and has 0 comments
Check out this article. I haven't even read it yet, but the image they present is saying it all. Even someone such as myself, a firm believer in national sovereignty and the right to follow whatever twisted philosophy one chooses as long as it doesn't affect others, can't remain indifferent to it. What you see above and below North Korea are China and South Korea. You can tell North Korea apart, because it is the dark patch.

and has 0 comments
No news from my personal or work fields. However, I've found two interesting news just today and I wanted to share them.

First, the development of a camera to capture pictures that you can focus later. Although I have heard of solid metal lenses that would be less than 1$ to make and would achieve the same effect, the only actually functioning system I've heard of so far is the Lytro Living Picture camera. Here is an Ars Technica article on it and here is a YouTube video demo.

The second news is more IT related. It involves the cryptographic standards for XML, as defined by W3C. They failed! Here is an article about how they were cracked by using a vulnerability in the Cipher Block Chaining and here is a link to their press release.

and has 0 comments
There is this childish game called "cordless phone", which funny enough is older than any possible concept of wireless telephony, where in a large group of people a message is sent to someone else by whispering it to your neighbour. Since humans are not network routers, small mistakes creep up in the message as it is copied and resent (hmm, there should be a genetic reference here somewhere as well).

The point is that, given enough people with their own imperfections and/or agendas, a message gets distorted as the number of middle men increases. It also happens in the world of news. Some news company invests in news by paying investigative reporters. The news is created by a human interpreting things from eye witness accounts to scientific papers, but then it is reported by other news agencies, where the original information is not the main source, but the previous news report. Then marketing shows its ugly head, as the titles need to be shockier, more impressive, forcing the hapless reader to open that link, pick up that paper, etc. Occasionally there are translations errors, but mostly it is about idiots who don't and can't understand what they are reporting on, so the original message gets massacred!

So here is one of the news of today, re-reported by Romanian media, after translation and obfuscation and marketization (and retranslation by me, sorry): "Einstein was wrong? A particle that is travelling at more than the speed of light has been discovered". In the body, written a little better, "Elementary subatomic particle" got translated as "Elementary particle of matter". Dear "science" reporters, the neutrino is not a particle that needed discovering and it is not part of normal matter, with which it interacts very little. What is new is just the strange behaviour of the faster than light travel, which is only hinted by some data that may be or not be correct and refuted by some other, like supernova explosions, information that you haven't even bothered to copy paste into your article. And, as if this was not enough, the comments of the readers, kind of like myself ranting here probably, are making the reporter seem brilliant in comparison.

Is there a solution? Not really. People should try to find the original source of messages as much as possible, or at least a reporting source that is professional enough to not skew the information too much when summarizing it for the general public. A technical solution could work that would analyse news reports, group them per topic, then remove copies and translations, red flag emotional language or hidden divergent messages and ignore the titles altogether, maybe generate new ones. And while I know this is possible to do, it would be very difficult (but possibly rewarding) as software goes. One thing is for certain: reading the titles and assuming that they correctly summarize the complete articles is a terrible mistake, alas, one that is very common.

Ok, I am cheating now. I was feeling bad for not playing chess lately (or playing badly when I had other stuff to do, generating even more guilt) and having nothing to blog about except maybe books and also thinking about all the other directions of the blog that I failed to cover: programming, music, tech news.

So I bring you Brute force or intelligence? The slow rise of computer chess, which is an article about chess, it is from Ars Technica (tech news) and it involves some notions of programming. All I need for this to be complete is music!

Seriously now, I went to a friend's last night and played a bit of chess. We were both a little tired and drunk, so we played chess "for fun" (which translates to incredibly bad), but it really felt fun as opposed to playing a computer at a very low level. Why is that? I believe it is all about prioritization.

When a human plays, he is trying to use the principles of chess, but he doesn't have the time or mental resources to take each one and analyse each piece or position. Humans do use subconscious mechanisms to quickly scan a table, but that only comes with a lot of chess training. So basically, what a beginner human player is left with is finding a strategy that would quickly and (preferably) forcibly win the game. That means that we use something akin with the "Type B" algorithm from the article above. But it's not quite it, because it is a bit of everything, something that is traditionally hard to implement in a computer program (and that has more to do with the psychology of programming engineers than with a specific level of difficulty). Basically we look at the pieces, prioritised by their power and reach as well as their position relative to an area of attack or defence. That is why we don't see the queen or bishop in the corner of the table, because, looking in ever wider circles around the area we are focused on, we suddenly stop and start doing something else. Compare that with a computer which can take the measly 32 pieces on the board and computer in a few fractions of a second all their possible moves and the resulting board position.

Then, when we see a possible good move, we take it forward as many steps as we can. Does a chess beginner do a comprehensive tree of all possible moves in that scenario? Of course not. Not only we do not see all (or most) of the moves, but when we see a possibility for the opponent to play a counter move, we quickly analyse the likelihood that the other guy would see it and sometimes we even gamble that they won't do it, just because we wish they didn't. This is also psychological: the gambler way of thinking has been documented for a while, they are motivated by loss which gives them more of an adrenaline rush than winning or that makes winning ever sweeter; also the guy we play with is probably our friend and we partly root for the guy as well. Program that into a computer! I've had games where I took huge risks on the hope that my friend would a) not see the move, which would make me look good when playing a cool game and b) that he would see the move, making his game look cool, thus making the entire session interesting.

Back to programming, I think that the easiest way of implementing this kind of bad human play in a computer game is to take a normal computer algorithm for playing chess, like mini-max, then program a sort of Alzheimer routine, that would remove bits of its reasoning based on a probability computed from the following factors: proximity of pieces to a region of interest (which would also have to be defined, but let's just assume it would be the average of positions of the pieces involved in the current line of thought), the artistic value of a line of thought (which would be defined either by massive sacrifices for important gains, or by how severely we limit the opponent options - in other words: power), the probability that the opponent would see a move (computed based on current history of play) and also by the artistic value of the entire game, as described in the last paragraph.

In other words, what I am proposing here is that we have a perfect algorithm for playing chess, one that is limited by computing power alone. What we don't have is a good algorithm for bad play, for fun play. Most computer programs I've seen, including ChessMaster, which boasts with its ability to simulate human players of varying abilities, have incredibly stupid ways of limiting performance. For example: a knight wants to attack f7, the black soft spot; it has plans to move a bishop there as well. I move a pawn to prevent the bishop from attacking that spot and the computer takes with the knight, sacrificing a minor piece for a pawn and my king's ability to castle. Or a rook attacks a knight. It then takes the knight, even if defended. In other words, random, pointless moves. Every human move is purposeful, even if the purpose if flawed by bad judgement. Random moves won't do, they have to be moves that follow a plan, no matter how bad that plan is. We need a perfect algorithm for throttling the playing chess level. We need to look at human bad games, make their own chess database, extract rules for bad play and implement this into computers.

I guess it is finally official: I am now a corporate employee. While the previous company I worked with was nice in terms of the people there and the technology used, I got bored. I blame myself for getting depressed when assigned disconnected UI tasks and when singled out socially. It shouldn't have mattered. Surely I could have worked on overcoming adversity and improving my development methods, no matter how boring the task at hand.

However, bored I did get and when a big corporate company approached me with a job offer, I was intrigued. This is a long story, though, because I passed their phone screening, their 6 hour long technical interview and got the approval of the top brass yet in another interview, all some time at the end of March. This coincided with my birthday so I thought it was like a present to myself: an opportunity to learn new things, work in an environment I was scared of, but which was different and exciting, not the mention better payroll, although that didn't matter that much.

So, why am I writing this blog entry now, at the end of July? Because I only got hired two days ago. Budgetary strategy, corporate decisional speed and pure bad luck (I hope) pushed the employment date for four stressful and uncertain months. And I am not even fully employed, I am a contractor with an intermediary for the time being.

I can't tell you yet how things truly are in the new company. People are certainly more professional and yet relaxed, not at all like the stick-in-the-ass image I had (well, most of them). Frankly, these people are more geek and less social monkey than some of the juniors at my last job, which is great. On the other hand, until I start actual work (which will take another two weeks of gruelling meetings and annoying bureaucracy) I will not know how (and if) this company gets anything done.

Certainly, a quad-core laptop with 8Gb of RAM and SSD harddrive will decrease developing time (I used to watch movies and read books while compiling projects at the old job). They also seem very communicative (to the point of never stopping from talking about a project), which is something I am less used to and I welcome gladly. They encourage and help with personal development and good development techniques, like TDD and a commitment to Scrum. And if you don't know something, people are not sneering, but offering to help. So far, I can't complain (and you know me, I am so good at it).

I will be working on an ASP.Net CRM project, something evolving from an older VB ASP.Net 1.0 thing to a C# ASP.Net MVC monster. Hopefully, this will reignite my passion for development, rather than reassert my disgust with web work. So you will see Javascript and ASP.Net posts again soon and not so much WPF. Too bad, I really liked that particular technology.

So, wish me luck!

and has 0 comments
I've read this article in Ars Technica and at each step was horrified by what has happened. This is one of those stories that need to be made a movie, with names and everything. But first, read it for yourselves: A pound of flesh: how Cisco's "unmitigated gall" derailed one man's life.

I've had the misfortune of working with Cisco devices a long time ago. Devices that you had to have bought from them in order to have rights of service or update downloads, with multiple versions of operating systems that would give you some of the complete features, but never all of them at the same time and with documentation that wasn't available unless you would have passed a periodical exam with them. It seems they have the same contempt for people in courts that they have in technical matters.

The main question here, though, is if a judge has ruled that all this was a perversion of justice, what will happen to Cisco? Where is the lawsuit against them? Where it the corporate responsibility in the US? And frankly (and amazingly) it frightens me to see that in the U.S. the hypocrisy that I am usually accusing Americans of is giving way to sheer acceptance of a terrible status-quo, in which free speech, protection of law and all of those wonderful words mean nothing when faced with a more powerful adversary.

and has 0 comments
Today is the Rapture, at least according to a doomsayer Christian evangelist in the US (where else?). Anyway, today is my name saint day, so it makes a weird kind of sense, although I would have preferred it to be on my birthday, so I would feel even more special. Something is certain though, if it happens during my lifetime, the Rapture will probably happen on my death day.

But what is this Rapture? According to Wikipedia, God bless her, it seems there is a moment in time when the big guy gets fed up with all the bullshit and just packs all his believers and goes home. A small script bottom line also mentions throwing away everything else. But theeen, he gets his people back on Earth. Ha! I know that concept! It's a Genetic Algorithm Reaper! It takes the fit to another generation, it gets rid of the unfit, in order to evolve the perfect believer in Christ. So appropriate when you think about it: the Rapture happens when Christianity and Evolution finally converge.

and has 2 comments
Today I've read this article in the Romanian press about a dog "shelter" where animal protection organisations found hundreds of dead dogs. They have tried to enter to investigate as did the news and later the police. What I found interesting is the reaction of the people there: they barricaded themselves inside and refused access even to the police. They panicked, yes, but it was more than that.

I believe it was the shock felt by people who do some atrocious thing because they were ordered to or because they didn't know what they were in for. They start doing it and realize almost immediately that they can't possibly want this. But they continue to do it because a) they started already and stopping would be an admission of guilt and fault b) people around them do the same thing c) someone said it was the right thing to do. It all falls apart when other people try to examine what they did, though, as they realize, imagining what others would think, that they cannot possibly get over what they did. As they had projected responsibility on their superiors, now they project anger and rejection on the witnesses of their actions. But they actually hate themselves in those moments.

In the end, no one cares what the reason was. Maybe the official explanation that they were all terminally ill dogs is correct after all. But the emotional trauma felt by the people that did this, looking those animals in the eyes and then killing them while the barks of dogs turn to frightened squeals as they run from corner to corner in sheer terror, from this inability to care for random animals and people that work for you, from this I would make a story worth publishing.

and has 0 comments

A bit late to the party, I finally found out that there was a mass escape from a Khanadahar prison. Apparently, Taliban forces have dug a tunnel from outside the Afghan prison and liberated about 500 of their peers. This is a blow to the local government and their western allies, the news say. I, however, cannot help but root a little for the underdog and think of the classic The Great Escape. In that film, allied prisoners of war were digging a tunnel to escape Nazis. Will they do a similar film about the Talibans now? I would. It would probably be both funny and tragic, navigating through all the incompetence, corruption, shrewdness and tension. As for the "western allies"... I would be a little proud. "Look, ma! They have grown so much, our children! They are not blowing themselves up, they are organising, planning for months in advance and finally building something. It's just a tunnel now, but I am so proud!".

Bruce Schneier says in his TED talk about security: I tell people "If it's in the news, don't worry about it", 'cause by definition, news is something that almost never happends. It is a great concept, although not completely correct. The switch from one state to another may not happen very often, but you are often worried whether you are in that state or not. But overall I agree and I have to say that it is a great news filter idea: just ignore news that are not about a change in state.

and has 0 comments
You have to excuse me, I've found this blog that I like, Ars Technica, and I can't seem to stop linking to stories there. This one is just funny: UbiSoft released their newest Assassin Creed game and, in a deluxe version, they included a bunch of extras, including the complete soundtrack for the game. However, when looking closer to the ID3 tags for the songs, it was discovered they were pirated versions, distributed on torrents after being taken from the collector's edition of the game.

There is a "theory" that piracy is enhanced by the fact that it is so easy to use pirated content and so damn annoying using the official, paid, version. So easy, it appears, that UbiSoft people found it more efficient to download the pirated version than to go through inner channels to get the songs. They essentially pirated themselves! If that doesn't make you smile a little, you must not be a geek :)

Just a month ago, overwhelmed by a number unbelievable claims from companies and lawyers at that time, I wrote the blog entry titled Ridiculous self importance, relaying what I thought of those claims. And yet now I am forced to write another one. See what happens when people don't read my blog? :)

Let's start with the already blogged move by Red-Gate to unilaterally rescind a promise they took to keep Reflector free. Just follow the link to the story for details, but keep in mind the general idea: a software company makes a promise that is completely ignored later on.

Moving on to EA Games. Like any commercial company that reaches a certain critical size, they become assholes. I am talking about the game Dragon Age II, a game that EA Games promised in the forums it would not feature SecuROM, but it does (read article here)! The company also completely fails to notify the game buyers that the feature is there. Another article then tells us the story of a player that bad mouthed the company and got banned from the company forums for 72 hours. But during that time, the Dragon Age II game he bought could not be played, either. That really sounds a bit 1984, doesn't it? The screen device watches what you say and then punishes you. Welcome to the future!

The last article (one can only hope) in the asshole saga is about Twitter. This service that I could never find a use for has grown exponentially because of two factors: the social paradigm and the API that allowed people to make their own software on top of Twitter. Having reached the critical size, Twitter now publicly announced that it doesn't need third party applications anymore. "Thank you, guys, but we will be making the money from now on. Thanks again!". This is one of the reasons why I distrust the cloud idea. I give enough control to Google deciding what is relevant for my queries (and hosting this blog :) ) to give it or other cloud providers the physical ownership of my business.

I believe these stories are related to the recent efforts to regulate the Internet and not only that, but also how you will be permitted to use your own computer or mobile device. Just like weird events before World Wars, they are only the predictors of an era in which the web will be increasingly controlled and will become just another commercial platform for companies. These events that look morally and logically absurd are attempts to shift the regulatory framework in a direction or the other, while we remain blissfully ignorant of the battle over our heads.

Hmm, mentioning 1984 and predicting World Wars... am I becoming paranoid? Well, I hope so, because the alternative is that I am right.

and has 0 comments

From early ages we learn to listen to the people around us, but only at a later time we get to understand that what those people are saying may not be true or in our advantage. I believe this sets us up for the rest of life to partially believe even the most ridiculous claims for the sole reason that someone has uttered them. And who better to take advantage of this than politicians and lawyers.

Check out these stupid ideas:

  • Ad blocking may not be entirely legal - In other words, if someone were to help you personally to avoid all the annoying flashing and blinking and popping ads on a site, they would infringe some law of revenue. While this may sound preposterous, try googling for AdBlockPlus and you will see a myriad pages accusing successful ad-blockers of diminishing web site revenues. And if you think this is just the lament of sore losers happy to distribute their content at almost no cost on the Internet, but wanting to take money from you unencumbered, or if you think that being your browser, your computer and your money paying for the connection you should have some sort of rights, check this out: CoralQQ author arrested in 2007.
  • Free Internet porn is unfair competition to pay sites! - I may soon be accused of distributing free content on my blog as unfair competition to the ad ridden ones, if that is the case. I sure wouldn't want to hurt those, no sir. I find it terribly funny that the case against free porn was dismissed as an action designed to censor free speech (in legal terms a SLAPP).
  • Making software that allows one to make better use of software or a device, be it a computer, XBox, PlayStation or IPhone, is illegal! - As you can see from the Wikipedia link someone wrote in the first paragraph "The distribution and use of cracked copies is illegal in almost every developed country". Major arrested development! You may have heard that recently the unhackable PlayStation3 has been hacked. The funny thing is that with each new version, Sony seems to remove functionality, making PlayStation one of the few devices that are better old than new. When they found out about the hack Sony started a major law action against sites that post the hack solution for their crappy console. Apparently, their perspective is that you never owned the console, but you "rented it", while spending time to make software that allows you, the user, to do what you want with the thing you paid good money for, but is still not yours, it's illegal. They phrase it in a very funny way, too, saying that the hacking actions "are circumventing effective protection methods". Well, they aren't very effective, now, are they?
  • Major sites that distribute large content like video should pay extra; people watching should pay extra, too; ISPs should pay a lot; the Internet should be split into low rent and high rent areas. One might argue that since one does pay for the Internet connection at both ends, it should not be an issue what they are doing with it. That may be too late for Canadians, who always seemed very decent to me, as they got a new law voted on the 25th of January allowing Usage Based Billing for ISPs. People are now outraged and are protesting rather than swallow it, but already the coolness of Canada has been forever sullied in my eyes.
  • Using encryption of your own data on your own device is illegal! - The Indian government demanded that Blackberry find a way to allow authorities to read the encrypted data on their devices or at least disable the option for Indian devices, else face a national ban. Of course, they "reasoned" it is all for the sake of the people and against terrorist acts. It now seems unlikely they will proceed with the ban, but still, the whole thing begs the question: how come they didn't ask this of other device manufacturers? Also, it may be of some interest to the reader that all major instant messaging tools like Yahoo, MSN (now Windows Messenger) or GTalk do not feature encryption. Skype does, but guess what? They also provide some eavesdropping tools.

The list could go on and on and on, but these were both startlingly ridiculous and pretty recent. Apparently, the DRM bug, the one that made people sell you things and then consider it's still their property, is still alive and thriving. Most such beliefs come from the power we give other by not reacting. It is easier for us to do nothing than do something, so it is easy to take advantage by positioning the average human so that he has to do something to thwart your plans.

and has 1 comment
It appears that a British project, secretly conducted by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, has produced a method of encapsulating hydrogen into microparticles of porous material. The result is something that acts like a liquid, burns like hydrogen and can be used inside normal cars without any engine modification. The price they propose is 1.5$ per gallon, which is 0.396$ per liter or 0.2915 euros. What is cool about it is that they don't need to extract any resource in order to produce this miracle fuel.

Could THIS be the end of oil? Frankly I am amazed that this news reached me and not the one about Stephen Bennington found dead in a ditch somewhere. I can only hope that the secrecy of the project paid off and that the guys at Cella Energy have really managed to find the solution while under the radar of Big Oil. Or maybe it is simply the time in which the dependency on oil has become a bigger threat to national security than the lack of funding coming from oil companies.

Link to the original news: Breakthrough promises $1.50 per galon synthetic gasoline with no carbon emissions

Update: I may have spoken too soon. A NewScientist article explains the process in a slightly different light. The beads do store hydrogen, but they must be heated in order to release that hydrogen, then the hydrogen would be used in fuel cells. That is at odds with the idea that you can use it as gasoline in a petrol tank car. Oh, well, I hope they get it right someday.

and has 0 comments
I've never thought to check if there is such a list on the Internet, but apparently it is, as described in the xkcd comic. Good thing I at least read that! Wikipedia's List of common misconceptions is a very interesting read, many of the myths described there being reedited regularly through the media without them actually being true! So, get reading.