Month: November 2011

When I went husky trekking, with Bessy Bell Husky Trekkers

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Huskies!

Recently, as part of my 25th birthday present, my wonderful boyfriend arranged for us to do something really different – Husky Trekking! He found an organisation called ‘Bessy Bell Husky Trekkers‘ that advertise the experience in Northern Ireland. He found it originally through Groupon.

 

Now, husky trekking isn’t exactly the first thing you think of in Northern Ireland. Believe me, I thought the same – “Don’t you need snow?” I thought. NUH-UH! It may often be cold and shitty in Northern Ireland, but we don’t get nearly enough snow to make snow sledding possible. The alternative? Scooters!

Matt controls his husky
They may be RIDICULOUSLY cute, but they are very strong dogs! Though, to pull my weight, they’d have to be 😐 (Pic taken by James)

Yeah, it’s a big wheeled scooter, and a dirt / gravel track. Think your typical country lane, more used to tractors than cars, and that’s essentially the idea. It was an incredibly picturesque environment, with rolling hills, forests, puffy clouds, valleys and even wind turbines (which personally I think look rather nice despite what others may think).

Vanishing Point - Our route to the forest
Vanishing Point – Our route to the forest winds into the distance. It was a great day for it!

You can see what I mean, and as you can imagine, it doesn’t make for a smooth ride! You are teamed with two dogs each, and basically the dogs are well trained to run! They were SUPPOSED to respond to commands… but mine didn’t seem to!
I took the lead with my two dogs, Sasha and Hank, a beautiful mother and son combo! James followed with Jack Leaper and Starsky, the instructor followed with Monty (he was strong enough to pull her alone!) and we were off – down the track and winding into the forest. Surprisingly, the take-off was relatively easy, I’d expected from the instructor’s comments to get a real jolt as they started. After a few seconds of gathering my balance, the trekking was a go in earnest. You DO have a brake in the scooter, for if the dogs either get a bit too fast or they slow down and you begin to gain on them (wouldn’t want those ropes tangled!)

Sasha and Hank
Sasha and Hank

The route was nice, a good few kilometres if I recall. Some great bits of speedy downhill action – where I went rolling right into a big puddle the dogs stopped in! And of course, there were some uphill segments where the dogs needed a hand, queue me and James swiping furiously at the ground to get some speed up; a good enough workout for us let alone the dogs!

It was a fantastic day out, the only criticism being it was a little short for the money, and a bit of a hassle due to some Groupon confusion – but I had a great time during and after the actual trek, just interacting with, petting and cuddling the huskies! Some nice photos too of course 😉

James and Starsky
James and Starsky – He was a lovely pup, very docile. Starsky wasn’t bad either 😉

The location is, admittedly, a bit out of the way, it is a rural estate very close to Newtonstewart. It took us two hours to reach the town by coach, and for a small additional fee the organiser picked us up and dropped us off at the bus stop. This was pretty important – otherwise I don’t know how we would have got to the actual site!

Monty looking proud and windswept
Monty looking proud and windswept – very photogenic, or maybe just a poser 😛

It was a great day, as I’m sure you already gathered. I highly recommend the experience (even Gary Lineker enjoyed it!) and it totally confirmed to me that I realllllllllly want a husky :’)

Hank begging
Come on, who wouldn’t want one of these?

Big big big thank you to James Copeland, my wonderful boyfriend and partner, who got me the gift and went through the hassle of booking, having the original Groupon get cancelled, and having to rebook and pay a bit more for that and transport. I really appreciated it, it was such a unique gift – love you <3

Peace, out!

Links:

Sonic is 20 – A look back through two decades of cool blue

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I wish I could meet the Sonic Team someday. I’d like to think I could ask them some tough questions – ‘What the hell was Sonic Heroes?’ being one of them. Truth is, I’d probably revert to a giggly little boy again.

I grew up with Sonic – starting off not quite the 20 years ago that Sonic has been around (19 years I have followed Sonic). My first proper console was a Sega Mega Drive that came with Sonic 2, still considered by many to be the best Sonic ever. Yes, I was a Sonic kid, none of this Italian plumber crap. He even had a nerdy wee sidekick in the form of Tails! What more does a young computer and video game nerd need? I even watched the (many) TV adaptations! <3

The Mega Drive, with Sonic 2
So many stolen hours, and frustrated times losing my last life on Metropolis Zone or Wing Fortress :'(
Wing Fortress Zone
The chickens... the fucking chickens hitting you into a parachuteless-skydive...

Pretty soon, I amassed the other Sonics, 1, CD, and of course the utterly fantastic 3 + Knuckles. Even the ill-fated 3D! It’s hard to say exactly what about them does it for me; perhaps its the feel of a great jump when moving at high speeds? Maybe the cute, anthro characters? The villain? Who can say. But I’ll tell you, 1, 2, 3 + K… I played the shit out of these games – to the point I could actually do some of the levels with my eyes closed (not even kidding). Particularly 3, where the ‘big rings’ to get the Chaos Emeralds (and thus transform into the epic Super Sonic) were hidden in the levels. I found them all – every hidden area and route. I wanted Super Sonic potential by the time I hit Marble Garden Zone. And, in case anybody asks, yes I do have them on emulator all over the place, and SEGA you can bite my ass before you even think of suing, as the number of times I have BOUGHT all the old-generation games is shocking. I STILL have them on my working Mega Drive. I also have them on… PS2 (Mega Collections and +), iPod Classic, Xbox 360 (Ultimate Collection), Wii (virtual console). So don’t even THINK about complaining!

Icecap Zone
This is a *cool* level - too much? Sonic 3 + K has music by MJ himself!!!

OK, so if you aren’t a Sonic fan, that last paragraph descended into babble. If you are, you probably know what I’m talking about. Unfortunately, after this peak, something went wrong at Sonic Team. A beta (still available around the ‘net) for Sonic 4 shows interesting gameplay where Sonic and Tails are tethered together and it honestly looked like it could have been really awesome. Unfortunately, this was shelved as the Mega Drive was reaching end of life, and SEGA wanted next-gen type Sonic development. They did, however, use the concept in the Sonic spinoff game, Knuckles Chaotix, for the commercially failed 32X add-on.

Sonic 4 beta - Crackers
Some would consider being tethered to Tails to be torture - he has historically poor voice acting T_T

It would be 1998, 4 years after 3 + K, before a new platformer-type Sonic game would emerge (3D and R don’t count). Sonic Adventure was a technically good game, but somehow, in the transition to 3D, the magic was lost. Strange concepts emerged, such as having a human world setting. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t quite the same game I knew and loved. Whilst Sonic Adventure 2 was extremely fun with a great soundtrack, the same problem emerged – 3D felt wrong.

Sonic Adventure 2 - City Escape Zone
Sonic Adventure 2 - City Escape. The 'Tony Hawk' phase of Sonic's teen years.

Sonic Advance was a boon to me – taking the game back to a 2D sprite based system felt like the old Sonic. I enjoyed these a lot and they had a few sequels. Generally in fact, Sonic on portable consoles seems pretty good, and I wonder if this has been because (until recently) it FORCED the game to be 2D again. And therein lay the answer – I think Sonic Team went to 3D because they felt they had to, unless it simply wasn’t an option. And, I don’t get this at all. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should (I draw parallels to the later MegaMan X-series – in fact there is a very similar progression; great 2D, poor 3D, great 2D portable, back to great 2D console). Unfortunately, even the later portable Sonics became corrupted by silly story concepts that were, frankly, unnecessary.

Sonic Boost by ~sonicbommer
Sonic Boost by 'sonicbommer' - DeviantArt

It’s very simple – Sonic is blue, cool, and moves fast. He didn’t even need to speak until much later! Sonic explores jumpy platform levels, some of which might have a few interesting mechanics, like slot machines and flippers. Throw in some shields and items, preferably with interesting and unique abilities. Add Super Sonic to go even faster. Add interesting boss battles, preferably with the final one being very damn difficult. Anything more – a distraction, for the most part.

We move on once more – to the PS2 generation, where only one offering in the form of Heroes. Less said the better really – again ruined by a silly mechanic that wasn’t necessary, and more characters than you can shake a stick at. PS3-generation, and the plainly titled ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ had potential, but was let down by bad clipping glitches and a silly new character. At this point, I admit kinda giving up – I didn’t go near the Wii offerings due to bad reviews, not wanting to erode my memories further. I hear that in fact, Sonic Unleashed wasn’t bad, interesting since it sounds like it shares a lot with Sonic Generations in the form of 2D and 3D levels (so I might have to give it a try sometime after all – let me know in the comments!).

Sonic the Hedgehog 4
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 - Episode II anyone?

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 emerged for Xbox Live Arcade and PS3 network in 2010 – an episodic take on Sonic and designed as a direct sequel to Sonic 3 + K. I was excited. It promised a return to 2D and a dropping of all ancillary characters. Given how much I loved 3 + K, I really wanted it to be good. And, actually, it was. Just not quite good enough. It felt half-done, the levels didn’t seem as vibrant as the Mega Drive levels despite the HD graphics. Perhaps because of the episodic nature or perhaps it was the loss of little things like the Super Sonic function and the level routes – I never felt encouraged to explore alternate routes. And, like all episodic games, episode II is STILL in development. It is almost 2012! You aren’t Valve, SEGA!

Finally, we arrive at the main item in the article. Sonic Generations – yes, Sonic is 20. Sonic Team, can we have more of THESE Sonic games please?

Sonic Generations starts with a simple premise – time has been broken and as a result, there are two Sonics, the modern one, and the classic one. Also, the time mess has brought all sorts of levels from all over the Sonic timeline together. Exploration and retrieval of the Chaos Emeralds is required to fix the problem. Also, villain.

Green Hill Zone, Act 2
Green Hill Zone, Act 2. For those paying attention, that means this is modern Sonic.

Yes, the storyline seems stupid. But strangely, it isn’t, because the game pokes fun at itself the whole way, little lines the characters throw out that are fan service and joke rolled into one. The levels are based on levels from the past, but there are so many changes and conversions it’s not at all laziness. Act 1 of every level takes place using classic Sonic, who uses only 2D-style (yeah, technically the rendering is all still 3D, but it works this time) and only has his whizz-attack and special Sonic 3 shields. Act 2 uses modern Sonic, in a 2D / 3D mix, and who has his new homing attack and boost abilities. Bosses are infrequent and are mixed between the two (and unfortunately are a little too easy :|).
There are a good number of Zones, 9 in all, and after completing the Zone, you get to perform a set of challenges for that zone, 5 for each Sonic per Zone.  Crucially, these are all different, with some being races against a CPU doppelgänger, some involving the various companions from Sonic, and others just plain unique. They are genuinely quite fun, and really up the replayability. And, of course, you are timed and ranked in all of them, for extra competition.

Level select
Selecting a level - nice touches that help with the game's ease of use.

The Zones are well mixed, including some great old favourites of mine (Sky Sanctuary! Chemical Plant!). And, there are remixes of all the music, so playing Chemical Plant as classic Sonic you will hear a remixed but still very classic Chemical Plant tune, and as 3D you will hear a mixed up version. And, through challenges and ‘red rings’ in the Zones, you can unlock loads more old tunes and listen as you play. It really brought me back, and made me feel like I was playing the Sonic I loved again.

There is included Xbox Live (and I assume PSN) capability in the form of time rankings and ‘how far can you get in 30 seconds’ modes, which are interesting but I don’t think will see heavy use. Friend time comparisons are, as usual, available, as is the ability to see the markers indicating your friends’ 30 second positions. I managed to get a very respectable 3482nd rank worldwide in Zone 1, Act 1, considering how many users there are!

I’ve touched already on the bosses, and I really would have liked a little more challenge in this regard. They are all a bit too easy, including the final boss. What happened to the frustrating but ultimately so-satisfying moments against Sonic 2’s Death Egg robot? Or am I just remembering it as more difficult because I was, like, 7? (Probably :P). Other problems with the game are still the occasional camera-related death in the 3D levels.

But, genuinely, if you have abandoned Sonic to the pile-of-no-hope, please pick it up and try it again. Sonic Generations is honestly probably the best Sonic game since 3 + K. And that’s 16 years. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 16 years for the next good one. You did so many things well in this iteration, from focusing on gameplay, well-done 3D and very faithful 2D, fan service of old favourite levels and music, even Super Sonic! Just make it a bit harder for me next time 😀

Sonic Generations

Sonic will always have a special place with me, and whilst probably over-ranking it a little due to bias, I have to give it 9/10. I really really did enjoy it, and it took me back. And it wasn’t just rose-tinted nostalgia.

Don’t fuck up my goodwill, Sonic Team – I’d hate to have to go Were-Hog on you… (honestly, wouldn’t that make him half pig?)

 

Peace, out!
Matt

Apple App Store – Walled garden, or pit of snakes; the security flaws

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Some might be familiar with the name Charlie Miller. He is a well-known software security expert, most known for his work with Apple products of late. His previous accomplishments include the hack of the Intel MacBook line smart batteries, which were all protected by the same two passwords and could be accessed by software (Good one Apple – create a situation where some internet script kid could disable my battery remotely…). This time around, he turned his eye to Apple’s prized feature – the App Store.

Whatever you think of the walled garden approach they adopt, there is no doubt that the App Store is a commercial success (for Apple – unfortunately for the devs, it’s mostly a gambling exercise where a few make millions, the rest lose their shirt). It works well for the consumer, as Apple personally go through each submitted app, making sure it meets the standard they expect. Apparently, that inspection is supposed to cover security. However, Charlie Miller has put a chink in that assertion, by releasing an app which is capable of receiving remote commands and putting those commands into effect on your device. What’s more important, is that this app, called InstaStock and designed as a simple stock ticker, got right through the fabled verification process without a hitch.

The roots of the flaw are based on how Apple enforce code-signing, and Apple’s desire to speed up the phone browser in competition with other devices. A technique used in all sorts of software and security, code-signing in basic terms relies on Apple wrapping the software with a code, and any software without this code is refused. That is similarly why you can’t just download some app straight onto your iPhone – it isn’t signed and therefore the phone won’t run it without a jailbreak. However, by manipulating the access given to javascript commands in the browser, and Apple’s addition of a special exception (allowing the browser to run unsigned code in an area of the memory) opened a hole. Whilst Apple had protected that exception with other methods, blocking untrusted websites from using it, Miller found a way around that:

“Apple runs all these checks to make sure only the browser can use the exception,” he says. “But in this one weird little corner case, it’s possible. And then you don’t have to worry about code-signing any more at all.”

Miller has already promised that he won’t reveal more detail about the bug until his talk next week in order to give Apple more time to fix the flaw, planning to discuss the flaw in detail at the SysCan conference in Taiwan next week.
Using the flaw, he got the aforementioned app placed into the store, and demonstrated that it could connect to a remote machine to download instruction and execute them at will. Functions such as photos, contacts, sound, vibration and other iOS functions are accessible, according to Forbes.

“Now you could have a program in the App Store like Angry Birds that can run new code on your phone that Apple never had a chance to check,” says Miller. “With this bug, you can’t be assured of anything you download from the App Store behaving nicely.”

Whilst many will point out that Android already has this kind of malicious application, Google do not purport to guarantee the safety of their Market – they encourage you to be vigilant, and use a permissions-check system to tell you exactly what services and functions a program requires. Apple, on the other hand, present a model where worries over safety can be ignored as they have checked everything and it all just works.

”Android has been like the Wild West,” says Miller. “And this bug basically reduces the security of iOS to that of Android.”

Worse, when the deception was all pointed out to Apple, instead of a response of “whoa, dude, thanks. We’ll get this patched right up. Cheers for the heads-up”, instead the app was pulled (no big deal obviously) and then Miller was struck from the developer programme – Miller announced the news on Twitter this afternoon, saying “OMG, Apple just kicked me out of the iOS Developer program. That’s so rude!” But as Apple notes in its letter to Miller (posted below), he violated sections 3.2 and 6.1 of Apple’s iOS Developer Program License Agreement (a separate agreement), which respectively cover interfering with Apple’s software and services, and hiding features from the company when submitting them.

“I don’t think they’ve ever done this to another researcher. Then again, no researcher has ever looked into the security of their App Store. And after this, I imagine no other ones ever will,” Miller said in an e-mail to CNET. “That is the really bad news from their decision.”

The real shame from all this is that Apple and their walled garden gives its users a totally false sense of security. Whilst, for both the App Store and Android Market (and any other app stores), 99% of apps will be genuine and safe, you can never be 100% sure. Users should be taking their own precautions, and should not be lulled into complacency. Apple’s insistence on an ‘it just works’ method results in expectation, expectation that when Apple assert that an app is safe (by publishing it on their store) it must be.
In computer terms, you’d call the Apple model gateway security – you secure the entrance, and therefore anything that gets inside must be safe. Unfortunately, that leaves one big, central point of failure. The gateway. And any knowledgeable computer user knows it isn’t just enough to use the firewall on your router – you need the antivirus and firewall protection on the PCs too.

And the final observation – if some nice, white-hat hacker finds a flaw and tells you about it for free, ‘thanks’ will do much better than a swift kicking. I know you have an image to maintain, Apple, and you can’t allow people to lose confidence in your garden, but at least give him some credit.