Sunday, 06-Apr-14 15:24
The Danger Of Ostrich Solution

Ever asked an engineer for a solution for a problem with your Windows installation? Ever gotten the answer “use a Mac!”? Or “Buy an iPhone?” Or “Use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office?” That’s the engineer’s Ostrich Solution right there: by pretending the entire premise of the question is invalid, you ignore the problem by blaming the victim. Kinda like putting your head in sand and ignoring the rest of the world exists.

I tweeted recently how I thought that Youtube is becoming useless because they’ve started adding ads directly in the middle of programs. As an automatic algorithm, it disrupts the experience of viewing because it has no concept of story pacing. For some pirated TV shows which have clear cues (like a few frames of black) it might work, but for a whole lot of programming it just ruins the experience.

The responses I got were all in the line of “use an adblocker”. The Ostrich Solution. Pretend Youtube is not screwing things up by ignoring it.

I agree that it is a good solution to annoying ads. It’s direct, it’s simple, it’s effective. It’s the kind of solution engineers thrive on. But it only solves the problem for one person. Everyone else, especially those who don’t have the technical knowledge of installing an adblocker, are completely thrown out in the cold. But the engineer no longer knows this, since he’s solved his own immediate problem, and does not even realize that someone else might have a problem. And that’s how you distance yourself from the general population.

I mean, we engineers know that encryption is important. We run things like “HTTPS everywhere” to keep our communications private. But it wasn’t until Edward Snowden revealed that NSA had been attacking the infrastructure of major internet companies that they decided to turn on encryption for ‘’everyone’’, not just those who actually cared about it. Was it because of cost issues, or was it simply because the engineers figured they know how to turn on SSL from the options so “it was already secure for those who wanted it to be secure”? The designers even made it user-friendly by making the tick look big.

We know that the internet’s freedom is at stake, so we build undeniably wonderful things like Tor and SSH ‘’for those who know how to use such things’’, and leave everyone else to be steamrolled by zealous nationstates. We design internet-enabled gadgets that make our house tweet, and glasses that let you record everything, but don’t really care about what might happen when everyone’s connected this way and someone cracks the OS or our government turns nasty. At least we’ll be rich and can protect ourselves.

I know it’s a human thing. It’s not only that naturally we’re interested in our own wellbeing more than that of other people, but that often it’s just easier and faster to solve the immediate problem and leave the underlying problem field for others. We’re occupied by a billion trivial matters, of which ten are satisfying, and the pressures of the civilization to provide even more and cheaper and better. And we look at people who have made a gazillion dollars and are willing to work long, gruesome hours to get even a whiff of the same success. And this is a wonderful time to be an engineer. We’re good at details, and details is what the world gives us right now in plenty.

Especially in IT, people want to be trailblazers. They want to be the next Twitter or Facebook. That means doing a lot of things that nobody has quite done before in the same way. That’s the nature of engineering in general: there are always exceptions, always problems to solve, no matter how many times you have done it before. And this is good, but it does make it very easy to get trapped in the details. Just solve the problem, and move to the next one.

But I just wish that we could sometimes stop and look at the big picture too. What do things really mean? Where are we going? Do we want to go there? How can we achieve that? What are the steps from here to there? How do we convince everyone else about this too? What will happen when everything is Done?

How to make Solutions For Everyone instead of Solutions Only For Ostrichs.

(OK, perhaps it’s just me who needs to stop and everyone else is constantly looking for the big picture all the time. But I don’t think I am deeply mistaken if I assume that I am not that different from anyone else, and that others share this similar feeling. Perhaps we could do something about it?)

Sunday, 23-Mar-14 03:18
ShadowRun Returns: Dragonfall

OK, so I've been running a ShadowRun game since, well, pretty much late teens, that is, over 20 years now. I've been there pretty much from the first edition of the rules, and been through quite a lot of revisions and world expansions etc - but still, my favourite era in SR is the decade of circa 2050-2060, where everything was still fresh and new and the writing was great. So when the original desktop Shadowrun line developer joined forces with some smart people to make a computer game, I was somewhat excited, but a bit wary - would it truly live up to the expectations?

I may have gushed over the original SR Returns campaign (Dead Man's Switch), and the empty, gutwrenching feeling you have when you realize you have to peek inside an "Universal Brotherhood" -chapterhouse in one part of the game. Without spoiling too much, that place played a pivotal role in the desktop campaign, and as such the campaign for the computer game hit just the right spots, but it was more or less riding on the excellence of the world rather than the writing itself. So it was okay, and promised good things about the future.

However, I just finished the new campaign for SR Returns - Dragonfall. And boy, that's exactly the kind of game the evokes the same feelings as the best game you ever thought you ran as a teenager. That's really where it's at. It's exciting, well-written, and completely and utterly engaging. And it's, well, different from a lot of games. At some point I realized I wasn't playing to win the baddies. I was playing to protect the people - the characters in the game - who were depending on me. I started to take things personally, and at some point I did my darndest to avoid making certain decisions, because they would be bad for the people. And I started caring for those well-written side characters, and wished there was more dialogue written for them. My character "Sparrow" started out as a cynic, no-nonsense street samurai, but over the course of the game he found a soft spot and a home for himself. The character evolved through roleplaying. I would never, ever have thought that that would actually happen in a computer game.

And there were some aspects of some of the missions I just hated. Hated with burning passion. Not because they were bad, but because there were only bad and worse moral choices to be made. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It was wonderful.

Honestly, the last time a game evoked these kinds of feelings was the original Homeworld, where the story and the soundscape created something more than just a game - a feeling of being a part of a story. This is really gaming at it's best; something that lets you discover things about yourself too which you did not realize. I'm really glad to see yet another example of how powerful a game can be - truly justifying games as equal to books or to movies.

I am really looking forward to whatever Harebrained Schemes do next with this game. There are many, many wonderful stories still to tell - I have been telling some of my own for the past 20 years. The goodness of all this makes me giddy.

(You can download Shadowrun Returns on Steam. Well worth it. Both campaigns together took me about 35 hours over the course of a few weeks, an hour here and an hour there. And I just love the soundtrack.)

Tuesday, 04-Feb-14 19:41
A Pandemic

I've been a bit of a Scott Sigler junkie for a long time. I listened to many of his books as podcasts, and really liked the way he talked to his audience. And he has a gnarly imagination - if a whispered "chicken scissors" makes you wince, you probably know what I'm talking about. However, since he seemed to grab some fame with his Rookie series (Galactic Football League - yawn) I sort of dialed out of what he was doing. I was really looking for hearing more about hard scifi stuff, but got sportsy stuff instead. Oh well.

However, he's back. I just finished Scott Sigler's Pandemic, and boy, is it good. It reads like an action movie - and if any of his books should be optioned for a movie, this would be it. I could easily see myself watching this as a summer blockbuster in 2017.

Pandemic continues the story set in motion by "Infected" and "Contagious", in which a nearby alien robot spacecraft starts to convert humanity to its own cause using all sorts of nifty biotechnology. The alien is actually smart, so it keeps testing different approaches, which makes things sometimes... difficult to cope with. Even though the books are science horror fiction, the sciency stuff is actually rather light, but avoids the technobabble feeling. It is perhaps not entirely accurate, but it is totally plausible within the given constraints of the universe, and does not make me cringe.

The characters are lightweight, another sign of an action movie, but it works out ok - the book takes place over just a few days, and there's a lot to cover while still keeping the book trim.

So yeah, I liked this one. I liked it enough to even do this writeup :-). So if you're a fan of the techno-horror-scheme, this is certainly a good one. You don't have to read the two previous parts; but it might make the beginning of the book a bit more clear.

Update: forgot to mention - my kids were having chicken pox at the same time. The alien biotech causes similar effects, so I kept checking the kids extra carefully...

Monday, 23-Dec-13 19:15
A word to the wise wife

If the husband is always wrong, he can never state this.

You see, if the husband admits that he's always wrong, that would mean that he'd be right (in admitting that he is always wrong) and hence could not be always wrong. Which would make him wrong in stating that he's always wrong, which is contrary to the original premise that he'd be always wrong. Thus would form a logical impossibility, which would create a vortex that would suck in all of the humanity and destroy the universe.

You see, that's why when your husband can never admit he's wrong, even when he clearly is. He's just protecting the universe. Because Vortex Of Impossibility.

(Feel free to swap any other word to replace "husband" meaning the significant other in a partnership. I just really hate to write husband/wife/partner/polypartner/a partner of indeterminate sex in all places, 'cos, you know, that kinda takes the punch out of any text.)

Wednesday, 11-Dec-13 09:44
The Great Silence

You know, if I did game reviews - or pretty much reviews of anything - news like these would probably make me turn off the sound of any gameplay or ringtones or anything that might make sound. Just in case someone might slap me a copyright lawsuit within the next, oh, 150 years or so. Because if it's not being done today - copyright law has a nasty way of becoming retroactive, the inherent problem in any property law - it may be done tomorrow when the law changes.

So perhaps this will lead to The Great Silence, where most documentaries, videos, etc of our era will be made silent, just in case, because nobody wants to deal with the possibilities. In the example above, a guy has been making sweating to make stuff for the past several years, and suddenly someone can come in and claim 100% of their revenue based on the fact that there is a ten-second clip of their music audible at some point. There is no way this could be in any way constructive to anyone - but that's the way the law just is. So perhaps its better to simply turn the volume down on the computer or TV when you're playing and embrace the Great Silence.

Saturday, 02-Nov-13 10:15
So long...

Sometimes I dream that a big honking alien spaceship appears suddenly and puts itself on an orbit around the Earth. Then they just send a simple message: "Don't mind us, we're here just waiting until you destroy the planet and then claim it as salvage under galactic law. Dibs!"

Perhaps that would be a trigger for people to realize that there is something fundamentally wrong in how we're living.

(Yes, I know, this is a childish deus-ex-machina wish. We're not renting this planet, it's ours to destroy or to make prosper.)

Saturday, 05-Oct-13 19:58
Random fanboi moment

We were watching the 9th Season of Stargate SG1 (yeah, I know, it's eight years old by now, but there's only so much time so I'm badly lagging. Also, they weren't available before Netflix...) and I had my belated chuckle which all other geeks probably had eight years ago: Claudia Black's character comes and says to Ben Browder's character: "I don't think I've ever seen you before."

Of course, these two were the main characters of Farscape, one of the top TV scifi series of all time (which was inexplicably cancelled when it ended on a cliffhanger). So glad to see them together again.

(fairly sure quote is incorrect, but I have kids hanging off my left hand demanding stuff. that is why I tweet more these days than blog, that I can do onehandedly.)

Thursday, 26-Sep-13 12:49
Internet of Thongs

I'll rant a bit incoherently now, sorry.

There's now a tweeting refridgerator. Unsurprisingly, nobody cares about what happens inside the refridgerator. An inanimate thing - so far - has very little actually interesting to say, which is really my problem with the whole "Internet of Things".

Now, a massive portion of the internet traffic is already from things talking to other things - all sorts of automated alerts, checks, gossip is ongoing where machines are trying to keep track of other machines, and only a tiny percentage of those messages are ever shown to a human being: a machine will check the state of another machine, and only when it crashes, is a human alerted to go and fix the thing. In some cases, really smart systems can tell the human ten minutes in advance that it's going to crash, and we consider that progress. But this is all just stuff that engineers have developed to make their lives easier - and I'm seeing a lot of that in the Internet of Things as well.

So I'm a bit - well, not even a bit - sceptical about whether the Internet of Things really changes anything. Yes, surveillance becomes easier. Yes, your life becomes a bit more efficient. But that's just progress. The benefit of the phone in your pocket wasn't because phones could talk to each other - it was because you could talk to some other human being. Connecting people, as they say. So I just can't really see why things talking to other things would be disruptive, because they just don't have anything interesting to say.

What the Internet of Things needs to evolve to is the Internet of Stories: Creating an emotional connection between humans and machines. Become the real, first step towards the post-singularity period - 'cos if we don't make the machines care about us, they will overrun us in the name of the efficiency we have been teaching them. Our things should be able to tell stories about themselves and their relation to the world: who owned them, who cared about them. I don't want to see furry dolls talking to each other in incomprehensible code; I want them telling who they are and how they played with their last owner. In my mind, the proper model for the Internet of Things is "Toy Story", not "Matrix".

But anyway. Just a smallish rant for the bemusement of those who actually work on this stuff. I'm sure this isn't a new opinion, but I'm too lazy to google for references today.

Sunday, 15-Sep-13 18:29
Moar scientific experiments

I've wanted to do this for a long time, but really haven't gotten around to doing it. Now I finally went ahead and tried mixing vinegar with baking powder - a fairly basic chemistry experiment. Bumped it up a bit for the kids, and here's the result :)

http://www.thinglink.com/scene/435821312670171138

Idea shamelessly stolen from a set of science cards I got from the local science store.

Monday, 22-Jul-13 14:07
Red Men

I heard about Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua first through my Twitter feed (probably through Mr. Jones), and I figured it might be a good read. Turns out Twitter was right.

Red Men is a story about a post-singularity world, where humanity is trying to cope with an artificial intelligence that seems hell-bent on replacing humans with simulated versions of them, but has also figured out the commercial aspects of such an endeavour: If you could have a copy of all your best workers working tirelessly inside the computer, wouldn't that just make economic sense for any large corporation? The main character, Nelson, is just a family man with enough wit to be important, but not enough of a bully to be a manager - so he works hard in the crosspressure of corporate life, bosses with issues, an AI nobody really understands, and family. For a scifi novel, it's surprisingly easy to identify with. In fact, I think I had a few flashbacks to Nokia...

The book has film rights already sold, and there's a pretty cool short film of the first chapter already out there (watch it!). The slightly weird bit is that the different editions of the book have been through quite a bit of editing, so the version you read may not be the same as what other people read. I read the Gollancz edition on Kindle, but based on the excerpts some people might enjoy the earlier edition more.

(And yeah, this was a deliberate attempt at writing a bit more. I'm on vacation, so I'm getting more rest and clarity, though of course any free time from work is immediately enveloped by family. It is a bit easier though when you only have three people vying for your attention instead of a dozen.)

Friday, 07-Jun-13 09:13
PS3 Media Server & YLE subtitles

Finally figured out how to get DVB/YLE subtitles working when streaming the original .TS -file (also known as .REC) from my Mac. There is a lot of info on this on the internets, but they're mostly about "I have this .SRT subtitles file that came with this illegally downloaded program, how do I show them" -variety. Not a whole lot of info on how to get it working if you grab the original media stream from the air and just want to have it nicely playing back. The thing is - YLE uses DVB subtitles which are embedded within the TS stream itself, unlike all other Finnish channels who just burn it the texts directly into the media stream (which means they can't be turned off, so this simplicity comes with a cost). Unfortunately MEncoder and FFMpeg just sort of assume that subtitles are for extreme nerds who understand intimately the structure of MPEG2 transport streams.

After trying out a myriad of extremely obscure command line options for MEncoder and FFMpeg, I ended up just disabling everything else and going with VLC. Hover on the image for further info.

That's it! Restart server, and browse to your collection with your PS3. You should now see a text "[VLC]" behind most of your media files (except the ones that can be streamed immediately).

I used PS3 Media Server 1.81.0 and VLC 2.0.6.

Monday, 03-Jun-13 14:15
Deletability - my new favourite mangled word

My recent phone conversations with magazine sales menseem to go pretty much the same route.

"Hi! I have some happy news! I'm calling you to offer you this free magazine as a thanks for being our customer! Would you like X or Y?"

"No thanks. I'm not interested in any of those."

"But it's... free!?!"

"Save your money. Use it to make them better 'cos right now I don't want them even for free."

There's enough papery stuff delivered in my mailbox already, so I'm not adding any new stuff unless I actually want it to be there. Yes, I still do subscribe to paper versions of magazines because of the convenience (compact size, enough to read so it's worth carrying them to places, no big loss if they're used in garden games by two-year-olds). However, getting rid of physical objects is a burden, even if the trip to the paper recycler is just a few meters. I still need to actively do something to get rid of the "free" stuff, and suddenly it stops being free. Time is money, etc.

However, if they offered me a sampler PDF directly to my inbox, or a magic code to get 7 days of access to their online site, I might take it. I want my crap to be digital, 'cos I have the tools to deal with them, and I can deal with a larger amount of crap and samplers and ads on my computer than I can physically. The delete button is less than five centimeters from my right pinkie...

The more stuff there is, the more important disposability and deletability become.

Tuesday, 23-Apr-13 20:28
Dark day

You may have noticed the black popup covering this site today, calling you to sign a petition to make some sense to Finnish copyright legislation. Well, for those who don't know about this, Finland has a law which says that "if 50,000 people sign a petition, the government must take it seriously". Unfortunately, what it actually really means is still up for debate, but to get 50k people to sign something in a country of less than 5M eligible voters is quite significant (especially if you're an MP who cares about being re-elected).

Anyway. The real reason why my blog and plenty of other sites went all black was that few people realize that the copyright struggle is a three-party thing. There's the content creators (like the artists), the content consumers (like me), and the middlemen (like record companies). For the most part, the middlemen like to play the creator's side, but when it comes down to actual profit - well, there's a saying in Finland: "The artist pays."

You have to think about it this way: who gets the most out of strong copyright? The middlemen do not create or consume anything. Yes, they do facilitate, and as such they are a valuable part of the ecosystem, but strictly speaking - they're not necessary. However, since individual content creators often lack the resources to enforce their copyrights - and the content consumers don't care - there is a spot in the ecosystem for companies which have the money and the interest to police copyright - and there we find the middlemen.

This is why we're in this fight. Not because copyright is a bad thing (it isn't! It's a great thing!), but because it's no longer in the hands of people. New copyright legislation is dedicated to removing rights from both consumers and creators and concentrating it in the hands of middle-men corporations, because they have the money to write the laws, and lobby them incessantly until they get what they want.

This is why this site is black. To support a copyright law that does not make corporations force the police to seize laptops from 9-year olds. To support a copyright law that allows artists to have a say on whom to sue. To support a copyright law that says that people must be listened to.

Please do support the petition.


Private comments? Drop me an email. Or complain in a nearby pub - that'll help.



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