How to get a refund for the unused copy of Windows that is chained to your new laptop

Serge Wroclawski tells us how to get the Windows tax back that you pay with almost any laptop on the market, whether you want Windows or not. I’m not sure if this strategy only works for the USA, though.

I have a few personal experiences with this problem. I have tried several times to get my money back for unused Windows licenses, and every time I was told it’s impossible. One afternoon, I insisted enough to be put through to Microsoft Switzerland’s licensing person, and he himself told me it’s impossible to get your money back, even though Windows’ very own license agreement says you will get cash back if you don’t need Windows. It’s a horrible situation. They sell you a product you don’t need and then trap you in legalese when you want to exercise your right of returning it for a refund.

Sometimes they claim they don’t even need to stick to their own license because of “differing contractual obligations between Microsoft and the OEM.” But so what? Any ties between OEM and Microsoft are not the customer’s problem. The customer is only bound by the EULA, not by any contracts between MS and the OEM. Did the OEM let itself be bullied by MS’ scare tactics like a spineless jellyfish? So what, that’s not my problem.

A friend of mine and I once spoke to one of the largest IBM resellers in the germanophone part of Europe about this. Their answer? “No, you can’t return your copies of Windows, but if you buy more than 50 laptops we can downgrade the XP Pro that’s included to a cheaper XP Home.” Friendly, but utterly, completely useless and against your very own license agreement, my friends.

This makes me angry because it’s very clearly in illegal territory, and it’s one of the ways Microsoft makes much of its money (like, say, the Mafia). And even though it is illegal, it is tolerated because no one has so far challenged Microsoft in court about it (in Switzerland).

If I had better footing in the laws, I’d love to try this.

Article is at linux.com, found via Slashdot.

PS: “Just don’t buy a laptop with Windows preinstalled” is not an argument, by the way. Most laptops are not available without Windows. Consumers should not be restricted in their choice of laptops by the Microsoft tax.

I've repurchased my childhood

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Because curiosity is the slaughterer of felines, I couldn’t keep my hands off the Wii Virtual Console over Christmas. I rather painlessly bought 3000 Wii Points, pointed at Legend of Zelda and a few minutes later I was twenty years younger.

Super Mario Bros., Zelda, Metroid and Kid Icarus are the first games I have truly vivid memories of. But Zelda will always be a special case even among those jewels of the 80s. Perhaps because of the save function (no other NES game had that at the time), perhaps because of its then monumental size and variety, perhaps because of all the secrets to discover or the surprisingly fresh arcade/adventure hybrid gameplay. Maybe it’s the combination that does it, but even after twenty years, Zelda can still make me grin (and whistle the theme song, but that’s a detail you don’t want to know).

If you show the game to kids nowadays, I’m sure you’ll reap yawns and/or blank stares. It’s not even easy to figure out where to go in the beginning, unless you have the map and booklet that were included with the original. Something your EUR 5 can’t buy you on Virtual Console. Although Nintendo do offer a digital manual booklet with every VC release, the rest of the new game experience can’t be replaced. Where’s the smell of new plastic? Where’s the feeling of despair as you discover cocoa stains on your lovingly sticky-tape-armored map of Hyrule? Sniffing Game Cube game boxes and printing pixel-perfect screenshot maps from the Web just isn’t the same.

One question remains, of course. Why is playing Zelda on VC better than playing Zelda on your NES emulator of choice? I don’t think I can make up an answer to this one. For me the most important point is that VC plays the games exactly like they were on the original consoles, down to the actual video signal. If I still had the TV I used in 1987, I probably wouldn’t see any difference at all. PAL territories even have the same ugly black borders, wrong aspect ratio and slowdown they were already treated to in the 80s.

Is this worth paying EUR 5 for? I doubt it. But as it does so often, nostalgia easily fogs the mind, poisons the spirit and makes you buy things at unreasonable prices. Your non-gamer friends will never understand why you’ve paid actual money to battle spitting octopuses as a pointy-eared green-clad elf child. Only your heart will.

And by the way, there’s only one proper way to play these games.

Image © Nintendo

Nintendo Wii launched in Switzerland (now with pictures)

wii smallAt least this one time, Switzerland gets to be first. The Wii is available in stores since yesterday night. Specialized games stores like World of Games have sold out even before the launch event, but more general retailers such as Inter Discount still carry some stock. More information about the launch event in that forum thread over there (German). Normally, Nintendo’s marketing in Switzerland is exactly zero, but this time they arrived with a Wii-labeled truck containing two booth babes (truck babes?) and a Santa Claus, next to piles of Wiis and games. It looks like some of those marketing dollars made it here 🙂

I will mosey over to the Inter Discount XXL in Zürich city during lunch break to see if they still have a console or two, and whether there are any playable demos.

wii at interdiscountUpdate: I just returned from the Inter Discount XXL at Zürich’s Sihlstrasse. As you can see in the picture to the right, there are still a couple of Wiis left 🙂

The sales dude said they’ve sold through several hundred consoles during the midnight sale yesterday, but that there’s still some stock and more is expected soon. He also said that 1. They didn’t get any component cables. and 2. They didn’t get any RGB cables.

So if you buy a Wii in Switzerland today, you have to be happy with the horrible composite video signal. Granted, most people don’t see the difference anyway.

A picture gallery of what it looks like in the Wii aisles of Inter Discount XXL and Multimedia Factory.

Update 2: Someone else’s gallery where you can see the Wii truck, the Santa and the Wii girls. Not brainless broad-bosomed bimbos after all, which is good to see.


Digg!

First Photo in this article © Nintendo

Thin client handover at the Polytechnic, Malawi, Africa

alex antener thin client handoverAlex Antener yesterday managed to wrap up this year’s stage of his Free Software project in Malawi, Africa with the official handover of the two complete thin client networks donated by the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Zürich (my dear employer).

In the picture you see Martin Thawani, librarian of the Polytechnic Library, accepting the symbolical gift “Free as in Freedom“. That book “interweaves biographical snapshots of GNU project founder Richard Stallman with the political, social and economic history of the free software movement”. The GNU project is what makes GNU/Linux and the GNU tools possible in the way we know them today.

Alex Antener’s approach to helping the African nation cross the digital divide is different than that of many other organizations and individuals. Instead of dumping northern computer trash on poor schools that certainly won’t ask for something better, he flew across the continents with 70 kilograms of the latest geek toys in his hand baggage. Highly modern servers based on the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU as well as state of the art thin clients by Fujitsu-Siemens — machines newer than what is used in most European organizations! That’s what we use here, why should we cover Malawi in our outdated tech trash? That’s just a convenient way for northern nations to lighten their consciousness and their recycling budget.

Instead, Alex set up the thin client network based entirely on Free Software, then made it transparent how the whole thing works, how it’s maintained, what the nuts and bolts are and where to find help to help yourself. These things would be impossible or severely limited had he used proprietary software. Additionally, the servers he installed make sure that the Polytechnic gets the most out of its prohibitively expensive Internet connection. Firstly they offer proxy caching services, meaning that things downloaded from the Internet are downloaded only once, later the locally stored copy is served and the Internet connection is not taxed anymore. Secondly, the machines are immune to viruses, spyware, trojans and other malware, so the plague of bandwidth-swallowing infected machines is over.

I also took part in the project with some consulting, because I believe the way large western and northern corporations treat African nations of Malawi’s rank is appalling. Africa is often merely abused by private institutions and NGOs to siphon development aid money out of their own (or foreign) governments. Then there is the cultural pollution that comes from large companies like Microsoft and Cisco. They try to impose their proprietary technology, then teach their proprietary thoughts. It’s apparently easy to take a network engineering course in Malawi, but try to learn any other technology than Cisco’s and you will soon run full-speed into a concrete wall. Africa is not supposed to learn about its possibilities. Africa should be thankful! Thankful that we lower ourselves to its ridiculous level and teach it about our wonderful American products. Only Cisco routers shall they know, only Microsoft operating systems shall they use. Operating systems that African companies can gladly buy from us. Oh, don’t worry about payment, my friend, development aid has you covered.

Alex has demonstrated that there are other ways to bridge the gap, to give access to knowledge that is useful in any context, not just inside one single company’s little sandbox. Free Software was nothing new at the time. GNU/Linux and open standards like the ISO standard OpenDocument format were nothing new either. But the average Malawian computer user does not know about these things, even though it’s a Linux distribution by an African man’s company that is the most popular in the world at this moment.

The Polytechnic now has all this information, and it stands as an inspiring example of what is possible. A few hundred people have learned about their possibilities in these last two months, and thousands and ten thousands more still have the opportunity in the coming years.

Photo © 2006 Nathalie Bissig

Some brainlessness in rsnapshot

I love rsnapshot, for the most part. It’s one of the most efficient and straightforward incremental backup solutions I’ve ever used — much more reliable than some of the commercial solutions I’ve tried. It leverages the power of GNU cp, your filesystem, rsync and others and smashes them all together into a big happy chunk of reliability.

However, it must contain some idiocy, and I guess it’s somewhere in parse_config_file. I just set up another server, the same way I usually do, but it needed a slightly different rsnapshot.conf. So I edited the one that was there and known to work because it automatically comes off my server images. Afterwards I wanted to do a test run of each of the backup intervals, because that’s what you do. But rsnapshot didn’t agree. It didn’t disagree either. It didn’t do *anything*.

The next step was to increase its logging verbosity and look for hints in syslog. Interesting: It seems to read its config file successfully and it even writes a pid file. Next, it checks for stale backup directories it might have to rotate. That means it parsed its config file and is happy, no? No! The thing wouldn’t copy anything into the backup. Not a single file!

As a last resort, I straced one of those test runs but forgot to include the tracing of child processes. That probably would have given me more of a clue — the way it was, it just added to my confusion.

In the end I decided to unpack a fresh, distribution-approved config file from /usr/share/doc/rsnapshot/examples and to make the required changes by hand. At that point, I scrolled back through my bash history to relaunch the test runs, but with my other hand I was already preparing to submit a bug report, when… It worked! The thing performed all the backups reliably, packed up and went to sleep until cron wakes it tomorrow.

There must have been **some** character **some**where in my config file that deeply confused rsnapshot, confused it so much that it claimed the config file syntax was OK but silently refused to work.

Perhaps config file parsing in rsnapshot has to be rethought. The way I see it, this is sad indeed. It’s the least reliable bit in an otherwise very reliable package, but it’s always the weakest link that breaks the chain, and other assorted age-worn sayings.

Impressions from Malawi

Madonna’s adoption scandal may have catapulted Malawi into international headlines, but for my friends Alex Antener, Nathalie Bissig and me, the country has had some significance long before US pop stars have started buying children out of it.

nathalies malawi picture

Alex is currently on his second visit there and Nathalie is joining him on her first. That means that I’m still stuck in Switzerland 🙂

I’m trying to support Alex’ new project in Malawi, “Exterminate All the Brutes”, from here. So as you can guess, these impressions are not my own, they are photographs and drawings made by Nathalie Bissig in Malawi, who is in charge of documenting Alex’ work as well as doing work of her own. Nathalie has posted a blog entry with some more information and a link to the photo album of her sketchbook. The images are free content, released under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5 license.

malawi picture 2

I just wanted to tickle your curiosity for these wonderful images. I will probably write about the software libre aspects of all this at a later date, or in the blog at lix.cc. Over there, I’ve already talked about thin client setups with Edubuntu that the students of The Polytechnic will subsequently be working with.

Forgotten Games: Trace Memory (aka: Another Code) (NDS)

another code box shotAnother Code: Two Memories (known as Trace Memory in the US) is a lightweight little adventure game for the Nintendo DS that should be hitting bargain bins soon. Why am I mentioning bargain bins? Because there is one key weakness that you’ll read about in reviews everywhere: The game is short.

But if you pick this game up at a bargain price, you can treat yourself to one of the more ingenious adventure titles to appear in the last few years, one that’s only possible on the DS. And that’s not marketing talk there.

You’ll be guiding 14 year old Ashley around a pretty desolate island. How do teenage girlies with white manga hair end up being stranded on an island? Ashley has received a mysterious package from her dad. Who she thought had been dead all these years. The package contained a relabeled Nintendo DS with a fingerprint reader. Once examined, it lured her and her aunt onto a forlorn little island that seems to have ghosts on it, and a past as tragic as Ashely’s own. You get to uncover her past, that of the island’s inhabitants and that of her father.

What’s charming, and a relief, is that Ashley deals with these circumstances in a more or less mature, coming-of-age story-like manner. Of course you’ll read sentences that seem like “WHAT!!! OMG WHY MY DAD DO THSI TO ME WTF!!!11” from time to time, but all in all the dialog is mature enough not to bore an adult to death. This is refreshing — look at Children of Mana or Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime. That’s kiddy dialog right there, and it annoys the hair off my scalp.

Ashley’s very beautifully drawn, in a slightly blurred and softly shaded style that’s not so typical of the mainstream anime I know. Her animations, while only intermittent, are smooth and rather natural. No V-for-victory signs and little arcs for smiley-eyes here, just a normal lanky teenager. With white hair. Grah, so they did have to sneak an anime cliché in there. Look at the box shot for an example, she’s drawn the same way in the game itself. Again, a nice and courageous change from the primary-colored Dead or Alive softporn girls with small noses and humongous breasts that the market cherishes so.

Unfortunately, the style of the 2D art doesn’t seem to extend to the 3D one. On the lower screen, you see the scene in polygonal 3D from a top-down view, where you can move Ashley around with the D-pad or stylus. On the upper screen there is static imagery or the scarcely-animated 2D portraits of people you talk to, and of Ashley herself. While the 2D style is convincing, the still 3D renders of the places you can look at seem like something out of a beginner’s tutorial in 3D modeling. Using POVray. With scenes written by hand, in a text editor. Think “Myst” and you’ll be thinking of prettier vistas still. This is further confused by the polygonal 3D style on the overhead map. It’s not horrible to look at, but it adds yet another style! So we’re dealing with three different graphical styles clashing together in one game. On the other hand, the still images get their job done very well, and Ashley is simply charming. So there.

I’m being all negative here, but that’s actually opposite to the purpose of this posting. What I’m trying to say is that this game, despite it’s shortcomings of, err, being short and utilizing three contrasting graphical styles, is very, very enjoyable. Not only is it a new commercial-grade adventure game, something that is rare in its own right, but it also brings a few innovations to the table, in an era where innovation is often equaled to monetary loss for publishers and when no one wants to take the risk of being the innovator anymore.

I’m talking about a few of the puzzles. You’ll be facing puzzles that involve using your very own Nintendo DS, physically, in completely new ways. And they don’t involve any stylus scribbling or mic blowing at all! I’ll let you find those on your own though, because it’s a very rewarding and surprising experience that makes your heart smile and your mind believe in the vitality of the adventure genre again. On the other hand, you won’t find any brain-wrecking exercises like in, say, an Infocom text adventure. That’s why I said lightweight: You’ll see through most of the puzzles in a few minutes to an hour, casually. If you’re looking for a true brain-teaser, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

To sum it up: The short lifespan of this game would make it disappointing at full price, but if you have any sort of sympathy for the adventure genre, you owe it to yourself to try finding this at either a bargain price or used.

English-speakers should buy Gothic 1 now

If you understand German, you’ve probably heard very good things about [Piranha Bytes’](http://www.piranha-bytes.com/) Gothic series. If you don’t understand German, you’ve probably heard very bad things. I won’t go into the reasons, but there were a few problems with Gothic’s English-language release. First it was delayed, then no release date was in sight at all, the publisher was barely saved from bankruptcy and then I heard of quality issues with the translation and voiceover.

Now that Gothic 3 is fresh off the press (simultaneously in German and English this time!), it would be nice for English speakers to be able to go back to the series’ roots. With the low sales of the original release, you’d be lucky to still find a copy, but now *Piranha Bytes are re-releasing the English version*! Joy for all!

I have never in my life found a more enjoyable roleplaying game. The surroundings are a beauty to look at, the characters are well thought out and every named NPC truly has a life and mood of their own. And there are a lot, I think I’ve encountered several dozen named NPCs in Gothic 1 alone, and this tradition was continued in Gothic 2. Gothic is not for number freaks, as there aren’t many stats and the character development between the different character classes is not 100% balanced. But if you like a well thought-out story, solid characters and beautiful surroundings, you can’t go wrong with Gothic.

The only complaint constantly lobbed at the Gothic series is that the controls are weird. Yes, weird they may be, but get your act together! If you have a single drop of true gamer blood in you, you will soak up the controls in less than half an hour, up to the point where you don’t even notice that they’re weird. They are very well designed to accomplish what they are there to accomplish: Allow controlling a complex game with only two action buttons and one to call up the inventory screen. Think about it while you play: You can control the *entire* game without ever having to move your left hand from the base WASD position or your right hand from the mouse.

So please, do yourself a favor. Plunk down whatever they charge for the budget-price re-release and drop into the world of Gothic. You won’t emerge again for a month, and you’ll be grinning on your way out.

You can [download the English Gothic 1 demo](http://www.piranha-bytes.com/gothic1/index.php?lang=eng) to see if you can live with the controls. If you can, you won’t regret buying this game.

Also, there’s Freddy’s texture patch which makes Gothic 1 look almost as good as Gothic 2 by replacing nearly all of the game’s textures. You can look at a few screenshots in [my gallery](http://terror.snm-hgkz.ch/photos/v/album04/gothic1/).

PS: Another side effect of its age is that the thing even runs on older PCs. Straddle that GeForce 2!

Anti-DRM protest in Zürich

I participated in a protest against [Digital Restrictions Management (DRM)](http://www.drm.info) today in front of the DataQuest Apple Store near Zürich main station.

Georg Greve wrote an [article about the event](http://drm.info/node/64), so why should I bore you with my own recapitulation?

All in all, I was amazed how much time people actually spent to listen to us explain the situation, and how many agreed that DRM is a bad idea, and giving it legislative backing through the panicky, overly restrictive copyright laws that are now threatening to come to Europe is even worse.

A lot of fun was had by all!

PS: You just have to check out the [iPod ad inspired artwork](http://drm.info/taxonomy/term/4) they have there, as part of the [Defective by Design](http://www.defectivebydesign.org) campaign. I think it conveys the DRM idea quite cleary.

*Update: Here are [my pictures](http://terror.snm-hgkz.ch/photos/v/album04/antidrmzrh06/) of the event. CC-licensed, ofcoz!*

Buenzli 15: Explosive

The [Buenzli](http://www.buenz.li) demoparty takes place every year in Winterthur.

I spent a very nice Saturday late-afternoon-to-evening there yesterday and even took a few [pictures](http://terror.snm-hgkz.ch/photos/v/festivals/buenzli15/). The atmosphere was cheerful (“Gude LAUNE!!!”) and everyone seems to have had a ball, or perhaps two. Some quite amazing demos came up in the PC Demo and 64k compos. I can’t remember the names off-hand, but at least two were very avant-garde while at the same time retaining some old-school elements and spirit. One of them was by Lapsen, so much I know.

To my own disappointment, I liked the oldschooliest demo best, Brainstorm’s Old’s Cool 🙂

In case you don’t know what demos are, perhaps this [Wikipedia entry](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demoscene) will be useful.

Update: Here are this year’s [entries from scene.org](http://www.scene.org/dir.php?dir=/parties/2006/buenzli06/). And Lapsen’s Dream of a Scapegoat won the jury prize as demo, so I wasn’t far off the mark there 🙂