30 June, 2011

Marvel

This is what the avengers movie should look like (yes, spider man should definitely make a guest appearance)



Unfortunately I expect it to want to take itself seriously and thus to suck. At the same time, I really hope I am wrong, and there are reasons to feel optimistic. Let's look at what has come out of the Marvel Universe "lately":
  • Hulk - there have been two movies and none of them very good, basically they don't deserve your attention
  • Spider Man - the first one was very fun to watch in the cinema and make fun of, when you find yourself rooting for and pretty much agreeing with the bad guy you might have stumbled unto something valuable, but this is not the case here, however it may just be the case for the sequel, which is considered among the best comic book movies. And then there is the third, which had the most potential and thus failed hardest. Let's not go back to unpleasant memories, I just want to say Venom is probably one of my favorite characters, conceptually. People seem to think it is about making spider man gritty and thus more relevant at the time, while in fact I think it is more about the feelings and possibilities. It embodies a story of achieving your goals easily, betraying your ideals (yourself) and disappointing the ones around you, it is also a story of jealousy and petty revenge and how that can destroy you as well. They only did a worse job at this with...
  • The Fantastic Four - again I would really have loved to see the amoral being (not immoral, but above morality) of the Silver Surfer get a better part than flying around; his role would have been to engage the audience in thought. But the movies are better forgotten.
  • Iron Man - now this is clearly an overrated franchise. The first was a movie with good parts and that's it, good parts, I certainly wouldn't say it was a good movie, which has led me to ignore the sequel. Which I am guessing just relies on the character of Tony Stark to have a few good parts far in between
  • Thor - This was pretty enjoyable. If it would have focused a lot less on the "space opera" parts and more on making some sort of Bildungsroman out of a god stuck in present day America, a great movie could have come out of it. As it was, just the middle part was pretty good.There is one more thing of note here, namely the casting of a black man as a norse god. I really didn't see the point, and if it would have been an epic like Lord of the Rings it would have definitely destroyed immersion. As it is it is just a comic book, so his acting as both impassive and menacingly badass was pretty much spot on. I've seen a parallel with casting a white actor as Goku (in one of the worst movies of all time), and that comparison is just plain wrong; they probably just couldn't find a Saiyan (you know, complete with tail and all that) that could act. 
  • X-Men - This is probably the one I care most about after Spider Man because of my childhood preferences. And I am pretty satisfied with what has been done as of yet. The thing is of course it was more seeing a reinterpretation and some interesting ways to tell of a character rather than actually creating a solid universe or some good stories. I think the first one was pretty good, except Rogue being miscast. The second movie is entirely a dud except the best two scenes the franchise has seen, namely Nightcrawler in the white house and Magneto escaping from jail. Then there is the third which of course had the most potential, the story arc of Phoenix being one of the most interesting, and which therefore failed most spectacularly. The exaggerated focus on Wolverine has been turned into a downright obsession with making a completely unnecessary origins story. And talking about origin stories we get the reboot, which is pretty interesting from my point of view (giving backgrounds to known characters, even reimagined ones) but again fails to give shape to their world or present an interesting story. Also a little bit more could have been invested, I mean the Magneto and Beast costumes were downright bad (Shaw's was completely missing) and art direction could have been a nice thing to have, but it even managed to squeeze in an emotional moment (even though brief and out of the blue). Oh, did I mention that if you want to do German (and a few other languages) in a movie you should hire actors who speak German (I mean well, not in a ridiculous way). Next time get Cristoph Waltz.
And now back to Avengers: as the Iron Man and Thor movies have not been messed up there is hope for it yet, but the track record is not the most impressive. I'm really not holding my breath for Captain America, but maybe the man who did Agent Smith, Elrond and V could go and make a memorable character again.

31 May, 2011

Best Short film ever



Just WOW! Watch in 1080p!

21 March, 2011

Spring, Spring Never Changes...

Last time I wrote about the impression Stravinsky's Rite of Spring made on people and how they got to like it. Today it's your turn, I'm sure you were at least a little bit curious how classical music could cause a riot. Well here is a recreation of the original:






And if pagan rituals are just not your thing here is the same music telling the story of the creation of the universe, evolution and extinction of dinosaurs:







Spring is here... it is the mark of new beginnings and each year it is here to teach us that the only constant is change. Spring never changes...

20 March, 2011

How We Learn to Love Music

Music is the first way we develop to communicate. In fact it happens so early we call this ability of understanding an inborn ability. All over the world parents that speak to their children use the same melodies. Like a rise and fall for approval. Or rising, high pitch to call attention. The words don't matter, it's all in the melodies.
But throughout life we learn and our tastes change. It would appear from the following story that in fact our love and appreciation of music is a learned trait. Give the bit below a listen, but just in case you are in a hurry I am going to sum up for you. In the beginning of the 20th century Stravinsky presented himself in Paris with a new creation: the Rite of Spring. And while the beginning had a very calm and pastoral air to it, it soon changed to develop completely new (at the time) harmonies and a tension-creating repeating background (kind of reminds me of Burzum, if you don't know, you don't even want to know...). What was the result? Did the people herald him as a genius? Nope, they started a riot. Like a regular riot with violence, the likes of which any respectable mob would start on the street, and mind you this was a cultured audience expecting a show of classical music. But, the surprise (to me) is that, just one year afterwards, Stravinsky came back to present the show and this time, with an audience warned they are in for something absolutely special, he was welcome as a hero. And in a way he was, because he challenged human nature, specifically our brain, which loves the familiar and abhors innovation. When presented with something new, like the music of Stravinsky it tries to make sense of the new noise, but eventually releases a large amount of dopamine, which could possibly explain the violent behavior of the audience (in small doses dopamine makes you happy, in large doses it makes you go crazy). This happens when the brain fails to make sense of new sounds and find the patterns. But the brain is also an amazing piece of ingenuity as with time it learns to assimilate the new and integrate it with the all the known information and turn it into something familiar.



Nowadays the music is not that surprising but I still feel it's weird. If you are very curious about the music itself there is a whole book you can read: http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft967nb647&brand=ucpress

In case you were looking for more evidence in the same vein, and from the same source incidentally, here is another Radiolab piece.  There is a reiteration from min 23 of the idea from the bit above and then a more relatable example, with something as mundane as radio. And how going from something classic to something modern can create an unpleasant surprise. But then of course we quickly overcome it. In this case the transition from Gregorian chants to the 'modern' Bach makes a point in case (starting from 28:34).



If you don't understand what it is supposed to mean here is how a cello can be used in the modern world. I sincerely hope these will be unexpected for you.



And here you were thinking you would never like death metal :) (not that the above is to be considered that, just read on...) It just takes some repeated listens to get into, and even then it's hard (the thing I noticed about extreme metal is that it remove thoughts, so it's good if you want to focus and your mind keeps straying, in situations like learning or programming, but if you are not intellectually engaged, well I think then it just kills what remains, leaving you dumb).

I don't know about how weird-ass classical music is created but here's how you can do death metal. Opeth explain all the riffs and the construction of The Drapery Falls from their Blackwater Park album. Especially part2 is interesting about tension and creating disharmonies (See minute 10: "A lot of people say that [chord] sounds like shit. And it does")





Here is a full performance so you can pay attention to all the things he mentioned about playing live. And you probably want to hear the original too. So go buy the album. The Drapery Falls:




11 March, 2011

The Number of the Beast

I recently came upon something that blew my mind. We have the number of the beast wrong. Ahhhhhh, what will save us now?

I'm guessing everyone is used to the classic 666 without which some T-shirts wouldn't be funny at all




The original quote from the Bible is: This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.

But probably this recited version is better:



Ok, so now the revelation: the original sources mentioned a different number and the number is:

616

And it's not just one source. While this version has been known for a long time, from here, it has only been recently accepted as probable original value since it is also mentioned in a papyrus, thought to be the oldest source, and thus with most authority, on the subject.

So, are we going to change the number of the beast? In the end I think we will always remember an awesome Iron Maiden album.

01 March, 2011

Mărțisor

A new spring is starting today. And Romanians usually celebrate. Here's how the holiday looks officially:
Talking about official, Google is celebrating too, that has to mark it as an important date in the calendar


I think it supposed to stand for new beginnings and cooperation, so here's a kick-off to getting along better with others



24 February, 2011

Katanagatari

A girl comes to a deserted place where she finds a boy, slightly younger than her who has spent his whole life training in martial arts with his grandfather. The boy knows absolutely nothing about the world but joins the girl in her quest to gather the 7 12 Dragonballs Deviant Blades. Of course, although he loses some fights along the way, the boy turns out to be the strongest warrior possible.


This is the latest and probably one of the last anime I watch. Initially I wanted to lump it together with the Lost post, but they have nothing in common except the fact that the ending is disappointing (and this would be the place I mention that I watch anime because they have endings). But I am getting ahead of myself.

The first impression you get of this anime is the unfamiliar artwork. It's strange and it's crude, so it had better compensate by content. And to some degree it succeeds. The introduction may suggest that I consider it a rip-off of Dragonball, not so. This series is remarkable in that it pretends to be an action series, but is instead a dialog driven journey. The fights are usually less than 5 minutes of the unusually 50 minutes long episodes. Being dialog-driven it reminded me of Bakemonogatari, but the similarity in content and title is no coincidence as they were written and animated by the same people.

While the former excels at what it does, this 'sword story' (rough title translation) could have been better. Not by much as each episode is pretty good in its own right (except the one where we don't even see the fight for the sword; instead it is just summed up by a 2 min. dialog), but they don't seem to be linked in the best way. The pacing is all wrong. I mean he faces of against the strongest enemy, which happens to be his sister, half-way through. What was the logic in that?

Ultimately, it is the ending that stands out. It's appropriate (the feeling that nothing good will come of their quest is pretty much established from the first episodes), but not satisfying in the least. <SPOILER> What is remarkable is how the Japanese don't seem to have any problems killing of main characters, even where there are as little as 2 of them. See Gurren Lagann for a much better example. There, an unexpected death is the only good part I saw in the series. Here, although it is well executed, it prevents the ending from giving a sense of fulfillment </SPOILER> Speaking of lack of fulfillment, although we get to see the Completed Deviant Blade and the power of Kyotouryuu when he is actually unleashed, no longer ordered to protect the swords or himself, it is all for naught. Not even the philosophical twist of Kiki not being a sword smith, but soothsayer which attempted to change history through his Completed Deviant Blade, made any impact as it was offhandedly dismissed as a failure in the epilogue. <SPOILER> And I can't even begin to imagine what they were thinking when they had him end up travelling the country with the wrong princess. I understand to have a non-hollywood happy ending, but this seemed just plain wrong creepy </SPOILER> I guess that's just how the Japanese are... can't understand them, that's what makes their shows special.

So all in all, was it worth the time? Probably.


23 February, 2011

The Story That Should Have Ended

Last time, I had a short look at Lost which, despite its flaws, still is probably my favorite series of recent times (Just in case you were wondering I would say Twin Peaks and M*A*S*H from the old guard). So now I propose to take a look at the context, and why it sucks less than others. The answer to me seems pretty much straightforward: American TV shows are always a neverending story. You have a story to tell (or not even that) and after you are done you attach a new season, and a new one and a new one, just because it had the misfortune of attracting an audience (Luckily Firefly suffered no such problems, that's why it is pretty much perfect).

So, first category of stories gone bad: the ones with good intentions. They had a story to tell, they told it well, but they just couldn't stop. The most famous examples of this category would be Prison Break and Heroes. Heroes has a pretty light tagline: Save the cheerleader, save the world. It tells a story about impeding doom, while crafting a pretty good apocalyptic atmosphere, and some pretty solid character backgrounds, while leading them to a fulminating conclusion where they all meet and we find out how each of them was relevant to the story. The detonation sort of happens, the good guys sort of win, ok everything is the way it should be. So why did they have to end on what I can only call a fake cliffhanger? To milk the cash cow of course. Not that it was immediately bad. No, season 2 was pretty good, while exploring some more of the character backgrounds and telling the best story of all: Hiro's childhood hero. It also features probably the darkest ending I have seen in a TV series and it would have made an awesome season finale, but no... they had to make more. And now jumping on to the second even more relevant example: Prison Break. The whole pith of the show is that you have a genius who has a brilliant plan covering all the details and craftily disguised as a whole-body tattoo to get into jail and break out with his brother. Because of this idea that everything is planned for ahead it is the best action series I have seen and that's why it attracted such a big following. However at the end of the first season the plan is fulfilled, it is done with and the 'Prison Break' is over with. Why drag on? Again, not that it immediately seems like a bad idea, the plan seems to have been crafted for situations on the outside as well but it quickly crumbles and I had to abandon it after just a few episodes because of how worthless it had gotten. And that's just sad. I think it is way better to leave people thinking 'just a little bit more would have been perfect' than 'this should have died a long time ago'.

On to the next category. About this one I am not really sure what to say. The formula is episodic so it doesn't really feel it drags on, and it has some links between episodes but those are mainly character back-stories, or a background for the action of each episode. For this I will chose as prime example House M. D. Of course every programmer (or other profession that is paid for intellectual work, but it's just speculation to generalize) on the face of the Earth idolizes Doctor House. Because of his brilliance and competence. The personality, although not to be envied we have to admit makes for a great comedy show, and if you put that on top of a serious drama show you got a great winner. Sadly, I got tired of the formula, and the writers seemed to have lost inspiration of great jokes after the first two seasons. When you add to the mix that it pretty much had an ending with season 3 when his team leaves him, you can add it to the list of shows that should have ended. But arguably this is still good (I don't see how they could have messed it up), and watchable ad infinitum.

And we get to the final category: shows that have a story arc spanning one season. This may or may not be combined with each episode having some stand-alone story (e.g. Veronica Mars). My favorite example is America's favorite serial killer Dexter. Like House, this show can pretty much work forever because it is mainly not story driven. It is driven by a very strong lead character, and as long as the actor's performance doesn't disappoint you have a recipe for success. The question is how long should you keep going? I already feel the show's strength has been diluted over too many seasons. 1,2 and 4 were great (it's such a pity, this show comes really close to being genius, but always shys away from the last step) but the other two were pretty much useless. Especially the last one: how can you give such an unsatisfying ending to a story? Man finds the closest thing he can have to a soul-mate (and there is reciprocity) and she leaves because... ah, just no reason. I'm glad it is still going on just because it deserves a better end than this. How would it have been if it had ended after season 4? I think it would have been brilliant, the story would have come full circle and also left and open end. How can they even think they can improve on that? We'll just have to wait and see, and analyze the blood patterns.


The Story That Ended

I was writing about JJ Abrams and Star Wars, but let's take a look at the series that made Mr. Abrams famous: Lost.



As a new entry to the series 'not following your own advice', we have to ask Abrams: are you stupid or something? What do you think? Do people want to see that 'something' (and we are never shown what) rips trees out of the ground, like in season 1, or that that something is some kind of black smoke, like in season 3, or that that black smoke is actually a man who became like that because he was throw in a pool with lighting, like in season 6 ? What's wrong with you? Sure people demanded answers, but people don't know what they want. What they wanted was a sense of meaning to the mysteries not a straight out (stupid) revelation. I mean here you are talking about how the technology allows you to do things you wouldn't even have conceived and the final revelation, the climax of the whole show is some guy pulling up a giant cork? and then putting it back in because what he did was 'bad'? I felt like watching Looney Tunes, and it didn't make me laugh. It made me want to swear.


With a poster like this hopes for season 6 were beyond the roof. It suggest a great work of art, inspired by something holy, but instead it goes down the hill, waaaay down. Instead of resolving the existing problems in an elegant manner, it introduces a new, deeply unneeded one, of Jacob and the Man in Black/ Locke, and it resolves it in a pretty shameful manner. What do you think which is better? The 'island' brought the people together or some immortal idiot who doesn't intervene when the script says so and scribbled their names on a cave (at least self-irony is not lost as Jacob tells Kate: they are just some names in a cave). What is to be appreciated though is that they knew from the very beginning that they would offer an ending and approximately when that will come. Unfortunately it came about one season too late.


With all its flaws, the show was pretty much perfect until the end of season 5, so that's where the show ends for me. It's an open ending, sure, but somehow it's better than a reunion in Purgatory. Season 5 had a pretty much perfect treating of the subject of time travel, it really wasn't necessary to follow up by turning it up a notch with parallel worlds. But instead, to give a sense of accomplishment (even if everyone is to die, like Desmond after Ben shot him, thus ruining the 'greater plan' for which Desmond was so special), of closure. The show is definitely worth watching, even if only to see season 5. It gave a good feeling of rounding up and saved what seemed like a wrong decision to make the Others just normal people (back in season 3) going about their day to day lives and conspiracies without a point and with no mastermind. The blank canvas when the bomb does/doesn't detonate makes for a much better ending to the series. And though the ending with Jack just as the show started was pretty well done, you got the feeling of closing the circle after season 5 too and just by a change in logo (intro vs outro):



22 February, 2011

Star Wars Revisited

One thing that I gracefully skipped in the previous Star Wars post was the central question: Why do we care? The answer should be obvious: The initial trilogy was good and we want more of where that came from.

Like any story worth following it has 2 essential ingredients: a strong main storyline and powerful/interesting/well-rounded characters. While it is a traditional good vs evil story it adds a whole lot more to the mix, especially a small dose of spirituality in form of the Force, to make things interesting or seemingly deep.


The review above tells us what the story is about and that it doesn't matter what changes Lucas did over time because characters and the story stay the same. While this is true in all cases it did spawn the probably most heated debate of Star Wars fans: Who shot first?
This, of course, refers to the scene with Han and Greedo, and Han shot first. This was later changed and people felt betrayed because they think that somehow it matters. While I do think the original version is better and makes more sense, I can't really say I care.
Another 'important' change was replacing the emperor in Empire with Ian McDiarmid, and as a final example one that actually sucks (because it makes no sense whatsoever) replacing the ghost of Anakin in Jedi with Hayden Christensen.

So, are the characters why we love Star Wars, or maybe the story? I think there's a secret ingredient that makes this saga timeless and not instantly forgettable, and that secret is in the storytelling and it's mystery. It's that mystery that allows us to feel what we see is a part of something bigger. Here's JJ Abrams explaining it (the bit about Star Wars starts around 8:50, but the context of the mystery box is what's important):


I mean take it from this guy, he is a huge fan. You just need to see how he rips it off pays homage to Star Wars in the 2009 Star Trek film to tell.


After all of this, there is only one conclusion to be drawn: what you don't see is what you like most and what makes something memorable. In cased you missed it in the last part you should read this http://www.rilstone.talktalk.net/viewpoint.htm. It takes a look at all the things that are explained better by mystery. The midichlorians have to be the biggest flaw of the prequel trilogy, a lot worse than the acting for example, because their very existence saps the magic out of the world itself, but the Force:
The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living beings. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi were the Guardians of peace and justice in the old republic. Before the dark times, before the empire.


20 February, 2011

Book trailers

They started making book trailers? Has this been going on for some time and did I just become aware of it now? I'm too lazy to investigate. Anyway the result was that it makes me want to read the book and I probably will.



And it has a follow-up which is apparently not as good as the first book.



You can check out the website http://incarceronbook.com/incarceron_sapphique/index.html
The event is apparently an American release of a British book. Another interesting thing about this book is that the wikipedia article mostly reads like a commercial.



Will the book be any good? I hope so. However, a trailer is not enough to convince me to put it on top of the priority queue, so I still have time to back down.

12 February, 2011

Wasting Time

We all have the tendency to waste some time, some people keep away from the distractions, others find excuses


There are complicated ways to do it


or easy ones


However, when applied right these techniques can greatly improve your output and performance, as is describe in Paul Graham's essay on procrastination. However, his point is more like you should procrastinate things that seem urgent but are not important. People seem to have something else in mind (notice how his point about the whole company picking it up is proven right statistically), and they even admit it.

OnlineMBA.com



09 February, 2011

Church Wars

Sadly, making fun of religion is easy. I plan on looking at some of the problems of religion, science, evolutionism and so on, so I hope this sets a good tone.


In case you feel the church is outdated you are wrong, they are still after your money trying to save your soul, even through modern means, like the Confession app you can get on iTunes. Remember, Jesus loves you!


08 February, 2011

Star Wars Surge

Lately it seems to me that Lucas is trying to milk the cash cow bring renewed interest in the Star Wars franchise, adapting it to new trends and audiences (read: ruining it). The prequels will be remade as 3D (can nothing good come out of this technology at all?), the Phantom Menace being scheduled for release in 2012. If you are not familiar with the prequel trilogy this is the most awesome summary anyone has ever done for anything:



The trend of making lots of Star Wars fan videos strikes again. Another example would be a mash-up with Tron which is pretty interesting and just goes to show you can put anything over anything else and if it has enough geek momentum (or fanboyism) it is a win. However in the series of amusing remixes I would say my favorite is the most old school:




If you are in the mood for some looong video reviews here are some I gave a look-over.
And some really, really long ones:
Actually the only one I found quite amusing, because let's be honest that's what they are for (none of them will exactly help you develop yourself as a human being) is this one



There are also some interesting points I noted about the prequel trilogy I wasn't aware of on first look. Like the part about Anakin's name, picked up from here http://reprog.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/luke-skywalker-a-new-hope/, I reproduce it in its entirety and original form because I am lazy it is the most interesting piece of insight on the Star Wars universe I have ever come across.

By the way, I assume the significance of the name Anakin has not escaped you?  ”Ana” is the Greek prefix for “again”, as in “anastasis” (“again life”) for resurrection, and the so-called “Anabaptist” church, which baptised adults who had already been Christened as children.  ”Kin” of course means “family”.  So Anakin is one who one again becomes family. Having explicitly abdicated his role within the family of the Jedi, and even repudiated his love for Padme and, by implication, for his unborn child(ren), he finally returns to become both reunited with his son and, again, part of the Jedi family. Can that be accidental?  If so, if “Anakin” is just a nonsense name like “Boba Fett”, then it is the most absurd piece of good luck of Lucas’s part.

If you are interested on how the new trilogy is a rewrite of the old one and how Anakin (or was it R2D2) is the real hero of the whole 6 movies take a look here http://www.rilstone.talktalk.net/mask-of-god.htm. The numbers indicate the order of the films but each of the posts is a jumbled mess of a point and you need an overview at least to know what he is talking about.

Ok, so enough talk about the prequels. They were pretty crappy but also fun. And I'm not going to talk about the new Clone Wars cartoons because I haven't watched them and honestly doubt that I could find something of interest in them (also note the less than brilliant design).


No, instead let's focus on a good thing to come (hopefully). This year will see the launch of the MMORPG The Old Republic, which is probably the only thing that could put a dent in the World of Warcraft domination of the genre.



Yeah, this baby is made by Bioware the ones that din Knights of the Old Republic (in the screenshot you see Darth Raven and Darth Malak), so we can hope for a good storyline based game. KotOR and KotOR II are some of the best RPGs and definitely some of the best releases of the Star Wars franchise, the first featuring one of the most memorable twists in gaming history, the second some of the more interesting and memorable Sith: Darth Sion, Darth Traya and (although the actual fight and conclusion of his destiny is pretty disappointing and underdeveloped) the best of all Darth Nihilus. And we all know the Sith are the driving force behind any Star Wars story. Or was it the robots? Anyway HK-47 is probably the most brilliant character created in the Star Wars universe (read: comedy relief bomb, so not like Jar Jar).

So let's start summing up, by saying what is good about the Star Wars franchise. Skeptics mention the first two movies and KotOr. I would add to this list just their direct sequels: Return of the Jedi and the Sith Lords respectively. I actually realized episode 6 is better than I remember by watching the Family Guy parody (which is follows the storyline closely, just in an original manner). If you like them you might also like the bunch of sketches they did on Robot Chicken. Although all are stupid and silly, some are really funny and well done http://www.adultswim.co.uk/robot-chicken-star-wars.

All in all we should be grateful to Lucas, wanting to make money is not in itself a bad thing and how can we blame the owners of the product when others are exploiting it as well (although with a lot of style and by creating content of value):



I want to leave you with something inspirational, so in the vein of being grateful to Lucas for making these movies at all here is a video about how he facilitated the fulfillment of childhood dreams (there is a Star Wars bit that starts at 30:50, so squeezing this video in is not cheating :P ).



Is Google Evil?

Already asking this about a company whose motto is "Don't be evil", is a major fail for them.
The article that started this minor problem for them was accusing Bing of stealing their search results http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/microsofts-bing-uses-google-search.html with screenshot evidence :)


Short form: Google suspected  Bing was stealing results and they organized a sting as presented in the original post (that's where the picture is from). Microsoft's defense is that they are using a lot of input signals, one of them being clicks on Google search results apparently.

However, as was noted here http://www.puremango.co.uk/2011/02/what-on-earth-are-google-doing/, this can hardly have any good implications for Google. If this is a marketing ploy I guess they can be considered evil, if they can't control public announcements they are in the wrong too and about the technical aspect of directly stealing results versus using all clicks, well... it's best to take a humorous view:
Of course they are frustrated and outraged at a competitor 'stealing' but Google could have taken a better approach I guess. Maybe making fun of them like this :) after all if they copy Google results how will they be relevant?



30 January, 2011

Up! Live Action

Is there not glory enough in living the days given to us? You should know there is adventure in simply being among those we love and the things we love, and beauty, too.
 Lloyd Alexander


Someone with a lot of free time on their hands and a lot more genius and inspiration put together the trailer for Disney/Pixar's Up! bit by bit. What if Up! had been made in the '60s. Here is the answer:



Oh, and here you can see how he did it with side by side scenes from the original.
In case you don't know it, here is the trailer. And go fix that problem about not having seen this movie. The first 10 minutes of the film are absolutely brilliant, of what I came to call WALL-E quality. Here is the best part:



It's ok to cry, right?

29 January, 2011

Back in Black Ice

The title is of course a portmanteau of two ACDC albums Back in Black and Black Ice. It is inspiring if you want to look at comebacks. They released Back in Black after the vocalist died and they wanted to call it quits, luckily for us they stuck around a bit longer and the immediate result was one of the most appreciated and the best selling record of any band, ever. Black Ice is their latest (already some years old now) but it stuck with me because of a very simple reason: they did an awesome comeback. I mean, I was listening to this album and here they were sounding like 20 years before and that was just mindblowing that they managed to pull it off. Especially as we know others who finally managed to reach number one in the charts with their comeback (St Anger) and it sucked. The only thing that came close to leaving the impression of a great comeback on me was Slayer's World Painted Blood, but the title wouldn't have been as good. I take that back, Reign in World Painted Blood is pretty good for some aggressive metal, but I'm about to talk about something else...


I started with this talk of comebacks because the first album of the year of interest to me is supposed to show that my old favorites Stratovarius still have it in them to make some epic music.

And I'm happy to say they succeed quite well. After the not so great Polaris, here they are reverting to their old style. I've included the covers of albums so that you can see where they are going, putting an animal on the cover has to be a good sign. Actually they went even further back to their roots (when Kotipelto joined), the sound being closer to Episode or Visions. Although, I would have preferred it to have something in the vein of Destiny and the long closing track, Elysium, which is the same as the album name, was hinting just at that. Even if all in all I don't feel it is as well crafted or have the same melodious yet energetic feel like their early releases it is still a solid delivery with lots to offer for some nostalgic people who remember Stratovarius.

I'm not going to do a track by track analysis, you can find that in some reviews. However, I will comment on the fact that I feel Tolkki's writing was better, both in lyrics and guitarwork. Hell, even the keyboards seem to have been better inspired and to blend into the song better, although Johansson still has some aces up his sleeves. Too bad he just hints at them throughout this record. Overall I am satisfied and it fills me with optimism regarding this year, the albums to be released and my favorites not letting me down.

Speaking of which, the following bands will release albums I'm looking forward to (in order of descending importance):

  • Devin Townsend (Ghost, Deconstruction and Z2)
  • Blackfield (Welcome to my DNA)
  • Pain Of Salvation (Road Salt Two)
  • Symphony X
  • Opeth
  • Demons and Wizards
  • Rhapsody of Fire
  • Pagan's Mind
  • Wintersun
  • Ark
I will also probably want to check out the new Within Temptation and Nightwish albums, the Grave Digger EP (it would be high time for a good release), a new weird idea (?) from Dredg yet another run of the mill (but hopefully I will be surprised) power metal output from Hammerfall and, of course, the Avantasia DVD.

There are also a number of new albums which I think are just rumors for now but which would fill me with excitement or curiosity. So what are these guys doing: Dream Theater (they promised something without Mike Portnoy, hopefully they can deliver), Cynic (they are really building up speed between releases),  Amorphis (after their best album they'd better keep it up), Dragonforce and Riverside? Oh yeah, old timers Uriah Heep and Deep Purple are preparing something too.

Edit: Speaking of old timers, 16 years after releasing their magnum opus, Magnum return with a surprise delivery, which might well become their best record yet. Here you can give their single from the new album, The Visitation, a shot. The record starts slow but is brilliant in its second half (yes that would mean the single is not as good as it gets, so find it and try it).

28 January, 2011

Great Expectations 2011

First there are series, just one actually: Game of Thrones. Didn't read the book so I hope HBO gets me interested. They seem to be able to pull something epic off.

Then there are some interesting movies this year too, but of course it is already looking like a crappy year with both Transformers and Twilight continuing to sell tickets. However what looks like the worst movie next year is Your Highness. Fooled you, didn't I? There is a Justin Bieber movie coming... I think that says it all.
As a bonus there are also some movies I am looking forward to in increasing order: 
  • Thor (info and trailer)
  • Harry Potter (info and trailer would be the first whole movie Deathly Hallows part1)
  • Sucker Punch (info and trailer)
Thor seems to be the only superhero movie that has a chance of not sucking, Harry Potter is preparing for the grad finale and the reasons for Sucker Punch are... well:

Oh, you want more details? Sure. Here you go:







Best Movie Ever

If you were looking for Oscars go away this is something of much higher entertainment value.
I am glad and at the same time very sad that the best SF/action movie and (unintentionally ?) comedy has been made. Here is the short form.



26 January, 2011

A simple look

In case you were ever trying to visualize the grammar of a language (don't know why you would do that, but hey I stumbled upon it) here is Ruby:


And now here is Python:


I think it's pretty clear the two although fairly similar languages have different philosophies. Thumbs up if you thought Python was elegant.

Now in case you were wondering who bothered to do these drawings, they were auto-generated and I got them from here http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicksieger/

I learned about them from a presentation about how we can try to simplify things http://www.infoq.com/presentations/Simplicity-Architect
He starts of by enumerating most of the widely used technologies and architecture gimmicks, then wading a bit through psychology and how are brain works while finally trying to wrap up in a practical sense with giving the advice that you should think about the problem to solve deeply and solve the right problem. At least the beginning is a lot of fun and a very recommended watch.

17 January, 2011

A moral choice: Part 3, the Entertainment

Although choices are hard we seem to be liking them a great deal. Especially in interactive mediums (games), but by themselves too. This time I'll do it a little less wordy and instead give some cool examples. Oh, and here are links to part 1 and 2.

When moral choice would be connected to movies I would immediately think of The Dark Knight. There were two interesting scenes there (sadly, that involved video editing, which you will see is not my main skill):

What will the people on the 2 boats who have to destroy each other do?



That outcome by itself warrants a future entry on optimal group decisions. And the now for less important stuff: who will Batman save? The man who could stop crime in the city or the woman he loves?



That seemed to turn out badly... and it was brilliant. But of course these situations don't let you decide, you just get to watch the outcome. However, you do have these choices in games, especially RPG's. Here is a discussion of exterminating or reprogramming (thus taking away their free will) a race of robots:


However, I reached a different conclusion: reprogram them of course. I mean they had their will already taken from them so I don't feel it's wrong, plus I think it will make Mass Effect 3 more interesting.

However this example just proves my idea that games are dumbed down nowadays. Consider the choices Fallout (and I mean the good old games, not this piece of crap 3 that gets praised nowadays) was modeled on instead:

"You go looking for an orphan’s puppy, only to find that it’s gone rabid and you have to put it down. Then when you try to explain it to the boy, he attacks you. What do you do in that situation? Fight? Run? Disable the boy somehow? That kind of moral ambiguity was the inspiration for many of Fallout’s quests."


This was said by Tim Cain about a quest from Wasteland in an interview. And here you have more. Do yourself a favor and play these games, they are the best I know of at creating a morally ambiguous world, like, you know, the one we live in. I think such a dilemma showcases a lot more than the one from Mass Effect 2, which is grand in scale but not very emotionally involving. Moreover there seem to be no shades of grey.


I am still waiting for a game to successfully implement a 2D system like the alignment in AD&D for example (did I mentioned they dumbed it down in 2008?). In Mass Effect getting Paragon or Renegade points basically doesn't change much and it is random at times anyway (see the example above, both outcomes should give you Renegade points), while in the Knights of the Old Republic games going dark-side meant you would have to be a mindless, violent brute. Their combination however would turn up interesting results. I wish for the creation of characters like the Emperor from Star Wars, who would be Lawful Evil. That would add some depth to behavioral and moral choices in games. That would be awesome!

16 January, 2011

A moral choice: Part 2, the Freedom


Last time I posed some moral questions about killing and such nasty stuff. And looked at them from lets say a practical point of view. Now let's switch to looking from the perspective of freedom. Basically this is something like the other side of Utilitarism vs Kantianism. You would be very well off reading Kant's (who is probably the greatest philosopher, IMHO) books. And you will see that he is highly practical too, just smart about it.

We will be revising the dilemmas from the first part in this new light.

So let's start off with the first question: would you kill the guy on the tracks? Remember the discussion about guilt? and conscience? Well, Kant thinks that listening to our conscience is the only means of being free. It is the most intimate part of ourselves giving us advice on how we should behave. How can we even begin to imagine that if we do anything else than listen to ourselves we are really free? Here's a quote from Heinlein that might help you in your struggles:

I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.

Then what about the uneasy part? Why do we usually associate conscience with a negative sentiment? With a preacher-like figure making reproaches instead of a helpful advisor? Well because we are not perfect and we are ashamed of it. But of course this implies we do have an image of our perfect self, and we should do everything we can to fulfill that image of ourselves. Whenever there is something to decide a good advice would be to ask yourself: What would Jesus the perfect me do?

Remember the other guy from last time? The fat guy you have to push? Of course it is immoral to push the guy. The moral problem with killing him being that the fat guy was not involved. He only gets involved if you push him, meaning you take away his freedom. People should not be used as means to an end. Did you see a flaw in this argument? I'll tell you my take on it anyway. How does this differ from the other guy? the one who is already on the tracks? He is not involved and I would guess he sure as hell doesn't want to die. The answer is: you are not in his shoes. Think about it for a moment, you cannot switch places with the guy on the tracks, but you could switch places with the fat guy. If it is moral for you to push the fat guy to save 5 people, it would be just as moral for the fat guy to push you. Frankly, your chances are pretty slim compared to the fat guy :P

And that is a highly condensed but pretty usable lesson on Kantian morality: A thing is moral if you would want it to become an universal law. Have fun with it, you just won the gold ticket of being a better person. Well unless you have inhuman views like killing all the Jews (and there you have what's wrong with the answer to the Hitler question).

But are we free to choose? or are we conditioned by our biology and surroundings?
We, generally, seem to be tricked. Here's Dan Ariely explaining it with a couple of amusing examples:


Did you like the metaphor about illusions? It looks like scientists like it a lot. I stumble upon it time and time again. Here are some more examples. Ok, so this guy likes illusions too, but he did something even more interesting. He made an experiment that tests people's willing. He measured brainwaves while instructing people to wiggle their fingers at any given time. You would expect first to see an impulse of willing to do the action and then see the waves that actually carry out the action. Actually this looks more like:



 To hear the interview about wiggling go to the last part (about min 15) of this:



Their results says that our conscious will is just a rationalization. Think that this takes away your free will? Maybe. But is it bad? Well, freedom implies making choices and if you need reminding about how terrified we are about decisions scroll a little bit up and watch Dan Ariely talking about doctors giving people a hip replacement. I'll elaborate about making decisions and if that's good or bad in some future installment I haven't planned out yet. If you are confident about making decisions, go back and read the books referenced in the previous post. Freedom is often an illusion, not always having freedom could be a blessing. And I leave you with another insightful Heinlein quote:

You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don't ever count on having both at once.

15 January, 2011

A moral choice: Part 1, the Science

What got me going this time is a debate about what is right and what is wrong. And how people make these decisions. It's from this Radiolab episode:


It has an interesting and not so interesting part. The interesting parts are the ones dealing with this guy's research, which luckily is summarized on his homepage. I'll just go ahead and copy/paste the first problem:

A runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You can save these five people by diverting the trolley onto a different set of tracks, one that has only one person on it, but if you do this that person will be killed. Do you turn the trolley and thus prevent five deaths at the cost of one?  Once again, the trolley is headed for five people. You are standing next to a large man on a footbridge spanning the tracks. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and into the path of the trolley.  Do you push the fat man?

What struck me as odd is that there seems to be a consensus. Something like 90% of people answered Yes to the first and No to the second. If you did too, than congratulations you fit in. If not you are a monster and should be put to death. Well not exactly, but you get the point. I have to admit I was confused at both questions, because you do not have enough information: the life of that one man can be infinitely more worth than those of the 5 put together, but who are you to judge that? Anyway, adding such information I guess says more about the one answering the question...

What still leaves me confused is that being right by being consistent, a thing which is believed we do subconsciously, is socially unacceptable. I felt that asking the first question right before asking the second would condition people to realize that the two cases are the same and thus make them give the same answer in order to keep consistency (see the Influence book). Obviously I was wrong. By being right I mean of course doing the rational thing, calculating and killing the 1 to save the 5. That is after all what separates us from animals, right? Our rationality... and we will see what role it plays in the choices that we make (for an alternative take a look at part 2: Freedom). But first let's look at the second dilemma and our options. Here it is:

It's war time, and you are hiding in a basement with several other people.  The enemy soldiers are outside.  Your baby starts to cry loudly, and if nothing is done the soldiers will find you and kill you, your baby, and everyone else in the basement.  The only way to prevent this from happening is to cover your baby's mouth, but if you do this the baby will smother to death.  Do you kill your own baby?

A rational answer (so rational it becomes inhuman) would be: sure, you could always make more; but I am pretty sure I couldn't be able to, already at theoretical level, not to mention the emotional response triggered by holding the little one in your hands. And you should be aware that the emotional response is much stronger than you predict the emotional response to be (see the Predictably Irrational book). On the other hand the cynical point of view is: what do you care if the whole village dies? when you weigh it against your child, there are enough people in the world anyway... 

I don't like these lose, lose questions but apparently we can't help but find them fascinating. The child scene was analyzed in the last episode of M.A.S.H. Very powerful moment (for more on the use of moral choices in media stay tuned for part 3: Entertainment).


Now lets look a bit more at what they did here: What if it was someone else's baby? Specifically, let's take a look at this popular quiz, often found told as a joke (don't know why, maybe people think this is dark humor):

If you knew a woman who was pregnant, and she had 8 kids already, three who were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded, and she had syphilis; would you recommend that she have an abortion?

If you answered yes you just killed Beethoven. (Ignore the fact that this is totally bullshit, meaning the facts are not right, the idea is that you might have killed Beethoven. I think the point here is that it is not for you to decide)

This question often goes together with another:

It is time to elect the world leader, and your vote counts. Here are the facts about the three leading candidates:
  • Candidate A associates with crooked politicians, and consults with astrologists. He's had two mistresses. He also chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day.
  • Candidate B was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, used opium in college and drinks a quart of whisky every evening.
  • Candidate C is a decorated war hero. He's a vegetarian, doesn't smoke, drinks an occasional beer and hasn't had any extramarital affairs.
Which of these candidates would be your choice?

    Now for the revealing: Candidate A is Franklin Roosevelt, Candidate B is Winston Churchill, and Candidate C is Adolph Hitler. Anyway, I would say this only proves one thing: Hitler is the man people really want, why do people say he was evil? And you get what you deserve. Or was it more like: careful what you wish... ?

    It's time to be wrapping up, don't you think? Instead of a conclusion we will be looking at the most important question of all: how do we decide? What are our moral choices based on? Is it society, upbringing etc or is it something deeper? something that is in our nature... maybe in our genes or in the place we usually go to look for answers: the brain.

    Remember Joshua Green? Here's what he found: different parts of the brain light up when we do rational choices, compared to those that light up when something more instinctive is involved. For the first question, about 1 guy on the rails vs 5, only the rational parts fire up. However, when the fat guy is concerned, we "know" that it is wrong to push to kill one of our own kind, so the other parts light up more intensely. It is basically a shouting match between different parts of yourself. But what happens in the case of the baby, where they are almost evenly matched? Scientific answer: you "exhibit increased activity in anterior regions of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex" (or something like that, just listen to it on the Radiolab episode at the top, it's clearer). You know, the part of the brain that is more developed in humans. This gives it a nudge toward the rational side.

    The distinctly human nature manifesting itself is the one making us kill our own child. And here I was thinking that the highest expression of human nature is a cat giving its life to protect its young.

    PS. I'm sure this cat stuff is paraphrasing some famous quote. And I thought it was from Heinlein, but it seems I can't quite trace it.