As an experiment, try to find this video without knowing the name of the song or of the band. I tried so hard until my brain just gave up and remembered the name of the band all by itself. So here is the video. Now I can always find it when I need it. Cool song and video, I think.



And so that other people can find it: it's a music video about an astronaut crash landing on an alien planet and finding his own dead bodies and more versions of himself continuously falling and dying in different ways.

At first I thought Realm of the Damned would be boring. It was a series of comic book images animated via moving them around or deforming them, while a narrator was speaking on the background. The story also had the seeds that have been used so many times with little success: Van Helsing, vampires, werewolves and so on. But it was only one hour long, how bad could it be? And as the story progressed I really enjoyed the experience. And it wasn't because of the gory graphics or the strong voices or the heavy metal music as much as it was the story. Surprisingly deep, it explores not only a world that is dominated by undead monsters, but the inner turmoils of the last defender of humanity. The ending was gripping and terrible and funny at the same time.

I recommend it highly. Here is the trailer:

About 25 years ago I was getting Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia CD-ROM as a gift from my father. Back then I had no Internet so I delved into what now seems impossibly boring, looking up facts, weird pictures, reading about this and that.

At one time I remember I found a timeline based feature that showed on a scrolling bar the main events of history. I am not much into history, I can tell you that, but for some reason I became fascinated with how events in American history in particular were lining up. So I extracted only those and, at the end, I presented my findings to my grandmother: America was an expanding empire, conquering, bullying, destabilizing, buying territory. I was really adamant that I had stumbled onto something, since the United States were supposed to be moral and good. Funny how a childhood of watching contraband US movies can make you believe that. My grandmother was not impressed and I, with the typical attention span of a child, abandoned any historical projects in the future.

Fast forward to now, when, looking for Oliver Stone to see what movies he has done lately, I stumble upon a TV Series documentary called The Untold History of the United States. You can find it in video format, but also as a companion book or audio book. While listening to the audio book I realized that Stone was talking about my childhood discovery, also disillusioned after a youth of believing the American propaganda, then going through the Vietnam war and realizing that history doesn't tell the same story as what is being circulated in classes and media now.

However, this is no childish project. The book takes us through the US history, skirting the good stuff and focusing on the bad. Yet it is not done in malice, as far as I could see, but in the spirit that this part of history is "untold", hidden from the average eye, and has to be revealed to all. Stone is a bit extremist in his views, but this is not a conspiracy theory book. It is filled with historical facts, arranged in order, backed by quotes from the people of the era. Most of all, it doesn't provide answers, but rather questions that the reader is invited to answer himself. Critics call it biased, but Stone himself admits that it is with intent. Other materials and tons of propaganda - the history of which is also presented in the book - more than cover the positive aspect of things. This is supposed to be a balancing force in a story that is almost always said from only one side.

The introductory chapter alone was terrifying, not only because of the forgotten atrocities committed by the US in the name of the almighty dollar and God, but also because of the similarities with the present. Almost exactly a century after the American occupation of the Philippines, we find the same situation in the Middle-East. Romanians happy with the US military base at Deveselu should perhaps check what happened to other countries that welcomed US bases on their territory. People swallowing immigration horror stories by the ton should perhaps find out more about a little film called Birth of a Nation, revolutionary in its technical creation and controversial - now - for telling the story of the heroic Ku-Klux-Klan riding to save white folk - especially poor defenseless women - from the savage negroes.

By no means I am calling this a true complete objective history, but the facts that it describes are chilling in their evil banality and unfortunately all true. The thesis of the film is that America is losing its republican founding fathers roots by behaving like an empire, good and moral only in tightly controlled and highly financed media and school curricula. It's hard not to see the similarities between US history a century ago and today, including the presidential candidates and their speeches. The only thing that has changed is the complete military and economic supremacy of the United States and the switch from territorial colonialism to economic colonialism. I am not usually interested in history, but this is a book worth reading.

I leave you with Oliver Stone's interview (the original video was removed by YouTube for some reason):

The Brain that Changes Itself is a remarkable book for several reasons. M.D. Norman Doidge presents several cases of extraordinary events that constitute proof for the book's thesis: that the brain is plastic, easy to remold, to adapt to the data you feed it. What is astonishing is that, while these cases are not new and are by far not the only ones out there, the medical community is clinging to the old belief that the brain is made of clearly localized parts that have specific roles. Doidge is trying to change that.

The ramifications of brain plasticity are wide spread: the way we learn or unlearn things, how we fall in love, how we adapt to new things and we keep our minds active and young, the way we would educate our children, the minimal requirement for a computer brain interface and so much more. The book is structured in 11 chapters and some addendums that seem to be extra material that the author didn't know how to properly format. A huge part is acknowledgements and references, so the book is not that large.

These are the chapters, in order:
  • Chapter 1 - A Woman Perpetually Falling. Describes a woman that lost her sense of balance. She feels she is falling at all times and barely manages to walk using her sight. Put her in front of a weird patterned rug and she falls down. When sensors fed information to an electrode plate on her tongue she was able to have balance again. The wonder comes from the fact that a time after removing the device she would retain her sense. The hypothesis is that the receptors in her inner ear were not destroyed, by damaged, leaving some in working order and some sending incorrect information to the brain. Once a method to separate good and bad receptors, the brain immediately adapted itself to use only the good ones. The doctor that spearheaded her recovery learned the hard way that the brain is plastic, when his father was almost paralyzed by a stroke. He pushed his father to crawl on the ground and try to move the hand that wouldn't move, the leg that wouldn't hold him, the tongue that wouldn't speak. In the end, his father recovered. Later, after he died from another stroke while hiking on a mountain, the doctor had a chance to see the extent of damage done by the first stroke: 97% of the nerves that run from the cerebral cortex to the spine were destroyed.
  • Chapter 2 - Building Herself a Better Brain. Barbara was born in the '50s with an brain "asymmetry". While leaving a relatively normal life she had some mental disabilities that branded her as "retarded". It took two decades to stumble upon studies that showed that the brain was plastic and could adapt. She trained her weakest traits, the ones that doctors were sure to remain inadequate because the part in the brain "associated" with it was missing and found out that her mind adapted to compensate. She and her husband opened a school for children with disabilities, but her astonishing results come from when she was over 20 years old, after years of doctors telling her there was nothing to be done.
  • Chapter 3 - Redesigning the Brain. Michael Merzenich designs a program to train the brain against cognitive impairments or brain injuries. Just tens of hours help improve - and teach people how to keep improving on their own - from things like strokes, learning disabilities, even conditions like autism and schizophrenia. His work is based on scientific experiments that, when presented to the wider community, were ridiculed and actively attacked for the only reason that they went against the accepted dogma.
  • Chapter 4 - Acquiring Tastes and Loves. Very interesting article about how our experiences shape our sense of normalcy, the things we like or dislike, the people we fall for and the things we like to do with them. The chapter also talks about Freud, in a light that truly explains how ahead of his time he was, about pornography and its effects on the brain, about how our pleasure system affects both learning and unlearning and has a very interesting theory about oxytocin, seeing it not as a "commitment neuromodulator", but as a "demodulator", a way to replastify the part of the brain responsible for attachments, allowing us to let go of them and create new ones. It all culminates with the story of Bob Flanagan, a "supermasochist" who did horrible things to his body on stage because he had associated pain with pleasure.
  • Chapter 5 - Midnight Resurrection. A surgeon has a stroke that affects half of his body. Through brain training and physiotherapy, he manages to recover - and not gain magical powers. The rest of the chapter talks about experiments on monkeys that show how the feedback from sensors rewires the brain and how what is not used gets weaker and what is used gets stronger, finer and bigger in the brain.
  • Chapter 6 - Brain Lock Unlocked. This chapter discusses obsessions and bad habits and defective associations in the brain and how they can be broken.
  • Chapter 7 - Pain: The Dark Side of Plasticity. A plastic brain is also the reason why we strongly remember painful moments. A specific case is phantom limbs, where people continue to feel sensations - often the most traumatic ones - after limbs have been removed. The chapter discusses causes and solutions.
  • Chapter 8 - Imagination: How Thinking Makes It So. The brain maps for skills that we imagine we perform change almost as much as when we are actually doing them. This applies to mental activities, but also physical ones. Visualising doing sports prepared people for the moment when they actually did it. The chapter also discusses how easily the brain adapts to using external tools. Brain activity recorders were wired to various tools and monkeys quickly learned to use them without the need for direct electric feedback.
  • Chapter 9 - Turning Our Ghosts into Ancestors. Discussing the actual brain mechanisms behind psychotherapy, in the light of what the book teaches about brain plasticity, makes it more efficient as well as easier to use and understand. The case of Mr. L., Freud's patient, who couldn't keep a stable relationship as he was always looking for another and couldn't remember his childhood and adolescence, sheds light on how brain associates trauma with day to day life and how simply separating the two brain maps fixes problems.
  • Chapter 10 - Rejuvenation. A chapter talking about the neural stem cells and how they can be activated. Yes, they exist and they can be employed without surgical procedures.
  • Chapter 11 - More than the Sum of Her Parts. A girl born without her left hemisphere learns that her disabilities are just untrained parts of her brain. After decades of doctors telling her there is nothing to be done because the parts of her brain that were needed for this and that were not present, she learns that her brain can actually adapt and improve, with the right training. An even more extreme case than what we saw in Chapter 2.

There is much more in the book. I am afraid I am not making it justice with the meager descriptions there. It is not a self-help book and it is not popularising science, it is discussing actual cases, the experiments done to back what was done and emits theories about the amazing plasticity of the brain. Some things I took from it are that we can train our brain to do almost anything, but the training has to follow some rules. Also that we do not use gets discarded in time, while what is used gets reinforced albeit with diminishing efficiency. That is a great argument to do new things and train at things that we are bad at, rather than cement a single scenario brain. The book made me hungry for new senses, which in light of what I have read, are trivial to hook up to one's consciousness.

If you are not into reading, there is an one hour video on YouTube that covers about the same subjects:



Enjoy!

White to move. Can you draw? Can you win? What would you do? Try - I know it's fucking hard, but do it anyway - to think it through.
[FEN "5kB1/3p1P2/7K/2Pp1P1P/p6p/4P3/7P/8 w - - 0 1"]
1. Kg6 a3 2. h6 a2 3. h7 a1=Q 4. h8=Q Qxh8 (4. .. Qg1+ 5. Kh5 Qxe3 (5. ..
Qg7 6. Qxg7+ Kxg7 7. Kxh4 d4 8. f6+ Kf8 9. c6) 6. Qf6 Qf3+ 7. Kh6 Qf4+ 8.
Kh7) 5. f6 h3 6. Kg5 d4 7. c6 dxc6 8. exd4 c5 (8. .. Qxg8+ 9. fxg8=Q+ Kxg8
10. Kg6 Kf8 11. f7 Ke7 12. Kg7) (8. .. Qh7 9. Bxh7 Kxf7 10. Bg8+ Kxg8 11.
Kg6 Kf8) 9. d5 c4 10. d6 c3 11. d7 c2 12. d8=Q# 1-0


Here is the video for it, from very good channel ChessNetwork:


Enjoy!

Here is a very informative presentation about the internals of await/async, which makes things a lot clearer when you are trying to understand what the hell is going on there:

I've been monitoring more closely the access to my blog and I noticed that a lot of people are interested in the post about the Sicilian Wing Gambit, defined as pushing b4 in reply to the standard Sicilian Defense e4 c5. So I will be trying in this to use new knowledge and computer engines to revisit this funky opening gambit. As such I will be using LiveBook, a system created by the people at ChessBase that tries to catalog and discover chess based on active chess games and analysis, as well as computer engines, in this case Komodo 9 with a 256MB table memory. I've continued each variation until there was only 1 game left in the database, then I stopped.

Main line from LiveBook


Let's start with LiveBook. Here is a PGN with the main variations in order of use. You will notice that the main line is to accept the gambit (GM Jan Gustafsson even wrote "take the pawn and be happy!" at that particular junction), then refuse the second pawn and immediately challenge the center - which would have been the Sicilian idea all along - by pushing d5. It loks a bit like a Scandinavian Defense, but without White being able to push the Black queen back with Nc3. The main line shows Black gaining advantage, but then losing it by move 12, where equality sets in. However, the computer does not recognize some of the moves in the main line as best.

In the line that I was interested in, the one where Black takes the pawn on the a-file, White gains the classical center and technically it is ahead in deployment of minor pieces, if one considers a knight on the a-file and a semi blocked in bishop developed pieces. However, not all is lost, as the computer has some ideas of its own. Also keep in mind that the Sicilian Wing Gambit is not well known and few people actively employ it.

So here is the PGN of the LiveBook database, based on what people played: 1. e4 c5 2. b4 {This is the Sicilian Wing Gambit. From here on, the percentages in the comments are wins for White and the points are from computer engines.} cxb4 (2... b6 3. bxc5 bxc5 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. Rb1 g6 6. g3 Bg7 7. Bg2 Ba6 8. Nge2 {50% / 0.00}) 3. a3 d5 (3... bxa3 4. Nxa3 d6 5. d4 Nf6 6. Bd3 Nc6 7. c3 e5 8. Ne2 {50% / -0.33}) (3... e6 4. axb4 Bxb4 5. Bb2 (5. c3 Be7 6. d4 d6 7. Bd3 Nf6 8. Ne2 Nc6 9. O-O O-O) 5... Nf6 6. e5 Nd5 7. c4 Ne7 8. Na3 (8. Qg4 Ng6 9. h4 h5 10. Qg3 Nc6 11. Bd3 {50% / -0.75}) 8... Nbc6 9. Nc2 Ba5 {50% / -0.25}) 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. Nf3 (5. Bb2 e5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. c4 Qe6 8. Bd3 Nf6 9. O-O
Bd6 10. Re1 O-O 11. axb4 Nxb4 12. Bf1 {75% / 0.00}) 5... e5 6. Bb2 (6. axb4 Bxb4 7. c3 Be7 8. Na3 Nc6 9. Nb5 Qd8 10. d4 exd4 11. Bf4 Kf8 12. Nbxd4 Nxd4 13. Nxd4 {50% / 0.00}) (6. c4 Qe6 7. Bd3 Nc6 8. Bb2 Nf6 9. O-O Bd6 10. Re1 O-O 11. axb4 Nxb4 12. Bf1 {75%}) 6... Nc6 7. c4 Qe6 8. Bd3 Nf6 9. O-O Bd6 10. Re1 O-O 11. axb4 Nxb4 12. Bf1 e4 13. d3 Qd7 14. dxe4 Bc5 15. Bxf6 Qxd1 16. Rxd1 gxf6 {50% / 0.00} *


Computer analysis: main line


Now let's put Komodo on the job, let us know what is going on here. Many people analysed the position resulting after pushing b4 and with depths of 36 and 40, computer engines overwhelmingly suggest taking the pawn. However we might want to explore what happens if we take another option. It is interesting to note that Komodo 9 pushes the main move as the third most important at depth 24. Perhaps later on this would get reversed again, but this soon into the game it just tells us that the other options are equally good. The two moves I am talking about is d5 and e5. Interestingly enough, the second most common human move (b6) is not even on the radar for the computer, while the computer move appears to have been played only 4 times by humans. So let's take a look at computer moves:1. e4 c5 2. b4 d5 3. exd5 cxb4 4. a3 Qxd5 5. Nf3 e5 6. axb4 Bxb4 7. c3 e4 8. cxb4 exf3 9. Qxf3 Qxf3 10. gxf3 * At the end of all this, White has four pawn islands and doubled pawns, but can quickly use the semi open files to attack with rooks. Maybe this discourages you, but remember two things: these are computers making these moves and while the position looks weird, you get attacking chances with no loss of material. That is the purpose of a gambit after all.

Computer analysis: accepting both pawns


Let's see what computers say about the line that we want to happen. The gambit is accepted, the a-pawn is captured as well. What then? I was surprised to see that, depending on depth and engine, the next move is quite different. Stockfish 6, at depth 39 goes with d4, taking control of the center and ignoring the Black a-pawn. The variations from this position are quite complex and have less to do with this gambit. I would gamble (pardon the pun) that the purpose of the wing gambit was reached at this point. Computers give a clear equality between players, but remember that even after we capture the a-pawn, we have still would be a pawn down. Black is forced to passive moves like e6, d6, having to spend resources to regain center control, while most White pieces have clear attack lines.

An example: 1. e4 c5 2. b4 cxb4 3. a3 bxa3 4. d4 e6 5. Nf3 d5 6. e5 Bd7 7. Bd3 Nc6 8. Nxa3 Bb4+ 9. Bd2 Bxd2+ 10. Qxd2 a6 *

Computer analysis: accepting just the first pawn


But what happens in between these two options? What if Black accepts the gambit, but doesn't take the second pawn? Will the computer see the same result as in the "human main line" we first discussed? Not quite. The computer moves are really different from the human ones. 1. e4 c5 2. b4 cxb4 3. a3 e5 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. Bb2 Nf6 6. Nxe5 Qe7 7. Nf3 Nxe4 8. Be2 d5 9. O-O Qd8 10. Bb5 bxa3 11. Nxa3 Bc5 * The result is another equal position, where White lost the center, but has a strong, yet weird development.

Also check out 3... d5: 1. e4 c5 2. b4 cxb4 3. a3 d5 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. Nf3 e5 6. axb4 Bxb4 7. c3 e4 8. cxb4 exf3 9. Qxf3 Qxf3 10. gxf3 Ne7 * An interesting tactic is not to take the d5 pawn and instead advance the e-pawn to e5: 1. e4 c5 2. b4 cxb4 3. a3 d5 4. e5 Nc6 5. Bb2 Qb6 6. Nf3 Bg4 7. axb4 Qxb4 8. Bc3 Qe4+ 9. Be2 Bxf3 10. gxf3 Qf4 11. d4 * You can watch an example game in this variation from Kingscrusher.
My opinion on this is that White forces a strong center, but, as seen from the computer variation, the sides get seriously compromised. The truth is that I always wondered if there is a solid play with the king in the center. This might be it, although keep in mind that in that position White is a pawn down.

What if we start with b4 and then try to move towards the center?


Well, that's easy to answer: it's another opening :) called the Polish or Sokolsky opening and I have written another blog post about it, although it is pretty old. Maybe I will also revisit that one. The point with that opening is that it already shows Black what we plan and it has some other principles of work, more closely related to the English opening to which it sometimes transposes. The Wing Gambit, though, is a response to the Sicilian, trying to pull the opponent from their comfort zone and into ours.

What if we delay the b4 push?


One can wait for the wing gambit until knights have left their castle. That's called the Portsmouth Gambit (1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. b4) and some consider it stronger than the gambit presented here. It might be interesting to analyse. Haven't found a lot of resources on it, just this 2014 book from David Robert Lonsdale.

Another option is to play 3. a3, preparing a support of b4 on the next move. It does produce similar results as the base gambit, but I didn't have time to analyse it and it feels a bit slow, to be honest.

When Black defends with b6


Defending c5 with b6 leads to a Sicilian without the b-pawns. That means that an attack on the queen side is out and the White light square bishop can linger around on the queen side as long as it wants, targeting that juicy Black king side from afar. Combine that with the dark square bishop having a nice diagonal as well. 1. e4 c5 2. b4 b6 3. bxc5 bxc5 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. Bb5 Nd4 6. Nxd4 cxd4 *
For an example of that variation, check out Kingscrusher's video.

Traps in the Sicilian Wing Gambit


I couldn't find a lot of traps in the Sicilian Wing Gambit. One good video on this comes from GJ_Chess (ignore his Indian accent, he is actually quite good and, what I like a lot, he focuses on traps and dirty tricks in his videos):


Other ideas and nomenclatures


The ECO category for this opening is B20, same as for the Sicilian Defense, which doesn't help a lot.

After Black captures the b-pawn, c4 is called the Santasiere variation of the Wing Gambit, and Black's only option seems to try for control of d4 with either e5 or Nc6. Taking en-passant is giving White a lot of compensation in development.

The goading of the Black pawn with a3 that we've covered above is called the Marshall variation. If Black pushes the pawn to d5 and White captures, we enter the Marienbad variation, while if Black captures the a-pawn, it is called Carlsbad variation. For the record, bad is the German name for bath not an indication that the variation is bad :).

Pushing a3 before b4 is called the Mengarini gambit. Check out a game from 2013 between Dobrov and Blom.

Other resources on the gambit


A nice review of this gambit, with names of the variations and some human analysis, can be found on chess.com. (The same author has a post on The Portsmouth Gambit as well)

On chesstempo there is a nice list of games with this variation that you can search. Play around with the Advanced Search parameters. As a reference, there are 11 games from people over 2500 using the Wing Gambit and White has most wins. If restricting to games after 2000, you only get one, which ended in a draw, although White was better at the end. You can see the game here: Timur Gareev vs Gata Kamsky, US Championship (2015).

Interesting Wing Gambit/Fried Liver attack combo that you can see here: John P. Pratt vs Elden Watson, 29 Sep 1976, Hill Air Force Base, Utah. You gotta love that. Not the best rated players in the world, but still. Here is a lichess computer analysis of the same game.

A 2013 call to reevaluate the Wing Gambit with some examples of famous old games where the opening had a strong effect.

Conclusions


Unlike the Sokolsky opening, the purpose of the Sicilian Wing Gambit is not to push the b-pawn to block Black's development, but to deflect the c-pawn from protecting the center. The goal is reached when White has a strong center. In no way does it mean it is a winning gambit. There are no brutal traps, no quick wins, the only purpose of this opening is to pull an aggressive Sicilian player from their comfort zone and into a slower, more positional one. That means that the White player needs to attack like crazy until Black is a mere smear on the board, otherwise the center control and speed advantage that may be obtained from the opening can be easily lost.

From my analysis I gather that Black should accept the gambit, but not continue to take pawns like the a-pawn, instead focusing on their own piece development and control of the center. With perfect computer play, equality is reached and maintained. White often fianchettoes the dark square bishop to b2 from where they put pressure on the Black king side. Black's game often centers on exchanging pieces, so that the opening advantage gets lost. The best chance Black has to decline the gambit seems to be pushing d5, going into murky territory.

White on the other hand should push for the center, even propping the d-pawn with c3 and blunting the dark square bishop diagonal. Then focusing on attack is the most important feature, as in most gambits.

Careful with the variation in which Black attacks the e4 pawn with d5, then capturing with the queen after the exchange. If not careful the queen can fork the king and the rook. That is why Nf6 is played by White as the next move or even Bb2, although that's not as good, as the bishop can be deflected.

Usually the a-pawn is recaptured with the knight, not the bishop. This may seem surprising, but what it prepares is moving the knight on b5, attacking c7 and a7 and being very hard to dislodge, as the a-pawn is pinned to the rook. Some variations sacrifice the Black rook in the corner for a quick counter-attack. In case it is captured with the bishop, the idea is to exchange dark square bishops and prevent the Black king from castling.

In several games I have seen, moving towards the center forces Black to use e6 followed by d5, to which White can respond with e5 themselves and get into French defense territory. Personally I dislike playing against the French, but in this case, without b-pawns, the theory is quite different as well. For an example, check out this video from Kingscrusher.

Even if caustic GM Roman Dzindzichashvili categorized this as the worst opening for White, don't forget that it was used by Fischer in 1992 to beat Spassky. Well, a transposition thereof. If you are confident in your chess skills, this is just as good an opening as any other and at least you need to know it a little in order to defend against it.

I would love some comments from some real chess players, as all of this is based on game databases and computer analysis. Please leave comments with what you think.

Video examples


Here is Simon Williams using the gambit against a young Polish player:


ChessTrainer shows a nice game where he uses the gambit to get a quick center and take his opponent out of Sicilian main lines:


MatoJelic is showing us some classical games:
Thomas A vs Schmid, Hastings 1952

Wood L vs Mease A ,USA, 1949

Japanese culture is certainly special. The music, the drawing style, the writing, the cinematography, they are all easily recognizable and usually of high quality. Yet I think it is even cooler when artists are able to blend Japanese feeling with Western cultural artifacts. Check out this Japanese traditional sound... made metal: Akatsuki no Ito (The Thread of Dawn?)

It pays to see how celebrities got to where they are. It is a continuous chain of events that feeds off their talent (or lack thereof). Just like with Angelina, here is a video with Bjork, age 11, reading a nativity story in her native language.

Here is a nice video about the Dawn mission. It is hosted by the Planetary Society and very accessible for most levels of understanding of science and astronomy. Check it out, it is a fascinating mission.

Just wanted to post these really funny Star Trek fan made animations.

South Trek - a South Park animated Star Trek:


Star Trekkin' song:


Stone Park - a Flinstones animated Star Trek:



Some other funny stuff:






I don't usually post animal videos, but this really is very cute. It is space related, as well, as it is taken by a camera in Baikonur's space center. Check it out!



Got it from an article about the animals living near rocket launch pads: Launch Pad Animals, Ranked

More into the secret life of the gopher here: No one plays golf on Mars

The News: A User's Manual is a short book that reads like a thesis for improvement of the way news is reported. Why, asks Alain de Botton, is news trying harder to be "accurate" than to tell the entire story so that people can understand and feel it? Basically it is the old Star Trek trope when Spock or Data or Seven of Nine tell the time in milliseconds when all was actually needed for the purpose on hand was how many hours more or less. Just like in there, the news, as seen by the author, does not understand either what the whole story is (lazy reporting) nor what people need (or indeed what the purpose on hand is). Like a global organization struck by autism, it just repeats the same terrifying and intimidating bits of human suffering, only to ignore the good, the humain, the inspiring and the overall effect on the audience.

I will put is clearly: Botton is right. However, he is discussing news from the perspective of human betterment. Just like people eating too much and exercising too little that the news organizations are being paid from, they couldn't suddenly do what is right as opposed to what brings the money or the audience likes to see. Some of the points he makes could, presumably, be used in national televisions, the ones that should be apolitical and tasked towards the education of the audience, not towards making profit. Alas, such televisions do not exist anymore, I think. I believe, however, that the book was never designed as a how-to manual for news organizations, but for the people watching it. Imagining the news style that Botton is describing can make us, the viewers, understand not only why we watch the news as they are, but also what they do to us.

The book is split into several chapters, all of them containing sections which contain at least an introduction, a description, a comparison, an analysis, a damage report and a suggestion for change:
  • Politics
  • World News
  • Economics
  • Celebrity
  • Disaster
  • Consumption
  • Conclusion

What I found interesting was the psychological analysis of why we are attracted to some types of news items and what effect they have on us. I especially liked the comparison between "terrible tragedies" and the original Greek tragedies. According to Botton, telling what happened in 100 "unbiased" words is less engaging or instructive than going deeper and explaining the situation and the motivations of the people that did terrible things. Why, it is so much easier and comfortable to condemn a murderer of children as "sick" than to try to imagine what he has in common with you and in what situation you would snap that horribly. However, that teaches you and educates you more in life.

The Botton line (heh heh) is that without context, any information doesn't mean anything and makes us feel nothing. To overcome this, news makers are showing the most brutal and shocking things that they are allowed to show, just in order to elicit some semblance of interest. Instead, giving us the whole of the story, making us aware of how people from distant places live before stuffing down our throats how they died, might be more memorable and instrumental to make us feel something useful.

I found myself comparing news media to the justice system. There, a trial with no representation and due process is considered a sham. Both sides need to tell their story to the best of possibilities. If every news item is like a trial, its purpose making the audience judge a situation or a purpose, surely the same must be true. I do believe that Botton would have made his point more popular if he would have taken the stance of the lawmaker than the one of the psychologist. On the other hand, that would have deprived me of an instructive book that exposed many of the mechanisms through which the news is making us feel good while causing so much (hopefully) unintentional damage.

Not everybody is happy about his book, especially professional reporters. Here is one review from The Guardian: The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton – review

More helpful, here is a video of Alain de Botton himself discussing some points made in the book:

Just days after I was saying how great Star Trek New Voyages/Phase II was, I stumble upon this gem of a story: Star Trek Aurora. It is a 3D animated full movie set in the Star Trek universe. Even if the animation is primitive, give it a few minutes. The acting is good and the story is really nice and original, with a believable female character and a fresh perspective on the Star Trek universe. I am embedding here the full movie, but also go to their web site and YouTube channel, since they have more work coming!

In this post I want to talk to you about new stuff that links to the good old stuff of our own youth. You probably know what Kickstarter is, but just as an introduction, it is a place where people ask for money for future work. It's like a crowdsourced financing scheme for your public elevator pitch (just imagine a planet-sized elevator, though). And when I say Kickstarter, I mean the actual site and all the other similar things out there. Like... Kickstarter-like, like it?

First stop: Underworld Ascendant. The team that made Ultima Underworld, one of my all time favourite games, is doing a new one. As you can see on the Kickstarter page, it is two weeks from completing. If you loved the Ultima Underworld games (NOT the Ultima games), you could consider pitching in.

Second stop: Hero-U. Remember Quest for Glory? It was made by Sierra Games and the entire series was awesome! However the designers of the game are the Coles. They have been working on Hero-U, a modern version of the QG universe. They planned to release in the spring of 2014, but scope creep and public feedback turned the game from a simple little game to a complex and interesting concept that is planned for release in the autumn of 2015 and it is well on schedule. Check it out! They are at their second Kickstarter round.

Turning to movies and series, this time works made by and for Star Trek fans. And I am not even talking about random people doing really weird and low quality stuff, I mean real movie business people doing great stuff. Check out Star Trek Continues, a continuation of the original Star Trek series, as well as Star Trek Axanar, which seems to become a really cool movie! I can't wait for it to get out.

Update June 27th 2016:
The Axanar story has become a poster for corporate greed and stupidity. Soon after the trailers for Axanar were released, Paramount and CBS - the corporations owning the Star Trek franchise - sued the producers on copyright infringement. Funny enough, they did this before anything real was released. Their problem? The production was too big.

Having received more than 1.2 million US dollars from Kickstarter, the show was actually starting to look great. Top production qualities, professional actors, good CGI and - most of all - passionate people. Paramount and CBS alleged that this was already a commercial venture, having such budget, even if it was released freely on the Internet after production. To me, it feels as if Hollywood started to feel the heat. They realized that if this production and distribution model catches on, they will be left trying to combat piracy and hiring armies of lawyers to arrange and check distribution contracts when "the opposition" will just release free on the Internet once the budget for production is met. Consider the implications! This would be huge.

It felt like entrapment. First you let legions of people use the Star Trek moniker and universe, then you jump with a lawsuit on the people that make the most money. So the studios started to try to deflect the anger and consternation of fans and independent producers with dirty tricks like instructing J.J.Abrams to say in an interview that the lawsuit would go away, only for it to continue anyway and finally, with a set of guidelines for independent productions to which the studios would not object. The terms are ridiculous and pretty much break the entire concept of serialized Star Trek. More here, check this out: “The fan production must … not exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.”



A long time ago I wrote a post about Vodo, what I thought was the future of cool little indie movies and series. Vodo didn't quite live to my expectations, but Kickstarter has taken its place and, since it is not only about movies, but all kinds of projects, it has a larger chance of surviving and changing the way the world works. Not all is rosy, though. There are voices that say that the Kickstarter ecosystem is more about promises than about delivery. Also some governmental and commercial agencies are really displeased with the way money are exchanged directly between customers and producers, bypassing borders, intermediaries like banks and tax collectors and so on. If you combine this with Bitcoin type currency, their job of overseeing all commercial transactions and taking their cut does become more difficult. I sympathise... not really.

I leave you with some videos of the projects above. Think about looking for others that are working on something you want to sponsor. You might be surprised not only by the ingenious ideas that are out there, but also about how it would make you feel to support people with the same passions as yourself.

Underworld Ascendant trailer:


Game play for Hero-U:


The full first episode of Star Trek Continues from the creators themselves:


Prelude to Axanar, a small mockumentary about the events that will be the context of Axanar: