Month: April 2021

Dead and Dying Hardware

Ars ran an interesting article earlier this week about ticking time-bombs in PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 hardware. The simplest explanation for this issue is that these consoles have internal batteries meant to help keep system time. If the battery is pulled and replaced, the system is programmed to phone home to the PlayStation Network to reset the clock. This process depends on Sony retaining support for the ability of these consoles to phone home – Sony could, at their discretion, ‘upgrade’ the service such that discontinued consoles can no longer sign in, which would leave a PS3 or a PS4 with a new clock battery in a state where it needs to find out what time it is but can’t.

(Side note – seems that the lifespan of these batteries is measured in tens of years. That’s quite an improvement over the Sega Saturn battery, which sometimes only lasted a few months!)

It hard sometimes with articles like these to tell where the reality ends and FUD begins because it’s a discussion of potential events that have yet to occur. Yes, the outcomes are tested, so we know how these systems respond when their clock battery is pulled and replaced, but at the same time, we don’t know if/when Sony plans to free these consoles from the requirement to phone home to validate content, or if/when Sony plans to lock them out of PSN forever.

It does raise some interesting questions about what would potentially change in some kind of firmware update. Would the system just get its time from pool.ntp.org? Or would time not matter at all anymore? When the time comes to end PSN access for PS4 hardware, do you force-feed the firmware update so users aren’t locked out, or do you just post the .PUP file to your website and tell people to sneakernet it onto their hardware when they’re good and ready? That would certainly solve the case where a PS4 gets retired from service after someone gets a PS5, then it sits in a closet for 7-8 years until somebody decides to pull it back down and give it to a relative or something, and Sony has long since retired any PlayStation Network endpoints that know how to talk to a console from the 2010s.

(Point of emphasis on that last sentence… the argument will invariably be “well leaving the server there shouldn’t cost you anything, so there’s no reason not to do it”. That’s a fair point, but I can also say from personal experience that it doesn’t take long for the knowledge of how to operate/maintain that server to evaporate as employees move on, company R&D and support dollars get prioritized elsewhere, and document libraries get upended by corporate-issued edicts for IT to lower costs and migrate everything to a cheaper solution. That’s to say nothing of the ongoing expenses that will need to be incurred in keeping security issues patched, and occasionally upgrading the entire operating system. Eventually, it becomes more trouble than it’s worth.)

Or – in the worst case scenario, which Ars was getting to – does Sony do nothing, and essentially leave 200 million consoles out in the cold when the decision is made to lock them out of the online service? It was just a few years ago that Sony got ahead of Microsoft in the eighth generation of consoles simply by staying quiet while Microsoft got hit over the head for their inability to explain whether the Xbox One would be required to be online or not.

For PS3, the damage seems limited to just downloaded content. If the system doesn’t know what time it is, it doesn’t know whether the content is valid to be played or not. This is one of the reasons why I tend to stay away from digital content in the first place. You never know when you’re going to want to play something like I am Setsuna on the Switch, for example. But, if you wanted to do that in 2031 and Nintendo’s long since binned their online storefront for the Switch (as they have for the Wii and Wii U), how/where do you get a copy? From Japan, where physical copies of the game with the English localization built in were published.

For the PS4, the consequences seem most dire – apparently this online check happens when you load any game at all, physical or digital. So if you replace the clock battery, and the PS4 can’t call home to find out what time it is, it’ll never be able to play any games again. That’s quite the end state for a game console.

As alarmist as that sounds, papering over the issue with a simple “well, the PS5 is backwards compatible” ignores the possibility that one day it might not be. Folks should remember that PS3 once had hardware-based backwards compatibility with PS2 which was then replaced with software in a cost-cutting measure, but then Sony decided later on to patch that functionality out of the platform. (Along with OtherOS functionality, which earned them a class action lawsuit, but that’s a different topic for another day…) So, even though Sony’s design decisions for the hardware of the PS5 lend themselves well to easy support for last-gen games, it’s easy to see a future where that functionality has been rolled back.

On that note, the jailbreak community for Sony’s older consoles seems pretty well-established at this point. I actually got a 60GB fat PS3 (the one with the hardware-level compatibility with PS2 games) a few years ago and jailbroke it. So now it never needs to go online, and if I want to play games on it, rather than introduce additional wear and tear on the Blu-Ray drive, I can just point the system at an .iso file on disk. It’s actually rare that I do this these days – the last game I played was Digital Devil Saga, which was about a year ago. Between wanting to focus on newer games and being busy with work, the PSX/PS2/PS3 backlog has intentionally been kept small. But as I said above, sometimes you want to go back and play these games.

Same goes for the PSP and PS Vita, which have similarly lost support from Sony. In fact, a jailbroken PS Vita is probably the best way to play PSP games on native or native-like hardware now, due to the dwindling supply of reliable PSP batteries. A few years back I had a workflow involving both jailbroken handhelds where I could rip an .iso file off of a UMD and then sneakernet it over to the PS Vita to run inside the PSP emulator. Works great, and provides easier access to games that are on dead consoles and dead media formats. While the UMD has thankfully run its course already, some games, like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, have never been rereleased on any other format.

(Speaking of pointing systems at .iso files, I do plan to eventually build out some kind of a file server and rip as many of the disk-based games as I can, probably as part of a larger project to build out a Plex server. Got a lot to get done before I get there, though.)

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Right, so

Important life tip. Or, if your life isn’t full of drama queens, then at least it’s an important work tip.

Save the receipts. Save all the receipts.

Not shopping receipts… the receipts the kids talk about. The screenshots of things where people say something that you need to remind them of four months later when they act like they said the complete opposite thing. Those receipts.

Having a long memory helps, so you can remember you even have the receipts in the first place.

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Weekends are supposed to be fun

A rough accounting of how I spent the last four days:

  • Thursday: worked 8am-2am, owing to the previously-mentioned deployment problems
  • Friday: worked 8am-10pm
  • Saturday: commuted into town to work at the office. Left at 6am, got back at 7pm.
  • Sunday: worked 8am-4pm

But hey, at least I had a few minutes to (finally) finish up Yakuza 3 on Sunday night. I had started that one back in January or February and hadn’t been able to finish it due to work taking up too much of my time. Didn’t think it was a particularly great game, but by the time I’d made my mind up on it I was already close to the end anyway. The Yakuza series seems to be an odd one to play all the way through in order now. Yakuza 1 and 2 have both undergone full remakes to modernize the way they’re played, but Yakuza 3-5 are still stuck in ‘remaster’ zone where all they got was a fresh coat of paint. Yakuza 3 weirdly manages to look both up-to-date and out-of-date at the same time, while also having a plot that goes absolutely nowhere at times unless you’re into chasing kids from an orphanage around.

So that leaves me halfway done with the Yakuza games. I’ve already started Yakuza 4, and have higher hopes for it just based on the fact that Yakuza 3 lowered the bar from the first two.

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Measure six times, cut once, still lose a finger

The testing process where I work is pretty thorough. There is little appetite to hotshot a code change all the way into a production public safety system where a bug can have an impact on, well, public safety. Any code my team produces go to QA, where they test it in their own environment without interference/influence from us. Then, before it’s deployed, it goes to the deployment team, who has their own environment and their own means of testing the product, and they test it.

(This is in pretty stark contrast to how things worked at my very first development job, where source control didn’t exist and I was essentially testing in production.)

The deployment team is unique in that they have two environments; the actual production environment serving live traffic, and the staging environment where production support steps are rehearsed before being executed for real. The staging environment is supposed to be a 1:1 replica of the production environment so they can rule out environment-specific issues.

So imagine my near-total lack of surprise when I get summoned to join a call last night at 1am because… wait for it… the software was doing something completely unexpected in the production deployment. Why was this? Turns out the staging environment was in fact not a 1:1 replica of the production environment, and the deployment team missed a detail turning out to be completely unique to production.

I’m probably going somewhere with this story, but being this short on sleep has taken its toll.

But hey, at least the finger-pointing process is always a good time.

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Putting more pieces back together

All the posts that I think I have are published (either privately or publicly) to the site. So that’s good. I’ve identified a couple things I need to go back and double-check:

First, I left the WordPress installation configured for UTC, which sounded like a good idea when I started. But what ended up happening is that some of the old posts had the exact time included, so I entered those as I was backdating posts. I’m not sure I realized it at first and may have entered the first couple in local time. Then later on, it dawned on me that the original post times would be subject to the clock moving forwards and backwards relative to UTC time. So even if I remembered to translate a post’s time from its original timezone to UTC, I may not have bothered to check whether I needed to spring forward or fall back. So now I’m going to have to review all the posts and tweak some publish times.

Pending availability of such information, one thing I want to do is try to review the original posts (as they were archived) and make sure that I’ve retained as much of the original formatting, images, etc. as I can. As of now, I have over 150 posts published, so I have my work cut out for me. There are at least a few posts where things are missing. I may have those missing things tucked away someplace, but it isn’t a guarantee. The voicemail I got on my 27th birthday was saved; but the pictures from my late 2011 PC build are probably gone. There have been a couple examples where a media link was broken, but I was sure enough that I remembered what the link was (specific Youtube videos, pictures, etc.) that I felt good about linking to new copies.

There may be a need to go back and update links in old posts to get them working again. I’ve wrestled with that a bit to some extent. Leave them exactly as they were, and if they break, they break? Turn the links into pointers to the Internet Archive, even the ones that still work? If I do that, do I just get the latest snapshot of a page and call it good or try to get the most appropriate snapshot for when the post was originally written? I have a feeling the last one is going to be the way I go.

Lastly, I also want to take another crack at pulling up posts that I missed or thought I couldn’t retrieve after some of the dust has settled. I might be able to take some of the posts that were cut off and turn them into a blurb so I can put the headline back in the timeline, which could potentially be better than nothing.

One thing is for sure… the fewer times I have to recheck or reread the post I wrote about Sid’s death, the better off I’ll be. While the recurrence of the number nine throughout the post stands out as an interesting theme, the older of my two cats is herself nine years old this year. Kind of hard to ignore.

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