MINERVA: Episodic, Single-Player Half-Life 2

Yeah, so you've looked behind the curtain, only to discover the whole world is a carefully manufactured lie. But to what ends?

Well, I'm Adam Foster, and these are my experiments in Half-Life 2 mapping!

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Poke646: Vendetta -

Okay, it's still not MINERVA, but I did help playtest it. I suggest you play it too!

Poke646: Vendetta gameplay video

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Poke646: Vendetta gameplay video 2

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Poke646 website, with lots of download mirrors, screenshots etc. Highly recommended.

Edit 2006-12-23: Also, wishing you all a very merry Christmas/Newtonmas/other holiday of your choice and a happy New Year!

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Not a Gadget Review Blog -

You're probably all impatiently waiting for the release of the third episode of MINERVA: Metastasis, so I'll have to disappoint you again - but with a bit of luck, the first section will go out to playtesters in the next week or so. Architecture for both new maps is nearly complete, it's just the gameplay to go!

Want something else to play? There's the back-from-the-dead, glorious-looking Poke646: Vendetta coming very soon. It's a mod for Half-Life. No, those screenshots are not from the Source engine, but its prehistoric ancestor. It looks fantastic, just like the original Poke646 mod from 2001.

But what's this about gadget reviews? Oh, go on then.

Belkin WiFi Phone for Skype

Cordless, battery-powered and connects directly to a WiFi access point without any intervention from a computer at all. Speaks TCP/IP, understands Skype and allows cheap (or free) international phone-calls over the internet. Nifty, eh? Let's see.

The printed (and PDF) instructions are ... extremely brief, and there's currently very little material online. So to add to the latter, I'll add my own experiences and workarounds and potentially save other people from many, many hours of blindly stumbling around.

Any claims that I'm just doing this for the Handy Google Keywords, should I ever succumb to the insidious need to place advertising on everything, are entirely exaggerated...

Access Point Compatibility (or, potential lack thereof)

Say, for instance, you were visiting your parents, and said parents had yet to join the 21st century (they were still on switched 100Base-TX, believe it or not!) - it'll be almost impossible to get your shiny new VOIP phone to work over an imprompu (but not Ad Hoc) WiFi network created from either a Mac Mini or a MacBook Pro.

The Airport Internet Connection Sharing thingy in MacOS X works quite nicely between different Macs, but is pretty much useless for anything else. I found a useful guide describing how to add a Nintendo DS to a shared Airport connection, which suggests the Belkin phone isn't alone in not understanding MacOS X's DHCP server thingy. No IP address assigned, and all that.

While I eventually managed to get the phone to connect to Skype that way, it didn't seem too keen on incoming calls - the two layers of NAT were probably just too much for the much-abused Skype protocols. Also, the two Macs I tried kept dropping the WiFi connection after ten minutes or so. Power-saving, despite being told not to? Who knows.

There is an Ad Hoc connection type option available on the phone's manual network setup screen (in other words, true computer-to-computer, instead of MacOS X's hacked-together alternative), but it's conveniently greyed out. Maybe for a future firmware update? Otherwise, this phone is serious about its no-computer policy. The included USB cable is for charging only; the included CD contains just documentation.

So, after some hours of messing, I'd determined that yes, the device worked, but wasn't exactly useful.

Enter the trip to PC World. I should hate myself for going there, but they had a BT Voyager 2091 ADSL modem, ethernet router and 801.11g WiFi access point for less than 40 quid. Including a sister's-laptop-compatible USB WiFi dongle. Bargain? Perhaps.

After getting the household thoroughly unwired, I tried the phone again. It detected a network, I entered the (huge, custom) WPA-PSK keyphrase, it connected to the network...

... And it promptly proclaimed that the WiFi could not connect to the internet. Arse.

But then ten seconds later, the Skype status icon went green, and I was connected.

Port Settings (or, any of the aforementioned in a storm)

After a bit more fiddling, I managed to get it to accept incoming calls. If you have such a device, and it needs a bit of persuading on these lines, go to Menu: Settings: Advanced: Skype ports, and set Port to some unused, unblocked, semi-random port above 1024, and leave Alternative ports at No. If you have other computers running Skype on the same network, make sure their incoming connection ports are different. The port number is supposed to be randomly selected on software installation, but my phone's was originally set to 1. ICMP, eat your heart out.

Summary (or, early-adopters only)

Overall, the phone works pretty well. I've yet to find if it works with my Mobistar Livebox effort back in Brussels, but I'm now a lot more hopeful. After my experience with the connection shared from my laptop, I was ready to send it back.

Sound quality is 'good enough' - it's pretty similar to Skype on a computer, with none of the echo reported by many other websites I'd found while searching for better setup info.

Build quality is pretty good, although not up to a high-end mobile phone (speaking of which, mine most definitely isn't), battery lasts 'about a day', and it's best to think of it as a Rather Shiny cordless phone which happens to work over the internet. With all your Skype contacts.

The screen is slow, the keypad is good-enough, and the software it runs is pleasantly bare-bones - but to be honest, I prefer its simplicity to your average all-singing, all-dancing mobile phone of today.

If you're used to SkypeOut on a computer, then you'll be more than happy with this device. It's much better than the headset with the broken microphone that I have in Brussels, and the microphone built into my MacBook Pro only works in MacOS X, not Windows XP.

Why is any of this remotely relevant to MINERVA? Well, take note of the end of the previous paragraph - it means I no longer need to reboot into MacOS X to make (or receive) phone-calls. Evenings are when friends and family phone, and evenings are also when I work on MINERVA.

So overall, this Belkin phone thingy is a Good Thing for everyone.

Edit 2006-12-10 and 2007-01-02: The Belkin WiFi Phone for Skype does not work with a Mobistar Livebox (made by Inventel) with WPA Personal encryption enabled. It comes up with a 'No IP address assigned' error, and can't connect. It does the same if DHCP is disabled, and an IP address is provided manually. Suggest disabling encryption entirely - I think the error message is actually a generic one, saying something drastic (and unidentifiable) has gone wrong...

Edit 2006-12-16: It also crashes occasionally when left alone, necessitating removal of the battery to get it to reboot. Apparently there might be an updated firmware by 'mid-December'. Let's see...

Edit 2007-04-18: Possibly marginally updated firmware here. Doesn't seem to make much difference, but it's worth a try...

Edit 2007-04-28: Not sure when it happened, but my Mobistar Livebox has updated its firmware. Now at v5.07.20-mobistar-be, there's now a WEP-only option in Configuration: Advanced: Wireless - which the Belkin Skype phone actually works with. Okay, so WEP is pretty much useless and easily broken, but it's better than nothing at all. Hope that's of use to someone!

Edit 2008-01-15: F1PP000GN-SK firmware update! Version 1.1.0.22! Released 2007-11-20, apparently - with an additional patch up to 11.0.22 P1. But enough numbers - it's supposed to fix lots of bugs...

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The Helvetica Scenario -

Science can be a terrible, terrible thing.

In case you hadn't guessed, I'm learning about embedding Flash in an XHTML-compliant manner. Obviously.

Edit: 2006-11-26: Can my auto-generated Javascript cope with multiple videos? Let's see!

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But is it art? -

I've occasionally been asked if I work from concept art. The truth is - sort of. Let me demonstrate.

Something tells me that there won't be many calls for a MINERVA art book some time in the future, unless people are that obsessed with my useless biro scrawlings...

Defusing the inevitable questions - release date for third episode? Who knows. Hopefully before Christmas? Definitely before Valve's own Episode Two. I've been really happy with my recent work...

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Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb -

Guess what I'll be playing at 6pm GMT this evening?

Yup, everyone's favourite upcoming global thermonuclear war simulator, DEFCON.

...

Now then, Dmitri, you know how we've always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb. The BOMB, Dmitri. The hydrogen bomb. Well now, what happened is, uh, one of our base commanders, he had a sort of, well, he went a little funny in the head. You know. Just a little...funny. And uh, he went and did a silly thing. Well, I'll tell you what he did, he ordered his planes...to attack your country. Well, let me finish, Dmitri. Let me finish, Dmitri. Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri? Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello. Not now, but any time, Dmitri. I'm just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened...

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