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  • Winter gaming report
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Feb 16, 2015 - [Permalink] - Category: gaming

    Typically when a new game comes out that seems interesting I either get it, or wishlist it and buy it whenever it goes on sale. These days however I've been going from one game to the next faster than usual. Perhaps my attention span for gaming has gone down in recent years? Here's a few thoughts about recent games I've been playing, in no particular order.

    Game of Thrones - This is one of two Telltale Games that were released before the Holidays. I loved the previous games I've played from them, The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us. They are all episodic story-driven games, which is something I like. This one seems interesting so far, and I can't wait to see the next episodes.

    Tales from Borderlands - While I found the actual Borderlands games so-so, this adaptation from Telltale is pretty well done. In fact, I think I like it slightly more than the Game of Thrones one. Also eager to find out what happens next...

    Life is Strange - It seems like the story-driven genre is picking up, which is good. This title is made by another company but is heavily inspired from the Telltale games. It's unlikely to appeal to many hardcore gamers, but I like it.

    World of Warcraft - My WoW time has gone down from before the holidays, but that is to be expected, despite what forum trolls will have you believe. I found the new expansion, Warlords of Draenor, quite well done, and garrisons turned out better than anticipated, but now there's just a lot less to do. I don't do heavy raiding anymore, unlike back in early WoW days and EverQuest times, and I only do casual PvP, so my time online is basically checking in on my garrison and doing a few dailies/weeklies.

    SWTOR - While WoW time went down, I've picked up SWTOR again, after going back to KOTOR for a few days. I left the game completely months ago but I think that's how MMO works these days: They come and go. I've started a brand new Trooper character (the first class I ever played in SWTOR) and will likely stick with it until I get bored again.

    On the horizon, there's GTA V coming out for PC next month, although it's listed at $70 which is crazy. I will likely wait for a sale. Episodes from some of the above games are likely to keep me busy as well, and I hope to see some titles pop up on the radar, like the next Mass Effect, and maybe some Dragon Age DLC.

  • Good server
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Feb 10, 2015 - [Permalink] - Category: tech

    Nothing quite like seeing things go according to plan, on this monthly Patch Tuesday, without ever needing manual input:

    This was also validation of my custom PowerShell health check and notification script. And they say you need complex server monitoring software in this cloud age! Pfft!

  • My Outlook for iOS comments
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Feb 2, 2015 - [Permalink] - Category: tech

    Last week Microsoft released an Outlook client for iOS and Android, and since I've been using it as my main mail app, I thought I'd write a few things about it. First, I like it a lot. I know a lot of people dislike the Outlook brand, and there's been some talk about how this app bypasses enterprise security measures with its push functionality (although it doesn't really do anything that any third party app can't already do), but personally I think it's the best mail app on iOS.

    Here are a few of the strong points I would say makes Outlook superior to other apps I previously tried:

    * It has tight integration between mail, calendar, contacts and files all in the same interface. Sending calendar invites, accepting events, attaching files, all work seamlessly. All these fields also integrate into more than just the Microsoft ecosystem. You can get mail from, Office 365, Exchange servers, Google Apps, or standard IMAP servers. Calendars sync between all of your accounts, and files can come from OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox.

    * Speaking of file attachments, when you go on the Files tab, you also get a list of all recent attachments for each account, which is a great thing when you're looking for that one file you know someone sent you recently. You don't have to go through all your email to find it.

    * The swipe gestures are customizable. You can define what swiping right and left on each message will do, which is a huge plus for mail management. Most apps have default actions and you can't change them, but with that it's much faster to go through your inbox.

    * Its search works across accounts and folders, which never worked right for me using the Apple mail client.

    With that said, there are a couple of things I'm hoping they implement:

    * They need to add tasks.

    * We need the ability to view shared calendars, and also the option to add recurring events, which are suspiciously missing right now.

    * I wish they had the option to Move to Junk as one of the swiping choices.

    Microsoft bought the code of this app from Accompli a while back, so a lot of the credit actually goes to the Accompli devs which joined the company. I'm hoping that now that Microsoft released it as the premiere Outlook experience on mobile, they will be able to iterate quickly and add the features that are missing.

  • Server monitoring with instant notifications
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Jan 21, 2015 - [Permalink] - Category: tech

    Logs are core to the function of any IT professional, to keep track of events and find potential problems. But more often than not, those logs are pointless without proper monitoring. A typical Windows system may produce thousands of Event Log entries every day, and then you have logs from everything from web servers, network devices, and so on. That's why complex log analysis solutions like Nagios and Kibana were invented, that can eat up millions of lines of log and produce nice graphs and categorize them in various ways. But sometimes you need something far more simple than that.

    This is a need I had, more precisely a way to monitor backups and file access on a remote web server. Since this was a remote system, I couldn't go with one of those big centralized logging systems, nor did I really have a need to. Instead, I just needed daily notifications on whether backups were being done correctly, and whenever important files were modified. So I opted for a service called Pushbullet that allows you to send notifications for free to any device. They have clients for Windows, iPhone, Android and so on. More importantly, they have an API.

    All I had to do was create an API key and then make a bash script that uses curl to call up the API to send a notification at the end of the task:

    curl -u APIKEY: -X POST --header 'Content-Type: application/json' --data-binary '{"type": "note", "title": "Backup completed", "body": "New backup size is $(stat -c%s backup.tar) bytes"}'

    They do have a Windows client, but it doesn't offer a command line interface yet, so I made my own so events can be scripted on Windows hosts as well. Here's a bit of PowerShell that can let you know about modified files in the past day, and then send you a link to that log:

    $time = (Get-Date).AddDays(-1)
    Get-ChildItem "C:\files\*.*" -Recurse | Where -Property LastWriteTime -ge $time | Sort LastWriteTime -Descending | Format-Table -Property FullName,LastWriteTime -Autosize > C:\inetpub\www\last.log
    pushbullet -title "Last log" -link "" -apikey APIKEY

    You can also configure a trigger to have these notifications go out whenever a file is committed to a document management system, an Event Log entry is made, or CPU utilization goes too high:

    $a = (Get-Counter "\Processor(_Total)\% Processor Time" | Select -ExpandProperty CounterSamples).CookedValue
    if($a -ge 80) { c:\pushbullet -apikey APIKEY -title "CPU trigger reached" -message "CPU utilization is at: $a" }

    You can also use a monitoring script like my system report script to send health check alarms, or whole report sheets. This was all pretty simple to do, free, and gives me real time updates on things I need to keep track of.

  • Desktop upgrade
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Jan 17, 2015 - [Permalink] - Category: misc

    It's time for my January desktop upgrade, but since my current system is only a year old, I'm only changing a few pieces this time. I ordered a SSD to replace my primary drive, as I/O speed is always a big bottleneck. I used to have a Kingston SSD a few years back before it died, and this time I'm going with a Samsung EVO 250GB drive.

    The other part I changed was the graphics card. When I built this system a year ago I kept a card from a previous system, so it was getting slightly old. I got an Asus GTX 760 to replace it which runs faster and much cooler. Here are the results:

    This should keep me content for another year.

  • Why IT tasks can take so long
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Jan 14, 2015 - [Permalink] - Category: tech

    This week I faced a number of issues that I thought illustrated well the concept of why computer related tasks often take so much longer than many non-technical folks may expect. There are cases where the true time frame that a certain task is going to take cannot be determined, not even estimated, such as this one.

    I've installed hMailServer on many systems already. I like the software a lot because it's a very lightweight, easy to use and configure email system, yet has a lot of the features people use products like Exchange for, without all the overhead. Each VM I've installed the software in the past happened to be Windows Server 2008 or 2008 R2. A full installation typically takes around 5 minutes. But this week, I tried installing it in a Windows Server 2012 R2 VM. This took over 2 hours.

    First, I came upon an actual bug in Windows Server 2012. hMailServer requires .NET 3.5 to be installed, which is not the case in Server 2012. But when you go to enable the feature, it fails because of a buggy security update which needs to be disabled in order to enable the feature. Turns out this doesn't work for everyone. It didn't work for me. I then stumbled upon a Microsoft blog post from 2 years ago that describes another way to enable the feature by using the command shown in the screenshot above. That finally fixed it.

    Then the built-in compact database would not work. I'm not sure why exactly, but I didn't spend a lot of time trying to fix it, I just went ahead and installed MS SQL Express, which brought me to yet another issue. When configuring the database connection, regardless of what I tried, I could not make it connect to localhost. I eventually decided to try using the machine's hostname, and that worked. Both localhost and the hostname worked fine in SQL Management Studio, so I'm not quite sure where the fault lies on this one, but that was another half hour lost.

    In the end, the software was installed successfully, but what was usually a 5 minutes job took hours because of various weird and unforeseen issues. So next time your IT professional takes longer than expected to do something, remember it may not be anybody's fault.

  • It's all about the software
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Jan 5, 2015 - [Permalink] - Category: tech

    Big Data has been a popular buzz word for the last couple of years, and it will keep being an important concept. With more data, you get more information, and potentially may make better decisions about a number of things. So far we've mostly been concerned about gathering and storing this information. We've seen advances in databases like Google BigQuery and the NoSQL engines. But to be truly useful, data has to be interpreted, and I don't mean processing it to create nifty looking graphs. So far we've only barely touched the surface of what can be done with the proper interpretation of data. To make sense of so much information, humans can't be the ones doing the interpretation, software will have to do the work.

    Let's look at a simple example, a dataset of weather information such as temperatures, rainfall, cloud cover, and so on. By itself, various results can be extrapolated, such as weather predictions. But when taken in context, that same data can become far more useful. What if a software process was able to also take population data, geographic maps, movement tracking, and could predict people that are about to be trapped in a flood, hurricane, or other extreme weather phenomenon? This requires far more data inputs and processing power than a single person can provide, but the proper software program can.

    This type of automation is inevitable because in many cases, humans can't make all the decisions, whether it's monitoring hazardous materials in unsuitable locations, or making adjustments to a space probe millions of miles away from Earth. Intelligent software processes will need to become the deciders, and for that to happen they will need to gather data, process it, contextualize it, draw conclusions, then act. By its very nature, a software process with enough smarts along with the proper data, can draw much more precise results in far less time than human beings.

    Many people fear the singularity, or the idea that machines will turn against humans when they become self-aware. But the singularity will not be a machine, it's not going to be Terminator style, where killer robots turn on us, instead it's far more likely to be like the Geth in Mass Effect. The Geth are 100% software, with hardware platforms being used like disposable vehicles from which they can move freely, millions of processes networked and constantly thinking, analyzing problems and coming up with solutions. I think the coming years will be all about the software, and making it as intelligent as possible, and I can't wait to see where it leads us.

  • 2014 end of year summary
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Dec 31, 2014 - [Permalink] - Category: lifestyle

    Another year behind us, and as usual it's time to reflect. 2014 was a mixed year. I moved onto a much higher pay grade, managed to create a lot more code and acquire new skills, so that's good. However I've been sick more often than before, almost as if I'm getting old..

    Thinking about 2015, I'm thinking it's going to be mostly a continuation of all that. There are things I'd like to do however, like get some more certificates. I haven't done any certification in several years now and while I do learn all the time, I think it's important to keep up to date, especially in the IT field. Maybe something different this time, I'm thinking Microsoft SQL Server.

    On the hobbies side, the year has been pretty good for PC gaming, with titles like Dragon Age Inquisition coming out pretty decently, along with quite a few good movies too.

    Here's to one more year in the bag.

  • A complete and in-depth overview
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Dec 26, 2014 - [Permalink] - Category: tech

    Today I read a fascinating article that rang true in more ways than one about how complex IT systems have gotten at large organizations. When talking about opaque systems speaking to other opaque systems from different vendors, my favorite quote was: "Nobody has a complete and in-depth overview any longer."

    Having worked in IT for some time now, I can attest to how true this is. Any moderately complex organization gets set up and then grows organically, and before long you have systems relying on other systems to function, and no one remains fully aware of how it all works. I started working for a new job last year at a company making such complex IT software, and even though technology is our bread and butter, there's been many cases of people asking "Why do we do it this way?" only to be answered "Because that's how it works." I personally love to know how things really work. Many of the utilities on my downloads page were written as a learning experience. I'm always slightly uncomfortable just writing a line of code that doesn't seem right, just because that's what everyone else does.

    Let me give you an example. We have a library that we use at work which makes API calls from various systems to a target server. We often wrote code against it, each new employee learning from an older one how to use it, but no one actually knowing what went on behind the scenes. So one day I decided to find out, and a few days later, with the help of a network monitor and a bit of scripting, I went through the SOAP API that the library was actually masking. It turned more than one head that I managed to do this, even though it was trivial once I understood what was actually going on. But that's the problem, SOAP is an open API, writing code against it is easy and doesn't take much time. Digging into the opaque box to figure out what went on was the hard part.

    I understand the need for this opacity: business reasons, plus as the IT world becomes so much more complex, it's unrealistic to have every part of the gear understand everything else. But I feel an overview shouldn't be too much to ask. Catastrophes like the one barely averted in that article are only going to become more prevalent, with root cause analysis, a synonym for reverse engineering complex black boxes remaining the hardest part of the equation.

  • Dragon Age: Inquisition review
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Dec 22, 2014 - [Permalink] - Category: gaming

    Back in 2011 I had been disappointed by Dragon Age 2, even though I loved the original. So of course I came upon Dragon Age: Inquisition apprehensively. But I'm happy to say DA:I is much improved from DA:2. First, this has to be the most visually appealing game made so far. The environments are spectacular, which is ironic since they were one of the lowest point of the last release. The regions are surprisingly vast and diverse. The game has deserts, forests, mountains and plains. Everything about the environment is well done.

    The story is, I would say, on-par with Dragon Age 2. It's good, but not at the level of Origins. You get a ton of dialogs with your companions, and many interesting group events like the cards game. Romance is also well implemented, as we have now come to expect from Bioware games. As for the quests out in the world, many of them are interesting enough to keep you going. Speaking of going, this is also the longest Dragon Age game they made. The vastness of the zones and sheer amount of things to do made me play for over a hundred hours.

    There are some negative points however. The combat is very much inspired from DA:2 as opposed to DA:Origins, and that's somewhat too bad. Also, the game has bugs. Several times I encountered a non-existing NPC, an unreachable map point, or a quest that refused to complete. Fortunately most of them can be fixed by logging out and back in. Overall, still a very positive experience. I would place it above DA:2 but still below DA:Origins on my charts.

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