Friday, 28 November 2008

Where can I buy the Medion Akoya P7300 PC?

Short answer: you can't!

Long answer:
I'm in the market for a new base unit. I'll be attaching it to my LCD TV, so I don't need a monitor, but I do need HDMI. I'll be using it for multimedia and a bit of programming, which might extend to some 3D stuff if I get around to it. So I've started to look around to gauge prices. I found a deal on HotUKDeals that looked perfect:- The Medion Akoya P7300 from Aldi at £499 - then reduced even further to £487 in line with the recent VAT cut in the UK.

As noted in the comments on HotUKDeals, it's a very good deal. In terms of a pre-built PC with a 3-year warranty, the next nearest competitor is about £100 - £150 more! For me, it ticked the boxes on 4GB memory, 1TB hard disk, built-in TV card, reasonable (although not fantastic) graphics card, 64-bit Windows option, and the quad-core processor could come in handy for experimenting with writing parallel-programs. The full specs are here.

However - the problem is that this PC is only available in one place (Aldi stores) and they sold out of all stock in less than a day. In fact, because of people crafty enough to start queuing at 7:30am, some stores didn't even have enough stock to supply everyone in the queue so they had effectively sold out before they opened!

One of the HotUKDeals forum members, exile, wrote to Medion to ask if they would be selling the PC from the Medion online shop (or if any other retailers would be selling that model) and received this disappointing response:

"Dear Medion Customer,
Thank you for your message.
Unfortunately the P7300D is exclusive to Aldi and therefore won't be stocked by our webshop I'm afraid.
We will have a similar spec PC out mid-end of January, but I don't know exactly when or at what price.
I can only suggest that you keep checking back on the webshop for this PC becoming available.
Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience caused.
Kind regards

There is another Medion PC available for a similar price from Tesco, which has the advantage of a Blu-ray drive, but falls down on the graphics card, memory, and slightly on the processor. It may or may not come with a 3 year warranty. I'll probably give that a miss for now.

So, I'm going to keep my eyes and ears open, especially in the post-Christmas sales and see what comes up ... and I will use the specs of the Medion Akoya P7300 to compare the prices of any deals that do come up. I'll keep an eye on HotUKDeals and also AVForums, where I found a lot of useful links to companies that build and customise desktop PCs.

Failing that, I may attempt to build my own PC, but I just know I'll buy the wrong PSU, wrong case or break one of the components!

Good luck!

Medion have now released two similarly-specced PCs, the Medion Akoya P7316D at £499 (plus £4.99 shipping) and the Medion Akoya P7321D at £529 (plus £7.99 shipping).
Here's a comparison of the three models (as of 5th March 2009) ...

AvailabilityNoneThrough Medion ShopThrough Medion Shop
Price£487£503 shipped£537 shipped
ProcessorIntel Q8200Intel Q8200Intel Q8300
Processor SpeedQuad 2.33GhzQuad 2.33GhzQuad 2.5Ghz
Hard Disk1TB1TB1TB
Graphics CardNVIDIA® GeForce® 9600 GT 512MbNVIDIA® GeForce® GT120 1024MbNVIDIA® GeForce® 9500 GT (256/512Mb?)
Optical driveDVD RewriterDVD RewriterDVD Rewriter
WindowsVista Home PremiumVista Home PremiumVista Home Premium
Warranty36 months12 months12 months
OtherDigital/Analogue TV tuner
Possibly no HDMI port

The bundled software seems the same, as does the number of USB ports, audio ports, etc, etc.

In my opinion, the original deal is still the best of the 3!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Why is everyone so excited about the new Microsoft Patch (23rd October 2008)?

This afternoon, techy web-sites like The Register started reporting about a new Microsoft Patch to be released outside the normal patch cycle. It was to be released at 10am PST, which is 6pm British Summer Time (7pm European Standard Time).

This is very unusual, and has only happened a couple of times in the past few years. Some people reported that their companies had been phoned by Microsoft and warned to apply the patch! So what is the vulnerability that this patch addresses, and why is it a big deal?

That's reported here in Microsoft Security Bulletin MS08-067 (Vulnerability in Server Service Could Allow Remote Code Execution (958644)).

The detail says that a malicious user could create a specially crafted RPC* request which can allow remote code execution. It lists the versions of Windows affected - and it's pretty much all of them (Windows 2000 and above, right up to Vista).

So how does this affect you? Well, it means that someone could take over your PC entirely without you knowing anything about it.

Most vulnerabilities rely on users doing something - clicking on a link, downloading something, etc. This one is different - far, far scarier - because the user does not have to do anything - the attacker can get access undetected.
A very real possibility is that someone will write a worm (like a virus, but nastier) that will use this vulnerability to spread. So even if someone doesn't attack your machine directly, a worm from any number of infected machines can infect your machine - and you are then in trouble!

They could capture your internet banking details, they could email all of your contacts, they could use your machine to try to hack into a government network (all of these are real attacks that have happened in the past).

So, where possible, I suggest you patch your machine immediately!

Update: I notice that some sites are reporting that the vulnerability is being exploited in the wild. They do not say in what way, but it does mean that you are even more likely to be attacked.

*RPC means Remote Procedure Call and is a technology that underlies Windows' networking capability.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Why are people searching for "vn b m gn mbnmncbm xbc bcv 0 vfkmjirhtfnkj nb b x bmnx bv"?

I have no idea. But Microsoft's AdCenter seems to think it's an excellent phrase to advertise against!
(According to The Register)

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Mario Kart Wii - how do you get 3 stars? (part 4)

Update: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

I'm actually running out of advice now! Please bear with me if you already know any of the advice in the tips below. I hope I still have some surprises up my sleeve!

Marv's 14th tip - you can sometimes avoid a blue shell
Don't get too excited by this one, but it is possible to occasionally avoid a blue shell. However, in 99% of cases, you are screwed.
The main method of avoiding the blue shell is to be going through a cannon, which obviously only works on those courses with a cannon/"big jump" (DK's Jungle Parkway [I think], DK Mountain, DK Summit, Maple Treeway, etc). This is difficult to plan - by the time you hear the dreaded blue shell warning siren, if you're not about to go into the cannon anyway, you'll be hit! It's nice when it happens though.
You can also avoid a blue shell by jumping off the track into space or deep water on those levels that have them. This generally wastes more time than it saves, so is only really worth it if you're playing against a friend and want to deny them the satisfaction of actually hitting you!
There is a way to avoid a blue shell on-demand, but you have to have at least one boost mushroom. Since I'm assuming you'll be in 1st place for most of each race, getting a boost mushroom is tricky. I guess if you find yourself further back in the pack and get a mushroom, it might be worth holding onto it for a while.
Assuming you manage to get a mushroom, the idea is to use it as soon as the blue shell stops moving around your vehicle and starts to dive down. There are various videos on Youtube, including this one. Apparently, the time-frame for using your mushroom is longer than in Mario Kart DS. I tried this method once, accidentally using two mushrooms instead of one, and did manage to escape unharmed. Good luck!
(You can also avoid a blue shell if you have an invincibility star, I believe - and possibly a bullet-bill. I have a feeling that a mega-mushroom won't help. All of these are power-ups you are unlikely to have in 1st place!)

Marv's 15th tip - hang back slightly on the first course
The further back you are in the pack (i.e. the worse your position), the better power-ups you will get. This isn't much use when your aim is to get to 1st place and stay as far in the lead as possible. However, there's one occasion in each Grand Prix where you can't help being further back - when you start your first race.
So, rather than trying your best to get to the front of the pack, you can fight your way forward, but only to something like 6th - 2nd. Stay back until you go through the first set of question-mark blocks. As soon as you are past, start playing harder to get to first place. With any luck, you'll have picked up a better power-up than if you'd been in first place when you collected the question-mark block.
There are some courses where this works better than others. For example, there are courses where the question mark blocks are quite close to the starting line, and it's difficult to get to the front anyway. Those courses are good candidates for this tip. However, there are other courses where you have to drive for a fair stretch before you get a power-up, and still others where there is a good opportunity for over-taking and getting a good lead. On those courses, this tip isn't so useful.
You can also use this to your advantage if you are hit by a particularly nasty set of items and end up in 2nd-or-worse place. Hang back just slightly to get, hopefully, something like a star or 3 mushrooms to help you back into 1st with a decent lead! Be wary, though. Sometimes you'll get something like 3 green shells, which isn't really worth hanging back for!

Marv's 16th tip - use drafting
Like some of the other tips I've written, this is one from the instructions manual, but one that many people aren't aware of.
Not to be confused with drifting, drafting is a technique you can use where if you are driving (closely enough) behind another character you will see wisps of smoke/steam/who-knows from your vehicle; you will also get slightly faster. If you manage to stay directly behind that vehicle for long enough, you will see a sort-of white tunnel of air wisps, which gives you a further speed boost, and normally means you can knock the car in front out of the way!
This is mostly useful at the beginning of the first race, if you do want to take the lead quickly. Also if you happen to fall behind. It's probably worth knocking the vehicle in front if you can - any extra distance you are in front helps!

Marv's 17th tip - stay on the main part of the track
Again, this might be obvious, but it might not be! There are many places where you can take short-cuts, some of which may look very inviting. In general, however, any short-cut that means you'll be driving off the main part of the track may well slow you down enough that you will lose more time than you gain.
For example, in Delfino Square, there's a little alley you can take after the small bridge and before the big rainbow lifting bridge. But if you take this short-cut, unless you have amazing power-slide turbo skills you get slowed down massively by the mud.
You can take these short-cuts if you manage to snag a mushroom (or a star if you're very lucky!), as long as you aren't planning on saving it to battle a blue shell.
Other short-cuts may be less drastic, but still slow you down - driving over grass, sand and water is generally slower.
There are shortcuts, however, which do save time - like on Wario's Gold Mine. The difference there is that the road surface does not slow you down (in fact, there are boosts) and so, as long as you don't hit anything, you can shave valuable seconds off your time!
If you want to know which shortcuts are good, I would recommend downloading the world champion records for each lap (ignoring any shortcuts that use mushrooms) or hitYouTube and look for good times! Do bear in mind that some vehicle/character combinations will be better at some shortcuts than others.

Marv's 18th tip - be lucky! Or patient...
No matter how good a driver you are, sometimes you just will not be able to win. I recently played through the Special Cup and was hit by no less than 6 blue shells onBowser's Castle Wii . And that was on 50CC! While I managed to grab 1st place, the amount of time I had spent catching up meant that I didn't get a 3 star rating.
So ... accept that sometimes you will be unlucky, and sometimes you will be lucky. If the same thing happened every time you played a GP, it would be boring anyway!
If I have a bad race in the middle of a GP, I normally tend to continue, reasoning that getting practise in the remaining races is no bad thing. However, if my first race goes badly, I do occasionally throw in the towel and start again!
Remember - the important thing is to have fun.

Well, that's me done for now. As you may have noticed, I'm running out of information that I can pass on, so this might be my last post. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comments! If you guys 'n' gals do have any other questions or comments, please feel free to add them, and if I get enough stuff together, I might do another post. There's also a chance I might scour the web for more information to put here!
I did contemplate doing a breakdown of how to play each race, but that would be quite time-consuming, and I'm not sure how useful it would be! Again, if any of you are stuck on a particular track or GP, let me know and I can create a sample breakdown or two.
Good luck, and enjoy yourselves. Hope to meet some of you on WiFi at some point!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Firefox 3.0.1 breaks width

I've just noticed that the application I'm working on has started behaving strangely in Firefox. There's a pop-up window, where we specify the width to be 800, but Firefox is displaying that pop-up at a width of 600. The call looks like this (URLs changed to protect the innocent):-

<a href="#" onclick="'', 'Test', 'width=800, height=800'); return false;">Example - broken in Firefox 3.0.1</a>

Example - broken in Firefox 3.0.1

This was working fine this morning, so I'm assuming that it's a problem with the 3.0.1 patch release of Firefox, which I installed at lunch time.

This is annoying, and I expect it to be fixed by the Firefox developers soon, but in the mean-time an easy patch is to also set the outerwidth property in the features (according to this Popup Window Reference, that's Firefox-specific so should be safe):-

<a href="#" onclick="'', 'Test', 'width=800, height=800, outerwidth=800'); return false;">Example - works in Firefox 3.0.1</a>

Example - works in Firefox 3.0.1

I hope this helps anyone else hitting the same issue!

Update: This bug may not be related specifically to Firefox 3.0.1. A colleague has tried both links and both links work (the window is opened with a width of 800). When I played around with my window size in Firefox 3.0.1, I found that sometimes the first link works, and sometimes it does not.
Firefox seems to be fine, even when you play with the window size. Perhaps it's something to do with the myriad Add-ons I have installed!

Monday, 14 July 2008

Mario Kart Wii - how do you get 3 stars? (part 3)

Update: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4

Welcome to the 3rd exciting installment of my guide to getting 3 stars in Mario Kart Wii. Sorry it's been a while since I last posted, but work and Smash Bros have side-tracked me!
By the way, if you want an easy(ish) way to keep up with my latest posts, you can subscribe to the RSS feed - either using your own RSS reader, or using Google reader (my favourite!).

Without further ado, here is my next set of tips. This time, they all relate to various techniques for getting speed boosts. These can help you go much faster, but be warned that occasionally you may find they push you too far in the wrong direction, and you can hit a wall, fall off the track or hit an obstacle! If in doubt, don't use the turbo unless you are sure you can control it.

Marv's Ninth Tip: turbo at start and on corners
Well, this is kind-of two tips in one, but the first one is so obvious that I'm just putting it down for the sake of completeness and in case any of you have missed it!
You can get a turbo every time you start a race. Simply wait until the number 2 starts to disappear, and hold down the accelerator. When you start, you should get little flames behind your vehicle and zoom off much faster than you ordinarily would. Be careful though; press the accelerator too early and you will "spin out" - that is, your car will twisting from side to side and you won't go anywhere (if that happens, let go of the accelerator until you stop twisting ... then go!). The exact timing is difficult, and you may need to practise.
In fact, the closer you get to the spin-out time, without actually spinning out, the faster your turbo will be. You'll see this if you start playing against your own ghosts on Time Trials - sometimes your character will move further ahead, even using the same vehicle!
I would recommend learning how to get the turbo by ear as well as by looking at the screen. If you can do both, then it won't matter if someone walks in front of the screen, or you are playing on a small TV, or if someone starts talking to you, or forces you to play with your television muted!

The other main time you will want to turbo is when you are going around corners. Be aware though, that this will only work when you are in Manual mode (more below). You can ignore the rest of this tip if you use Automatic!
These turbos (mini turbos) work differently between cars and bikes, but the basic idea is that you keep the accelerator held down, but also hold the brake at the same time (this is the B button when using the wheel). Don't worry - pressing the brake won't slow you down as long as you have the accelerator pressed at the same time!
You will need to be steering into the corner (you don't have to steer much, but be careful not to steer the wrong way). When you press the brake, you will do a little hop and start "power-sliding". You can adjust your turn slightly by steering, but don't let go of the brake or accelerator!
Eventually, you will see blue sparks, and if you are on a bike or are in a kart and have run out of corner, this is when your turbo is ready. Try to point your vehicle in roughly the right direction, and let go of the break - you should have a little turbo! If you are on a bike, you can do a wheelie soon after the turbo to try to keep the high speed up.
If you are in a kart and the corner is long enough, you can hold the power-slide until you get orange sparks. This means that you'll get an even longer turbo, so it's worth holding out if you can! Again, don't wait for an orange turbo if it means you are going to end up going in the wrong direction or hitting something - stick with the blue sparks in these cases.
Occasionally, you will run out of corner before you even get the blue sparks - in that case, just straighten up and let go of the brake - it's better to stay on the track than risk a turbo which pushes you off!

Marv's Tenth Tip: go manual
Picking automatic means that your vehicle power-slides through corners automatically, which means you don't lose speed when cornering. However, picking manual means that you get turbos when you power-slide through a corner, which can make a massive difference!
This is, perhaps, controversial. I myself played through a lot of the Grand Prix on automatic originally, and found it a lot easier. I have seen comments from other people saying similar things. However, I now play through on Manual. The pros and cons of each break down like this:

Speed - turning
With Manual, if you don't power-slide while turning, you lose speed. his includes every time you adjust your direction, so you'll probably find yourself hopping about occasionally to face in the right direction. However, with Automatic, whenever you turn, or corner, power-sliding is automatically done for you, so you never lose speed.

Speed - straights
Unlike in Mario Kart DS, "snaking" (which is doing lots of little mini turbos in a straight line) is not a big factor here, so there is no difference.

Speed - recovery
There are many, many occasions where you have been hit by an item and want to get your speed back up. Using power-slides to turbo around a corner are a great way of doing this!

Turbos on corners
Here is the big advantage of the manual option - you can get at least one turbo on many corners. Often more than one!
When automatically power-sliding, you don't get blue sparks on the corners, so no turbos for you.

Overall speed
It's no coincidence that all of the records you see for time trials are done using manual steering; used effectively, those turbos make a big difference!

CPU difficulty
I have seen it mentioned on the internet that the computer "goes easy on you" if you choose the Automatic option. I haven't verified this yet, but it could be possible. The thing is, that you will hopefully be playing against real people at some point, and they definitely won't go easy on you!

Because manual is widely regarded as the "true way" to play Mario Kart, you will get more kudos if you play this way!

Difficulty to learn
It is definitely easier to pick up automatic steering. When you first try to switch back to manual, you will be tempted to quit almost immediately. Stick with it, though, and you will soon get the hang of it.

With the wheel
Because the wheel is that bit more imprecise, using automatic makes a big difference here. Personally, I think that Nintendo were almost-forced to put the automatic option in, because otherwise beginners would struggle to cope with playing with the wheel.

You will end up playing on Manual eventually anyway, so it's not worth taking the false sense of security of using automatic - not if you want to properly earn those 3 stars and to defend them on-line! Stick with manual! Marv's Eleventh tip: use tricks
If you haven't read the manual that came with Mario Kart, go ahead and read it now! Read it? Good! Tricks, along with bikes and the wheel, are one of the new additions to Mario Kart that have come in with the Wii version. There must be a reason they're there, and there is...
Whenever you take a jump from a ramp (that is - for every jump that's not just you hitting the power-slide button), you can perform your trick action (either flicking the wiimote or wheel, or pressing the appropriate button - read that manual!) and then when you land, you will get a speed boost. This comes in handy more on some courses than others, but probably on at least half of them!
It applies to ramps with or without speed boosts, and even in some strange places - like in Bowser's Castle (Wii), where there's the wobbly floor; keep trying tricks there and you'll get at least one, possibly two boosts. You can also get boosts from the edges of the lava geysers close to the finish line. On Coconut Mall, you can get trickable jumps from many of the obstacles (water fountains, tree bases, etc).
There are courses with half-pipes - you can do tricks here, but be aware that some of them are too far from the racing line for it to be worth it. When you do do a trick from a half-pipe, try to make it as shallow an angle as possible. Don't do what I sometimes do, which is end up facing backwards!

Marv's Twelth Tip: turbo when you fall off
Just a short one, this one, but not very well known. When you fall, or are knocked off the track (into deep water, lava or space), you can get a turbo when you are placed back on the track by helpful Lakitu. If you press the accelerator at the very instance your wheels touch the track, you should get a turbo. It seems to me that the timing on this is much less forgiving than for other things (like the turbo from the start line, and for tricks), but it's worth practising!

Marv's bonus Thirtheenth Tip: Avoiding POW blocks
This one was going to wait until next time, but some of you were anxious for it, and kadjius has posted the technique in the comments anyway!
When the POW block appears on screen, it thumps or bangs three times.
Carry out your trick action (shake the wheel or wiimote, for example) when the third thump hits. You will lose your item, and spin around, but if you have timed it right, you will lose no speed and will carry on as normal! It does take practise, but is very worth it. The only annoyance is if you are in the middle of taking a corner or have a power up you were waiting to use!
The one other time you can avoid POW blocks is if you are in mid-air - either from a jump on a ramp, or through a cannon.

Well, that's the end of the tips for this time. Well done if you made it all the way through them, because it was a long read this time! There are still some tips to give out, so stay tuned and I'll post again soon. Please feel free to post any questions, or even your own tips in the comments!

Monday, 23 June 2008

Mario Kart Wii - how do you get 3 stars? (part 2)

Update: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4

Well, here is the second part of my thrilling breakdown on how you can get those elusive 3 star rankings in all the Mario Kart Wii GPs.

Marv's Fifth Tip: what counts as a 3 star race?
I realised that I haven't exactly specified what criteria are used to judge your performance and decide what ranking to give you! Well, that's partly because no-one exactly knows! There are a few theories out there about not being hit by items and staying mostly in 1st place, which makes sense, but it seems to me that the overriding factor is how fast you complete each race. Things like not falling off, not hitting walls and avoiding hitting banana peels and shells all help - but only in as much as they help you to stay at your top speed as much as possible.
I think it's probably true that you have to get 1st place in each of the four races within a GP, but if you haven't got 1st place, you probably weren't quick enough anyway!
This matches well with my experience of Mario Kart on the Nintendo DS, where I managed to get 3 stars in all GPs primarily though shaving second after second from my times. In both Mario Kart DS and Wii, I have managed to get a 3 star ranking after hitting a wall, hitting items, and using a lot of items - but only when getting good times in all courses.
Perhaps in time, we will see a table of times-needed-for-3-stars for each GP, but I haven't found one yet. Mario Kart Wii does not give you a total time (I think Mario Kart DS did), so it makes the compilation of such a table tricky!

Marv's Sixth tip: give up on the wheel
This is perhaps controversial, because the wheel is part of what makes the Wii edition of Mario Kart so much fun. I have found that even after many hours of practise, my performance with the wheel just doesn't match my performance with the Wiimote-plus-nunchuk. I have seen similar comments in forums and message boards. There's not much in it, but on the occasional corner, I will try to turn slightly one way and the wheel will interpret it as the other way, so I lose a second or two correcting myself.
The Wiimote-plus-nunchuk is my favourite combination, but many people swear by the Gamecube controller (or the wireless version - the Wavebird). The classic controller is probably good too.
Having said that, if you stop using the wheel, you run the risk of losing out on getting a golden wheel for online play! You only get the golden wheel if you predominantly use the wheel (it seems to be that you have to use it more than 50% of the time - you can check your usage from the License screen). Additionally, if your friends are anything like mine, they will ridicule you if you use the Wiimote and nunchuk, saying it lacks honour compared to using the wheel. So, personally, I attempt each GP with the wheel, trying to get up to a 2 star rating, and only then will I allow myself to switch back to the Wiimote plus nunchuk. From then on, I will alternate control methods until I get 3 stars (I was very proud to get a 3 star ranking on one of the 50cc GPs using the wheel last weekend!).

Marv's Seventh Tip: learn from others
If you find that you are really struggling to get a good time on a GP (you should aim to be quite far ahead of all the other racers by the end of each race), you can get some tips quite easily by downloading the ghost data for the world champion of each track within that GP. Watch through them, and even race against them (but don't feel disheartened if you can't even remotely keep up - these are world champions after all!). I used this technique a lot when I was working my way through the Time Trials and it worked well. Obviously the game dynamics are a bit different in the Grand Prixs, but it can give you an idea of how to take corners and shortcuts when you aren't being whacked in the back of the head by a blue shell!
You can also take a look on Youtube - there are quite a few 3 star videos now, which can not only give you tips, but also show you that it's really possible to get those 3 stars!

Marv's Eighth tip: trailing items to defeat red shells
When you are in 1st place, there are quite a few items that the computer-controlled players can hit you with. Blue shells, I can't help with. Pow blocks are a later tip! You should hopefully be far enough ahead to avoid the middle-of-the-field power ups (stars and bullet bills). You will hopefully be able to avoid most banana peels and fake question-mark blocks! Green shells can be tricky, as they can come in at an angle unexpectedly.
This tip is about red shells. You might avoid blue shells for a couple of races, but you will often be plagued by red shells. Fear not ... there is a way to avoid them! When you are in first place, you are very likely to get the following 5 items: green shell, banana peel, multiple-banana-peels, red shell and fake question-mark-blocks. Dump fake question mark blocks as soon as you can, because they are no good! The rest of the items can be used as a shield to stop red shells from hitting you from behind.
The multiple-banana-peels can be used easily - when you hit the fire button, they trail behind you automatically. The rest of the items take (slightly) more effort, but can also be used. The "how" depends on your control scheme, but basically involves holding down the fire button while you drive. For the Wii Wheel on manual, you hold left or right on the control pad. You can either keep fire held down the whole time you have the item, or you can wait until you hear the red shell warning sound and see the icon at the bottom of the screen - you normally have plenty of time to arm your shields!

That concludes part two of my guide to getting 3 stars in Mario Kart GP. More to follow in a few days!

Mario Kart Wii - how do you get 3 stars? (part 1)

Update: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

I've spent quite a lot of time playing Mario Kart over its many incarnations (from the Super Nintendo "Super Mario Kart" up to "Mario Kart DS"), and have been playing Mario Kart Wii for the past few months.
It took me a while, but I now have every character and kart unlocked, and the one remaining item is to get a 3 star rating on every Grand Prix. When you have a 3 star rating and play online, it shows up next to your name, so everyone can be in awe of you!

I've had a look around on the internet, and while there seem to be plenty of pages pointing out that you need to get 3 stars on every GP to get that ranking, there's very little information about how to actually do it. So, I'm hoping to put up a number of blog posts which will give you tips on how to go about it.

Marv's First Tip: practise.
As with many other games, you will get better and better as time goes on and you have played the same level over and over again.
If you have played through enough to win a gold cup in every Grand Prix, the chances are that you'll have a few one-star ratings (and perhaps the occasional two or three-star!). Now you need to build on those skills and keep playing the same tracks until you are fast enough to win every time. Make sure you are taking advantage of every shortcut (where appropriate - if it's off-road for too long, it might not be worth it) and using mini turbos at every opportunity. Use a lot of tricks, but only where you don't have to go too far out of your way to do them, or where you end up in the air for a long time unneccessarily.

Marv's Second Tip: choose a character and vehicle and stick with it
Find a character and kart (or bike) combination you like and stick with it for a while. The characters and karts are all different and mostly have advantages and disadvantages, but if you keep switching you may find it difficult to pull of that tricky-shortcut because you aren't used to the handling.

Marv's Third Tip: bikes are better
Bikes are probably going to make it easier to get 3 stars, because even though they are generally lighter and more easily knocked around, they can get a speed boost on dead straights, which karts cannot. My own character/kart combination is my Mii (medium-weight - roughly the ame as Mario) and the Mach Bike. This gives me a fairly low top speed, but it's pretty good off-road, and the acceleration is nice. It also has a good turning circle.
Ideally, acceleration shouldn't be an issue, but when you are playing a GP, as opposed to a Time Trial, you know that you will occasionally be hit by blue shells, red shells, Pow blocks, lightnings and so on - no matter how far ahead you get!

Marv's Fourth tip: turbo after spin out
This is of use mainly to those whose characters have low acceleration ratings. When you are spun out, or hit something and stop completely, you can get a turbo start. Hold the brake (/powerslide) button at the same time as the accelerator for a couple of seconds until you see the blue sparks; now let go of the brake and you'll turbo off at full speed!
If your vehicle has good acceleration anyway, you won't need to do this, and the one-or-two second delay will actually slow you down more (especially if you get spun out again while you are waiting). I find that with my combination (above), I do use it, but only occasionally.

More tips to follow soon...

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Opera Ctrl-Click to open in new page / tab - updated

Well, it has been a while now since I originally posted about wanting to use Ctrl Click as my shortcut for opening pages in a new tab (or a new page as Opera calls it!).

I had a couple of comments from people who said they had managed it, but no matter what I tried, I had no luck (perhaps it works differently on different operating systems). I even posted about it in the Opera Dev forums (not sure whether that was the right place!), but no joy there.

However, while searching for more information, I stumbled across a piece of Opera User JavaScript in the My Opera community forums - from shoust here.

If you want to implement it, you'll need to set up your User JavaScript folder, as described on this page. Then follow the link to shoust's post and save "allinbackground.js" to the folder you set up (you can ignore the bit about the "button"). Restart Opera (not sure if you have to, but I did) and you're all set up!
[Edit: You don't even need to restart! Opera gets better and better]

One further change might be to enable User JavaScript on HTTPS sites - but do so only at your own risk!

I hadn't realised that Opera had a flexible JavaScript engine out of the box; I'd only recently started using the Firefox Greasemonkey extension and enjoying it, so I should be able to port my scripts straight over!

Monday, 2 June 2008

Google - why so shy?! allintext rules

Ah, finally! While searching for a link to information about the "allinanchor" page, I found this wonderful list of hidden (not documented by Google) features!
Now -
allintext:ie 8 "beta 2"
- works as I want it to! I think now I'll edit all of my Firefox keyword searches and Internet Explorer searches to include that directive by default. Happy days!
There are a couple of other options I might play with on that page too. I'm intrigued by phonebook and rphonebook and the intitle image search could be useful too...

Google - please search for what I ask for

I do a fair few Google searches over the course of my day, and I've begun to notice a worrying trend. Google is beginning to give me less control over what I search for. Instead of returning pages that contain all of the items in my search query, it will return pages that contain some of the items, and that are linked to with text that contains the rest. This is annoying.
An example is this search:
ie 8 "beta 2"
Currently, the top result for this page is a link to the Internet Explorer page for Beta 1 ... but that's not what I want! If I go through to Google's cache of the page, I see this. Note the text in the Google frame that says "These terms only appear in links pointing to this page: beta 2".

OK ... so I can understand that for many users, this feature could be useful and could give more meaningful results on some queries - but as a sophisticated user, I would expect that I could turn it off and search purely for pages that contain my terms! Google's advanced pages do not (currently) have this option (which would be something like inpage: and allinpage:).
There is however, a semi-hidden "allinanchor:" directive!

That was the second query I had trouble with today (the first was this one). Yahoo was giving me better results earlier, but seems to be following Google's behaviour now.

I don't know whether this has changed recently. I have noticed searches coming up with similar issues in the past, but not for a while. It could be that Google are tweaking the weighting of keywords-in-page to keywords-in-inbound-links, and this is an unfortunate side-effect.
It may also cause (or be the result of?) link-spammers - I think I've seen cases where link-spammers have taken advantage or weighting based upon keywords-in-inbound-links already...

The phenomenon appears to have been noted on other pages like this one, this one... I also read earlier someone suggesting surrounding each term with quotes, but that clearly doesn't work in some cases ("beta 2" above is already in quotes), and is a pain-in-the-behind to have to do for every search!

Please Google, smarten up and realise that some of your users are smarter than you think :o)

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Testing .asmx Web Services in Visual Studio 2008

I was trying to test an asmx-style web-service with Visual Studio 2008. Using the "wizard way" created me a TestMethod that looks like this:-

public void GetMainArticlesTest()
Articles target = new Articles();
XmlDocument actual;
actual = target.GetMainArticles();
//Test goes here

This looks fine, but when I try to run it, I get 403 Forbidden errors. I spent some time trying to rectify this, but didn't get anywhere. There are hints on the web that this method of running tests does not work with some methods of authentication...
(We also had problems debugging tests like the above - I think it runs in a brand new process each time which is not connected to automatically.)

I then tried removing the HostType and UrlToTest attributes. This appears to work, but in fact the Test Runner is just creating a copy of the Articles service class directly, without going through the .asmx page, and things like HttpServer do not exist, which causes problems (in my case, the necessary XSLT files are not available).

So going back to first principles, I added a Web Reference for the Articles.asmx to my Test Project (tried Web Service Reference - doesn't seem to want to work), and then created a new TestMethod like so...

public void GetMainArticlesTest()
ArticlesService.Articles service = new ArticlesService.Articles();
XmlNode results = service.GetMainArticles();
//Test goes here

This is much happier now. It works and I can debug the test directly (debugging the web service itself requires attaching to w3wp).

Sunday, 2 March 2008

How long does it take to get a replacement "Super Paper Mario"?

This blog is now turning into a list of my bug-bears, which is a shame, but it's a way to get things off my chest!

There is a bug with the European (PAL) version of Super Paper Mario for the Wii. At a certain point in the game, if you fail to perform steps in a certain way, the game crashes and you lose any unsaved progress.

Nintendo announced a disk replacement scheme.
I emailed the address given, and received a reply from "Mike Rawlings" asking for me to send my copy back and "we will attempt to replace your copy as soon as possible and within 15 working days if stock levels allow". I queried that I would be out of pocket for the postage costs and they sent me a postage-paid label.

I sent my disc off on December 18th. It was received and signed for on December 19th. I was concerned I hadn't heard anything a month later, so emailed them again on January 18th. They said they had received my disk and were awaiting stock.

I have since emailed twice, asking for an update, but have had no reply. So far, I've been without my copy of the game for about 9 weeks - 45 working days. I would be happy with a refund at this stage.

Poor show, Nintendo, poor show.

Update: Super Paper Mario turned up about 3 days after this blog post. No note of apology, no free gift, nothing. I'm still not pleased with Nintendo.
Guitar Hero 3 (PAL) owners were treated to better customer service when they had to return buggy discs and were given free faceplates!

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Noir Consulting - a review of my experience


I've been telephoned by the Managing Director of Noir Consulting/Wigs3 and asked to take this blog post down. With legal action being mentioned, and because I have no firm evidence to back up some of the claims made here, I'm taking the content of the post down for the time being. I'll revisit this decision in the next 6 months, when more information should be available.

In the mean-time, if you have had problems with Noir Consulting, please contact them via the email addresses on their web-site; the Managing Director has said that they will respond to complaints.
(To be removed from their databases, use the email address on their privacy page. For other issues, please use the details on their contact page).

I have also been asked to take down all of the comments posted here, which I have done. I apologise to everyone who taken the time to post them. I still have copies, and can re-post them if appropriate in the future.

This was not an easy decision, but Noir consulting have all of my personal details, including my current employer (who do not use Noir).

Thank you all for your time,


Saturday, 9 February 2008

How long is Varekai (from Cirque du Soleil)?

I'm going to see a Cirque du Soleil production, Varekai, at the Royal Albert Hall next week. I wanted to find out how long it was, but Google was being particularly unhelpful. Searching for Varekai "Cirque du Soleil" length led me to pages which Google informed me (via the Google Cache frame) only contained some of my search terms in pages linking to the page it showed me.
I can see how that can sometimes be useful, but please, Google, allow me to turn the behaviour off! If I ask for a page containing the word "length", show me pages containing that word!

By the way, I eventually found a rough answer in a review from when the show was staged in the United States - it is about 2 and a half hours without intermission.

Edit: OK, I went along and it was about 2-and-a-half hours, but there was a 20 minute interval. We were very glad for the 20 minute break, as we were in standing seats and our feet were killing us!
It was good, but if you've seen similar circus-type-shows, then you might find that the most impressive things are the costumes and special effects.