Thursday, August 11, 2016

No Man's Patience

How I very much want to like No Man's Sky, but it sure isn't making it easy!

Notes from a grumpy old ex-game coder.

I've probably put in a dozen hours or more playing NMS on the PS4 the last few days, and there's a lot about the game that I like, in terms of the atmosphere and just the general idea of procedural generation.

It's such a great pity that the flaws in the interface make it so hard to just sit back and flow through the game; you're always fighting it. After bashing my head against it for a while, I think the designers fell afoul a very common cognitive blind-spot -- they didn't spend enough time thinking about how players (especially casual, older players like myself) would actually play the game. And after all, if it was easy for them (the developers) to play, it should be easy for everyone else, right?

Wrong. We are at a huge experience and skills deficit. We don't have all the implicit knowledge built up as they developed the game. It really feels like they either didn't test with naive players, didn't test deep enough into the game, or didn't want to hear the results.

Here's a short list of outrageously annoying and really simple-to-fix problems with the game and interface.

  • The cursor is often a single pixel and invisible. There's often also UI icons near the center of the screen that distract you and give you a false impression of where the aimpoint is.
  • When you turn in space and stop, you keep turning a bit. This means it's damn near impossible to put the aimpoint where you want it, which makes space combat much more difficult. And BTW, there's no learning curve on space combat, you're almost always up against multiple enemies who will quickly slaughter you. The "sensitivity" controls are simplistic and don't do much.
  • When you want to find something specific, you just have to wander around until you stumble upon it. You can scan when you're on the ground, but that just tells you the general class of a target. If you're looking for Copper and don't know it's the big floaty chunks, you will wander for hours. I know I did.
  • Often the major differentiation between two types of minerals is color. I can imagine that color-blind players are not amused one whit.
  • The only way to tell for sure what an asteroid or monolith is made of is to mine it. I've got a warp-capable starship that can't tell the difference between Iron and Copper.
  • This wouldn't be so bad if the Galactic Market was well-stocked. But it isn't; the chances it will have what you need in the quantities you need it, esp. for raw materials, is just about zero.
  • Only raw materials stack, which is not pleasant in a game with limited inventory. I've ended up spending almost all my money on Exosuit upgrades.
  • On the subject of the market interface, your options are two; sell all units of a commodity, or scroll the number down to sell partial -- both of which are things a player will rarely want to do. What they want to do, in a game where inventory slots matter, is sell one full stack at a time or the partial stack.
  • While we're bitching about stacks, when you mine, you get shown what you are mining and how much you've mined since you started mining (and you can only mine 10-15 seconds at a time). What you really want to know is how full is your current partial stack of that commodity!
I could go on, but I feel a need to save some things up for future cathartic posts...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Intelligent US Address formatting

I recently needed to have a good solution for parsing US postal addresses into a standard format. After a bit of quick googling I found a neat github project that does most of what I needed. A big shout-out to the Atlanta Journal Constitition newspaper for doing this.

If you're running python, all you have to do is 'pip install usaddress' and you're up and running.

I then wrote a quick python script to convert usaddress output to a standard format, like this:

[Optional Name,  though you really shouldn't pass it]
Address line 1
[Optional Address Line 2]

Here's the script (python 3.x):


import sys
import usaddress

for addr in sys.argv[1:]:
    c = usaddress.tag(addr)[0]
    l = []
    breakfields = [
    multikill = {
      'AddressNumberPrefix' : [ 'AddressNumber' ]

    for k,v in c.items():
      if k in breakfields:
        if k in multikill:
          for mk in multikill[k]:
            if mk in breakfields:
        l = [i for i in l if i]
        if l != []:
          print(' '.join(l))
        l = [v]
    l = [i for i in l if i]
    if l != []:
      print(' '.join(l))
  except usaddress.RepeatedLabelError as e :
    print('Error: cannot parse address')

Since I'm running a LAMP stack on one of my servers that happens to have python also installed, I wrote a quick usaddr.php script to implement an API:

< ?php

foreach (explode('&', $_SERVER['QUERY_STRING']) as $chunk) {
  $param = explode("=", $chunk);

  if ($param) {
    $cmd = urldecode($param[0]);
    $arg = urldecode($param[1]);
    if ($cmd === 'addr') {
      $command = 'python /path/to/your/script/ ' . escapeshellarg($arg);
      $output = shell_exec($command);
      echo $output;


So this meant I could access[address to reformat] from other apps (like FileMaker) to do address reformatting.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Setting up Mail Relay behind NAT for local network on OS X

I recently had a need to set up an outbound mail relay on my home network so local machines behind the NAT, (ie: machines with 192.168.x.x addresses) could send an occasional status email.

It turns out that OSX has a built-in postfix mail server, and it's pretty easy to turn it on. Here are some step-by-step instructions.

1) Create a domain alias that points to the external IP address of your network (ie: what says is your IP address). If this address is static and unchanging, then you can just set up a CNAME in the DNS of some domain you own. If it tends to change because your ISP reallocates them from time to time, then use a service like to maintain a dynamic dns listing. Many routers support dyn address updating, and there are also apps that will run on an internal machine to do it.

2) For any domain that you want to send mail for, make sure this new dns entry is listed in the SPF record in the DNS. See for more information. This will help ensure that other mailservers will consider the mail to be legitimate.

3) On the machine that will be doing the forwarding, you now need to edit a few system files. You'll need a text editor for this -- if you've done any mucking around in the shell, you'll know how to do this.


This config file controls how postfix is launched. Here's a simple one that should work with OSX 10.5 or later. If the AbandonProcessGroup key does not appear in the original .plist file, you can delete those two lines (17-18):


This config file describes how postfix does its business. We need to lock it down so it will only accept mail from machines in our local network. It's a long file, but there are two configuration lines you will need to change:

inet_interfaces = all

This tells the server to listen on all the network interfaces, not just the internal "loopback" one. is the default "localhost" address for your current machine. If you only want to relay mail for your current machine (the one postfix is running on), you set mynetworks to be just that:

mynetworks =

If you also want to relay mail for other machines in your local network, you need to know what the network range is. Typically that is something like, in which case you'd add as the network range (the 24 is the network mask, it says how many bits out of the 32 bits are fixed). So for example:

mynetworks =,

Finally, you need to restart postfix and let the system know about the changed configurations. In Terminal, do this:

sudo launchctl stop org.postfix.master
sudo launchctl start org.postfix.master
sudo postfix start

Test that it's working by trying to connect to the mailserver:

telnet 25

You should see something like this:

Connected to localhost.
Escape character is '^]'.
220 Trebor.local ESMTP Postfix

Now test your mail sending by, for example, trying to send mail to a gmail account. Hopefully you'll be good to go.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Conway's Game of Life in the Nand2Tetris Hack Machine

Nand2Tetris is a very interesting course that steps you all the way from simple logic gates up to an operating system. One of my sons is taking the course this semester, so I decided to shadow the assignments and ended up having a lot of fun.

I've posted a video on Vimeo of an implementation of Conway's Life for the Hack machine.

You can find the source code here. Enjoy!