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.

    13 January, 2011

    Page not found

    A site's 404 page is one of the best places to express creativity and keep the user entertained, and you don't have to worry about consistency and such, because nobody is supposed to see it right?
    Anyway here is a collection of the most widely used examples:  http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2008/08/the-100-most-funny-and-unusual-404-error-pages/

    And if you want some more words around your examples to make one too, take a look here:  http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2007/07/25/wanted-your-404-error-pages/ and here  http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2007/08/17/404-error-pages-reloaded/

    But the reason I wrote this post is because of the coolest one of them all, the one from Github:  https://github.com/404.
    And because they might change it and just for fun here it is embedded in the blog post:

    404 | “This is not the web page you are looking for”
    Octobi Wan Catnobi
    land speeder
    Octobi Wan Catnobi's shadow
    land speeder's shadow

    Btw. Did I mention you need to move your mouse over it?

    10 January, 2011

    Metal of 2010

    As a new year begins, I'm making a list to remember my favorites and not-so-favorites of the last one. So here is a top-n in music:

    1. Avantasia - The Wicked SymphonyAngel of Babylon
    2. Following his worst release yet (Edguy - Tinnitus Sanctus) Tobias Sammet returns with a great offering. These two are great albums that maintain the new hard-rock style of The Scarecrow, and if he would have put a tremendous amount of extra effort and condensed them into one album I think one of the best albums of metal history could have resulted.
    3. Star One - Victims of the Modern Age
    4. Although I didn't get into it immediately I find myself listening to it time and time again. I guess it helps that songs are inspired by SF cult classic movies.
    5. Rhapsody of Fire - The Frozen Tears of Angels
    6. This is the best Rhapsody album I have listened too, even better than the ones which made them famous and overall a power metal masterpiece.
    7. Vanden Plas - The Seraphic Clockwork
    8. A new band for me and this, their best album, got my attention and I loved it.
    9. Cynic - Re-Traced
    10. A curious, new, less metal mixing of Traced in Air. Couldn't be as good as that one though.
    11. Orpahned Land - The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR
    12. Not as good as Mabool. but one of the best pieces of strange folkish metal.
    13. Allen/Lande - The Showdown
    14. Not as good as the previous 2 albums, but still pretty solid.
    15. Nachtgeschrei - Ardeo
    16. Not their best, but a folk metal album I enjoyed very much. Fejd's debut Eifur seems ok too, but Swedish just doesn't do anything for me. Heljareyga also are worth mentioning for the same considerations.
    17. Alter Bridge - AB III
    18. Liking this one makes me feel like a poser.
    19. Tarja Turunen - What Lies Beneath
    20. The style didn't change but this was surprisingly likeable.
    21. Therion - Sitra Ahra
    22. Strangely, I don't really like the band but this seemed like their best album to date.
    23. Joe Satriani - Black Holes and Wormhole Wizards
    24. Don't really like Satriani either, or any solo guitarists for that matter, but again this seemed his best album to date.
    Albums which, surprisingly, didn't do much for me although I had high hopes:
    • Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier (still expecting another Number of the Beast)
    • Apocalyptica - 7th Symphony 
    • Masterplan - Time to be King (Jorn Lande is back but Masterplan isn't)
    • Scorpions - Sting in the Tail
    • Blind Guardian - At the Edge of Time (it's supposed to be a big deal but I don't see it, yet)
    • Pain of Salvation - Road Salt One
    • Anathema - We're here because we're here (maybe I'll give it another go)
    • Sabaton - Coat of Arms (they raised the bar a lot with the Art of War, well they lowered it again)
    • Rhapsody of Fire - The Cold Embrace of Fear (not a great follow-up to their other album of the year)
    • James LaBrie - Static Impulse (how does he go with death growls? sad year for Dream Theater)
    • Grave Digger - The Clans Will Rise Again (I think this is their cheesiest stuff)
    Special award for live album goes to Opeth - Live at the Royal Albert Hall. I don't generally like live albums but this one was great.

    Another special award is going to bands who give out their stuff for free. These would be Iron Thrones, Torture Division and Ironwood (from worst to best), although they are all in the black-death area which I don't find quite enjoyable. A special award goes to How to Destroy Angels for most disturbing video I have ever seen:
    If you like this kind of music I would also recommend Ice Ages - Buried Silence which I discovered this year. But I don't think that it can stir any healthy emotions.

    Conclusion? more disappointing than not, with a lot of delays (lots for next year), so let's hope for a better new year :)

    09 January, 2011

    Customer Care

    I'm sure there was a time when you got frustrated with bad service or customer care. Well, that really shouldn't happen, but the good news is it can help you stand apart. Like this guy (you need to read the text):
    This thing is so awesome it almost makes me feel bad about not trying to find this guy online and asking for permission to post his masterpiece, because that's what it is, it's the Mona Lisa of customer care.

    If this got you interested and want to know more about how to do good customer care, have a look at Joel's blog, especially this: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/customerservice.html

    Of course you could also be at the opposite side of the spectrum, like a bank let's say. That can help you stand out too, but maybe not in the way you wanted. And there is room for awesomeness here too... It's just that you're not the one doing it and it's sad.

    Btw. If you feel you don't have the talent for this, you can still try, see the giraffe neck below:

    The manliest thing ever

    More words would just ruin the manliness, but if you don't want to buy this truck this is what it says about you:

    Two rednecks, Bubba and Cooter, decide to go to college. Bubba goes first, and he is advised to take maths, history and logic.

    -- "What's logic?" says Bubba.

    -- "Well, let me give you an example," says the professor. "Do you own a tractor?"
    -- "Sure do," says Bubba.
    -- "Okay. Then I assume, using logic, that you have a yard."
    -- "That's real good," says Bubba, in awe.
    -- "Logic also tells me that since you have a yard, you also have a house. Is that right?"
    -- "Gawly!” says Bubba.
    -- "And since you own a house and a house is tough to take care of by yourself, the odds are that you have a wife. Right?"
    -- "Betty Mae! This is incredible!"
    -- "Finally, since you have a wife, logically I can assume you are heterosexual. Is that right?"
    -- "You are absolutely right! Why that's the most fascinatin' thang I ever heerd of. I can't wait to take this here logic class!"

    Bubba, proud of the new world opening up to him, goes back into the hallway where Cooter is waiting.

    -- "So what classes are ya takin’?" says Cooter.
    -- "Maths, history and logic," says Bubba.
    -- "What in tarnation is logic?"
    -- "Let me give you an example," says Bubba. "Do you own a tractor?"
    -- "No."
    -- "Then you’re gay."

    06 January, 2011

    Gulliver's travels

    With the new movie of resonant title but little promise I would like to discuss the loss of values. Why is it that people even consider making a crappy movie and dragging a good name in the mud? You know like they did for the Time Machine, and to a lesser extent once before. That was a brilliant book. Anyway, now: Gulliver's travels.

    There's really nothing more to say as the original book was filled with political thoughts while satirizing the then popular travel novels. A movie filled with political insight and satirizing today's 3D movies would have been more appropriate. So that you can get a proper taste of Jonathan Swift take a look here. Disclaimer: this article is not for the faint of heart, but you should at least read the introduction and the end. The depiction kind of makes me sad as nothing seems to have changed considerably... To get an idea this is how I found out about the essay, starting from this demotivational poster:

    How this book could ever get written and published is beyond me... am I the only one who thinks there are retarded people out there who might take it literally? Like the ones making these crappy movies.

    To end on a happier note: For a brilliant film inspired by the book, but having little to do with it, I recommend Laputa. While it does have some touching and almost deep moments it is clearly an action movie, much better than almost anything Hollywood put out lately.

    PS. Should you be looking for the book, I found it here.