Archive for September, 2007

IFComp 2007 is on!

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

The 13th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition is underway. There are 29 games this year, quite a manageable number for once! Hopefully among them will be a few gems. Get on over there and grab ‘em. In previous years, these have been some of the best game experiences to be had, because they actually engage you emotionally; and because no matter how good the graphics on the PS3 and its ilk may get, the graphics produced inside ones head by a well-crafted piece of fiction will always be better.

To celebrate the IF Comp, I tracked down links to the IF Chive, a humorous take on IF-dom in the vein of the Onion, by JD Berry. 1-5 and 1-6 are particularly good for the “Thick Steel Door” columns.

IF-Chive Volume 1, Edition 1
IF-Chive Volume 1, Edition 2
IF-Chive Volume 1, Edition 3
IF-Chive Volume 1, Edition 4
IF-Chive Volume 1, Edition 5
IF-Chive Volume 1, Edition 6
IF-Chive Volume 1, Edition 7

IF-Chive Volume 2, Edition 1
IF-Chive Volume 2, Edition 2

IF-Chive Volume 3, Edition 1
IF-Chive Volume 3, Edition 2

Another Library Book Sale

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

On Friday night, Mrs Elbeno remarked to me: “There’s a book sale tomorrow!” Luckily she had read about it in the paper, because I had forgotten it, even though I received the reminder by email from the mayor. So on Saturday morning we headed down to the library at about 9.40 to trawl through the books. The first thing I noticed was the relative paucity of books compared to the usual sales, and that there were quite a few people already there. However, this did not hamper our parking or our enjoyment of the sale.

We happened on another box of Hardy Boys books which we snapped up immediately (we now have 31 volumes), setting them against the time when mini-Elbeno will be able to devour them. Among a few other finds, I also picked up some photography books: The Tao of Photography and Photography, as well as 8 volumes of the 17-strong Life Library of Photography that I plumped for on a whim.

Sadly this time around there were no real finds in the computer textbook department. There are generally two kinds of computer textbook. The first kind is the computer science kind, often subtitled something like “Principles and Practice”. These I buy. One of the things about principles is that they seldom go out of date, so I am quite happy to buy CS- and mathematically-oriented books from as far back as the 70s. The second kind is the “learn this language/API/proprietary software/thing that nobody in 3 years’ time will still be using” kind. Unless I am interested in learning a particular language or I find a canonical title, I steer clear of these. If I want to learn that kind of thing, there are umpteen online references I can look to. I hemmed and hawed a bit about a couple of O’Reilly books, but they were just the wrong side of the line.

UPC scanning

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Well, I’ve finished with the easy bit. I’ve written code to grab a frame from the webcam and do a bit of postprocessing. The postprocessing looks like a good step towards making barcode recognition easier. I’m only working on this at nights so far, so I figure coping with the poor lighting I have in my study bodes well for the future.

Here’s a webcam grab:
barcode_colour
Here’s the same grab, converted to greyscale:
barcode_grey
Here’s the same grab, with the output range normalized (and the colour histogram biased by about 20 to get rid of the low frequency colours at the extrema):
barcode_greypostprocess
Note: these images are cropped from larger images, so if you look at the histogram you probably won’t see the same thing I’m seeing.

Now for the hard part: writing the code to recognise the barcode.

Internet People

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

A memix of blasts from the recent past. How many do you remember?

(Did I just coin the word “memix”? Meme + remix!)

New PC

Monday, September 24th, 2007

I’ve acquired a new PC from the office flea market at the knockdown price of $50. With an Athlon 2200, GeForce 4400, and 1.5GB of RAM, it’s going to be my MAME machine. A significant step up from my previous MAME machine (Athlon 800, GeForce 3, 0.5GB of RAM). My only dilemma is whether to put Gutsy or Feisty on it. Gutsy releases on October 18th, so I could go for Gutsy tribe 5.

Also, I’ve been wanting to do something to contribute to Ubuntu, but I’m not sure how to effectively get started doing that without effectively making my system unstable in some way. Seems to me that to be able to fix bugs or whatever I’ll need to be on the bleeding edge?

Open barcode database, anyone?

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

Delicious Library is a non-free Mac application that catalogues your library of books, movies, CDs, etc. It does this in an inspired way: apparently you simply hold up the item to your webcam (or iSight as the Mac people call it) and it will read the barcode and discover what the item is automatically.

Clearly, this functionality is too useful to remain Mac-only: what we need is an open source library that can recognise barcodes from webcam images, and then an open UPC database (similar to CDDB of old). This would be very useful for cataloguing ones library of – well, anything, really – and it would also open up social networking possibilities for people who want to publish their library catalogues.

Why doesn’t this open source software exist already (or does it)? There seems to be upcdatabase.com out there, and a few barcode recognition libraries (many of which are meant for your pocket PC or mobile phone, presumably so you can scan barcodes at the bookstore and get an instant online price comparison).

A bit wider

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

(or 1200 bits wider, if you like)

The more observant among you will notice that this blog column has become slightly wider. This is because the default WordPress theme has a 450 pixel wide column, whereas the “medium” size photo on flickr is 500 pixels wide. To prevent photo squashing, I did some CSS hackery and a bit of GIMPing the background images for an extra 50 pixels of width.

Secret questions and two factor authentication

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

You’ve seen them. They’re cropping up all over the place now, and not just for online banking. I’m talking about those so-called “secret questions” that are supposed to authenticate you if you ever forget your password. They are (sort of) based on the principle of two factor authentication. Except they actually make the system less secure, not more.

The idea behind two factor authentication is just what it says: authenticating someone based on two factors rather than just one (a password). One key issue is that they be two different kinds of thing, e.g.

  • something you know (a password or PIN)
  • something you have (a credit card or RSA fob)
  • something you are (a fingerprint or retinal scan)

Part of the security lies in the fact that it is not easy to replicate something you have or are, unlike something you know. A password file can be duplicated and attacked offline. Ever-changing RSA keys cannot. Don’t get me started on how every online merchant is requiring the 3-digit credit card “security code” for online transactions these days, which will end up negating its whole purpose if they ever start storing it.

Anyway, secret questions. Stop and think about it for a minute. If you use a strong password, even the esoteric “secret question” answers are a lot less secure than your password. Do you really want someone to be able to call up your bank and say “Oh, hello, this is… Yeah, I forgot my password. My mother’s maiden name is…” ? Whether it be your mother’s maiden name, the name of your first pet, the town where you went to high school, or something else, it is certainly a lot easier for someone to find out (or guess) than a well-chosen password.

Whenever a website asks me for a “secret question” answer, I mash my hands on the keyboard at random until I have 10-12 characters of nonsense, and enter that. Neither I nor anyone else will reasonably be able to recover my answer. So if I ever forget my password(s), I may have a harder time authenticating myself to the person on the other end of the phone, but at least my account will be secure.

Recently, I was almost caught out by this – not that I would change my behaviour and give up security if I were – but I was surprised to actually be asked this secret question as part of the login procedure for one of my credit cards! Of course, I couldn’t answer it. But I was able to give them the 3-digit card security code as an alternative. This was as well as the password, not instead of, so my security was intact in that case.

Panoramics!

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

I’ve uploaded some panoramics to flickr. Sydney Opera House, with its delicate lines, is a real challenge for stitching. I used hugin and enblend to do the jobs, and I’m happiest with the second one of Narooma harbour.

Oz Report – Part 21 – The Journey Home

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

Monday.

We had no troubles getting to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Sydney’s tunnel system once again proved useful. After dropping off the hire car, we checked in, and this time we were prepared to make sure our car seat was smoothly approved. The checkin agent remarked that we were very organised for people travelling with small children (seeing that we only had 2 carryons).

The airport was of course the ideal place to shop for any souvenirs which we felt we lacked, and we picked up some zip-up tops and a t-shirt, with a few other knick-knacks. The flight itself was OK, although mini-Elbeno didn’t sleep as much as he had on the way out. I watched a few of the films on offer although missed the end of Ocean’s Thirteen.

Mini-Elbeno also enjoyed his first ice lolly to himself. This might be why he didn’t sleep so much!

Henry's First Ice Lolly to Himself

So we got home safely, and the family went to bed, and I went to work. Well, I figured I might as well at least clear my email backlog…