Playing video games

SIX recently started on History Channel, and while it’s got decent production values and a good cast incuding Walton Goggins and Barry Sloane, it still looks and feels far too much like they took Call of Duty and made a TV show out of it. Maybe it’s because we Germans simply don’t value our military service personnel as much as we maybe should, but all this heroic brouhaha is a bit annoying. Of course, all these brave, stereotypical soldiers have families and everyone has their own baggage, but it’s all far too shallow and predictable to be of much interest to me. But hey, at least History Channel finally manages to air something else than documentaries about Hitler or UFOs – or Hitler and UFOs – so that’s a start.

Fitting the overall impression of the show being a video game coming to life, the writers also took a page out of the book of reality. Remember when Edward Snowden revealed that terrorists were using multiplayer video games to talk about their evil plans? Well, the SIX scribes thought it would be a cool idea to implement that idea into episode two of their show. Unfortunately, instead of just faking a chat on any given (or fake) MMO, they resorted to … this:

six102-playingvideogames.jpg

Image (c) History Channel

What happens here is as follows: some terrorist dude puts on a wireless headset and talks to another terrorist dude via voice chat in a video game. While they are talking on the voice chat, the exact words appear on the screen as well, as if the game could magically guess what the guys said. It’s pretty clear neither of the terrorists is typing anything, so how does this work? Of course there’s a thing called speech recognition, but why on earth would you bother with stuff like that in a video game, especially one as crappy as the one they use?

So far, so ridiculous, but there’s more! To their merit, they did everything right in the first scene this comes up, which makes their blunder even more damning. In a later scene, one of the operators comes home to find his little son playing Gears of War:

six102-playingactualvideogames

Image (c) History Channel

To wit: two cables running to the TV (power/HDMI), the screen is actually powered on.

six102-playingactualvideogameswithactualcontrollers

Image (c) History Channel

Exhibit 2: the controller is an actual Xbox One controller and – woohoo! – powered on! It’s really hard to see due to the reflection on the glossy surface but in this freeze frame the button is clearly lit. Rosewood set decorators, take note: this is how it’s done!

Or not. Daddy goes to check on his daughter and finds her with a boy. She claims they didn’t do nuthin’ but daddy still finds this behaviour entirely unacceptable and throws the boyfriend out. I wonder what he was doing at that age in his spare time, knitting?

six102-playingdifferentvideogames

Image (c) History Channel

While the boyfriend is escorted out of the house, we pass the TV once more, and all of a sudden there’s an entirely different game to be seen: Sunset Overdrive. And what’s even better, the game is already in progress which is quite a feat given that the player would have to quit Gears of War, find Sunset Overdrive on the console, launch it and start playing, all within about 20 seconds. I highly doubt this is even possible given the sluggish menu of the Xbox One as well as the long load times and endless splash screens most games have.

No, the real reason for this mistake is likely them filming out of sequence again – possibly on different days as well – and not remembering which game they loaded up. Or maybe the kid actor wanted to play something else because Gears of War got boring. You know, kids. They just go and do as they please. More power to them.

Jump in

Despite all the bad press about 50 Cent being broke, his personal TV show Power still goes on. Season 3 has finally started and it seems they managed to secure a little marketing deal. It’s probably for the best since executive producer 50 Cent isn’t going to provide much more than his namesake’s worth of currency if the rumors are true.

In episode 2, James St. Patrick’s kids have a sleepover at Angela’s place, and what’s better to calm a juvenile than video games? That’s right! Angela has got the technology all set up and also provides the game of choice:

Angela
Hey, Tariq, I got you your favorite video game.
You can play it now if you want.
Everything’s set up, I think.

Image (c) Starz

Image (c) Starz

Killer-Instinct-Xbox-One-Box-ArtIt’s only visible for a few frames but that’s a Killer Instinct box – exactly the one pictured on the left, by the way, so the Day One edition. If you look closely, it’s already unwrapped, so maybe she got it used? I don’t know.

Tariq couldn’t possibly be more excited about that gift:

 

Image (c) Starz

Image (c) Starz

He really doesn’t look like he has seen the game ever before because that’s not a look you have on your face if you’re excited about something you love. It’s more the look you have on your face if you’re not sure what the fuck is this thing in my hand but hey, that might just be me (if you give me my favourite video game, I sure as hell wouldn’t read the box because I already know it).

The kid objects:

Tariq
That TV’s way too small.
My mom got a big screen at home.

That’s right, folks! Microsoft wants you to know Xbox One plays best on a BIG SCREEN TV!

Fortunately, before any more discussion about the viability of smaller TVs can ensue, the Xbox boots up – presumably without the game disc inside because we never see the box leave Tariq’s hands – with its (likely) trademark sound. Father and son can Jump in!

Image (c) Starz

Image (c) Starz

It’s (almost) all good – the console is clearly an Xbox One. It’s turned on (wow!). The controllers are not PlayStation or Wii controllers for once (woo!). They aren’t turned on (boo!) but at least the game is indeed Killer Instinct (hooray!). So what am I complaining about?

Oh, just that the Xbox One doesn’t exactly boot up that fast, let alone start a game that’s not installed (which can be assumed since Angela is fishing the game box out of her purse). Even considering the game was already installed, the console would take way longer to jump into action than one second. Sure, the Xbox One has a standby mode, but then you won’t get the boot sound, it just wakes up from hibernation. But of course, since the entire scene is obviously paid for by Microsoft, we can’t possibly wait the entire minute the damn thing usually takes to boot …

It’s not a trick, it’s a Sony

After a hiatus of over a year and a half, Person of Interest is back with it’s final season. Which is a crying shame, because it was a serious guilty pleasure of mine and probably one of the finest examples of a terrible show that was retooled to become absolutely awesome. The premiere had everything I expected – lots of shooting, lots of blank-eyed staring from Jim Caviezel and a lot of witty banter to boot.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good ended and the bad began. Of course, PoI is hardly a show oozing with realism, but the plot in this episode was just so mind-blowingly stupid I just had to go and write a little post about it. And by “little”, I mean “a little longer”. As Mr. Finch would probably say: “Oh dear!”.

It all starts where it ends: the machine is in a suitcase full of RAM chips and batteries and Mr. Reese is carrying it around. After a bit of shooting, we get it: the longer the machine stays in the suitcase, the bigger the chance it’ll break forever. So, there’s a great deal of urgency in the dialogue, for example:

Mr. Finch:
Damage to a single bit of the code of the Machine
in its presently compressed state would equal terabytes of lost data. Irretrievable, irreparable. It’s running now on the lithium-ion backup, but if that light starts blinking, we’re in big trouble. Even then, I’m not sure I can fix the battery, much less decompress the Machine. It would take vast amounts of processing power, which I don’t currently have available.

That’s not good, isn’t it? Obviously, the light starts to blink pretty soon afterwards and not soon after …

Mr. Finch:
It’s powering down. There’s only a very small amount of residual power remaining. The RAM chips could be losing their data even as we speak.

According to this research paper (PDF), RAM chips lose their data “within microseconds, at best within seconds”. So once the battery power is gone, there’s basically zero chance to recover the machine in a state in which it could still decompress, let alone run. The degradation becomes even worse in warmer environments. Keep that in mind for later.

I was a bit puzzled by the “terabytes of data” that would apparently be lost when all the suitcase contains is a ton of RAM chips, but apparently that’s a thing since 2013. Who would have known?

Anyway, as they come to their old HQ in the subway, Mr. Finch immediately begins to open the suitcase to recover whatever’s left of the machine. Mr. Reese gets a phone call from Fusco, and because this is way more important than the time-sensitive recovery of his wonderous machine, Mr. Finch spends the entire time of the call by listening in and making conversation (oh, and checking the web as well!). After 47 seconds, Mr. Finch is exactly where he started: the suitcase is still closed and the light on it doesn’t even blink any more. Also, he’s not able to pry the damn thing open, which leads to a funny moment at least. If there was any hope for the machine being able to recover, he just wasted almost a minute of it. Fantastic.

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Later, Mr. Finch manages to set fire to the machine (and half his lab) by short-circuiting the damn thing. If the surge didn’t kill off the remaining data, the fire surely will – remember what I wrote earlier? Temperature is important! Not that anything would matter at this point, this has gone on for far too long. After the fire, the contents of the suitcase look like this:

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Meanwhile, Root is up to something – she’s visiting an old russian “friend” of hers, who happens to run an electronics recycling center. After some more shooting and a save by Mr. Reese (because this guy is literally everywhere at once), she gets an idea how to obtain some raw processing power:

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Yep, that’s a Playstation 3 – fat model, by the way, which is accurate in terms of narrative. She’s going to need “about 300 of these”, because, you guessed it, she’ll build a server farm out of them!

Oh, in case you’re wondering – of course the chips are dead already. Even the characters know that:

Mr. Reese:
What about the RAM chips? Have they lost all their data?

Mr. Finch:
Battery’s dead. It has no power source. Could be a residual charge in the lithium-ion backup. If there was, I fried it.

Mr. Reese:
Come on, Finch, there’s got to be a way to resuscitate it.

Mr. Finch:
Mr. Reese, even if there were battery power left, we don’t have enough processing power to decompress the Machine.

Well, that can be helped, of course:

Root:
These particular gaming consoles have a unique cellular structure that can be scaled. Networked, they approach the processing power of a supercomputer,  but only use about 1/10 of the power, and their OS can be overwritten with Linux.

According to Wikipedia, there’s some truth to it …

In November 2010 the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) created a powerful supercomputer by connecting together 1,760 Sony PS3s which include 168 separate graphical processing units and 84 coordinating servers in a parallel array capable of performing 500 trillion floating-point operations per second (500 TFLOPS). As built the Condor Cluster was the 33rd largest supercomputer in the world and would be used to analyze high definition satellite imagery.

… and that’s likely where the script writer got his idea. There’s just one teensy-tiny problem: you can’t just build a supercomputer out of 300 used PS3 consoles, at least not given the extremely short amount of time the team has to complete this task.

First of all, you’ll need to obtain 300 consoles that still work. The PS3 model in question was the launch version, so it’s at least ten years old. These consoles had technical issues causing them to fail early (the so-called “Yellow Light of Death” or YLOD, where the console would die from overheating), and considering Root found the hardware on a recycling yard, it’s not hard to guess why they ended up there. Since she can’t know if they still work or not, she’d have to test them all to ensure they don’t fail seconds into decompressing the machine.

Second, even if all the consoles still work, the OtherOS functionality that came with the original model was removed with a firmware update in 2010. Considering many later games required the user to update the firmware in order for them to run and considering what purpose a PS3 usually has (beside building supercomputers, of course), there’s a good chance none of the consoles Root acquired still have that functionality. She’d have to check for that as well.

Third, the OtherOS feature doesn’t just work out of the box. You can’t just start a PS3 and expect it to boot into Linux – you’ll have to install it first, a procedure which will likely take at least a few hours unless Root happens to have a disc ready for each of the consoles, which seems unlikely considering the sparse equipment in the lab. Also, only a handful of Linux distributions even worked with OtherOS, which makes things even harder. They are still obtainable, of course, but all these things waste precious time – time the team doesn’t have!

Fourth, even after installing Linux, making a supercomputer out of a bunch of PS3s probably won’t work without a good amount of fiddling – it’s Linux, right? Even genius hackers like Root and Mr. Finch can’t type faster than their fingers move, and as we learned more than once in this episode, time is of the essence – at least as long as it’s okay with the plot.

Fifth, Mr. Finch was talking about “terabytes of data” that would be lost from a single error in the compressed RAM, so we can assume the machine requires at least a few terabytes of storage to even boot, let alone do its thing. PS3 consoles simply don’t offer that much storage – their memory (RAM) is only 256 Megabytes and the stock hard drive was between 20 and 160 Gigabytes. The final count of consoles used was only 70 (see below) so the max. storage space on stock drives would only be around 10 TB. Of course, the drives could have been upgraded, but that’d take even more time, plus Root would also need to get her hands on a huge number of hopefully undamaged hard drives.

Of course, none of these glaring problems stop them from building their supercomputer anyway. Here’s how it looks:

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Seems my doubts weren’t entirely unfounded since that’s only about 70 PS3s, not 300 – maybe the rest of them simply didn’t work. Not quite as big a supercomputer as Root might have had in mind, but still, that’s some impressive hardware. I’m a bit confused about the amount of CAT5 cables hanging everywhere, though. Since the PS3 doesn’t have more than one network port, there shouldn’t be more than one colored wire coming from each console, but there clearly are. Take a look at the leftmost console in the lower shelf for an example, there’s a green network cable coming out of the HDMI port which is right above of the network connector (which a blue cable is connected to):

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Also, many of them don’t seem to be connected to the power grid at all, which is odd since they all light up. Which by the way is also odd since I don’t remember the PS3 having a colored LED on the back of the machine. All that wiring must have been great fun to set up under pressure anyway, but it seems like Mr. Reese was able to help with that, even though he doesn’t speak nerd.

Of course the whole thing almost blows up because the PS3s can’t keep up with the machine’s demand of processing power. One by one, the consoles crap out with sparks and a nice fluff of magic smoke, which would actually strain the remaining ones even harder, but since time is only a problem if the script asks for it, Mr. Reese manages to grab a liquid nitrogen container from the street (now at least that’s realistic, these safety hazards are literally just standing around at every corner in NYC) and is able to cool down the cluster so much the machine is still able to recover. Take that, science!

A flaw in the system

Hey, Starz Originals’ utterly mediocre gangsta drama Power is back! Bit of a surprise there because the first season wasn’t really anything to write home about, but I guess it’s still less a surprise than the return of The Last Ship.

Anyway, in episode 2 we can find a classic example of bad mockup UI design. Angela Valdez, everyone’s favorite AUSA slash gangsta whore, is using the DOJ’s system to look up stuff on her friends. Because she has been kicked out of the task force she’s trying to break into the system using her former boyfriend’s account. I doubt he’ll appreciate that.

(c) Starz

(c) Starz

She’s having a bit of trouble figuring out the password, but after a few tries, she manages to get in using the woefully unsafe “grace”, the name of Gregory’s dog. Oh dear.

At least she’s in the system now and is greeted by this rather odd looking screen:

(c) Starz

(c) Starz

As evident from the Windows Explorer icon at the bottom of the screen, the operating system used is likely Windows 7. However, there’s no Start button and nothing else, not even a task icon for the foreground application, which looks kind of strange.

The app itself has likely been thrown together in Visual Studio and is supposed to be a case database. A little quiz here: how would you query a federal case database?

By entering the …

a) case number
b) case name (e.g. “United States vs. Bad Guy”)
c) defendant’s name and date of birth
d) your own name

If you answered b) you are likely on the team responsible for this mess of a mockup, because that’s exactly what Angela does: she queries the database by entering “United States vs. Felipe Lobos”, as if there was no way there’s two or more cases with the exact same name. Admittedly, in this case the name’s rather unique – for example, whitepages.com lists only one Felipe Lobos – but how would that work for “United States vs. Peter Muller“? Since checking on the wrong man would be kind of pointless and could also turn rather unpleasant for the poor sod, a real database would require some kind of secondary identification to pinpoint that exact person or case.

The database also contains audio files, which is handy since Angela wants to listen to a certain recording in order to hopefully identify that “Ghost” guy. She opens the recording and suddenly, the screen is all zoomed in and the app window doesn’t even fit anymore. The top left input field is empty …

(c) Starz

(c) Starz

or is it? Suddenly, the text has reappeared in the input field.

(c) Starz

(c) Starz

Listening to the audio file jogs her memory: it’s Tommy! She quickly conducts a background check on him, which is done via the window aptly titled Background Check. Not that there’s any visible way to even reach that window, but maybe she used a keyboard shortcut, who knows. Odd design nevertheless.

She queries the database for “Thomas Patrick Egan”, which happens to be Tommy’s real name:

(c) Starz

(c) Starz

Again, it would be a really bad idea to check on the wrong person, but Angela isn’t to blame here as the database app doesn’t even allow filtering by anything else than the name – not even a date of birth or social security number! And to add insult to injury, there’s no way to enter the first, middle and last name separately – designing a database used by law enforcement to work like that would not just be incredibly inefficient, but also extraordinarily stupid and dangerous.

Back to the old school

Hey, look, it’s Sergeant Odelle Ballard from NBC’s American Odyssey! In episode 7, she’s making a tape to prove she’s still alive!

Picture (c) NBC

Picture (c) NBC

The arrow points at the important bit: there’s an icon showing a SD card, so the camera is likely one of these cheap digital camcorders that are common now, as opposed to one that uses real tape, like a MiniDV cassette for example. From the display it’s pretty clear that we are talking about digital storage since the run time of tape cassettes used in handheld cameras don’t really exceed 90 minutes.

Begs the question why the resulting tape is shown to be stored on exactly that: a MiniDV cassette. Oops.

Image (c) NBC

Image (c) NBC

The bigger question is this, though: if it’s so damn important that the tape gets out, why not upload it straight to Youtube instead of calling a New York Times reporter to come out to Mali? I’m pretty sure they can manage to find an internet connection that works, and given that the video isn’t that long, the upload would only take a moment (at the very least it would be faster than to wait for the reporter to arrive). Once the video is on Youtube there’s little chance for anyone to get rid of it and news would spread like wildfire, so why take all these risks?

Bonus! Our two hackers are searching the internet for information about Amir Alamra, and they even find something:

Image (c) NBC

Image (c) NBC

That URL format sure is odd! It’s not an IP address, doesn’t bother to mention the protocol (http or https) and simply doesn’t look like an URL at all. For reference, here’s how the search results should be formatted on the search engine they used:
americanodyssey107-realbing

But how do I know what search engine they used? Well …

Image (c) NBC

Image (c) NBC

Oddly enough, the episode credits do not mention any “promotional consideration” by Microsoft – instead, it’s sponsored by Apple, but barely features any Apple material.

That’s how an iPhone saved my life

NBC’s new show American Odyssey really ticks all the boxes by taking PMCs, islamists, American heroes soldiers, the Occupy movement, big corporations, hackers, lawyers and the government, adding a healthy dose of conspiracy theorists and mashing it all up into a soup of prime time entertainment. Hell, why not? Not every show can be another Homeland, can it?

Fortunately for me, it’s also fun on another level as there are quite a few unfortunate screw ups in the first episode alone. Hell, it wouldn’t be an NBC show if it was flawless!

So the show is about Odelle Ballard, an American soldier on duty in northern Mali. She has just rid the world of yet another terrorist leader and is now resting with her team somewhere in the desert. While taking a dump, she pulls out her phone and watches a video her daughter made:

Image (c) NBC

Image (c) NBC

Wow, an actual iPhone 4 running iOS 7, showing the actual operating system instead of a mockup? I must be dreaming! Probably, as Ballard’s phone clearly indicates an available LTE connection in the middle of the fucking desert. That’s quite a feat considering at that time – March 13, 2015 – Mali doesn’t have any LTE coverage at all (according to this article posted on March 6th, 2015, “LTE […] would be a new service in the market” and will be “introduced later in the year”) and general cellphone coverage in the northern area, especially the desert, appears to be spotty at best.

Please also note the battery level (about 75% full) and the fact the email icon has no notification badge – no new mail! There’s also no provider identification displayed next to the connection quality indicator, which is odd, but I’m not entirely sure it has to be there. If you have to know, it’s 9:50 pm on March 13, 2015.

Suddenly, the entire squad is blown to smithereens, minus Odelle Ballard who’s pushed out of sight by the blast. She drops her iPhone and falls unconscious. When she wakes up again, some locals with guns are sifting through the remains of her fellow countrymen. She does what every normal person would do after waking up – she checks her mail. But first, she has to turn the iPhone on – not that I’ve got the first idea how she managed to turn it off before falling unconscious. Good for her, had the phone remained on, the battery would likely be dead thanks to the constant network scans without proper coverage.

Image (c) NBC

Image (c) NBC

It’s 10:01 am the next day, 12 hours after the attack, and she’s got no cellphone coverage at all, which also means no internet. Surprisingly, the mail app notification icon indicates she has 11,973 (!) new e-mails – pretty amazing considering she’s presumed dead.

Thanks to the sound her phone makes when receiving the 11,973 emails (still without any kind of internet coverage), the (presumed) islamists promptly discover her and smash her phone to pieces, but not before she manages to sneak out an e-mail that gets sent in the last second, typical iOS swoosh sound and all.

iPhones, I tell you – they make the impossible … possible. With out the magic of the iDevice, the show’s already shallow plot would fall flat on it’s face.

Image (c) NBC

Image (c) NBC

Oh. Now it all makes sense.

(The second episode’s credits omit that line, by the way, and sure enough, cellphones are suddenly either made by Samsung or can’t be identified.)

But we’re far from done here.

Remember when I mentioned hackers are part of the show as well? They sure are, and they manage to get access to Ms. Ballard’s private email account. Look, they (well, it’s really just one greasy guy in his mom’s basement apartment) use professional hacking tools!

Image (c) NBC

Image (c) NBC

Of course she has an iCloud account – I wonder if this was a good idea in terms of marketing in light of the recent iCloud hacks?

The password is really easy to brute-force, and the hacker has no problem accessing her mailbox:

Image (c) NBC

Image (c) NBC

The clever bastard is using a web mail proxy because why not. Pretty sure https://webmail/mail/login leads absolutely nowhere unless he has the proxy running on his local machine – in which case the proxy would be completely useless – but the URL format looks suspiciously similar to the one used by GMail. The input box also doesn’t mask the password for whatever reason. However, it’s “the web’s most reliable email client”, that’s something!

Here’s the inbox:

Image (c) NBC

Image (c) NBC

Looks pretty convincing, right? I must admit they really did a decent job on creating this mockup. However, they didn’t really think it through because this isn’t an iCloud mail account! Instead, it looks like they copied Gmail a bit too well, as evident from the URL schema

gmail

and the “FindBigMail” folder which indicates Ms. Ballard is employing the services of FindBigMail.com, a tool to manage large emails that’s exclusive to GMail accounts. To add insult to injury, the number of emails in the account is displayed as 9,591 – a lot less than the 11,973 displayed by the mail app on her iPhone. Also, all displayed mails are at least three days old, which means she didn’t get any new mails at all between a few days before the attack and now.

Code recycling

Sleepy Hollow sure is another of those guilty pleasures of mine. The story is utterly ridiculous and hasn’t deviated a hair from your standard “body of the week” type of supernatural drama, but the adventures of Ichabod Crane and how he learns to adapt to the modern world are equal parts unbelievable and comedy gold. Despite the show’s shortcomings in the story department, there’s rarely a dull moment, I give them that.

However, in episode 7 of the current second season, I could not help but notice something odd. The shot below is supposed to show some kind of “trace” the detective character (Mills) supposedly put on the villain character, Henry, who also happens to be the son of Ichabod Crane – keep your family close and your villains closer, I say.

Image (c) FOX

Image (c) FOX

So, about that “trace”… seems like Detective Mills is a l33t h4x0r and can actually code in … Visual Basic?! Why the code appears in a window called “DB Search” shown inside the police database software is beyond me, and as most of the stuff has been lifted from Microsoft’s own documentation and other, entirely unrelated sources, it doesn’t actually do anything. In the real world, that is, as it manages to find Henry quite well.

Of course, I just had to ask Google about the code, and there’s more to it than meets the eye. Seems Detective Mills is nothing more but a lowly script kiddie, because there’s evidence her “trace” code was taken from somewhere else entirely: Criminal Minds season 3, episode 9.

sleepy108-criminalminds

10 PRINT “FAIL”
20 GOTO 10