucked down the best part of a pint of orange juice, it hasn’t quite been the same since. It was a stupendously expensive laptop, even for the time, coming in at just over £3,500 – it was a full on desktop replacement, with a large high resolution LCD panel (1600×1200 – still very good even being almost exactly five years later), 768MB of RAM, 100GB HDD, GeForce 4 Go graphics card. This was a machine that was up there with the best desktops of its day. What it isn’t, though, is small or light. I still carry it around with me, to work every day or when visiting friends or family – you never know when you might need a computer! It is a little too bulky for carrying around as hand luggage on these smaller aircraft, though. Another issue is that the triple damned orange juice damaged the power circuits in some way so that I can no longer run the laptop off battery. None too handy. The lid/screen is also a little loose now and prone to falling back if I push the angle too far – I have to really slouch down to avoid pushing the screen too far back when it’s on my lap now. Still basically works when tethered and on a desk, though. All in all, the Dell Inspiron 8200‘s traveling days are coming to an end. It has served me well.

So, planning ahead, I decided that now was the time for a replacement. Last time I wanted an all singing, all dancing laptop with the power to take me out of the computer room and into the TV room. I also wanted a laptop I could play the latest games on. The Inspiron was all that and more. This time, though, I wanted something smaller, lighter and with even better Linux support (the Dell was great for all but the WiFi card – every time I installed a new Linux distro it was a huge hassle to get the WiFi going again). A fairly cursory search for available ‘ultra-portable’ notebooks at the local PC World superstore initially led me to a Philips notebook. Further investigation suggested significant issues getting it to even boot under Linux (the smaller the notebook the more exotic the hardware is a general rule of thumb – new and exotic hardware is generally less well supported under Linux as the manufacturers usually only release drivers for Windows). Other notebooks/laptops were either too expensive or just too big (the cheapest laptops tend to be quite large it seems). So much for nipping down to PC World at lunchtime to buy one. Next it was online. Quite quickly I noticed the Samsung Q35 Red – Core 2 Duo 64bit dual core CPU, 160GB HDD, 1GB RAM, 1200×800 widescreen LCD screen, WiFi, Bluetooth, integrated Intel graphics (this is no games machine this time – I have desktop machines (plus a Wii and a DS) for that). Cross checking Linux compatibility came up good too – it looked like the only thing I’d need to do is download and compile the Intel WiFi drivers. Easier than messing around with installing Windows WiFi drivers under Linux as I have to with the Inspiron. So, paying about double what I hoped – £809.98 (still a heck of a lot less than £3,500!) I ordered it.

Multiple credit card authorisation failures saw me calling my credit card company – they were suspicious of such a large online transaction but happily authorised it when I confirmed it really was me making this purchase. Back onto the Dabs website to attempt reauthorisation – that went okay and it was almost immediately shipped for next day delivery. Fast forward to yesterday morning…

It arrived promptly in the morning. Sadly things were even more manic than usual in the department so I didn’t have a chance to do anything more than unpack it to make sure all was present and correct. Lunchtime was a long time coming, both because I was too busy to take lunch at the normal time and the added urge to just start playing with my new toy! When it did come, at about 15:00, I grabbed my things and rushed home – I’d never get peace at work that day. First priority: get Windows ready to share the drive with Fedora 7. I uninstalled various bits of junk that came preinstalled in Vista (including a 60 day Microsoft Office trial – I didn’t even bother to start that up). I don’t know if it was Sumsung or it’s a standard feature of Vista but one thing I really liked when I first started up was the offer to resize the two partitions it already had. Vista’s boot partition went down to about 40GB and there was a 10GB restore partition that I decided to leave alone for now. That gave the ‘D’ drive just over 100GB (of a nominally 160GB drive) – ideal for Fedora 7. This was my first real play with Vista, though all I really used was the Disk Management (to delete drive D) and the Uninstall control panel item. So far, so good. Vista appeared nothing more than XP with a slightly less Fisher Price graphical theme. Really nothing to get excited about – all those years of development, all those missed release dates for this? Probably unfair for me to really say much more at this point as I haven’t given it a decent play yet and aren’t intending to anytime soon. It’s there if I find I need it.

X86_64 Fedora 7, downloaded a week or so back (before I had any idea I might have a new laptop soon), went into the DVD drive (a dual layer rewriter, no less – better than the DVD-ROM/CD-RW mutant in the Inspiron) and immediately up came the installer – and correctly into widescreen, too (I had expected the installer to be stretched and perhaps have a widescreen issue with the final install too). What an excellent start. 64bit Linux, here I come (I should note that I noticed in My Computer in Vista that Windows appears to be a 32bit version, goodness knows why they didn’t install the 64bit Vista). Outside of Red Hat Enterprise Linux on various servers, this was the first time I’d really used a 64bit PC. Of course you can’t really tell any difference as a desktop user but I liked the idea nonetheless! Fedora correctly suggested it take the free 100+GB for itself. The Fedora installation just keeps getting smoother and smoother. Any idiot should be able to install Fedora these days! I left the laptop installing as I had to return to work (I considered bringing it along but it would have been too much of a distraction). Got home about an hour late that evening, thanks to a web conference call, to find the machine sitting there ready for a post install reboot. Hit the ‘reboot’ button, up came the familiar GRUB boot loader and I decided to first go back into Vista. It came up fine, my fears of dual boot issues with Vista were unfounded. Immediately rebooted into the new Fedora 7. To my amazement everything appears to work. The screen looks great in widescreen splendor. The sound worked fine. The touchpad was okay. The built-in multi-card reader worked straight off, as did plugging in a USB memory stick. Even the WiFi just worked – no need to recompile or even download the firmware from Intel – it just worked. Everything just worked! I’m still amazed even now. If I had reinstalled Vista, as may have been required to get the dual boot working, I seriously doubt everything would instantly work without having to dig out driver CDs or perform Windows Updates. It really is a testament to Samsung for their decent hardware choices and to Linux for just how far it has come these past few years. The Samsung Q35 Red and Fedora 7 are made for one another! I haven’t had a chance to actually test it (as I don’t have anything to connect with) but even the built in Bluetooth has been recognised. I really am very, very impressed. Thank you Red Hat, thank you Linux hackers and thank you Samsung. I expect to have many years of fun on this little computer – orange juice allowing.



MMOOH – MMOs On Hold

  on June 12th, 2007

Staggering Stories PodcastWhere does all the time go? Certainly not into MMOs, not for the past few weeks anyway. In fact it has been 3 weeks today since I sat down and played World of Warcraft on my own. I just don’t have time for messing about with computer games right now. That being the case, I’ve let my City of Heroes account expire. I still have a few weeks left on my 60 day WoW time card and it remains to be seen if I will have located any missing time by that point to resub with a new time card. I suspect it will wait a further few weeks after that, though.

So, where has that time gone? Taking this week as an example, then. Last night, Monday, had me shifting kit and furniture to prepare for a podcast recording. Yes, that recording should be tonight – the first proper Staggering Stories podcast. So that’s tonight, Tuesday. Assuming that happens okay then tomorrow, Wednesday, will see our first attempt to edit together the three audio tracks (each recorded on a different machine, one per podcast host). By rights I should be somewhere around East Grinstead on Thursday but I’ve not heard confirmation of that. That leaves Friday, which is normally the day the gang come over for fun and games! So, not a single evening this week free for MMOs. Okay, there’s the weekend but most of Sunday is normally out seeing the family (I might have an hour Sunday morning and about two hours Sunday evening, time to catch up on a couple of TV programmes from the week). Saturday is the only real time to do anything around the house, for Staggering Stories (not including the podcast, of course!) or any little projects I have (such as the currently languishing Asterisk project) and, of course, the good chunk of the evening that is taken by Doctor Who, Confidential and Totally Doctor Who (from the previous day – I avoid watching it until after the new Who, so I can watch the trailer at the end!) That’s just this week. The previous few weeks have been similarly hectic. Never a dull moment for me!

Back to the podcast preparations. I’ve installed Audacity on three machines (my Mac Mini, running OS X (no, not necessarily ‘of course’, I did have Ubuntu Linux running on there at one point), my laptop running Fedora Core 6 Linux and the secondary desktop from my computer room running the dread Windows XP (it was dual booting Ubuntu at one point – Ubuntu has never quite convinced me and I keep meaning to set this machine up with a dual boot Fedora)). Several gigabytes needed to be freed up on the Mac Mini and the laptop, running out of space would end the podcast pretty quickly! I had to buy an iMic USB soundcard for the Mac Mini as it hasn’t got audio in. Last night I tried to record with my laptop and found the input record levels very low. I don’t know what can be done about that, if anything. I may have to buy another iMic for the laptop but I certainly don’t have time before tonight’s recording (nowhere in town stocks them, not even the local PC World…) I’ve also got some new headsets, ones with only one ear speaker bit, so at least one of our ears is uncovered to hear what the others are saying clearly (that’s forethought!). I picked up a couple of extra clipboards too, just in case the others want to make notes as we go. All in all I think we are pretty much ready on a technical level (laptop concerns aside).

That all just leaves the mental preparation for the podcast! Getting in a decent state of mind and thinking of things to talk about. Those are the tricky bits. I find myself strangely (and pointlessly) nervous about it the closer it gets. We will have about 3 listeners, maybe 6 at a push! At times like this, having listened to so many hundred podcasts in my time, the pressure is on! Fortunately I listened to the first 20 or so minutes of the first LUGRadio episode the other day and that was ropier than scout badge hell! It will take us a while to get in the swing of things too. Plan for the best show we can do, expect the worst show ever!

Back to the beginning, then. No time to play MMOs, no point paying for them at the moment. If I ever do find some free time I also have several non-MMO PC games to play, most notably Tomb Raider: Anniversary. It’s not all over for MMOs, there will always be the free to play ones: Guild Wars, Dungeon Runners and Space Cowboy!



Asterisk – the Future of Telephony

  on June 4th, 2007

asterisk.pngFinally, after over a year of dabbling, I have had success creating my own Private Branch Exchange (PBX) at home! A what? It’s a telephone system not unlike you would find at a medium to large company. Yes, it’s got extensions, it’s got voicemail boxes, it’s got (potentially) least cost routing and it’s got interactive menus! Press 1 to continue reading this blog or press 2 to commit ritual suicide! Yes – callers to my home phone number will soon be in for phone menu hell!

Asterisk is the key to this new little project. Those who know me will not be surprised to hear this is an Open Source application that adheres to Open Standards and runs under Linux. It really is a remarkable piece of software kit and is, I believe, fairly dramatically changing the face of corporate telephony systems. It’s what is termed a ‘disruptive technology‘ – a technology that is destroying the status quo in it’s niche and really leveling the playing field for everyone, especially newcomers. Until very recently your only option for an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, or even a semi competent office PBX, would be an expensive closed system – tens of thousands of Pounds plus annual support contracts. Now practically anyone can create such a system for virtually nothing. All you need is a computer running Linux plus an Internet and/or telephone network connection.

In my case I bought a slightly exotic telephone adapter called a Sipura SPA-3000. I had hell getting it to talk to Asterisk. This wasn’t Asterisk’s fault, nor that of the Sipura. The real problem is that the Sipura was primarily designed to work alone (or rather not with a complex PBX like Asterisk). Voice over IP (VoIP), IP being Internet Protocol, is a phrase you will hear more of in the future (and may very well have come across already). You’ve heard of Skype, I expect. That’s a form of VoIP. Skype (rhymes with type NOT typie) has created its own proprietary protocol and is very closed source and rightly criticised for it – you cannot interoperate with it, you cannot bug fix it, you cannot port it to other platforms (Windows, Mac OS X and Linux (though only x86 architecture) are supported) and, possibly most importantly these days, you cannot inspect the code to see what it might be doing to your system. All in all, Skype should be avoided for both trust and conscience reasons. But I digress. Asterisk supports the open VoIP standards that increasingly everyone except Skype uses, namely SIP, IAX2 and H.323. My Sipura, as the names suggests, supports the most popular of those protocols – SIP. It has a socket for a phone line (in my case going to a Telewest/Virgin Media outlet), a telephone handset socket (going to my DECT basestation) and a normal Ethernet network port, plus a power connector. It presents the two phone type sockets as SIP devices, i.e. they can connect to a SIP service such as Sipgate,, VoXaLot, etc. In other words you can use a Sipura to give your normal phone access to, potentially, free phones calls over the Internet. The Sipura can be configured to route your outbound calls either over the Internet or through the normal phone network depending on the number you are trying to call. It’s clever stuff and only the tip of the iceberg to what this device can do. Sadly I wanted none of that, I just wanted a plain mindless SIP device that will connect to my Asterisk box. That was the tricky bit. Nonetheless I got there, eventually! I should say a big thank you to Fay of the East Grinstead Linux Users Group and the chaps at Runtime Consultancy Services – seeing Asterisk in action really brought the concepts home, I was really floundering before that!

I should also point out trixbox, which is basically a preconfigured Linux installation (based on the great CentOS – a Linux distribution I use all the time at work, in fact I’m using right now over this lunchtime) with various Asterisk packages already added, ready to go. There is a VMware image there along with a bootable CD image for installation onto a real machine. I’m using the VMware virtual machine image with it in mind to build up my Asterisk configuration there and then copy the config files across to my existing home server (it has a max of 512MB of RAM, so running VMware on that headless machine is impractical but it should be able to run the Asterisk packages natively).

In addition I should say that there are far easier ways to interface Asterisk to the normal phone network. There are several PCI cards available, most notably from Digium (the people who first developed and open sourced Asterisk – they realised they could make more money selling commodity hardware by opening up Asterisk than they’d ever make by selling bespoke PBX systems). You can get really cheap cards for about £30 on eBay. I wanted something a bit more reliable. Digium’s decent cards were coming out at about £160 with one FXO (Foreign Exchange Office – i.e. BT, Telewest, Bell, etc.) and one FXS (Foreign Exchange Subscriber – i.e. phone handset) socket. The Sipura had excellent reviews, didn’t take up a PCI slot (my main server only accepts half height cards) and was somewhat cheaper at about £90. A Digium card would, however, just have worked out of the box!

That was all a load of nonsense to most people, I am sure. Basically, since the breakthrough late last night of both making and receiving Telewest calls via Asterisk (with the Sipura inbetween) I am buzzing with the opportunities to tinker around with Asterisk. All that is really left is getting CallerID to come through from the Sipura to Asterisk. Based on the CallerID I will either let the call through directly (falling back to either voicemail (which will be immediately emailed to me) or, possibly, redirected to my office or mobile when away (using traditional VoIP as clearly my Telewest line will be busy)) or pushing the caller into some form of IVR menu trap – I’ll let those who I deem worthy know the secret way to get out of it! A worrying Text2Speech message may be included to scare off telesales people… And so the fun begins!