Saturday, 26 May 2018

Bitcoin Mining

Its been a long, long time since I have posted anything to my blog. Work and personal life have gotten in the way of me adding anything meaningful to this for quite some time, so I have decided to ease myself back into it with a post on how I have been getting along with the topic de jour - mining bitcoins.

My experience with cryptocurrencies, specifically bitcoin, has been simmering away in the background of my home lab for around five years now. I started off with the most basic of kit, a simple USB miner hooked up to a laptop that probably crunched through at around 33MH/s - we will get back to what that actually means later on. It was a good intro into how mining can work, I initially set the miner up to try and mine a whole bitcoin on its own, but ended up killing it AND my laptop by accidentally passing 12 volts across a 5 volt connection on my USB hub... I was rather embarrassed by the whole thing, but I did end up learning a lot from this experience.

Dont Try To Mine A Bitcoin On Your Own

Just dont, it would probably take you a couple of hundred years. Back in the day when the concept was new, people were easily crunching through bitcoins with the graphics cards on their machines, racking up dozens of bitcoins for no other reason than they could. I am not going to get into the history of bitcoin here, you can find plenty of information on it already out on the Internet, suffice it to say that if you want to make any amount of money with bitcoin mining, then you want to get into a mining pool.

Mining in a pool means you work with others to mine those precious bitcoins as a group effort. Each member of the mining pool gets a percentage of the bitcoin depending on how much effort their miner has put in to verifying the bitcoin itself. Again, I am not going to get into the details of how a mining pool works as there is already a bunch of info out in the wild that can do a better job than I and I dont enjoy mindlessly repeating other peoples words. But, if you would like to get into mining as part of a pool, then I can seriously reccomend the one that I use, Slush's Pool, which can be found here: https://slushpool.com/home/

I think this is one of the more popular pools, I didnt really do that much research into which is the best to join, I picked Slush as there is a copious amount of documentation available on the site on how to configure just about every miner there is. Once you have set up your account, you also get a very good dashboard that tells you the status of your miner(s) and how you are performing as part of the pool itself.

After I got over the act of killing my laptop and my first miner, I decided to step it up a gear and purchase a more serious piece of kit (and a new laptop...) to see how far I could go with this. I ended up getting a BlackArrow X1 miner from Ebay extremely cheap. As far as I am concerned, this was an awesome entry level miner for anyone interested in making some decent cash from bitcoin mining a few years back. The device is significantly different to the USB miner I previously used, that one required my laptop to be running at all times, which was annoying given the fact I needed to move it around the place depending on where I was supposed to be for work etc. The BlackArrow X1 is a self contained unit that houses the ASIC's used to do all the heavy lifting as well as a computer running Android, complete with a touch screen interface, wifi and ethernet. All I needed to do was configure it to connect to the pool and leave it to do its thing, which it did for years and made me a fairly sizeable amount of cash for what I laid out for the device and power consumption. Of course, as with all types of computing equipment, things get superseded and the same is true of the X1, which has led me to start investigating how I can expand my mining setup cheaply. This device will happily crunch through bitcoin hashes as part of a pool at around 100GH/s all day long, however this is now considered to be a low power device.

It uses CGMiner, which is pretty much the same application everyone uses when mining in a pool regardless of whether you are using a USB miner or a more powerful device hooked up to your LAN. It is easy to setup and works extremely well, Slush also provides all the instructions you need in order to get CGMiner connected to the pool so you can get up and running with your bitcoin adventure as soon as possible.

If you do a quick search on Ebay right now, you will find many, many miners working up in the TH/s range that can cost a few thousand pounds. Thats great if you have the money to invest right now, but you need to bear in mind that bitcoin is a currency and its value fluctuates on a daily basis - an investment of £1k or £2k now based on current bitcoin prices wont look like such a great deal if the value of the currency drops through the floor next week. I dont have the money to soak up such a loss and I certainly dont run a bitcoin mining farm, so I got to thinking about how I can expand my mining setup economically.

At some point last year, I was given a bitcoin miner from someone who had bought a device from Ebay, but once they received it, had no idea on how to set it up. I gladly took it and left it in a drawer up until a few weeks ago when I reaslised I needed to up my bitcoin game. The device itself is a Block Erupter v2 mining blade that apparently can run at 10GH/s, this doesnt sound that fast for a device like this, however after some research I discovered that it isnt really meant to operate on its own - its a blade that is mean to sit in a backplane with four other devices attached (well, I think four, might be one or two more) and is powered from a server PSU, it has an ethernet connection as well - note, ethernet is far, far better for mining bitcoin than USB, its a hell of a lot fast, also if you have a standalone miner that offers wifi as well as ethernet, choose ethernet, it is THE fastest connection.

Other than that, there is nothing on the device at all that would give you much clue on how to set it up, the only reason I discovered what type of device it is was after googling the only text on the PCB itself. Right now, these things are about £75 each on Ebay, however, finding the backplane for these blades is extremely hard, I have spent a week combing the Internet for one and came up blank. The last one I saw for sale seems to have gone out in January this year from an Ebay seller in the US, even if I caught the auction the seller would not have shipped to the UK, which is vexing.

So, without a backplane, how am I going to get this thing started up so I can see if it will work? Well, there are a number of truly terrifying step by step guides on forums that go through how to destroy an ATX PSU with paperclips(!) in order to power the blades on, this basically involves poking bits of metal into the PSU's MOLEX connector in order to trick the PSU into the on state and then hooking up a bunch of other MOLEX connectors that have also been cut to shreds to the power terminals on the blades themselves. There is also a lot of gaffer tape involved.

Yeah... a 24/7 mining setup that involves gaffer tape and paperclips in order to power a device that gets extremely hot... Not going to do that.

However, I do need to get power to the board in order to see if it works, it has been sat in a drawer for the best part of a year so I have no idea if it will even start up - so I am going to have to use an ATX PSU for this, but in a much safer manner. So first things first, get power to the board and hook it up to the network to see if it gets an IP (it may have static addressing by default, which I am hoping isnt the case). If this thing works, then I can start looking in to getting it hooked into Slush's pool and supplement my existing setup and, if things go well with it, I might even get a couple more added in if they are good value for money...

But please, if anyone else has one of these - think twice about how you are going to power them. I havent figured out how I am going to do it yet, but paperclips and gaffer tape just doesnt sound safe to me.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Doom 3 BFG Edition

I downloaded a copy of Doom 3 BFG Edition from the PSN the other day, part of me wanted to see how it would look in 3D on a massive display, something I was unable to experience back in 2004.

I got given Doom 3 just after it was released, when I say given you should read made my GF buy it for me when I was pulling a sickie from work. I didn't last long playing it, for some reason I turn to water when playing scary video games, and for me Doom 3 is up there as one of the most terrifying games I have ever played. Now, I know some people will laugh out loud at that one, but its true.

In 2004, I had a fairly powerful PC so was able to play it at almost the max when it came to graphical settings. I also had surround sound, which made it even scarier for me. Playing it again, just eight years after its release has made me very aware of how much the FPS genre has moved on. I quickly found myself trying to do things that are found in more modern games, getting down on the weapon sight for a more accurate shot or pressing a button for a grenade etc, even alternate fire modes are missing. But does this detract from a game when it is good? Well, when I first started playing it, I felt that it wasn't standing up to the test of time, however Doom 3 had an ace in the hole when it comes to me - I never completed it the first time round without cheating.

One of the good things about console games these days is the inability to cheat. When it comes to PC games I am pretty weak, if I get to a point where I find the level too tough, I will Google for cheats. You dont seem to be able to cheat (as much) on console games - which is a good thing because it made me appreciate Doom 3 for the great game that it actually is.

A lot of people say that ID make games that are awesome to look at, that are wonderful technical achievements and this is true. Doom 3 uses the Tech 4 engine which has only recently been superseded by the Tech 5 engine used in Rage. The lighting effects are amazing, I didn't really appreciate them enough the first time round, but this time on a 50" TV in 3D, I definitely did. The level design is a little old fashioned by today's standards, a lot of traversing one area only to have to go back to the beginning etc as well as a lot of button pressing and searching for security keys and PDA's. Initially I thought this was a bit daft, but then I started to think back to the original Doom, you had to do the same thing there pretty much.

I think we have been spoiled a little bit when it comes to FPS games these days, take the Call of Duty franchise, it relies a lot on set pieces  cinematic battles etc. Doom 3 doesn't really have this, sure there are cut scenes and some cinematic elements to keep the story going but on the whole, the player is left to their own devices when it comes to playing out the levels. This is something the common console gamer just wont be used to. Some concessions have been made for the console generation, there are very limited graphical options when compared to the PC original, plus there are elements like a body mounted flash light that were not in the first release. For me, this was a god send, the first time round you couldn't use the torch and a gun at the same time, this made the game a hell of a lot scarier but also frustrated me a lot. Doom 3 often presents you with about 100 shades of black in some levels and with the default settings, the screen is often dark in the brightest of levels. This means you can be bounced around by the weakest of enemies as you search for them.

I also thought I could clear the game in a few hours, which was wrong. Overall I think I took just over ten hours to complete it - after the first three I was completely engrossed in the story and the game play. It was just as scary as the first time round and for me, completing it after so many years gave me an extreme sense of satisfaction. It also got me thinking about other scary games I have played, or more accurately games that I have played that scared me. Looking at Doom 3 again has made me appreciate just how it has influenced so many newer games. Without Doom 3, I wonder if there would have been a Dead Space? Or perhaps, would BioShock been a little more innocent in its level design?

At the same time, you can also see how other games have influenced the design of Doom 3. If any of you have been lucky enough to play System Shock 2, you will kind of see how the narrative of the game, through its logs and misdirection have influenced its design. I also feel that the Thief series have also made a massive impact on the lighting in the game itself, which is truly amazing.

When the original Doom was released, it was a horror game full of zombies, demons and devils. You searched huge levels looking for keys and the exit whilst being confronted by hoards of nasty things. I remember at the time it got a lot of media attention for its content. Doom 3 didn't get the same level of attention, these days we are used to games having adult content, but it is still a Doom game. You still search for keys and still battle wave after wave of hell spawn and still get scared (well, if you are me you do).

Now, having just completed it, I cannot wait for Doom 4...

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Goro

It is 1993, the very middle of the school holidays. I should be out enjoying the weather or doing something active, but today I am not. I cannot. I am drawn to a dingy little arcade on the seafront. In its poorly lit confines I see people playing fruit machines, trying to hook a prize on a crane or perhaps young children begging their parents for one more go on some contrite little ride. I walk past the latest polygonal racing game, newly imported from Japan that is blaring techno out as loud as possible, drawing the faithful towards the third dimension. This is not my target.

No for me, I need to journey to the very back of the arcade, where the carpet has become a shade of black that can only be attained after years of neglect and sugar, sticky seafront sweets. My destination at the back of this dark gaming establishment isn't a fruit machine or a prize crane. No, not for me. Instead I am drawn, almost against my will to a cabinet opposite the very back wall. A dark area, where few people congregate. 

The cabinet stands before me. The five button controls picked out in transparent arcade red and yellow buttons, poorly printed names under each. One of the topmost buttons, a sickly yellow in the low light, has a cigarette burn on it. There are butts on the floor, some pouring out of a sticky ashtray/bin combination.

The cabinet glows in front of me. The electrical beat of 1990's synthesized drums bringing me under its sway. The top of the cabinet gives off an ethereal light, in the semi darkness two words stand out; Mortal Kombat.

The game is 50 pence a credit. The big, chunky coins of the early 90's, stacked in my pocket. I have £6.50, a princely sum for a teenager in these days. A hard days work. To feed my habit for this game, I have taken a summer job at the local Butlins as a barrow boy, transporting families luggage on a sack truck for nothing more than a promise of a tip. 10 pence here, 20 pence there. Occasionally the odd pound coin, or in some circumstances a bottle of warm Belgian beer.

It has taken me weeks to learn the moves for my favorite character. It has taken me weeks to learn the sublt nuances of the game, to progress against all of my foes. To face myself and then to battle on through the endurance matches. But finally, today, I know my destination. Today I will face the sub-boss, Goro.

I have never seen anyone reach this far before now. I do not know how the fight will progress. As I move up the battle plan, getting every closer to today's target, I feel my confidence growing. I am at the third endurance match and I am still on my first credit. My synapses are working overtime, muscle memory from the last few weeks of battling working in my favor. I destroy my last foe in the endurance matches. The time has come for me to face Goro.

The first round is over quickly, his speed and power are like nothing else I have experienced in the game so far. The second round begins, I fail to land one single punch. The next 50 pence piece goes in, again I am flattened, this time however it is a double flawless. The next credit, I land a punch, but Goro defeats me so quickly. I begin to sweat, the next credit goes in, I am down to £5 now. Again, beaten oh so quickly, my colleagues from Butlins have now started to drift in, their need for the visit to the arcade not as great as mine. The mingle, smoke cigarettes and tell crude jokes. Some of them make their way to the fruit machines, so eager to emulate their parents at the pub. Others jockey for position on some arcade racer. Kudos is given for the most adult handling of a Japanese sports car. Some, like me, hanker for the game, the only game that matters, the one that I am playing. I slot in a few more credits, my performance against the mighty Goro is pitiful. With a mixture of overly strong moves and a few cheap shots, my resolve is being ground down, one round at a time. A small crowd has formed around me, comprised of the Mortal Kombat acolytes. They realize what is going on here. The know what is at stake, they have never seen anyone face Goro before, up until now he was a myth, spoken of in hushed tones by the boy whose older brother pumped £15 into the machine one evening.

I am nearing the end, every combination of every move I try has no effect. I cannot remove enough health from Goro to attain victory. I have two credits left, those around me begin to decide who will play next. Then it happens. The knock down, followed by another, I win my first round. I am stunned, those around me are not sure what just happened. Then it hits me, I have discovered the way.

The final round commences, it is one a piece, this is the decider. I jump backwards, the forwards with a kick, He goes down. The tension mounts. I repeat, throw in an iceball for a free upper cut and then jump in for a kick. He goes down. I jump in once more, following it up with a slide kick. A sharp tone, Danger. A familiar warning to me, to prepare another 50 pence piece, but this time, this time it is for Goro. I know it is over. Those around me know it is over. All I need to do is land one more hit, even if he blocks it, I win.

He goes down. I have won. I have done it. The crowd around me congratulate me, shower me with adulation's that I would not get other wise. I have done it first, to our little group, I am the first person ever to have beaten Goro. It doesn't matter if we are in faded seaside holiday town, this has given us so much more than we have had before. We have beaten Goro.

I move up the battle plan, to face the boss, Shang Tsung. I am quickly overcome. The remainder of my funds are depleted quickly, my last credit in the machine. I square up to the boss one final time. The crowd of less than ten hold their breath. I land my final punch, its over. I have lost.

But it doesn't matter, because today, I became the first person to beat Goro. Come the start of school, stories will be told of the day. Not the day when I made it to face Shang Tsung, but the day on which I beat Goro.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Andriod Sonic CD

Just picked up a copy of Sonic CD for Android. This is an essential purchase for any retro game collector. Given the recent hype surrounding the classic incarnations of Sonic it is no surprise that this fogotten gem has made it on to nearly all the casual gaming platforms going. I was lucky enough to have a copy of this back in the day, but I had no problem picking this up for a few quid.

Nearly every version I have for this game uses the North American sound track. This is a massive shame as the original Japanese soundtrack is gorgeous. Thankfully, the recently released version comes with the Japanese soundtrack as standard.

The touch screen controls are good, if a little hit and miss, so you may want to play this with the keyboard, should your device support one. I am lucky to have a keyboard on both my Android devices, the controls are a standard WASD for direction, with L for action (you only get one button for every action, you dont need any more.).

This version also has a few other refinments, firstly, you can alter the depiction of the spin dash attack. You can choose to use the original spin animation or the version used from Sonic 2 onwards. You also get to choose Tails as a playable character, but unfortunately you are not able to get a Super Tails with all the chaos emeralds.

For the best part of four quid, this is an unbelievably good bargain. A slice of Sonic heritage that is so often missing from Sega collections. I reccomend that you get this game if you have the chance.

More Tablet loveliness

This week I picked up the UK folio case for my new Lenovo Tablet along with the stylus. The folio case pretty much transforms the ThinkPad tablet into a fully fledged Android latptop. The built in keyboard and optical mouse respond very well indeed.

On its own, the stylus allows you to have precise pen input, the built in handwriting recognition performs a lot better when used with the N-Trig device than your finger alone. Note taking is improved and you can rest your palm on the screen - something that using your finger wouldnt let you do.

The folio case is in an attractive black leather with all the signature colours you would expect from a Lenovo device. The only thing missing is the inclusion of the keyboard light, something that appears on a lot of Lenovo devices.

Access to all the connectors is provided, however the memory card slot door and full sized USB port are covered. This case uses the USB port for attaching the keyboard and optical mouse, so you wont be able to attache your HDD whilst this is in use. Unfortunately, the case doesnt allow for easy use or acces of it either, which is a shame.

The case also obscures the memory card slot door, if only partially. Which means you wont be hot swapping memory cards whilst in use. This is a bit of a pain, but nothing major. Access to the docking connector, power connector, headphone/mic connector and pen storage is catered for.

The mouse works well, another Lenovo signature addition, instead of a trackpad - which would have extended the keyboard further and thus ruin the design, you have an optical mouse in place of the traditional Lenovo nipple/nub (dont know the official name for this). It works as well as you would expect it, the only negative comment I have about it is that the pointer icon itself seems to be a little on the small size.

In my personal opinion, if you have a Lenovo ThinkPad tablet, then getting both the folio case and the stylus is a must. Whilst the screen keyboard on this tablet is easy to use, it does take up a lot of screen real estate, the folio keyboard reclaims this resulting in an end product that is highly adaptable to pretty much all situations you may need a laptop replacement.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Finally, I own an Amiga 1200!

This is a big deal for me. When I was growing up, I always wanted an Amiga, I think I was intoxicated by the wonderful graphics from the games I watched being played on Gamesmaster. Compared to my Sega Master System, this thing was the mutts nuts. So, when I saw the opportunity to grab an almost mint Amiga 1200 on eBay, I jumped.

I had been after an Amiga 4000, but this was such a good deal I couldnt leave it alone. It even arrived with the original box and manuals. Things like this always make be happy. After some quick research on the Internet, I discovered that there were numerous upgrades available for this computer, including an acellerator board, a PCMCIA networking card and a SCSI interface for a CD ROM. The device I got came with an additional floppy disk drive, which was nice, especially if the internal one decided to give up the ghost.

With the Blizzard board fitted, I have now almost doubled the power of the computer. All I need to do now is fit some form of hard drive and upgrade the ROM's to KickStart 3.1. Once that is done, I will hook it up to the network and see what I can do on the Internet with it, probably some very self-congratulatory posts on FaceBook to announce its arrival on the Internet.

I dont think there are many 1200 specific games available, I think Beneath A Steel Sky is one of them. Hopefully I will be able to track down a copy and give it a whirl.

Monday, 23 January 2012

NEC PC Engine FX

A couple of months back, I took delivery of my latest console - the PC Engine FX. As far as I know, this was a 32Bit console that was only ever released in Japan, some how, a brand new boxed example managed to end up in Cornwall, thank God. Buying one of these from Japan costs a lot in shipping.

The device itself is a odd one. It is CD only, which isn't surprising, and it is designed in the style of a small tower PC. For some reason though, there a whole bunch of little secret compartments in the main body, I guess that NEC saw this a being a runaway success, so decided to make it extensible (even though by this time, manufacturers should have realised that upgrades like this didn't sell so well). I don't have any games for it yet, a lot of them seem to be JRPG's and my Japanese is non-existent. Once I find a good example of a Shmup or a brawler, I will fire it up and see how its years in deepest darkest Cornwall have gone down.

As far as I know though, this console wasn't even big in Japan... which I think is a bit of a shame really as it quite a charming little device. The joypads feel a bit cheap, but a substantial - and has six buttons, a staple for new consoles in the mid 90's.

I guess I just need to hit YouTube to get some vids of some of the games available for it, then hit eBay. I really must get around to recording some footage of these devices and upload them. I am not very sure how many other people are interested in things like this to be honest, but given the surge in interest in retro gaming recently, it may be good to talk about the 'also rans'.