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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:

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This is a great film. It shows what it would look like to travel with the speed of light from the Sun to Jupiter. It takes 45 minutes (the length of the film) and it is one of the few things that show really how space is, how large, empty, unforgiving it is and how small and almost insignificant are the small islands of dirt we are fixated on. Don't worry, you have a little indicator of when something is about to appear, so you can fast forward. Really loved this. I only wish it would have continued to Pluto and beyond (just so you understand how awesome the New Horizons probe really is)

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Dan Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics, the field that is trying to analyse economics via human behavior studies. In his book, Predictable Irrational - The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions, he is arguing that the simple model of market forces constraining people to behave rationally to maximize gain is false, as people are not rational and will never be rational. He then goes to explain various mental fallacies that we are subject to, complete with experiments testing and proving them.

The book is rather short and easy to read, split into 15 chapters and some annexes. Here is a summary:
  • Chapter 1: The Truth About Relativity - People assess the value of something relative to something else that is known. Thus people can be "primed" by being exposed to items that are priced in a certain way, influencing the value they give to something else. Think supermarkets and the three category of items: cheap stuff, expensive stuff and one item that is insanely expensive. Relativity will make people to buy the expensive stuff.
  • Chapter 2: The Fallacy of Supply and Demand - Again, value is not really an objective thing, coming from supply and demand, but by comparing to other things. The example given is that of black pearls, at first no one would buy them, but the importer chose the most beautiful and best, created a line of insanely expensive jewels and advertised them everywhere. Soon black pearls were in demand and at a much higher price than normal pearls.
  • Chapter 3: The Cost of Zero Cost - Ariely argues that zero is a price in a category of its own. He makes an experiment where people have to choose between average and good candy and they are asked to pay 2 cents and 14 cents, respectively. People overwhelmingly choose the good candy, since the price is not that high. However, when the price of the average candy drops to nothing and that of the good candy to 12 cents (so the financial gain is the same for the same quantity) people switch sides and take the average candies.
  • Chapter 4: The Cost of Social Norms - One of the most interesting for me, this chapter discusses how people function on social norms until someone introduces the market norms (tit for tat), in which case the social norms go out the window and the situation may even become really embarrassing socially. Imagine Thanksgiving dinner at the house of mother in law, nice roasted turkey, good wine, the wife's recipe was used for the delicious desert, everybody is happy. What happens if the man thanks the hosts and attempts to give them money to cover the expense? A lot of interesting experiments expand on the concept.
  • Chapter 5: The Power of a Free Cookie - A reverse of Chapter 4, it considers what happens when you get something for free as opposed to having to pay for it. When a colleague comes to the office and brings cookies, people take one or two, taking into consideration that other people in the office need to get a cookie. However, if people are asked to pay a cent on the cookies, they usually take more, again market rules trumping social norms when money is involved.
  • Chapter 6: The Influence of Arousal - Rather funny chapter, but really interesting. It shows that people, when sexually aroused, change their behavior significantly. That is not a surprise, but that change is so large that those people themselves cannot predict what they will actually do. Consider this when you rationally "plan" on how you are going to behave when exposed to temptation or strong emotions.
  • Chapter 7: The Problem of Procrastination and Self Control - People tend to value the present much more than the future. People plan to save money or lose weight, but are deflected by present moment temptations. Can something be done about it?
  • Chapter 8: The High Price of Ownership - People tend to overvalue the things they already possess. In an experiment, Ariely proves that people would not buy the things that they are trying to sell at the price that they would themselves ask. This is used in economics when people are offered the option of "trying out" something and only when they actually "have" the item, decide if they want to give it back.
  • Chapter 9: Keeping Doors Open - One AI researcher came with the idea that intelligent behavior arises spontaneously when trying to maximize the available options. Ariely argues that this kind of behavior is not intelligent at all. He does clever experiments with doors that disappear if not opened in an interval of time and observes people periodically open them just in order to keep them there, even if they gain less by not visiting more lucrative rooms.
  • Chapter 10: The Effect of Expectations - This chapter seems to be incomplete. It is argued that if expecting to enjoy or not enjoy something, the enjoyment will be proportional to the expectations. Personally I feel that this only happens in cases where people can't really tell the difference between good and bad. I often face the opposite effect when watching a movie that I expect to be good and hate it when it is merely average.
  • Chapter 11: The Power of Price - Similar to Chapter 10, this shows how we feel we get more from something that is priced higher. The placebo effect is also discussed here. Interesting, indeed.
  • Chapter 12: The Cycle of Distrust - Economics says that there can be no hundred dollar bills on the ground because someone would have picked them up already. Making fun of this view on things, Ariely discusses dishonest offers that look like great deals, but instead are taking advantage of your gullibility. He argues that originally trustful people quickly lose that trust when cheated and it is hard to get it back. He gives an interesting example where they installed a stall offering free money. Only about one in five people even approached it.
  • Chapter 13: The Context of Our Character part 1 - Both chapters discuss the level of human dishonesty, but show that circumstances change the amount considerably. In an experiment he gives people the chance to cheat after doing some word memory tests, but people almost don't cheat at all if the words were related to honesty or moral codes.
  • Chapter 14: The Context of Our Character part 2 - In this it is shown that people are more likely to cheat if they can rationalize the value of the thing they steal. A concrete example is that they are less likely to steal money than something one step apart from money, like a worthless token. The difference is quite significant.
  • Chapter 15: Beer and Free Lunches - A kind of good bye chapter, this shows how people are influenced in their choices by what other people in their group chose. He makes a clever experiment where people order from several types of beer, either publicly or on a piece of paper. Depending on the culture, they choose differently or similarly to what people before them chose.

Overall I found the book informative. If one can integrate the teachings of the book, the benefit for one's life would be great. Unfortunately, Ariely shows that this kind of rational illusions are predictable, and that people need to make great efforts to dispel them. I leave you with a video presentation from Dan Ariely on TED, just to give you a taste of what he is like and what he does.

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I was watching a video from GM Niclas Huschenbeth where he played lytura in an online game. Amazingly he lost, but that is what happens when you underestimate your opponent, which I think was what actually went wrong. At the end of the video it was difficult to see exactly what White could have done after a point, so I analysed the game with the computer and found some amazing moves. First I will show you the original game. I urge you to think it through and see what moves you would have done differently, like a chess puzzle, before you watch the game as the computer suggested it. You can also watch the video online at the end of the post and, if you like chess, I really recommend Huschenbeth's channel. Not only is he a great player, but also a decent and nice guy and young, too. His Blitz & Talk GM Special videos are especially cool, since he plays with other world class grand masters.

But enough of that. Here is the game, up to a point where it didn't really matter what happened: 1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. Nc3 g4 5. Ne5 Qh4+ 6. g3 fxg3 7. Qxg4 g2+ 8. Qxh4 gxh1=Q 9. Qh5 Nh6 10. d3 d6 11. Bxh6 Be6 12. Bxf8 Rxf8 13. Nf3 Nd7 14. O-O-O c6 15. Bh3 Nf6 16. Rxh1 Nxh5 17. Bf1 Rg8 18. Ne2 Kd7 19. Kd2 Rg7 20. Ke3 Rag8 21. a3 Nf6 22. h3 b6 23. d4 a5 24. Nf4 Rg3 25. Ne2

Here is the video of the game, to give you the time to think it through:


And finally, here are two lines that the computer recommended. This is considering that the fateful 10. d3 was played already: 1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. Nc3 g4 5. Ne5 Qh4+ 6. g3 fxg3 7. Qxg4 g2+ 8. Qxh4 gxh1=Q 9. Qh5 Nh6 10. d3 d6 11. Bxh6 Be6 12. Bxf8 Rxf8 13. Nf3 Nd7 14. O-O-O c6 15. Nb5 Nf6 (15. .. cxb5 16. Bh3 Qxd1+ 17. Kxd1 O-O-O 18. Bxe6 fxe6 19. Nd4 {White +1.2}) 16. Nxd6+ Kd7 17. Qh3 Bxh3 18. Bxh3+ Kxd6 19. Rxh1 {Black +0.3}

Did you see those Nb5 and Qh3 moves?! Who does that? :)

I was just thinking about Coma a few days ago. I don't know why. I thought I miss one of their beautiful songs. And here I see on YouTube they released a new video just when I was thinking of them. This one is a very nice combination of Catalin's lyrics, melodic and hard sounds and a cool interweave of the voices of Catalin and Dan - it's not the usual contrast between singing and shouting, but rather a vocal collaboration which works surprisingly well. Without further due, here it is.
Chip, by Coma:
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Also, if you want to see a live version:

A lot of the political discourse these days relates to the difference between democratic and non-democratic systems. More close to home, the amount of choice a government allows and - do not forget that part - demands from the individual. The usual path of such discourse is either "We let you do what you want!" or "We won't allow people do what you don't want!". I am telling you here that there is only a difference of nuance here, both systems are essentially doing the same thing, with top-to-bottom approaches or bottom-to-top. Like with the Borg in Star Trek, there is a point where both meet and make definition impossible.

My first argument is that the ideal democracy encourages personal freedom as long as it doesn't bother anyone else. That makes a lot of sense, like not allowing someone to kill you because they feel you're an asshole. Many people today live solely because of this side of democratic society. But it also means something else, something you are less prone to notice: you are demanded to know what everybody affected by your actions would feel about them. Forget the legal system, which in its annoying cumbersome way is only a shortcut to the principle described before. This is what it means, people: know your friends, know your enemies, join up! Otherwise you will just offend hard enough somebody who is important enough to make it illegal.

The non-democratic societies function like the all mighty parent of all. Under such governorship, all individual are children, incapable of making their own choices, unless supported by the whole of society or at least a large part of it. That's terribly oppressive, as it lets you do only what is communally permissible. But it also allows you the freedom of ignoring the personal choices of others. You don't need to know anything about anybody, just adhere to a set of rules that defines what you are allowed to do. It's that easy! That's why the system is so popular with uneducated people. Or maybe I should say lazy, to involve also those super educated people who end up supporting one radical view or another because it is inconvenient to find a middle ground compromise.

I am a techie, as you may know, so I will reduce all this human complexity to computer systems. Yes, I can! The first computer systems, created by scientists and highly technical people, were almost impossible to use. Not because they didn't let you do stuff, but because they let you do anything you wanted, assuming you were smart enough to understand what you were playing with. Obviously, few of us are really that smart. Even fewer want to make the effort. This is an important point: it's not that you are stupid, that you didn't read the manual, or anything like that. It's a rather aristocratic reason: you don't want to, don't need to, you expect comfort from the people who give you a complicated piece of machinery to operate. I mean, if they are smart to build one, why can't they make it so easy to use that a child could do it? (child sold separately, of course)

The answer to these complex UNIX systems was DOS, then Windows, then IOS. Operating systems increasingly dumbed down for the average user. Now everybody has a computer, whether a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone or a combination of these. Children have at their fingertips computers thousands of times more powerful that what I was using as a desktop in my childhood, and it is all because they have operating systems that allow them to quickly "get it" and do what they feel like. They are empowered by them to do... well.. incredibly idiotic things, but that is what children do. That's how they learn.

You get where I am getting at, I guess. We are all children now, with tools that empower us to get all the information and disinformation we could possibly want. And here is where it gets fuzzy. The totalitarian systems of yesterday are failing to constrain people to conform to the rules because of the freedom technology brought. But at the same time the democratic systems are also failing, because the complicated legal systems that were created as a shortcut for human stupidity and lack of understanding of the needs of others completely break down in front of the onslaught of technology, empowering people to evolve, change, find solutions faster than antiquated laws can possibly advance. The "parents" are in shock, whether biological ones or just people who think they know better for some reason.

Forget parents, older brothers can hardly understand what the youth of today is talking about. Laws that applied to your grandparents are hardly applicable to you, but they are incomprehensible to your children. The world is slowly reaching an equilibrium, not that of democracy and not that of totalitarianism, but the one in between, where people are not doing what they are allowed to, but what they can get away with! And that includes (if not first and foremost) our governors.

This brings me to the burden of choice, the thing that really none of us wants. We want to be able to choose when we want to be able to choose. And before you attack my tautology, think about it. It's true. We want to have the choice in specific contexts, while most of the time we want that choice removed from us, or better said: we want to be protected from choice, when that choice is either obvious, difficult to make or requiring skills we don't have. That is why you pay an accountant to hold the financial reins of your company, even if it is your lifeblood, and you trust that that person will make the right choices for you. If he doesn't, your life is pretty much forfeit, but you want it like that. The alternative is you would understand and perform accounting. Death is preferable.

You know that there are still operating systems that allow a high level of choice, like Linux. They are preferable to the "childish" operating systems because they give you all the options you want (except user friendliness, but that bit has changed too in the last decade). The most used mobile operating system nowadays is probably Android and if it not, it will be soon. It swept the market that Apple's IPhone was thought to master because it gave everybody (users and developers) The Choice. But the off the shelf Android phone doesn't allow that choice to the average user. You have to be technically adept first and emotionally certain second that you want to enable that option on your own phone! It's like a coming of age ritual, if you will, the first "jailbreak" or "root" of your smartphone.

How does that translate to real life? Right now, not much, but it's coming. It should be, I mean. Maybe I am overly optimistic. You get the accountants that find loopholes to pay less taxes, the lawyers that find the path to getting away with what normally would be illegal, the businessmen that eskew the rules that apply to any others. They are the hackers of the system, one that is so mindbogglingly complex that computer science seems a child's game in comparison. If you mess with them, they quickly give you the RTFM answer, like the Linuxers of old, though.

The answer: make the system user friendly. Technology can certainly help now. There will be hackers of the system no matter what you do, but if the system is easy to use, everyone will have the choice, when they want it, and will not be burdened by it, when they don't want it. People talking to find a solution to a problem? When did that ever work? We need government, law, business, social services, everyday life to work "on Android". We need the hurdles that stop us from enabling the "Pro" options, but they must not be impossible to get through. Bring back the guilds - without the monopoly - when people were helping each other to get through a problem together. Liberalize the banking and governmental systems. Forget about borders: just "subscribe" to a government, "like" a bank, "share" a life.

You think this is hard, but it is not. You can survive in an old fashioned system just as much and as well as you can survive in real life without using a computer. You can't! You can dream of a perfect house in the middle of nowhere with the white picket fence, where you will be happy with your spouse, children, dog, but really, that doesn't exist anymore. Maybe in a virtual world. Where the spouse will not nag, the children will actually love you instead of doing things you don't even begin to understand and the dog will never wake you up when you need to sleep. Use the tools you have to make your life simpler, better, depth first!

I assume some people would give me the attitude that is prevalent in some movies that try to explore this situation: "you want to escape reality!" - Yes! Who doesn't? Have you seen reality lately? "you want to play God!" - Yes! I like playing and I would like being God: win-win! And if I cannot, I will get real serious and not play, just be! Is that OK? "this is fantasy, this cannot be!" - Join the billions of dead people who thought the same about what you are doing daily without thinking about it. "You are an anarchist! The government as it is today knows what to do!" or "Allah/Jesus/Dawkings know best!" - no, they don't! And if they knew, they wouldn't tell you, so there.

It all comes to dynamical systems versus static ones. You don't go to the web to search for things and find what you were actually looking for because there is a law against sites hijacking your searches. It is because people want it enough so that a service like Google appeared. You can still find your porn and your torrents, though.

Consider every option you may possible have as a service. You need the service to be discoverable, but not mandatory or oppressive in its design, it has to be easy to use. You want to be able to find and use it, but not for it to be imposed on you. A good example for this is copyright. A small community of producers and a significantly larger one of intermediaries trying to leach on them are attempting to force a huge community of consumers abide to the (otherwise moral and reasonable) laws of paying for what you want and others worked for. The procedure is so annoying that people spontaneously organize to create the framework that democratizes theft. Someone is risking jail to film the movie in the cinema so you can download it free. Why is that? Because technology increases the dynamicity of the system with orders of magnitude. Another service is sex. Porn be damned, prostitutes don't stay on street corners anymore, they wait on the web for you to need them. Supply and demand. So the important point is what are you really demanding?

You know what you won't find on the web? Easy to use government sites. Services that would make it simple to interact with laws, lawmakers, local authorities, country officials. All similar attempts are notoriously bad, if at all present. Why is that? Because the system itself is obsolete, incapable of adapting. Built from centuries of posturing and politicking, it has as little connection to reality as a session of Angry Birds. And you may be enjoying the latter. They survived as long as they have because they were the best at one thing: limiting your choices. Even if you hated it, you enjoyed other people being as limited as you. But the dam is breaking, the water is sipping through, it will all vanish in a deluge of water and debris. It's already started, with peer to peer banks and online cryptographic currencies and what not. Why wait for it? Join the nation of your choice; if there isn't one you like, create one. Be God, be Adam, Eve, the serpent or any combination thereof - whatever you do, just don't be yourself, no one likes that.


I leave you with the beautiful words and music of Perfect Circle: Pet. Something so awesome an entire corporation was created to offer the ability for people to share the song with you, for free, even if theoretically it's illegal.

I've just finished the eighth episode of the fifth season of Misfits, the last in the series, as the show finally reached its end. I am convinced that most of the people reading this post don't really know what Misfits is and I mean to rectify that. Be warned, this is not the epitome of television and the last seasons were rather disappointing compared with the first few, but those few were pretty refreshing for a TV show.

Misfits is a British TV show about superheroes. Unlike American heroes, who are all beautiful and good and perfect, the first batch of Misfits superheroes is a bunch of losers on community service that get caught in a freak storm that gives them "powers". They use those powers in the most outrageous ways, completely out of control and with a tendency to think only of themselves and accidentally kill probation workers. Unfortunately it is the most consistent trend through the series, as actors change from season to season and the mood and quality of the show oscillates wildly.

My point, though, is that the show has a very nice premise and its worst problem was that instead of focusing on character development, they tried to ramp it up, adding more people with powers and gradually increasing the danger and weirdness of the situations in which they were involved until it just became ridiculous.

I don't know (or care) about ratings, but for me a nice show would have pitted these few guys against the real world, not a weird (and ultimately meaningless) version of itself where a lot of people have superpowers, but nobody notices. I repeat myself, but the idea of normal blokes and girls having superpowers and acting like normal people while they have them was a great one and the show creators should have followed it through. Too bad they didn't.

To wrap this out, I highly recommend to sci-fi fans watching the first two seasons of Misfits. Its... britishness... brings a refreshing perspective to an already overloaded and tired genre of the superhero and not getting exposed, even a little, to Misfits makes you miss out on a nice and unfortunately shortlived slice of the mythos.

I really wanted to give you a compilation of the best moment in Misfits, but apparently YouTube is infested by "Best funny moments of Nathan" which is the rude Irish pretty boy from the first season. Instead I leave you with the trailer for the series:

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You have to appreciate The Witcher for at least two major reasons: one is that it is based on a series of books by a Polish author and second is that it is made almost exclusively by Polish programmers and software managers. It is basically Polish software, and for that the quality is really great. Not that I disconsider software coming from the country, but I imagine they have a lot less resources than major American game studios, for example.

The story is that of a witcher, a monster slayer. He has tremendous physical strength and can use magic thanks to magical and genetic changes that have transformed him into a sterile mutant. He is basically the Caucazian version of Blade, if you want. I have not read the stories, but from what I've heard they are rather morally ambiguous, featuring the witcher drinking and whoring like a madman in between monster slaying bouts. The game attempts to do the same thing, of course with the sex and foul language removed, as it would have been too gruesome among all the blood, gore and violence. (I was sarcastic there, in case you didn't see it, people in charge with the moral development of our society!)

In fact the concept of the game is marvelous: have a character that can make choices that affect the overall story in a fantasy game of feudal monsters and courtly intrigue. However, in order to do so, you must go on endless quests gathering this and that, running around like a marathoner on steroids (which I guess you are, with all the genetic alterations and potions). The poor guy runs so much that one gets tired just watching him move. That was the major issue I had with the game, over 70% of it is running around (and 10% animations).

The fighting style was intriguing, but ultimately annoying. You had to click on the monster you wanted to kill, then wait for a specific moment when the cursor changed in order to click again and perform a combo. Up to six clicks can build a combo, which gives the player a lot of opportunity to click on somebody else, click next to the monster or move the camera in a way in which it is temporarily impossible to fight. Also Gerald does not have automatic fighting, so unless you tell him to attack, he just sits there and takes it. The damn clicks make you feel you are doing something, though, which I guess is a plus.

You get to meet a lot of damsels in distress which you have the option of helping. Once you do that they are remarkably willing to discard their clothes for you. In that situation you get to see... a nicely drawn card of a partially naked woman representing the sexual act. Then you return to where you were... at the same hour... dressed... which makes one think of a problem with the witcher's endurance, so to speak.

The changes in storyline are interesting, and some of them don't seem to happen until they have had time to propagate. This means you cannot just save, make a choice, see what happens and load, as there is a long time between choice and effect. This also means you will have to play the game a lot just to see only one story line. You will probably have to Google for all the outcomes. I, as always, was a perfect gentleman. No matter how ugly that Adda chick was, I still slept next to her... twice... and of course we remained best friends. No, really, there is something seriously wrong with me.

Overall it is a pretty entertaining and captivating game. The end chapter (the fifth, if you are wondering) is fraught with animations and it seems you have nothing else to do but move a bit, see a movie, move a little bit, kill some guy, another movie and so on. The fight with Javed was the most difficult, I think, with the rest a complete breeze once I had upgraded the Igni spell to the maximum power.

I have, however, the certainty that with a simple hack to allow a person to click on the map and get there at warp speed (maybe stop if there is a monster on the road or something) this game would have been three times shorter and a lot more fun. I started with a lot of expectations about it, though, and maybe that is why I felt a little disappointed, especially with the "boss" fights which seemed to involve a lot of talking and hiding behind minions until I got to them and very easily kicked their ass.

Time to play The Witcher II, I guess! I leave you with a video review of the game.



Also, for more information about the Witcher, like the choices you can make and the consequences or the quests you never got around to finishing, go to the Witcher Wiki

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It's difficult to remember that in the original Dishonored storyline there were two people carrying the mark of the Outsider. There was Corvo, but then there was Daud. The Knife of Dunwall and Brigmore Witches extended missions of the game both come as Dishonored downloadable content and both star Daud as the lead. He first has to fight an army of whale butchers then the overseers who come to destroy his army of assassins, then he goes to find the Brigmore Witches and foil their plans. It was a nice touch that they changed characters. Someone who either killed everything that moved or took great care to finish up Dishonored the non-lethal way would probably have issues with changing their game style in the continuation. Having a different character frees our conscience and lets us play this game as we wish at that moment. It also hints that the story is not in the characters, but in the island universe created in the game.

The story here is that the Outsider tips Daud, who is already conflicted about his choice to murder the empress and kidnap her daughter, about a mysterious woman called Delilah. It soon becomes evident that she is aware of Daud's interests when she seeks the Overseers on Daud's hidden base. She apparently is the leader of a coven of witches based in Brigmore Manor. Rumors about them appeared in the main Corvo story, as well. Delilah, originally a servant in Dunwall Tower and a talented painter, is attempting to take over Emily Kaldwin, the young daughter of the empress, and by defeating her you become a hero that, just as Corvo but unbeknownst to anyone but the Outsider, saves Emily. That was a nice twist, also, binding the two stories together. Events in Daud's story also parallel Corvo's, as NPCs talking to each other often reveal.

It is interesting that, besides Blink and Dark Vision which seem to be essential to playing the game, Daud has different magical powers as well as different weaponry. That annoying power that he used to overpower Corvo at the beginning of the main story is available to you and very handy. As with Dishonored, you can choose your level of mayhem which in turn, I suppose, changes the story. I tried to play it as non-lethal as I could, but having the reputation of a renowned assassin for hire really made me itch for bloodthirsty apocalypse. It felt great to know that I can kill everybody, even when I chose not to, I guess.

An intriguing idea came to me. Besides Corvo and Daud there were other people involved with Outsider powers: Delilah and Granny Rags. If they make more downloadable content for the game (which I really really hope they will) it could be interesting to play Delilah, or even Granny, as prequels to these stories. It would serve multiple purposes, as it would probably appeal to female players more, as well as changing the weaponry and magic almost entirely. Witches in this game use magic arrows and use dead animals and plants to do their bidding, while Granny Rags uses hordes of rats and an amulet that makes her immortal until you destroy it. There are neat tricks that would be a waste not to be used by the player. Both Corvo and Daud actually survive in the end and don't forget that the Dishonored universe is placed in an archipelago of islands, only one of them having been explored in any detail, with a lot of rumors and information about the others and a lot more opportunities. A story on the whaling ships, perhaps? Something in a wide open space, as demonstrated by the Brigmore Witches manor grounds, maybe? Dishonored may have started like something that seemed to clone Assassin's Creed, but it has a lot more potential. Knowing the guys at Arkane Studios, that potential is going to be used, even if the wiki on The Brigmore Witches says it is the last DLC for Dishonored. Perhaps Dishonored II will be made soon.

As a conclusion, I really enjoyed the game, even if Daud's voice was Michael Madsen's, who I usually dislike at first glance. It's good he wasn't visually in the game, then :)

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After playing the second campaign in the Starcraft II game, the Zerg one, I have to say that I wasn't terribly impressed. 27 missions in all, nothing very fancy, and a linear script that involves only Kerrigan getting stronger and going after Mengsk. The only delight here was the character of Abathur, the Zerg "scientist", who speaks like that Korean doctor in Monday Mornings and his only concern is to find new strands of evolution for the swarm. Kerrigan, even if her voice was that of Tricia Helfer, is a cardboard character who acts arrogantly like a queen (well, she is one) taking about vision and cunning, but acting impulsively and in a direct manner most of the time. She is the character I was playing, so that is probably why I didn't really enjoy the story so much. Mark my words, if you want to find the funny moments in the game, just click on Abathur whenever you can.

There were some nice surprises in the game, though, like when destroying a neutral vehicle on a map and receiving a communication from a human soldier complaining he just paid for that car. A huge game, made with people from three continents, SCII must appease the masses to pay for itself, therefore the script could not have been too complex. They also concentrated on the multiplayer action, not on the storymode one plays on Casual difficulty in order to see the "movie", but still... a good script and a captivating story could have brought millions more into the fold, so to speak. The Starcraft universe is, after all, a very interesting one, describing the interactions between three interstellar cultures (four, if you consider the Xel'Naga). The potential here is immense, with books and movies to keep people interested for generations.

I liked the concept of evolution missions. You see, Abathur had the ability to alter strains of units and gave you two choices which were mutually exclusive. But before you chose, you had to play two mini-missions that showed the different strains in action. You usually had to kill some indigenous lifeform, absorb its essence and integrate it into your creatures. Also in the game there was a creature called an Infestor, which, judging by how the Terran campaign went, you will not see it in the multiplayer game. It allowed you to capture any enemy unit, except the heroic ones. Pretty fun. One of the evolution missions gave you the ability to morph hydralisks to lurkers, one of my favourite units from the old Starcraft game.

Overall I enjoyed playing the campaign, even if I felt that it could have been a lot greater. Finished it in about 10 hours, too. Of course, it would have taken a lot longer if I hadn't played on the easiest difficulty, but I didn't have a mouse and I really was only interested in the story. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like I gained much by playing the campaign as opposed to watching all the cinematics one after the other on YouTube, and that is, probably, what bothered me most.

So here is a compilation of Abathur dialogs.

Your Inner Fish is a very nice book, popularizing the science behind paleontology and anatomy and making a surprising and thorough connection between the two. In short, Neil Shubin describes the way bodies are built and how our ancestry, from single cell organisms, fish, amphibians to primates, influences our design. It is a rather short book, and also easy to read. From field stories of discovering fossils in the wild to the anatomy classes that he teaches in university, the pages take one through a journey of true discovery and makes us understand so easily some things that very few people consider simple.

I could review Your Inner Fish for you, but someone did a lot more effort of it here. Also, the University of California Television YouTube channel released a one hour video presentation of the book which I am attaching to this blog post, as well as what seems to be the book's Facebook page. What I can say is that I liked the book a lot and I recommend it to everybody, science minded people or not.

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Update: I recognized the voice of Brad Dourif as Piero (how can one not?) so I went to see who the other voice actors were. If you, like me, felt a strange attraction to Callista Curnow, that's because her voice is that of gorgeous Lena Headey. Also you might recognize Susan Sarandon as Granny Rags (hee hee!) or John Slattery as Admiral Havelock. But pretty much no one comes close to Brad Dourif, except perhaps Roger Jackson, who is the voice of Mojo-Jojo!

As you may know, I am a great fan of Arkane Studios games. They did Ultima Underworld, Arx Fatalis, Might and Magic X (which for all intents and purposes was Arx Fatalis 2) and now they did Dishonored. You will probably say that Ultima Underworld was actually a Looking Glass Studios game, but when they dissolved, some people from their team went on to work for Arkane and the resemblance of the games is pretty obvious. Anyway, I am now in a small village in Italy and only have Internet at my work. Imagine my great surprise when I discovered a kit of the Dishonored game on my laptop. I immediately installed it and played the game for a non stop 20 hours until I finished it. However, it was my desire to see the entire story (and to get some sleep in the weekend) that made me finish so quickly. You see, the game is a first person shooter-adventure that follows a storyline. However, on each stage you can explore and find a lot of secrets and side quests and even influence the story a little bit through your actions. The universe in which the game is played is a wonderfully crafted steampunk world, driven by whale oil and technology invented by mad scientists and filled with political intrigue. I can safely say that the game is a combination of Arx Fatalis, Thief/Assassin's Creed and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.

For an analysis of the game, there are a lot of things to be said. One of them is that the 3D world was, as far as I could see, almost perfect. I didn't get stuck in some fold of the wireframe, I didn't reach places I shouldn't have reached even when having the power to Blink, I didn't see through textures or seen any major bugs, actually. The game is a huge collaboration of companies, with people from all over the world, they could have screwed up anywhere: design, storyline, sound bits, software, 3D world, etc. It did not happen. You can also see the love that was poured into the game when the story does not end with an obvious finish, but continues on for a few stages. They could have worked less for the same money, but they somehow chose not to.

The gameplay is a joy. You have different ways of solving problems: you can kill anything that moves, you can choose to not kill them, but perform a chokehold on them and hide their unconscious bodies so you can avoid detection or you can go on high ledges and sneaky paths to avoid conflict all together. An interesting component of the story is The Outsider a supernatural being, probably a god, that looks like a normal guy, dressed normally for the age, but having black eyes. He is treated as the Devil in the official religion of the country, but he acts like your ally in the game. His only obvious interest is to have fun watching the chaos. For these purposes he gives you his mark and the gift of magic, which allows you to teleport, possess small animals and humans, summon a pack of ravenous pack of rats to devour your enemies and other fun things like that. The world if very interactive. You can, for example, take a random item like a bottle and throw it away. This would either unbalance your enemy, if you hit them directly, so you can deliver a deadly sword strike, or cause them to go to investigate the noise of the bottle breaking. One interesting option is to take the head of the enemy you have just beheaded and throw it into another opponent. Each level had hidden magical artifacts which you can find using a special Outsider device, a living heart with mechanical bits which you hold in your hand and that talks to you - told you, fun stuff. This usually prompts you to go out of your way to find said artifacts. The complexity of each stage is staggering. The first two stages I tried to play as completely as possible, which took me a lot of hours. After the first level ended I felt pretty good about myself. I had explored a lot of the map and I felt pretty smug about it. In the final summary of the mission I saw, to my chagrin, that I had found about half of all the valuable objects that I could have found. The rest of the missions I just breezed through, in order to see the ending. If I would have played this game as thoroughly as I possibly could, it would probably have accounted for many tens of hours of gameplay. Well, maybe it's me, but emergent gameplay is the coolest thing since fire was invented.

The devices you possess are old school enough to be a lot less effective than magic. You have your trusted one bullet pistol, which you must reload after each firing, you have your crossbow, which can fire darts, sleep darts or incendiary bolts, you have delicious bombs which, when triggered, fire a fast winding metal wire that cuts your enemies to pieces, grenades are always fun, and so on.

There are some issues which I had with the game though. It seemed to me that the magical spells were rather unbalanced. I cannot tell you how much they are unbalanced until I play the game again in another way, but it seemed to me that you absolutely needed to have Blink and Dark Vision and that the best offensive spell was the summoning of the rat pack. The rest were almost useless, at least by description: something that allows you to attack stronger and more enemies at once if you have enough adrenaline, something that allows you to possess animals, but there aren't that many animals in the game, and only partial possession of people, something that causes a gust of strong wind. Well, I will try them soon so I can tell you more in an update. Another thing that felt useless to me were the bone charms who gave me stuff that didn't really seem important. I did play the game on Easy, since I didn't have a mouse for the laptop, so that may explain my disdain of the things.

It is important to realize that the game has downloadable missions and content through Steam. This means the story can go on. I intend to explore this avenue. Also, after playing a second time I have to say that I was amazed of the option to not kill anyone the entire game. Even the assassination missions have ways of getting rid of the characters without killing them (even if their fates are usually worst than death). If you want to go that way, please always check that the unconscious victim is actually unconscious. Otherwise you end the mission with one or two dead people and there is no going back. One example is if you choke one guy, then let it fall with the head in the water. He dies even if you immediately remove him.

All in all I cannot recommend the game enough. Add to this that after you buy it, you also get extra chapters as downloadable content and, who knows, maybe they will allow the community to make their own chapters. It was just fantastic. Go play it!

I embed here an example gameplay from someone who is obviously more skilled than I am.



I have been hearing about the AngularJS library for a few months now, people often praising it as the new paradigm of web development. It is basically a JavaScript MVC framework that makes heavy use of markup language in order to declare the desired behaviour. Invented at Google by Miško Hevery, it uses cacheable templates, databinding and dependency injection to combine the various components that otherwise are independent and testable. It also comes with its own testing framework (unit and end-to-end) and a way to describe unit tests Jasmine (BDD)style.

So I started reading about this new framework in the book intuitively called AngularJS, written by Brad Green and Shyam Seshadri. They start with an anecdote, discussing how they were working on a web application at Google. They have already written 17000 lines of code in about 6 months and it was almost finished, albeit with great frustration related to development speed and testability. This guy, Miško Hevery, tells everyone that by using a framework that he wrote in his spare time (you gotta love devs!) they could rewrite the whole application in two weeks. He was wrong, they did it in three weeks and at the end the whole thing has only 1500 lines of code and was fully testable. This was a great beginning for the book, as it starts with a promise and then (sorry, couldn't help the pun - you will see what I mean if you read the book or know AngularJS already) it describes how to achieve your goals. The book itself is not large, about 160 PDF pages, and can be used as both a primer and a reference. It describes the basic concepts of AngularJS and how they can be put to work, with some small app examples at the end. Of course, you have a link to where to download all their code samples.

What do I think about the book? It was pretty good. It shows the authors' preference towards Linux setups, but it is not annoying. Each chapter is clear and to the point. The framework itself, though, is original enough that after a few chapters it is almost impossible to understand everything without tinkering with the code yourself. Unfortunately I didn't have the time and disposition to do that, so just because I've read the book doesn't mean I know how to work with Angular, but I am confident that when I will actually start working with it, it will all come together in my mind. Also, as I was saying, the book can easily be used as a reference. It is not a complete overview, not every AngularJS feature and gotcha can be found in its pages, but it's good enough.

What do I think about the framework? It seems pretty spectacular. My only experience with JavaScript MVC frameworks is from a short brush off with BackboneJS. At a time I thought I would be working with it a lot and was boasting here that interesting posts would appear. Alas, it was not to be. Sorry about that, maybe better luck with Angular. Backbone was pretty interesting, but it had a horrendous way of working with data models and it was very easy to break something and not realize where it came from. There seems to be a lot more thought put into Angular. An interesting point is that the writers advertise TDD as a way of actually working and claim they do so themselves. I have seen many people trying and giving up, but I have hopes for JavaScript. You don't need to compile things, you don't need complicated servers or time consuming deployment steps: just change stuff and run the tests and/or refresh a page. I like the fact that the creators of AngularJS put this much work into making everything testable.

So go ahead: read the book and try the framework!

Update 24 Aug 2013: I've started reading dev blogs again and I've stumbled upon a 70 minute video by Dan Wahlin presenting AngularJS. His explanations seemed a lot more down to Earth than those in the book so I felt that his video really complements rather well what is written there. Here it is: