Happy Birthday, LiChess Tools!

It was one year ago that LiChess Tools was first published on GitHub. It was like the birth of a child, having spent a few weeks in gestation as an extension I would only use for myself. It was doing just the simplest of things at the time:

  • opening friends box automatically on page load, so that you see if you have any friends online
  • making sound alerts when friends started playing, so you can watch your favorite chess players the moment they start a game
  • pressing Shift-Right to choose a random variation from current position in analysis or study
  • sticky Preview mode in studies, so that you can move from chapter to interactive chapter and keep playing without seeing the move list
  • setting a minimum engine depth, so that the local engine would run automatically if a lower cloud depth was displayed

It had the Preferences in the extension popup, because they were so few features. The code was so awful that I didn't dare tell anyone about it.

Now this has become a behemoth with close to 100 different tools and bright prospects for the future.

I would like to thank the community, such as it is, because even if only one person was giving me feedback in a month, it could have happened when I was feeling low or stressed or unmotivated and it would perk me up immediately. Thank you a lot, guys!

For some weird reason (all passionate devs are weird) there was nothing more motivating than some kid wanting a feature, first thinking it was impossible, then getting the nagging feeling that I should think about it more, then finding a brilliant lateral solution, implementing it, improving on it, then delivering everything within the hour only to get a bored "thanks" at the end. But that thanks was all I needed to carry on. Occasionally I get thankful notes from people and it makes my day.

Right now LiChess Tools has 2500 daily users and 26 ratings that average to 4.8 stars. It's not the quantity, but the quality, though. The extension is focused on chess analysis and ease of learning. It's basically a pro tool, aimed at chess enthusiasts, coaches, schools and chess professionals. With such a scope, 2500 users is huge! And we'll get even higher.

At the time of this writing, plans are in motion to use the OBS integration feature of LiChess Tools for the official Lichess Sharjah Masters broadcast on the 14th of May, presented by WIM Irene Kharisma Sukandar. Oooh, I hope it doesn't break midway 😱


But there is more! I am working with the Lichess devs to streamline some of the more hackish features of the extension so that it can be used en masse without bothering the Lichess servers. I've received some suggestions from GMs and IMs and chess coaches that I will implement in LiChess Tools and I will support a plan to update the chess openings list in Lichess (as well as in Lichess Tools).

So there are some great opportunities open to the extension in the near future and hopefully they will make this blossom into something even more special!

The next major version (3.*) will probably restructure the features into more mature tools, focus on performance and adding more "epic" features, like:

  • full Client Side Analysis - including brilliant/good/best move detection ideas, statistics and charts
  • a more complete and user friendly Explorer Practice module
  • Chessable-like interface for Studies and spaced repetition features

There is also time for a rebranding. I am tired of people thinking I am talking about the Tools menu in Lichess. Right now the best idea I have is Prometheus for Lichess. I just hope Thibault is not going to nail me to a mountain and sic the Lichess owl on my liver. Perhaps you guys can come with better ideas.

Rebranding doesn't come with corporate goals and premium tiers, though. LiChess Tools will always be free, regardless of its name, so don't worry.

So, let's celebrate by singing along with the official LiChess Tools theme and hope for an even more awesome year!

It's made with AI, so it's cool by default 😁

Enjoy chess, Lichess and LiChess Tools!

P.S. Bring me your stories, people! I want to know how you use the extension. Join the LiChess Tools users team and share your experience with all of us.

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Ancient Enemy is one of those card games that abstract a journey of discovery and battle. You charge your magic by playing Solitaire "combos", then fire at the enemy. The choices you make on your journey don't matter at all, they are just levels to pass through that barely differ from each other. That's the entire game!

So why did I play it? Well, because the sound and the texts that my character was "saying" were intriguing. Ironically enough, the game had a "Skip story" button, when in fact that was the only thing that interested me - I wanted a "Skip game" button. Alas, the end of the journey was a complete let down, with a generic enemy that presented no challenge and a blunt and uninspired story ending.

Honestly, when I was playing it I thought: anybody can make games and sell them if this is a Steam game that people pay money for. Just look at the official site of this 2018 game: it looks like it was made in 2000.

Bottom line: fascinating how soundscape can make even the most boring games hold one's interest. Here is a gameplay video:


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  Recently I've been to Madeira, a Portuguese island colony with a powerful blend of nature, culture, feudal interests and overall corruption. The game Alba: A Wildlife Adventure made me feel like I was back!

  First of all, this is a game that was clearly done with a lot of heart. Every aspect of the gameplay is fun, positive and well crafted in all the things that matter. After playing the game, not only was I happier and more content, but I felt refreshed by imagining the pride the creators must have felt designing and finishing development. There is NO sense whatsoever of cutting corners, trying to money grab or following any political agenda (other than wildlife conservation, if you count that one). In spirit, it reminded me of the Sierra Entertainment Games.

  The plot is also very refreshing: you are playing a little girl who has grandparents interested in nature and which inspired her to care about life as well. Returning to a fictional Spanish island of her early childhood, Alba will clean up the island, photograph all kinds of animals, help them survive and thrive and fight commercial interests that threaten the island's wildlife. It is a casual gameplay - to the point that whenever you don't find something you are looking for, it means you just have to end the day and it will magically appear in the future for you - in which you explore a lovely island filled with birds, beautiful flora and tropical climate.

  What amazed me most was that there are 51 species of animals portrayed in the game and every one of them is behaving like the actual live species. The walk, the flight patterns, the speed, the sounds, they are all very precise (in the confines of a pretty simplistic graphical interface). Then there are the little things like when you have to make a yes/no decision you use the mouse to bob the head vertically or horizontally. There are no places where your 3D character gets hung up in some wall or caught between obstacles or  seeing/passing through objects. Even the interaction with objects take into account where the player is looking, it's not just a lazy area effect where you can just move around and press the action button aimlessly.

  Another nice thing is that I can imagine small children playing this game and feeling inspired and empowered, while at the same time adults understand the ironic undertones of some of the scenes. Stuff like the little girl gathering garbage from the ground and putting it in the bin, then talking to a native of the island sitting on a bench nearby and complaining about random stuff. Or everybody condescendingly commending the girl for her efforts, but mostly doing nothing to help. Or even phrases like "oh, yeah, it was a great idea to fix the stairs. Why didn't I do it before? Oh, well, it's good you did it".

  The only possible complain I might have is that the game is pretty linear and the replay value is small to nonexistent. But for the few hours that it takes to finish (which was good for me since I am... married  ), it was refreshing and calming.

  I admit, I am not a gamer. This might be just one of a large category of similar games for all I know, but I doubt it. I worked in the video game industry and I am willing to bet this game is as special as I feel it is. I warmly recommend it.

  Here is the gameplay trailer for the game:


In my previous trading post I was recommending taking your savings and investing them in stocks. And to minimize risk and effort, just put them in a so called "index fund", which is an aggregation of top stock. History shows that this strategy outperforms the market and any bank savings interest in the long run. But why?

Common sense would say that if a strategy to beat the market exists, then everybody would do it, pulling the market to the same level. The definition of "top" is also something nebulous that doesn't mean anything unless clearly defined. So here is a video that explains some of the shortcomings of the index fund. Basically:

  • "top X" syndrome, where the items accepted as top are more discoverable, therefore performing better from sheer demand size
  • wrong criteria for stock inclusion, where fundamentals lose to market demand and trading size
  • fake diversity, where the X seems large, but most funds are based on a much smaller subset of stocks, with the rest having no impact
  • exaggerated past, where a fund may have been defined a century ago, but came in actual use a lot more recently


Index Funds Are The Biggest Bubble Of Our Time (Hypothesis)

Also, there is a very interesting link that shows the constantly updated index funds may have performed worse than just investing once in a fixed number of companies, even if some of them have long disappeared.

Personally, I think that the gain in time you get by investing in a fund is worth the loss of efficiency. And there might not even be a loss, since until you create a diverse enough portfolio, chances are you are going to lose money, not make any. Keeping all of your savings in a bank is stupid, I am convinced of that! But that doesn't mean you should keep them all in stock (or in any one financial instrument). At this moment don't take my word for anything, but as soon as I gain more knowledge and confidence, I will post about trading and investing. At least it keeps things interesting.

I like Dave Farley's video channel about the software industry quality, Continuous Deployment, so I will share this video about how tech interviews should be like. Not a step by step tutorial as much as asking what is the actual purpose of a tech interview and how to get to achieve it:


Top Software Engineering Interview Tips - Dave Farley

  I've just read a medical article that seems to be what we have been looking for since this whole Covid thing started: an detailed explanation of what it does in the body. And no, it didn't come from doctors in lab coats, it came from a supercomputer analysing statistical data. Take that, humans! Anyway... First of all, read the article: A Supercomputer Analyzed Covid-19 — and an Interesting New Theory Has Emerged. And before you go all "Oh, it's on Medium! I don't go to that crap, they use a paywall!", know that this is a free article. (also you can read anything on Medium if it seems to be coming from Twitter)

  Long story short (you should really read the article, though) is that the virus binds to the ACE2 receptors - and degrades them, then tricks the body to make even more ACE2 receptors (even in organs that normally don't express them as much) to get even more virus in. The virus also tweaks the renin–angiotensin system  which leads to a Bradykinin storm which causes multiple symptoms consistent with what is seen in hospitals and leaves many a doctor stumped: dry cough, blood pressure changes, leaky blood vessels, a gel filling one's lungs (making ventilators ineffective), tiredness, dizziness and even loss of smell and taste. Also, because of a genetic quirk of the X chromosome, women are less affected, which also is shown in statistical data on severe cases.

  Quoting from the article: several drugs target aspects of the RAS and are already FDA approved to treat other conditions. They could arguably be applied to treating Covid-19 as well. Several, like danazol, stanozolol, and ecallantide, reduce bradykinin production and could potentially stop a deadly bradykinin storm. Others, like icatibant, reduce bradykinin signaling and could blunt its effects once it’s already in the body.

  Good stuff, people! Good stuff! The person responsible for this is Daniel A Jacobson and his research assistants should take all the credit! Just kidding.

  But how new is this? Bradykinin is not an unknown peptide and we have known from the very beginning what ACE does and that Covid binds to it. My limited googling shows doctors noticing this as soon as the middle of March. In fact, the original article that the Medium article is based on is from July 7! Here is a TheScientist take on it: Is a Bradykinin Storm Brewing in COVID-19?

  For more info, here is a long video talking about the paper: Bradykinin Storm Instead of Cytokine Storm?


  If you really are into medicine, check this very short but very technical video about Bradykinin, from where I also stole the image for this post: Bradykinin | Let the Drama begin!


  I hope this provided you with some hope and a starting point for more research of your own.

  I didn't want to write about this. Not because of a false sense of security, but because everybody else talked about it. They all have opinions, most of them terribly wrong, but for me to join the fray and tell the world what I think is right would only put me in the same category as them. So no, I abstained. However, there are some things so wrong, so stupidly incorrect, that I can't maintain this silence. So let's begin.

  "The flu", "a cold" are not scientific, they are popular terms and they all relate to respiratory infectious diseases caused by a variety of viruses and sometimes bacteria or a combination thereof. Some of them affect us on a seasonal basis, some of them do not. Rhinoviruses are the ones most often associated with the common cold and they are seasonal. However, a whooping 15% of what is commonly called "a cold" comes from coronaviruses, thus named because of their crown-like shape. Influenza viruses, what we would normally call "flu" are a completely different type of virus. In other words, Covid-19 is more a common cold than a flu, but it's not the seasonal type. Stop wishful thinking that it will all go away with the summer. It will not. Other famous coronavirus diseases are SARS and MERS. The SARS epidemic lasted until July, the MERS epidemic spreaded just fine in the Middle Eastern summer weather. This will last. It will last for months from the moment I am writing this blog. This will be very important for the next section of the post.

  Also, there is something called the R-naught (R0), the rate with which a virus spreads to other people. It predicts, annoyingly accurate, how a disease is going to progress. This virus has an R0 probably twice as high as that of the influenza virus, which we all get, every fucking year. Draw your own conclusions.

  The only reason we got rid of SARS and MERS is because they are only infectious after the symptoms are apparent and the symptoms are pretty damn apparent. Covid-19 is very infectious even before the first cough, when people feel just fine. Surely masks will help, then? Not unless they are airtight. Medical masks are named so because medics use them in order to not cough or spit or breathe inside a patient, maybe during surgery. The air that the doctor breathes comes from the sides of the mask. So if you get sick and you wear the mask it will help the people that have not met you while you had no symptoms yet.

  Washing the hands is always good. It gets rid of all kind of crap. The primary medium of spreading Covid-19 is air, so you can wash your hands as often as you'd like, it helps very little with that. Stopping touching your face does little good, either. There is a scenario when someone coughs in their hand, touches something, then you touch it, then you pick your nose. Possible, so it's not all worthless, it's just statistically insignificant. What I am saying is that washing your hands and not touching yourself decreases the probability a very small amount. That being said, masturbation does increase the activity of your immune system, so be selective when you touch yourself.

  The idea that old people are the only ones affected is a myth. Age statistically correlates with harsher symptoms because it also correlates with negative health conditions. In other words, people with existing health conditions will be most affected. This includes smokers, obese people, people with high blood pressure, asthma and, of course, fucking old people. The best way to prepare for a SARS-Cov-2 virus (the latest "official" name) is to stay in good health. That means healthy food, less alcohol, no smoking and keeping a healthy weight. So yes, I am fucked, but at least I will die happy... oh, no, I am out of gin!!

  Medically, the only good strategy is to develop a vaccine as soon as possible and distribute it everywhere. It will lead quicker and with less casualties to the inevitable end of this pandemic: when more people are immune than those who are not. This will happen naturally after we all get infected and get healthy (or die). All of the news of people who got sick after getting healthy are artefacts of defective testing. All of it! Immunity does not work like that. You either got rid of it and your body knows how to defend itself or you never had it or you had something else or somebody tested you wrong.

  That being said, fuck all anti-vaxxers. You are killing people, you assholes!

  Personally, the best you can do is keep hydrated and eat in a balanced way. You need proteins and zinc and perhaps vitamin C (not sure about that). Warm bone broths will be good. Zinc you get from red meat and plant seeds. There was a report of drinking green tea being negatively correlated with influenza infections (different virus, though). And don't start doing sport now, if you haven't been doing it already, you can't get the pig fat one day before Christmas. Sport is actually decreasing the efficiency of your immune system.

  This is the end of the medical section of this post. There is nothing else. Probiotics won't help, Forsythia won't help, antibiotics will certainly not help. The only thing that fights the virus right now is your immune system, so just help it out. If there was a cure for the common cold you wouldn't get it each year every year.

  But it's not over. Because of people. When people panic, bad things happen. And by panic, I mean letting their emotions get the better of them, I mean not thinking people, not zombie hordes, although sometimes the difference is academic.

  Closing schools and workplaces and public places has one beneficial effect: it makes the infection rate go down. It doesn't stop the spread, it doesn't stop the disease, it just gives more time to the medical system to deal with the afflicted. But at the same time, it closes down manufacturing, supply chains, it affects the livelihood of entire categories of people. So here is where governments should step in, to cover financially the losses these people have to endure. You need money for medical supplies and for keeping healthy. Think of it as sponsoring immune systems.

  The alternative, something we are seeing now in paranoid countries, is closing down essential parts of national economies with no compensation. This is the place and time for an honest cost vs. gain analysis. Make sure the core of your nation is functioning. This is not one of those moments when you play dead for a few minutes and the bear leaves (or falls down next to you because he really likes playing that game). This is something that needs to work for months, if not a year or more. This is not (and never was) a case of stopping a disease, but of managing its effects. Some people are going to die. Some people are going to get sick and survive. Some lucky bastards will cough a few times and go on with their day. Society and the economical system that sustains it must go on, or we will have a lot more problems than a virus.

  Speaking of affected professions, the most affected will be medical personnel. Faced day in and day out with SARS-Cov-2 infections they will get infected in larger numbers than the regular population. Yes, they will be careful, they will wear masks and suits and whatever, but it won't help. Not in a statistical way, the only way we must think right now. It's a numbers game. It's no longer about tragedies, it's about statistics, as Stalin used to say. And these people are not regular people. They've been in school for at least a decade before they can properly work in a hospital where Covid-19 patients will be admitted. You lose one of these, you can't easily replace them. Especially in moron countries like my own, where the medical system is practically begging people to leave work in other countries. The silver lining is that probably, at the end of the outbreak, there will be a lot more medical people available, since they went through the disease and emerged safe and immune. But there is a lot of time between now and then.

  Closing borders is probably the most idiotic thing one can do, with perhaps the exception of countries that had real problems with immigration before. If sick people don't crowd your borders in order to take advantage of your medical system, closing borders is just dumb. The virus is already in, the only thing you are stopping is the flow of supplies to handle the disease. Easter is coming. People from all over the world will just move around chaotically to spend this religious holiday with their family. It will cause a huge spike in the number of sick people and will probably prompt some really stupid actions taken by governments all over the place. One could argue that religion is dumb at all times, but right now it makes no difference. It's just an acceleration of a process that is already inevitable, Easter or no Easter.

  Statistics again: look at the numbers and you will see that countries get an increase of 30% in infected cases every day. It's an exponential curve. It doesn't care about your biases, your myths, your hopes, your judging. It just grows. China will get infection cases as soon as travelling restrictions relax. Consider the ridiculous situation where one somehow protected their country against infection when the whole of the world went through a global pandemic. It doesn't even matter. It's not even healthy, as sooner or later that virus will affect only them. The best they can do is manage the situation, bottleneck it so that the medical system can cope with it.

  Do you know what the most important supply chain is in this situation? Medical supplies. A lot of countries get these from China and India. Because they are cheaper. So they can sell them to you at ten times the prices and make those immense profits that generated the name Big Pharma. It's not a conspiracy theory, it's common knowledge. What do you think happens when you close your borders with China and India?

  In this situation, the globally economy will stagger. It will be worse than the 2008 crisis. But while that was a crisis generated by artificial and abstract concepts that affected the real economy, that of people working for other people, this one comes as real as it gets, where people can't work anymore. That means less money, less resources, scarcity of some resources, less slack to care of the old and sick in your family. It's a lose-lose situation: the most affected by the pandemic will be affected either by people not being able to care for them or people giving them the disease while caring for them because they must make much more effort and human contact to get the supplies needed. Now, some countries can somehow handle that by employing a healthy transport infrastructure and care system, but in others, where they can barely handle normal quantities of sick people that come to hospitals themselves, they will never be able to cover, even if they wanted to, the effort to give supplies to previously affected people.

  So does that mean you have to go to the supermarket and get all the supplies you might need for months to come? I am afraid to say that it does. The reasonable way to handle this is for the governments of the world to ensure supply and financial support for everybody. Then people wouldn't need to assault shops to get the last existing supplies. If you can trust your government to do that, by all means, trust you will always have a nearby shop to sell you the goods you need to stay alive and health. But I ask you this: if you got to the farmacy and bought their entire stock of some medicine that you might need and then you hear your neighbor, the person you greeted every day when you got to work, died because they couldn't get that medicine, what then? What if you hear they need the medicine now? Will you knock at their door and offer it to them? Maybe at five time the price? Or maybe for free? What if you are the neighbor?

  And you hear that some country has isolated the virus and are making a vaccine. Oh, it's all over, you think. But before they even start mass producing it, they need to test it. People will die because of how overcautious and bureaucratic the system is. People will die when corners are cut. People will die either way. It will take time either way. This thing will be over, but not soon. After they make it, you will still have to get it. That means supply chains and money to buy things.

  Bottom line: it's all about keeping systems going. In your body, the immune system has to be working to fight the disease. In your country, the economy must be working in order to handle the effects of the disease. Fake cures and home remedies are just as damaging as false news of the crisis not being grave, getting over soon or going away by itself.

  Here is a video from a medical professional that is saying a lot of the things I've listed here:


  One more thing: consider how easy it was for this panic to lead to countries announcing national emergency, a protocol that gives extraordinary powers to the government. A few dead here, a few sick there, and suddenly the state has the right to arrest your movement, to detain you unconditionally, to close borders, to censor communications. Make sure that when this is over, you get every single liberty back. No one it going to return freedom to you out of their own good will.


Istanbul is a beautiful lie. You are being served, begged of, you can haggle any price and no one will get upset, you are a king among serfs, everything is ancient, colorful and traditional. But as you walk around in the high but pleasant sea-side heat you can't help but wonder: how high was that initial price if you can lower it again and again and again? How are you a king while walking in the most populous city of one of the most powerful countries in the region? Why are there armored cars here and there, watching you while you unsuccessfully try to reach Wikipedia on your cell phone in Democracy Park? How can all these traditional shops sell the exact same thing all over the city? Why are there so many types of tea in the bazaar, but when you go to a cafe they only serve one?

Now, I enjoyed my visit to Istanbul. My hotel was sub par, but I didn't care about it too much because the staff was doing their best to be accommodating. Yet there are some things I would have liked to know before going there. Here are my thoughts.


The first thing to consider when going to Istanbul is if you want to rent a car. The answer to this is "I do not want to rent a car, because I want to survive this vacation". The driving is chaotic and the roads are steep and crowded. Most of the time you don't even want to take cabs. People cross the street randomly and there are scooters that speed onto any temporarily free surface. Yet, except a motorcycle guy that probably died on the freeway, I have not seen even a car bump in this mess. To be a driver in Istanbul is both a badge of honor and skill and a psychiatric condition. You've been warned!

The second thing you need is select the part of Istanbul you want to be based in, because the city is vast and split by the sea into three parts: two in Europe and one in Asia. If you are a touristy kind of person, go to the Sultanahmet, Eminonu side. If you want more authenticity, real people living their lives, go to the Asian side, while the other European side is more for the city lifestyle and shopping, like in Taksim square. I haven't been to the modern part of the city, but from afar the buildings there look tall and beautiful and I am told it's great, too.

You've got to be careful choosing your hotel. Istanbul is so chocked with them that when you look at the map you feel that you have not zoomed in enough. In fact every building in some areas is a hotel and all that separates them are small windy one car streets: no side walk, no parking spaces, no green space. You have to pay attention to the pictures of the hotel, to how may rows of windows they have, for example. It will tell you how tall they really are and how many windows your room will have. A lot of these places have large lobbies and terraces, but it's where you enter the hotel and where you get breakfast in the morning, while your room might have just a window overlooking a fence. I've seen rooms that had no windows. So it is vital you speak directly to the hotel and discuss the conditions of your rooms (do not trust they will get the information from Booking or act on it). It's not that they want to cheat you, but everything in Istanbul is negotiable. You need to speak to an actual person. The city abhors algorithms.

One more important thing is your infrastructure. You need information and transportation. In Istanbul a lot of transportation works with an IstanbulKart, an electronic card you can put money on and then pay for trams, buses, ferries, etc. Cabs, of course, are different. Careful with the cabs: you might get a perfectly good one from the airport, with a meter and a credit card reader, then get another that only accepts cash and you must negotiate the price. Now, it might feel like a waste, but I recommend you get one kart for each person. While you can very well use only one for an entire group, I got into the situation where my wife passed and I didn't, so she had to wait until I found a recharging station and had to negotiate with the Turkish only interface.

That gets me to the information portion: Turkey is not in the EU. That means that calls and SMS messages are very expensive and probably mobile Internet as well. While most shops have WiFi, when you are on the road you need Internet. If you have a dual SIM phone (and even if you don't) I recommend you buy a prepaid Turkish card for your Internet and local calls. I didn't do that, so I got stuck a lot of times. As so many translation systems work online, too, I think it's a good idea. Everything in Istanbul is in Turkish, with occasional afterthoughts about other languages. People there know very little English and when they do, you are not sure if they understood what you told them or they simply don't want to appear stupid.

The fun

The fun is all on you! I won't tell you what is good and what is not, because not one of the people that prepared me for my trip had an experience even close to mine. It's not that I am special, but people really are different and Istanbul provides differently depending on your style. What I can tell you is that it is a city worth visiting, but perhaps not for the usual reasons. It feels different. It's not a clone of all the other cities I've been to. It really has its own culture, it's not overwhelmed with the same multinational corporations, it doesn't have banks and pharmacies everywhere, and the lack of rules (or the difference in them) opens the mind to possibilities.

For me the mosques were all the same, the palaces were just buildings with old furniture in them, the museums collections of objects with little life to them. For example I went to the Royal Kitchens in Topkapi; there was nothing to reflect the life that went on there. Just random kitchen implements nicely ordered inside transparent cages. I didn't find the haggling with shop owners pleasant or the ice cream seller antics entertaining. The food was nice, but not extraordinary. The bazaars were full of shops that sold the exact same things. I couldn't get close to a shop without someone harassing me about buying or entering. These are not the reasons why I enjoyed Istanbul.

Instead, it was the weird combination of new and old, of people living their lives differently, the all present sea breeze which made the heat bearable. It was the way people did all of these annoying things and yet I felt no malice from or toward them. It all felt viscerally eternal, like this city had the power to survive the world encroaching on it.

I don't know, maybe you just need to have played Quest for Glory II to feel this way. Or maybe it's just me. I don't think I would want to return soon, but it's an experience I recommend. And now, try to get this out of your head:

Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari is one of those isekai animes where a normal Japanese boy is summoned in a magical realm to fight monsters. Once there, he realizes that the world and his character work exactly as in a fantasy video game, complete with items with upgradeable stats, waves of monsters and revealing female armor. He is summoned there with three other heroes, also from Japan, only from alternate universes, each of the heroes having their own magical item that defines their style. His item is a shield and immediately he notices that he is treated differently, with all honors given to the other three and only disgust for him. Long story short, he is forced to hone his skills through his will and efforts alone, while the others, spoiled by their environment, make no effort and therefore level up less.

I liked this anime and I will continue to watch it, although it's a bit ridiculous. I've read the manga as well, which is also new, and there are slight differences in the sense that the anime is a little more serious. If you want a mindless game like experience in anime form, go for it. Here is a trailer:

Violet Evergarden is set in a steampunk universe in which technology, other than metal prosthetics, is at the 19th century level, and the main character is a girl that was used as an elite child soldier in a terrible war who now has to find a purpose in a civilian life. She takes on the job of a "auto memory doll", a person who needs to put into words the feelings of others. That's a bit of a stretch, because she doesn't know how to feel herself... it's like me taking on a job in psychology or artistic design so as to learn a new skill. Certainly great for me, but kind of sucks for my employer!

Anyway, the animation is really well done and the acting is top notch. The story itself is beautiful, even if at times inconsistent. After watching the 14 episodes of the first season, I was itching for more, only to hear from a colleague that the studio responsible for the animation, Kyoto Animation, was destroyed in a terrible arson attack. That doesn't bode well for a sequel, yet a spin-off film had already been announced, so who knows?

Bottom line: it's not for everyone. PTSD romance, I would call it. But it nicely animated and I liked the story. I felt that the characters were a bit off, but not annoyingly so. Here is a trailer, in English:

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The talk is a bit overreaching, doing more things than it should have tried to do, in other words not very efficient, but it contains some really interesting ideas and it's extremely well articulated. As a software developer, I always thrive for efficiency, but what Margaret Heffernan says is that efficiency is good only when the future is predictable. In a fast changing world (and getting faster), efficiency doesn't just not help, it makes things worse. Sometimes you can't plan, but you can prepare.

As expected, I wasn't as interested in the humanistic part of the talk as I was in the technical aspects: algorithmic efficiency is only good with things that can be measured. If you want to innovate or to adapt, it's trial and error that works best. I got that giddiness I get when people tell me "you can't do THAT in software!". Oh, ye of little faith! But there is something there, something extremely useful, a tool that I can use whenever I get stuck in logic loops or some manager tells me that he needs data in order to make a decision about the project that would generate the data.

Margaret Heffernan: The human skills we need in an unpredictable world

I am going to try something new with this blog post. Usually, when I go somewhere on vacation, the things that capture my attention are not what interest about anybody else in my entourage. I am also not a very lyrical writer, so what's the point of enumerating the places I've been from the perspective (oh, so much used!) of the casual tourist. I imagine myself writing one of those horrid "10 things to do in..." articles, promptly vomit and desist from thinking about it.

With this post, though, I am going to tell you of the wild (but accessible) area that I've explored and where to find it, how I felt and, if I can find the references, what plants and animals live there. You see, when I go somewhere, I avoid people and take really bad pictures of flowers and plants, butterflies, weird things and sometimes landscapes.

The place

I've been to Cheile Bistritei Valcene (the canyon of the river Bistritza from Valcea - there is another one in the north of the country) and in the valley of the Luncavatz river. The vegetation and insects are very similar, so I am going to treat this as a single area, even if their locations are 20 KMs apart:

  • Cheile Bistritei: from 45.189828, 24.039859 to 45.197871, 24.030284
  • Raul Luncavat: from 45.186682, 23.917856 to 45.190084, 23.914488

The area is very nice, easy to get to by car, but not very touristic yet, so not a lot of people having picnics and listening loudly to music. Leave your car and walk on the sides of the river(s) and the scenery is verdant and quiet. I have to warn you that even if in Romanian they are called rivers, they are more like creeks, especially at this time of the year. You can even find some caves in the area and if you are the long walk type of person, some 4-5 hour hike routes to more remote areas. Some flowers are white, but the vast majority of them are either yellow-orange or violet in color and probably are much more interesting in ultraviolet than human vision.

Animal life

I haven't seen any animals other than birds, a running lizard and a lot of insects.

I saw several species of butterflies, the most common by far being a medium sized orange with black spots, a fritillary, probably the Silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis Paphia) or mantia imparatului in Romanian. They were frolicking on these tall yellow flowers with large leaves: the yellow oxeye (Telekia speciosa) or brusture and ochiul-boului in Romanian. The next most common was a shy dark butterfly with a crimson edge on its wings. Probably the Woodland ringlet (Erebia Medusa), I have no idea what the Romanian popular name for it is.

Argynnis Paphia on a Telekia speciosa

Erebia Medusa

Some other butterflies: the cabbage white (Pieris rapae) or fluturele de varza in Romania, the peacock (Aglais io) or ochi de paun de zi in Romanian, the swallowtail (Papilio machaon) or coada de rindunica in Romanian and even one glimpse of what I think was a marbled white (Melanargia galathea) or tabla de sah in Romanian.

Pieris Rapae

Aglais Io (during my youth Innachis Io)

Papilio Machaon

Melanargia Galathea

One fascinating specimen looked similar to a peacock butterfly from afar only for it to settle in a triangular black and white shape when it stopped. It must have been a moth! I've identified it as a Jersey tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) or fluturele urs dungat in Romanian.

Euplagia Quadripunctaria

What I also found fascinating is a tree that had apparently been colonized by ants. A lot of wood dust was on the ground and a lot of activity was inside the trunk. Still, there was another hole in the trunk that was filled with wood dust, but no ant activity. Could it have been some sort of other factor, termites or perhaps a disease, that destroyed the tree trunk's interior and the ants were just opportunists?

Ants or termites? New behavior or opportunism?


Now, plants are easier to photograph, but harder to identify. I've mentioned the oxeye. Then there was the touch-me-not (Impatiens noli-tangere) or slabanog and bradulet in Romanian, which appears to have been used traditionally for its medicinal properties, mostly related to kidney or gynecological issues. The Spreading bellflower (Campanula patula) was there, together with its close relative, the Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides) - both are called clopotei in Romanian. There was the mountain geranium (Geranium robertianum) or napraznic and priboi and iarba sfintului Robert in Romanian, which appears to have anti-stress, anti-cancer and fertility related purposed in traditional medicine.

Impatiens Noli-tangere

Campanula Patula

Campanula Rapunculoides

Geranium Robertianum

Field mustard was present as well (Brassica rapa). This plant was and is used for a variety of reasons in many cultures. The leaves and roots are rich in oil. In Puglia they use the buds as cimedirape in the making of orecchiette pasta. It is a plant from the cabbage family of plants, probably explaining the presence of the cabbage butterflies.

Brassica Rapa

A very interesting flower has a very weird name: the Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) or iarba sarpelui in Romanian. It has blue flowers but the filaments of the stamens are red, contrasting with the petals and giving it a violet color per whole. It has medicinal uses as well, as an antidote for snake bites and for its antibiotic and astringent properties.

Echium Vulgare

Another violet flower, with uses in homeopathic medicine but also in poisonings, is aconite or wolfsbane (Aconitum napellus) or omag in Romanian. It contains powerful alkaloids and at one time it was forbidden to grow this plant anywhere in the Roman Empire on penalty of death. Death from intoxication with the plant can occur in as little as half an hour!

Aconitum Napellus

And since we are talking about a violet flower with medicinal properties, how can we ignore the heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) or busuioc salbatic in Romania. The young leaves and stems can be eaten raw in salads; the plant in whole can be boiled and eaten as a potherb; and the aerial parts of the plant can be powdered and brewed in a cold infusion to make a beverage and it is used as an astringent in folk medicine.

Prunella Vulgaris

Not often, but when it happened it was a whole field of them, I found the Orange mullein (Verbascum phlomoides) or luminarica in Romanian. It is also a medicinal plant, used for the calming, sweat inducing and expectorant effects.

Verbascum Phlomoides

I've seen some daisies in the area and also another flower from the same family: the fleabane (Erigeron annuus) or bunghisor in Romanian. Used in salads as well as against the common cold or stomach aches in folk medicine.

Erigeron Annuus

Last, but not least, the evening-primrose or sundrop (Oenothera biennis) or luminita noptii in Romanian. It started as an American plant, much like the fleabane, but it was brought and naturalized in Europe. It has been used medicinally by the native Americans for all kinds of ailments, as it is an edible plant containing an oil with anti inflammatory properties.

Oenothera Biennis

There were a lot of plants without flowers, but I haven't had the time or patience for them. There was one with huge leaves and I photographed it for identification purposes. It turns out it was either the butterbur (Petasites hybridus) or the burdock (Arctium lappa) both called brusture in Romanian, but different species altogether. It's probably the Arctium, but I can't be sure!

Petasites hybridus or Arctium lappa? A lot of stuff called brusture in Romanian!


It would have been a lot more difficult for me to write this post if it weren't for sites like:

Even with these great resources, it was obvious that not many people will publish nature related posts in any systematic manner. Even this post, three hours in the making, is a random mess of blurry pictures and random observations.

I was browsing the selection of films on HBO Go and I have to say, for someone who is used to the options available on torrent sites, the films and series that are available there are both incredibly diverse and woefully inadequate. But if there is something that I am grateful for with that particular network, it is Billy Crystal's autobiographical play. It's called 700 Sundays and it is everything I have come to love about actor biographies... in video format. Within two hours of wonderful acting and playwriting, Billy finds the way to tell the story of his childhood, adolescence and adulthood without once getting into the things we actually know him for: acting, comedy, Hollywood. It's so wonderfully personal that is feels a bit too intimate, like someone describing in detail their love life.

Boy, does this guy love. There is this cliche about comedians that are essentially depressed and fight it, for a while, with humor, until their inevitable depression and subsequent suicide. Billy Crystal is nothing like that! He owns every scene, he fights for his audience and he is proud of his legacy. He is blessed, even while he mourns the death of his parents, because while they were alive, they loved him with all their strength and while he is alive, love is what defines him.

Bottom line: it is two hours of wonder. Whether you watch it on HBO Go or download it from somewhere, it is a must, it is absolutely necessary that you watch what a 67 year old master of storytelling and comedy will make out of his life story. I like biographies and this it one of the best, created in the medium Crystal feels most at home: stand up comedy.

I was half expecting the show to be freely available on YouTube or something similar, but in this day and age, quality is always behind some paywall. I leave you with a trailer to the show and I urge you to see it:


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In 2015 I was so happy to hear that Cory and Lori Cole, game designers for the Sierra Entertainment company, were doing games again, using Kickstarter to fund their work. Particularly I was happy that they were doing something very similar to Quest for Glory, which was one of my very favorite game series ever. Well, the game was finally released in the summer of 2018 and I just had to play it. Short conclusion: I had a lot of fun, but not everything was perfect.

The game is an adventure role playing game called Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption and it's about a small time thief who meets a mysterious bearded figure right after he successfully breaks into a house and steals, as per contract, a "lucky coin". The man gives him the opportunity to stop thieving and instead enroll into Hero University as a Rogue, rogues being a kind of politically correct thieves, taking from the rich and giving to the poor and all that. You spend the next 40-50 hours playing this kid in the strange university and finally getting to be a hero.

You have to understand that I was playing the Quest for Glory games, set in the same universe as Hero-U, when I was a kid. My love for the series does not reflect only the quality of the games, the humor, the nights without Internet where I had to figure out by myself how to solve a puzzle so that I could brag to my friends who were doing the same at the time, but the entire experience of discovery and wonder that was childhood. My memories of the Sierra games are no doubt a lot better than the games themselves and any attempt of doing something similar was doomed to harsh criticism. So, did the Coles destroy my childhood?

Nope. Hero U was full of puns and entertainment and rekindled the emotions I had playing QfG. I recommend it! But it won't get away from criticism, so here it is.

Update: I've finished the game again, going for the "epic" achievement called Perfect Prowler, which requires you don't kill anything. I recommend this as the start game because, if you think about it a bit, it's the easier way to finish the game. To not kill anything you need to sneak past enemies, meaning maxing your stealth. To defeat your enemies (which is also NOT the rogue way as taught at the university) you need to have all sorts of defenses, combat skills, magical weapons or runes, etc. By focusing on stealth you actually focus on the story, even if sometimes it is annoying to try to get past flying skulls for ten minutes, saving and reloading repeatedly, until your stealth is high enough. Some hints for people doing this:

  1. Sleeping powder is your friend, as it instantly makes an enemy unresponsive and does not alert other enemies that are standing right next to them
  2. Sleeping powder works on zombies, for some reason
  3. Demolishing a wall with a Big Boom while guards are sleeping next to it does not hurt said guards, even better, they magically disappear letting you plunder the entire room
  4. If someone else kills your enemy, you didn't kill anything :)
  5. The achievement says you have to not kill things, you can attack them at your leisure as long as you flee or use some other methods to escape

Anyway, the second run made me even more respectful towards the creators of the game, as they thought of so many contingencies to allow you to not get stuck whatever style of play you have. And this on a game that had so many production issues. Congratulations, Transolar!

And now for the original analysis:

What is great about the game is that it makes you want to achieve as much as possible in a rather subtle way. It doesn't show you X points out of Y the way old Sierra games did, but it always hints of the possibility of doing more if you only "apply yourself". Yes, it feels very much like a school. And I liked it. What's wrong with me?

I liked the design of the game, although I wish there was a way to just open a door you often go through, rather than click on the door and then choose Open from the list of possible and useless options like Listen on the door or Look at the door. I liked that you had a lot of actions for the objects in the game, which made it costly to just explore every possible option, but also satisfying to find one that works in your favor.

And the game is big! A lot of decisions, a lot of characters and areas to explore, a lot of quests and a lot of puns. Although, in truth, even if I loved the QfG series for their puns, in Hero-U it feels like they tried a little bit too much. In fact, I will write a lot about what I didn't like, but those are general things that are easy to point out. The beautiful part is in the small details that are much harder to describe (and not spoil).

The biggest issue I had with the game was the time limits. The story takes the hero through a semester of 50 days at the university and he has to do as much as possible in that time. This was good. It makes for a challenge, it forces you to manage the time you have to choose one or the other of several options. You can't just train fighting skills for weeks and then start killing critters. However, each day has several other time limits, mainly breakfast/class, supper and sleep. You may be in the depths of the most difficult dungeon, took you hours to get there, if it's supper time, your "hero" will instantly find his way back so he can grab some grub. You don't have the option to skip meals or a night's sleep, which would have been great as an experience and very little effort in development, as he already has "tired", "hungry", "injured" and other states that influence his skills.

This takes me to the general issue of linearity of story. The best QfG games were wonderful because you had so many options of what you could do: you could explore, do optional side quests that had little or nothing to do with the main story, solve puzzles in a multitude of ways (since in those games you got to choose your class). Hero-U feels very linear to me: a lot of timed quests with areas that only open up after specific events that have nothing to do with you, the items you get at the store change to reflect the point in time you are in, a choice of girls and boys to flirt with, but really only one will easily respond to your attempts at romance, the only possible ending with variations so small as to make them irrelevant and so on. And many a time it is terribly frustrating to easily find a hidden door or secret passage, but be unable to do anything with it until "it's time". You carry these big bombs with you, but when you get to a blocked door you can't just demolish it. I already mentioned the many options you have to interact with random objects in the game, but the vast majority of them are useless and inconsistent. QfG had some of these issues, too, though.

An interesting concept are the elective classes, which are so easy to miss it's ridiculous. Do not miss the chance (as I did) to do science, magic or healing. It reminds me of QfG games you played as a fighter and then started them again as a mage or thief. The point is to take all your tests (and since you get the results a few days later) you need to know your stuff (i.e. read the text of the lectures and understand what the teachers are saying). Unfortunately, the classes don't do much to actually help you. Science gives you a lot of traps and explosives, healing gives you a lot of potions and pills and magic gives you sense magic and some runes. You can easily finish the game without any of them and it is always annoying to have to run from the end of your classes (at 14:00) and reach the elective classroom on another floor, having to dodge Terk and also considering that you might want to do work in the lock room, practice room, library, recreation room and reception, all in one hour (you have to get to the class by 15:00). And the elective eats two hours of your time, just in time for (the mandatory) dinner.

And then there is the plot itself. I had a hard time getting immersed in a story where young people learn at a university teachers know is infested with dangerous creatures that students fight, but do nothing to either stop or optimize the process. Instead, everybody knows about the secret passages, the areas, but pretend they do not. Students never party up to do a quest together. There are other classes in the university, not only Rogues learn there, but you never meet them. Each particular rogue student has a very personal reason to be in the university, which makes me feel it's amazing that the class has seven students; in other years there must have been a maximum of two. You get free food from all over the world, but you have to buy your own school supplies. There are two antagonists that really have absolutely no power over you, no back story, and you couldn't care less that they exist. Few of the characters in the game are sympathetic or even have believable motivations.

Bottom line: I remembered what it was like when I was a child playing these games and enjoyed a few days of great fun. I felt like the story could have had more work done so that we care about the characters more and have more ways to play the game. The limits often felt very artificial and interrupted me from being immersed in the fantastic world. It felt like a Quest for Glory game, but not the best ones.

It is worth remembering that this game is the first since the 1990s when the creators were working in Sierra Games. They overcame a lot of new hurdles and learned a lot to make Hero-U. The next installments or other games will surely go more smoothly both in terms of story and playability. I have a lot of trust in them.

Some notes:

  • There is a Hero-U Student Handbook in PDF form.
  • Time is very important. It pays to save, explore an area, reload and go directly where you need to go.
  • Stealth is useful. There is an epic achievement to finish the game without killing anything. That feels a bit extreme, but it also shows that items and combat skills may be less relevant than expected.
  • Exams are important: save and pass the exams so you can get elective classes. I felt like every part of the story was excessively linear except elective classes which you can even miss completely because you get no help with them from the teachers or the game mechanism.
  • Some doors towards the end cannot be opened and are reserved for future installments of the series.
  • You can lose a lot of time in the catacombs for no good reason. Don't be ashamed to create and use a map of the rooms.

I leave you with a gameplay video:


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This guy can write! I mean, Peter Brannen is writing about paleontology and climate change and the words just sing to you, make you see worlds that we actually know very little about and feel for ammonoids like there would be the cutest kittens, looking at you with big eyes and begging not to get extinct. As someone who wants to write himself someday, I really hate this guy. He is that good.

That being said, The Ends of the World is a book about the major extinctions in Earth's history, their causes and how they relate to our present lives. It's a captivating read, evoking lost worlds and very carefully analyzing how they disappeared and why. There is humor, drama, interesting interviews with fascinating people. Dinosaurs? Puh-lease. This takes you back to the good old days of the Ediacaran and slowly brings you around our time and even speculates on what could come after us, the hubris filled species that, geologically speaking, was barely born yesterday - or a few seconds ago, depending on how you measure it - and has the chance to outshine all the other species that came, ruled and went.

There is no way I can do it justice other than to say that I loved the book. In itself it's a summary of life on Earth so summarizing it myself would be pointless. I highly recommend it.

Here is the author, presenting his book at Google Talks: