Saturday, June 29, 2013

Survivalism

First contact: good

The very first time I encountered the notion of "survivalism" was probably when watching Ray Mears' Extreme Survival (RMES) on Discovery Channel. It was closely related to bushcraft and had something to do with being able to maintain yourself healthy enough until you could bring yourself from "stranded" back to civilization. RMES was also keen on presenting the know-how not as mere military techniques but as natural lore, most of which has been lost as civilizations transitioned from one lifestyle to the next, benefiting from new technological or social changes.

Second contact: bad

Then the show ended, or I moved to some place where Discovery Channel wasn't available, and I forgot about it. And then I encountered survivalism as a negative thing: the word carried the stigma of groups of people who are eccentric at best, more likely nationalist and reactionary, and at worst... well... maybe "revolutionary" in a literal sense. There are people who feel strongly that governments are out to get them, take away their guns, their freedom, etc. And there are people who have a strong feeling that disaster will strike any time soon, be it a lethal pandemics, war, nuclear meltdown or nuclear winter, etc. These people are probably the most loony but also the most representative of what survivalism is about. Such people have gained public attention through the TV show "Doomsday preppers" and are generally referred to as Preppers. They will store years of food in their attic, stock up on guns and ammo and rehearse emergency gestures, install video cameras, etc. They are certainly crazy. I mean pathologically crazy with their behavior described somewhere in the DSM 5. But their dedication to being prepared makes them highly skilled and knowledgeable in domains like food gathering and preservation, plant lore, first aid, etc. An example that doesn't cease to amaze me: they can (and do) keep chicken eggs healthily edible for 9 months and possibly a little more.

Third contact: maturity

Then I discovered the Youtube channel of a French man who migrated to the USA a couple decades ago: Vol West. His channel (lesurvivaliste) is in French language and is truly about survivalism and not about prepping. So he's not part of the crazies and his approach makes a lot more sense, to me at least. His idea is that one must consider the risks he is likely to face one day or the other. Also, you should take into account the likelihood of such events taking place and then dedicate reasonable efforts to prepare for such events based on how likely they are to happen. For example, losing your job is much more likely than a comet (like the one that killed dinosaurs 65 million years ago) hitting the Earth. So you should spend more efforts, and probably money, on being ready for the day when/if you might lose your job. It means storing months worth of food, saving enough money to get by for whichever duration of unemployment you estimate appropriate, maybe grow some food of your own to save money, or learn how to keep your vegetables and fruits fresh for longer, to prevent waste. Other scenarios are possible like a major electricity outage, a hurricane, forest fire, or a flood (depending on where you live) which would force you to go away from your home. In this case, you could have a backpack ready in advance, which you can grab and be gone in under 10 minutes.

Conclusion:

Survivalism is a philosophy of life that can have a significant impact on how you live, how you spend your money, and make you seem a little weird (or totally nuts, if you're one of the preppers). But even if you don't feel like being part of it, there is great knowledge and wisdom to be taken from it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) ★★★★☆



























Plot

In order to save Spock's life, Captain Kirk breaks Starfleet's prime directive (interfering with primitive civilizations). Kirk therefore gets demoted and the Enterprise's command is taken away from him and attributed to Admiral Pike. Seeing the potential of Kirk, Pike manages to bring Kirk in his team as his second in command. This is when a terrorist attack, engineered by a single man, is carried out against one of Starfleet's buildings. It seems a single-handed war is being initiated against Starfleet by a surprisingly resourceful man.

My verdict

My very first feeling upon watching this movie was that it was really good. The scientific incoherence (almost unavoidable in any sci-fi story) is kept to a reasonable low. The actors' performance is very good and the villain is very stylish. I don't know whether JJ Abrams intends to continue making Star Trek movies but there is an obvious intention to give secondary characters an important role and make their names stick in the viewer's head: Scotty, Sulu, Uhura... The scenario's complexity achieves a good balance:  not too simplistic and not too retort. It also manages to include elements that remind us of USA's history of the past 12 years with the war on terror and ask smart questions like: "Can we and should we be allowed to circumvent the law and carry out all-out crimes like murder on suspects?". And it does so brilliantly. Well played, JJ! Some scenes also allow the movie to explore the complexity of the characters' personalities, in particular Spock's personality. While it does not do anything really new, Star Trek Into Darkness does everything very well and it deserves 4 stars.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lord of War (2005) ★★★★☆



























Plot

Yuri Orlov is the elder son of Ukrainian immigrants to the United States. Growing up in a modest setting, his life changes upon the realization that humans have an almost biological thirst for weapons. Starting from the sale of a single weapon, he is aiming for the top of his profession and embarks on a life-changing career, providing the means to people's most violent ends.


My verdict

The story is truly gripping. Cage's performance is good and for once he's not embodying a character with psychological conflicts. In Lord of War, he is a rather apathetic and cynical salesman whose industry is death. In order to give more flesh to the story, the scenario intertwines family life with the character's career but this is not what the movie's about. It is a man's lonely journey in the pursuit of a lucrative career and whose actions are not without consequence. It is also the story of millions of people whom we dismiss when news anchors announce the numbers of their deaths, "the people in, you know, those countries over there". It is also a story about truth, since it is inspired by the life of a real person: Viktor Bout. Finally, it is a story about what our countries do in our name, behind closed doors, organizing the deaths of millions of people in order to gain money or political influence over foreign countries. It is a shocking movie about a monster, but it is also a salutary movie for revealing the reality. If you can stomach cynicism and violence, you'll greatly enjoy this 4 stars movie.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Musing

OK... So, I try to keep up with the rhythm of almost 1 article a day and I try to keep articles interesting, though it is a challenging thing to do. Kudos to people who succeed at that, especially those who are not professional writers! And of course, I publish a movie every so often, as a filler, as already explained in the past. Mind you, I only publish reviews of movies with a 4 or 5 stars rating (out of a maximum of 5 stars). So if you haven't checked my reviews yet and you're looking for a good movie to watch, you might find gems that you haven't heard about before.

But there are times when I get so busy several days in a row that the blog doesn't get the love it deserves. In the past few days, I've been busy with intense programming (making macros and tools that will help a friend in her job) and gardening. Pro tip: before you plant a tree in your garden, get information on how big it grows, how strong are its wood and its roots, and how difficult it will be to remove its roots from the ground, even 3 years after you've chopped down the tree! Lychee is bad! On a scale of vanilla-ice-cream-good to creamy-cheese-bad, it ranks pretty near cheese. Admittedly, this scale is not (yet) official but I'm hopeful.

Anyways... I hope to have a little more time on my hands for the blog in the coming days. Some long articles have been in preparation for months and I need to finish them. Good night my sweet blog!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Ghost Writer (2010) ★★★★☆



Plot:

A ghost writer gets hired by Adam Lang, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in order to finish his incomplete biography. This (unnamed) ghost writer takes over the unfinished works from another author who was found dead a month earlier on a beach after drowning in what seems to be a suicidal move. While this writing works takes place on an American island where Lang owns a secondary residence, the European media are frantic against the ex-PM against whom the International Court of Justice has opened an investigation for his potential involvement in the Extraordinary Rendition Program (CIA's streak of kidnappings, secret prisons, and torture).

My verdict:

Excellent movie. The scenario is great. So is the performance of all actors. But what truly makes the magic happen is the unsettling ambiance of mystery and intrigue, and the evolution of the main character (the writer). Music is also an essential part of the ambiance and it skillfully reinforces the mood of each scene. All in all, an excellent investigation/thriller movie falls just short of 5 stars but more than deserves a 4 star rating.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Google rushing to your rescue

The title mentions Google, but Facebook does the same and it's likely that other big companies also follow similar behaviors.

You know how Google works? Their programs read everything we write, analyze words and how words relate to each other to create a context. They probably also trigger alarms on the usage of special words that disturb the NSA overlords' quality of sleep. So it happens that I wrote an article about death and about what happens after it.

And in the ensuing 30 minutes, my blog received more visits than I usually get in a single day. Here's the hourly graph of my visits. I'm sure you can guess when my last article was published.



And among the sources of traffic, I found one source that belongs to Google. "Hey guys at Google! How are you doing? Don't worry! This is no suicide note. Vanilla ice-cream is too good to ever quit this world prematurely. And I haven't watched season 3 of Game of Thrones yet."

So, obviously the people at Google don't want you to take dramatic decisions. Or maybe they'd rather you wrote instructions on paper to avoid giving them paperwork. In any case, when you publish an article, it seems that your article gets analyzed right away, without waiting for the GoogleSearch's bot to index your web page. I just checked and definitely, the article I'm talking about is not yet indexed and does not appear in Google searches despite very specific search terms.

What happens if/when people are really doing the wrong thing? I can only guess that Google gets in touch with authorities so they prevent the drama from happening.

Conclusion:

I guess this is rather a good thing on the part of Google. Of course, there's this Big Brother thing that bothers me a little. I mean... it usually bothers me a lot, but knowing that Google is already Big Brother anyway, this is probably one of the best things they can do with their spying abilities.

Friday, June 21, 2013

What happens when I'm dead

So I was reading the newspaper, and one article mentioned how the medical sector lacks organ donors for grafting and saving the life of people whose organs have failed and who will either die, spend years in hospital, or overall have a terrible life and a shorter life expectancy. One of the major observations of the article was that often, when we die, it is up to our relatives (spouse, children, parents) to confirm to the hospital what our choice was on the possibility of taking the organs from our dead body to save the life of others. And in 90% those cases, the families report that they have never discussed this subject before so they can't tell what the deceased's decision would be.

The deceased is me and the deceased is you. Not today I hope. There's nothing in my life that indicates that I should not live another 50 years. But you never know. If I get run over by a car in 1 week, 1 month, 1 year... it's better that I plan in advance. Then it's clear. But no worry! I'm currently very much alive and intend to continue like this for a long time!

Bodily dispositions:

Should there be any doubt in the interpretation of the following, it should be interpreted in the light of my views that the human body and mind are solely the product of biological machinery. I don't believe in soul. I don't believe in afterlife. I believe consciousness arises purely from brain structure, neurotransmitter interactions, and electrical and chemical activity within the brain. In the event that I die, or that I become brain dead (which is the same as dead, to me), or that my condition is so hopeless (some kind of long-term coma with massive brain damage or something like that, at the discretion of my relatives) that there is no possible way I will ever be back to being a functional person, or that I become unable to communicate my will responsibly due to medical and/or mental condition, here are the choices I make for my body and organs. In order of priority from the best choice to the lesser choice:
 - donate my organs
 - give my body to science
 - cremation and dispersion of ashes in nature

Material belongings:

In similar conditions as described above, I must describe 2 cases. The 1st case is the case that I have a spouse (or long-term partner) and/or children. Such is not the case today, but if it becomes the case someday and I haven't written anything new that supersedes the present article, it's better that I consider the possibility now. So in this case, my possessions should be spread in portions of equal value among spouse and children. 1 person, 1 share.

In case that I don't have a spouse nor children, my possessions should spread in portions of equal value among the surviving next of kin: mother, sister and brother.

Intellectual property:

I can't think of much intellectual property that I own apart from this blog. In any case, I want all my intellectual property to become part of the public domain on the 10th anniversary of my passing away (because the legal provisions of 50 or 70 years are just crazy).

Conclusion:

In a rather short article (which you're allowed to copy and adapt for your needs), I have done my duty towards my family and towards society with regards to what should happen after I die. If YOU haven't, maybe it's time you do. Plus you can simply copy/paste and make minor changes to adapt this to your case.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

WOT (Web Of Trust)

When talking about threats on the Internet (virus, malware, spam, phishing, etc.), there's always a chance that the reader will either be intimidated and frightened beyond what the author meant and a chance that the reader will disregard what is said as unrealistic or intended to generate fear. The subject of today's article, WOT, is intended to prevent you from stumbling on a malicious website which could send a virus to your PC and take control of it. Hopefully, readers of this article will find the correct balance when taking in this information and I'm open to discussing it if need be.

So what is WOT?

WOT is an add-on (or plugin) for web browsers. When you open a page in your browser, there might be hyperlinks leading to third-party websites. WOT will identify the names of these websites and compare them with its database. If these websites are known as legitimate websites with legitimate content, WOT will display a green circle next to the link. If these websites are known as malevolent websites, distributing viruses, or spreading false information, or abusing people's gullibility to get money from them, or harboring adult content (because many people want to avoid it), it will display a red circle. And if the websites are somewhere in between... a yellow circle will be displayed.


Here's what a Google Search looks like when WOT is installed:


 The red arrows point to the WOT markers. 1 marker for the current page and 1 marker for each link


 If you noticed the red marker on the previous image, here's more details that appear upon bringing your mouse over the marker:


 And if you land on a website with a poor reputation, WOT notifies you. Just in case you were about to divulge your credit card number to a "fake" website.


Other questions:

You might have plenty more questions like "How do the ratings work?" or "how do I know that I can trust WOT?".

The short answer is: "It works well and you can trust WOT".

The more frustrating but more accurate answer is: read WOT's Frequently Asked Questions where these are answered in more detail. Going over these questions would take more time than I care to spend and it would extend the length of this article more than many people care to read.

Extra things I want to mention anyway:

When you've brought your mouse over one of the circles to see more details of a website rating (see images above), you can notice a small blue "i" letter in the top right corner of the WOT contextual menu. If you click on this "i", which stands for "information", you access to more information about that website, and comments that tell you what is wrong with it.

Something equivalent is accessible for the current website by clicking the circle of the current website and clicking "view scorecard for rating details".

Conclusion:

WOT is indispensable. If I had to get rid of my browsers' add-ons and could keep only 1 of them, it would be WOT. Get it! Use it! Learn the extra details about how to use it! Tell other people about it!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Shine (1996) ★★★★☆




























Plot:

David Helfgott, an excentric but friendly man with obvious mental issues takes refuge from the rain in a restaurant.After the employees have driven him back to his flat, the film flashbacks to David's youth. David is a brilliant pianist at just 10 years old, thanks to the teaching of his father who teaches music abusively to all his children. Because of the family's poverty and the father's close-mindedness, David's future is uncertain. But M. Rosen who was a member of the jury at a local piano competition decides to take David under his wing.



My verdict:

The main theme of this movie is about unforeseen events in the life of a talented youth. Adversities build strengths and strengths lead to challenges, failures and frustrations. Even for the musically-challenged, there is much delight in the classical melodies and performances. The relationships between characters display a great deal of humanity. And actors do a good job at impersonating their characters. It deserves a 4 stars rating.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Xbox One vs. PlayStation 4

This article borrows from and elaborates on the following article (in French) by SebSauvage (1).




Microsoft and Sony have unveiled the secrets of their new video game consoles, which are due to be commercialized at end of this year. The only problem (for Microsoft) is: they've done it absolutely wrong. The 2 consoles will not be on the market for another 5 months and yet Microsoft already lost to Sony... big time! Let's see what they've announced and why Microsoft is shooting itself in the foot. Here are the facts about Xbox One:

  • More expensive than PS4 ($500 vs. $400)
  • If it does not connect to Microsoft's servers at least once every 24 hours, it blocks the gaming functions
  • You cannot lend nor give away your games (unless the recipient is part of your 10 registered "family members")
  • Even though you bought a game, you cannot resell it unless the editor allows it explicitly... and the editor may demand a fee when you resell your game... which will also force Microsoft to strike reselling deals with shops specialized in second-hand video games.
  • Zone restrictions: a Japanese game is blocked from running on American or European consoles. Therefore imports are a no-no.
  • Some 15-20 games have been announced (vs. 140 for PS4)
  • Independent developers are not allowed to self-publish their games. They'll have to surrender their fate in the hands of Microsoft.
  • Big Brother Kinect watches you. But it seems they allow now to deactivate it.
  • If you get banned by Microsoft, you lose ALL the games that you had purchased. I call it "flipping 2 birds with 1 stone".

So, it bids the question: what the hell went through Microsoft's mind? Were they on crack or something?

I'm only just speculating but my guess is that Microsoft thought in terms of "game theory" (GT). The concept of GT is that of a game player who doesn't know what other players have in mind but who must make strategic decisions in order to maximize the outcome of the game for himself. The most famous illustration for GT is the prisoner's dilemma... 2 prisoners are being interrogated separately. The authorities want them to incriminate each other and they have a choice of either remaining silent (to protect each other) or to spill the beans and betray each other. The possible outcomes are:
  • Both remain silent. Each serves 1 year in prison
  • Both betray each other and they each serve 2 years in prison
  • 1 remains silent, while the other betrays. Betrayer goes free and Silent serves 3 years in jail
In this configuration of the prisoner's dilemma, one might be tempted to betray and hope to go free. But if you betray, you have no control on the other prisoner's decision. If he makes the same bet as you, you'll both serve 2 years and you can kiss your freedom goodbye. The best decision for prisoners is actually to remain silent. Because statistically, it is the configuration that benefits most to both prisoners. But both prisoners must be as rational and must surmise that each of them will take this rational decision.

In real businesses, companies operate on the basis of GT, because they're not allowed (by law) to conspire together against consumers. It would "break" the almighty law of the market aka. "competition". My guess is that Microsoft thought in terms of GT about the market of video game consoles. Had Sony made similar choices of locking the consumer in a slave position, both companies could have taken advantage of the situation. Video Game players would be stuck between the option of playing on obsolete consoles of the past generation or accepting the abusive terms from the leading 2 actors of this market... And it would have changed the market with no going back.

But after both companies have presented their new respective babies at E3, polls show that 60% of video game players are interested in PS4 and only 10% are interested in XO. The numbers were respectively 40% and 20% before E3. So, Sony has won over the favors of the undecided and of half of the (now repented) early Microsoft enthusiasts.

References:


(1) Sebsauvage's work published under a CC BY-NC license.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

PRISM explained



For the past 10 days, 2 subjects have been covered by all newspapers in the world:

  • Nelson Mandela's hospitalization (again)
  • NSA's secret spying program: PRISM


Wishing all the best to Mandela, I'll however focus on PRISM. This secret program has been revealed to the public through 2 newspapers (the Guardian and the Washington Post) by ex-NSA-contractor Edward Snowden, as he thought (quite rightfully so) that the Constitution of the USA and its provisions (1st, 4th and 5th amendments) was more important than a few people in high places being able to spy on everybody's private life.

Also, before continuing, it is important to avoid confusion: Snowden revealed 2 secrets. One of them is PRISM, which I'll get to in a minute. The other one is the collection of all phone calls' metadata from all phone operators in the USA by NSA. Metadata = caller name, caller location (if possible), time of call, call duration, SIM card id number (IMSI), call receiver's name and phone number and location, etc. This Metadata scandal deserves, IMHO, more attention than PRISM from the point of view of Americans but since I'm not an American, I'll focus on PRISM. So the 2 scandals must not be confused with each other.

PRISM consists in the NSA installing servers within the premises and datacenters of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple... all those American companies that host plenty of data on plenty of people. The reason to have their servers directly within the premises of those IT giants is to facilitate the transfer of data from the official servers to the NSA server. It's easier for a transfer of massive amounts of data, and it's also safer since nobody else can intercept the data between Facebook and the NSA's machine.

When it comes to laws and security agencies, the USA makes a big difference between American citizens and all the other people in the world. That's why it's ok for the USA to murder 100,000 civilians in Iraq (women, children...) even after it's been revealed that Iraq had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda, but it's not OK to kill 1 single American. Same concept goes with PRISM: it's not OK to spy on a single American without a warrant, but it's open-bar for grabbing the emails, web searches, private Facebook conversations (even the data you thought you had deleted from Facebook which Facebook only hides but does not really delete), and absolutely everything. Everything should also include the web pages you visited which include those Facebook/Twitter buttons allowing you to "share" the information, even if you didn't click those buttons... because having these buttons included in a page implies that the website communicates with Facebook (which you did not log out from) and knows your FB account and tells FB where you've been. So yeah... FB knows those raunchy websites you've visited but don't worry! They won't tell anyone... but the NSA.

At this point, usual people start thinking about 2 things:
  • If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.
  • That's a lot of data. They can't possibly go through so much stuff

The first point is a common mistake and is even a pretty nasty and dangerous remark, when you get to the bottom of this vast and complicated subject. I'll treat it in a later article, but the common retort to that is: if you have nothing to hide, why don't you walk naked in the street? Or would you be OK if the government installs video cameras in all the rooms of your house, which will be active 24/7? I'll leave this at that for now.

The question of the amount of data has several answers. The first thing is that if it's correct that they can't process fully so much data, all the data is kept on hard drives anyway and it's never going to be deleted. If they don't have enough computing power today, they might have enough in 10 years and then all the data will be fed to the new computer again in 10 years. For people who are familiar with history and World War 2, the same method was used 70 years ago with secret messages. Before Alan Turing (from UK) cracked the encryption code of the Germans, a lot of secret messages were recorded but could not be decoded. After the code was cracked, the allies of UK decoded these previous messages that had been archived.

Also, even though it's a lot of data, some tools are developed which are intended to process such Big Data. For instance, Palantir can analyze your messages and your likes to establish the type of relation you have with your FB friends. It can even guess whether you are straight or gay, whether you are attracted to one of your FB friends, it can figure out your real age (in case you did not give FB the true information), your political affiliations, build a psychological portrait of you in more ways than even you know about yourself... Sounds like science-fiction? Well, it's not. But that's not today's topic.

So OK... PRISM can know that Harry loves Sally from their FB likes and that Hannibal Lecter's emails reveal an unhealthy personality... what's the big deal? First of all, the revelation of this program makes it officially known to the public. There was a strong presumption of its existence in the past, but since it was not proven, it was impossible for people to sue for the violation of their rights. Some rights are granted by the constitution of the USA even to non-citizens who are present on American ground. Also some provisions of the Declaration of Human Being Rights were probably disregarded. But as long as it was not official, the judges always replied that if something was secret, there was no possible way to sue.

Also, an important point is the active cooperation of these IT giants. You might think that they have to comply with whatever the government or the NSA demands... that's wrong. The law (a secret court order, mind you!) only says they have to provide some data. But they didn't have to let the NSA copy the data wholesale from everybody in the world. This must be interpreted as a strong and official signal that these companies don't like you and that given the opportunity, they choose to betray you. Also, considering past exploits from the NSA with Echelon, it is likely that employees of big foreign companies have their correspondance specially analyzed in order to provide services of industrial espionage to the Chamber of Commerce who will relay the information to the American companies competing on the same sector. In the past, such practices allowed the NSA to know the secret dealings between Airbus and a foreign airline and then gain the market for Boeing. And on and on in other sectors.


Conclusion:

 - Hopefully this clarified the subject if you had read about it in some newspaper
 - PRISM is meaningful but it is only a tiny part of NSA's programs
 - What will happen to Edward Snowden is unknown. USA will certainly attempt to kidnap him and if they succeed, he's in for some serious trouble like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning (who has been submitted to psychological torture during a very long time). At the same time, China will probably propose Snowden money and protection against a handful of more secrets.
 - If you work for an important company which has American competitors, you should be extra careful not to mention any work-related subject on any of the communication media provided by these American companies. Even worse would be to host your professional documents on Gdrive, Skydrive, Google Docs, or Microsoft Office 365.
 - What other options do you have? These other options are well known. The problem is: these other options certainly lack some of the refinements and some of the comforts of the most popular tools developed by the IT giants. Can you, will you, give up some comfort in order to stand up to gross abuses and violations of democracy? Most people that I know will not give up any comfort. Resistance is painful.

Friday, June 14, 2013

What's a bookmarklet?

Since you are reading this blog article in a web browser, you are probably familiar with some functionalities of web browsers like bookmarks. In case you have been sleeping under a rock, bookmarks are shortcuts to favorite web pages, which are stored under the "bookmarks" menu of your browser. If your browser has more icons than menus, you should look for a 5-pointed-star-shaped icon. Like this:


Bookmarklets are almost like bookmarks and they are also kept in your bookmarks menu (up to you to tidy all of that with folders), but instead of containing the address of web page, they contain some code which will add more functionality to the current page. You might know that the elements of a web page are most often defined in HTML. But the programming language that allows interactions with these objects is Javascript. So, it makes sense that bookmarklets will often be Javascript instructions which either trigger actions on the page, or even define more elements in the page.

Here's a simple example. In the address bar of your browser (where the address of this page is written), replace the address of this page by the following text (mind the colon and the two double-quotes) and then type Enter:
javascript:alert("Hello")

The result is a javascript "alert" popup message like this:



It always starts with "javascript:" which informs the browser that javascript code is coming its way. Then you can add any amount of javascript code you like, separating each instruction with a semicolon. Of course, if you're not a programmer yourself, you can find bookmarklets on the Internet as you would find anything else.


One bookmarklet in particular, which inspired this article and which I want to prop is a virtual keyboard. After you've loaded a web page, ANY web page, you can click the bookmarklet in your bookmarks menu and it will summon a virtual keyboard which can interact with the text fields and forms in that page. In most cases, you don't need such a virtual keyboard because you already have a very real keyboard in front of you. But if you're buying something online and don't already have a virtual keyboard like the one provided with Kaspersky Anti-Virus, you cannot be sure whether a keylogger will intercept your key strokes and communicate your credit card number to mafias. Also, you might want to communicate with people who use a different alphabet from the English one. Maybe Arabic? Thai? Armenian? Chinese?

Here's the original webpage:


Here's after I have clicked my bookmarklet:


Here's after I have selected an input field (google search field) and activated the keyboard:


You can create the same bookmarklet by using the following code in place of a bookmark URL:
javascript:s=document.createElement('script');s.id='r6109_vkbsgp';s.type='text/javascript';s.src='http://lehollandaisvolant.net/tout/dl/virtual-kb/keyboard.js?french';document.head.appendChild(s);void(null);

You can replace "french" by whichever language should be your default language among those proposed.

I have also noted that it works better when the browser takes all the size of your screen. It might be an early bug... to be clarified with the author.

The virtual keyboard can be moved around by clicking the empty space at the top of it.

The webpage where this keyboard was posted by its author is there (French language):
http://lehollandaisvolant.net/?mode=links&id=20130613012236

Note: if you use Google's translation service to translate that page to your language of choice, the bookmarklet's script disappears, as Google doesn't know how to translate it.

Conclusion:

 - Now you know what a bookmarklet is and how it works
 - I did not cover the "security" aspect of bookmarklets and like any tool (think of knives!) they can be used for good or for bad. Lehollandaisvolant (author of the keyboard bookmarklet) is a source I trust but in case you have doubts (and Javascript understanding), he provides the source code which you're free to download, review, modify, and host on your own server.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ruby Sparks (2012) ★★★★☆






























Plot:

Calvin is a young author whose first book brought him instantly to success and stardom within literary circles. However, he is leading an uneventful life in his home that he shares solely with his dog Scotty. While fans and literary professionals are dying to discover his next book, Calvin is struggling with writing, unable to find novel ideas despite the support of his psychiatrist. One fine day, he starts writing about Ruby, a young woman whom he met in his dreams. But after a few days of writing and more struggling, Ruby happens to be there in person, in Calvin's home, unaware of being a fictional character.

My verdict:

The story starts like a lame romantic comedy for teenagers. The scenario, or the cut, is clumsy because of a rhythm which seems poorly mastered. Some sequences drag too long while others are too short and under-exploited, not giving out all their potential. However, the film progresses towards more control and, near the end, a grandiose scene of absolute genius... a true masterpiece. The ending itself falls a little short of what it could have been. I do have some issues, especially in these times of new vigor of feminism, with the notion that the female character is an object while the male character is a subject. This theme reminds me (fortunately little) of the 1985 movie "Weird science" but Ruby Sparks treats the topic in a far more mature manner. The performance is correct wrt. the role of Calvin and pretty good wrt. the role of Ruby, whose actress also happens to have created the scenario. So, despite a slow-ish first half of the movie, it gets much better in the second half with a true apotheosis near the end. That scene is anthology material and all in all the movie earns  4 stars.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

TED Talks

TED talks are videos of conferences one can either view (streaming) or download for free. These conferences are limited to 18 minutes so the guests will be brief and concise about their subject. The topics range from art to literature, science, humanities, research in any kind of domain, charity work, adventuring, philosophy, construction. Anything goes as long as there is something interesting we can learn from the talk.

If that's any assurance of the quality you can expect from these conferences, the audience at these talks is mainly composed of executives who pay $6000 for only a day (or half a day). So the talks had better be good. This high price on the seats in the physical world is also what allows the videos to be free of charge for you and I.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The scientific explosion (part 2 of 2)

And then came the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophy and science (which is itself a branch of philosophy) thrived and major discoveries took place. The notion of the Earth revolving around the sun became more common, Kepler uncovered the rules that define how planets and other celestial bodies turn around each other in ellipses, Newton formulated the theory of gravitation. Hume and Locke wrote lengthily about subjects that would become "humanism" and formulated ideas that would take root in the colonies of America and influence the authors of the USA's constitution. Descartes published the Discourse on the Method which is the foundation of modern science, relying on initial skepticism and construction of models whose reliability and prediction power need be tested, while unverifiable claims must be discarded. Philosophy bloomed in the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Though wars were still being fought everywhere, intellectuals were cooperating internationally. Mathematicians started producing advanced works (currently taught at university level) on prime numbers (Fermat), differential calculus, etc. As sciences were being developed at a steady pace, as the development of knowledge could have brought significant changes between a person's birth and her death, society also evolved quickly. Populations started gathering into towns. Literature started becoming popular and education started spreading even to the masses. Charles Perrault wrote Cinderella, Little red riding hood, Puss in boots, Bluebeard, and The Sleeping beauty. The brothers Grimm wrote Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and other famous stories. Last (but by no means "least") Charles Darwin published "The origin of species" (1859) while Gregor Mendel discovered an inheritance of characterics which would later give birth to genetics. The economic activity led to many changes in society and techniques which allowed the dawn of the new age around 1870.


Then came the Industrial Revolution. A few years separate the early days of the British IR and its spreading to other countries but it started more or less in 1870 and lasted until 1939 (World War 2). In this relatively short period, merely 3 generations, the mechanization transformed the full landscape of society. Women became almost equal members of society, at least on paper. Inventions revolutionized the way we live: cars, cameras, cinema, radio. But also in the field of war, with the terrifying German submarines. Marine fleets developed metal-made boats with engines. Planes progressed and claimed record after record. Radioactivity was discovered. With industrial productions that drove prices down came high employment and salaries that allowed to buy more. But let's be realistic: society was still heavily rural and involved in agriculture. What also changed dramatically the world of science is that all branches of science started branching into specializations. Physics gave rise to chemistry, optics, acoustics, electricity. Biology turned into medicine (real one, not just the mumbo-jumbo of the past centuries) with the discovery of the germ theory and penicilin, evolution as Darwin's ideas won battle after battle against its opponents and we discovered fossils of dinosaurs, pharmacy. Electricity itself was specializing into fields of application like radio waves, domestic lighting (which owes nothing to that jerk Edison but more to Nikolai Tesla), quantum physics... Marie Curie, who had worked on radioactivity and discovered radium developed radiography and set up an entire fleet of ambulances with X-ray equipment for taking care of the wounded of World War 1. The reasons of such progress were numerous but among these, I will identify Industrialization, which provided more to a lot of people. With the abundance, it was easier for families to let their children go to school rather than requisitioning them to work in the fields. Higher education led to a democratization of knowledge and hence more development. The development of railroads and post services also allowed easier communication and travel and permitted the creation of active scientific communities beyond the limit of borders. That's how, in just 3 generations, the world changed.

And then arrived the modern era with the advent of World War 2. Of course, we only continued what had been started since the Industrial revolution, but philosophy and politics (Nietzsche's relativity of morality, Russel's logic, Marx's humanism and communism, the separation of church and state) contributed to a dramatic change in moral standards. The children of each generation since have grown up in a society whose views are radically different from those of the previous generation. In the late 60's or early 70's (my mother's generation), a female student would be reported to her parents if the school's principal had spotted her wearing trousers in the street (even outside of school time). With the high employment of the post-war decades, very few people lacked money and families could afford more toys and entertainment for the kids and the parents. Social standards also evolved and the amount of paid holidays increased in several countries to 3, 4 or even 5 weeks per year. Social Security was instituted to provide a form of universal health insurance. With such comfortable conditions and improvements of medicine, life expectancy increased dramatically from 31 years old in the early 20th century to 67 years old nowadays. Meanwhile, sciences kept progressing.

  • Medicine, which is itself a branch of biology specialized into neurology, anatomy, psychiatry, functional reeducation, genetics, oncology, virology, dentistry and orthodontia, plastic surgery, epidemiology, fertility, organ transplant, immunology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, forensics, pediatrics, rheumatology, obstetrics, gerontology... and more.
  • Electricity has spawned electronics which has spawned computer science which has spawned specialties like operating systems, databases, programming, debugging, computer viruses (and antiviruses), video games, automatics, voip, web services, drivers, data centers, satellites, image processing, video and audio streaming, etc. Astronomy has brought us to the moon and is now about to take us to Mars, has allowed us to map the cosmic microwave background radiation across the sky with tremendous precision thanks to the Hubble telescope. We were also able to understand more about the Big Bang and where we're coming from.
  • In the domain of Physics, the Quantum theory is getting surpassed by String theory. The Higgs boson (theorized in 1964) was proven to exist almost 50 years later in 2013. The atom bomb was invented. So were lasers. The invention of new materials like carbon polymers allowed to build planes that fly longer and further. The whole world of military equipment has been through serious updates with notable milestones like the U2, the Blackbird, F117, and B2 (for planes) and the T90 or the Abrahams (for tanks). Antennas have been developed for television, radio, telecom, and more recently for RFID tagging of animals, goods, and passports.
  • Archaeology uncovered a deep knowledge of past human civilizations and of previous geological eras with the evolution from unicellular organisms to bacteria, plants, fishes, reptiles (hello-goodbye dinosaurs!), mammals...
  • Mathematics developed game theory, statistics, the mathematical tools used for telecommunications (μ-law algorithm, Error detection and correction, orthogonal codes), asymmetric cryptography...
  • Biology diversified in genetics of course, additions to the synthetic theory of evolution through natural selection like Richard Dawkins' selfish gene, ethology, and many specializations for each genus, family, specie. Just an example: Myrmecology (study of ants) is a specialization of entomology (study of insects), which is specialization of biology. 
The number of fields having been specialized is impossible to estimate (with my limited means). But hopefully, the few I have mentioned give an insight into the diversification of scientific domains that occurred in the past 70 years and continues today.

Conclusion

I hope that I did not misplace too many events in time. This 2-parts article followed my amazement at the dimension of biology-related fields today. It is gigantic! and wonderful. If you are curious about evolution in particular, I recommend you the following book, which I'll probably review someday: "Your inner fish" by Neil Shubin. Comments are very welcome. A potential 3rd part would be about future prospects, but this is highly speculative and this article is already long enough. So we'll see later (or not).

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The scientific explosion (part 1 of 2)

I'm sure the title won't be clear to everybody. It is a reference to the Cambrian explosion, the phenomenon about 500 million years ago, when lifeforms diversified very quickly and evolution (through natural selection) accelerated. Why this comparison between science and the Cambrian explosion then? Because I feel science has evolved at an increased speed and that it has diversified, specialized, into uncountable domains of knowledge. And that's what I want to talk about. Also, I view the diversification of the fields of knowledge (and inventions) as a tree very similar to the "tree of life". New knowledge does not spring into existence from nothing but rather derives from prior knowledge. As the saying goes: "we're standing on the shoulders of giants".

(This image is © AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY)

For a long time, knowledge has been little. Hunter-gatherers and our older ancestors developed the knowledge of berries, fruits, plants, first aid, clothes, hunting strategies, and weapons: spears, atlatl, rocks, traps. Though the list seems short, it is not to be haughtily discarded as worthless. This knowledge alone has allowed human populations to survive for hundreds of thousands of years. And some of these inventions are impressive. Would YOU have thought of using a stick to artificially increase the length of your arm and therefore be able to throw spears further? I wouldn't. And since I learnt about the spear-thrower in primary school, I've always been amazed by the genius of this invention. But then, it has taken an incredibly long time to come up with these few ideas. If we restrict our description of humans to homo sapiens (and forget that homo habilis made the first tools), we've been around for 200,000 years and we've lived as hunter-gatherers until 12,000 years ago. This might give you an insight into the acceleration I'm talking about.

And then, we discovered agriculture. It allowed us to be sedentary, which has tremendous advantages. It allows groups of humans to gather possessions heavier and larger than what a nomadic group can transport. It allows the construction of habitats, which are safer from animal attacks, tools and devices of great size. It also allows food safety by having a guarantee of the amount of food harvested, while hunter-gatherers could not be sure of what they would find. And this contributed to a much faster rate of invention. It saw the invention of houses, carpentry, the wheel, pottery, kiln, oven, cooking, granary, ore smelting and metalworking. These basic inventions allowed for more evolved inventions metal weapons and metal tools. All of these inventions, up until ~2,000 BC contributed to the building of societies and the dawn of writing. Certainly, these changes, these inventions, are very numerous and changed tremendously the life of people. But before moving on to the next period (which I more or less equate with the Iron age), we must still consider that this period spanned 10,000 years.

Fundamentally, the invention of writing is a consequence of the invention of trade. People needed to record what was bought and what was sold. And with trade came mathematics. Let me notice here, a major difference between these 2 inventions and those of past eras! These are inventions of an intellectual nature, not material (though writing requires a material support). And that is a fundamental change because the intellect is like a new land, a new territory that had never been explored before. And since inventions are often mere tweaks of prior existing things, writing and mathematics opened a whole new field of intellectual exploration and specialization. Writing allowed the invention of formal law and philosophy. It allowed the record of history through the mundane notice of events. It allowed, beyond material inventions, the record of knowledge that could be transmitted through time rather than the ancestral (and limited) parents-children transmission. It allowed the documentation of conflicts and the invention of the military, which had almost world-wide consequences as military equipment, training, and tactics changed the interactions between societies, with the culmination of the Roman domination over Europe, Middle-East and part of Asia. The mathematics allowed the emergence of architecture, astronomy, and physics. Somewhere in Greece, the first scientists arose who, despite the widespread beliefs in gods, hypothesized that the continents were created naturally, that something invisible (air) could exist, that matter was made of tiny elements which they called "atoms", and even that "the Milky Way was an aggregate of the light of numerous faint stars" (quote from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, episode 7, at time 29'06). The field of mathematics was developed with geometry and algebra. Statues and wonders were constructed. The great library of Alexandria and the lighthouse, also, of Alexandria. The Colossus of Rhodes. The hanging gardens of Babylon. And all others among the 7 wonders of the ancient world with the exception of the great pyramid of Giza which predates these. This was a time of peoples, a time of knowledge, a time of profound change of society over 2,400 years, until the fall of the Roman empire, around 400 AD.

And then came the Dark Ages. With the fall of the Roman empire came the advent of the Christian rule over Europe. Following Theodosius' edict in 391, everybody in Europe should be Christian or dead. So happened what I would call a genocide, and so all of Europe became Christian in less than a century. If you're a Christian yourself, I'm sorry to disappoint you but this genocide, rather than the popularity of the idea of Christianity, explains how this religion became prominent and how paganism died. This period saw a stagnation and even a regression of inventions, since the religious authority ordered the massive burning of books and records, which did not fully agree with the religious idea of how the world was created or how historic events took place. Somehow ironically, a lot of the forbidden books were saved by being brought to foreign countries, in the Middle-East, where they were preserved by peoples who would soon embrace a related religion, Islam. The Dark Ages ended (more or less) around 1600 AD, with a terrible record of wars, murders, slavery, etc. The few and most notable inventions and intellectual achievements of this era were gunpowder (thank you China!), compass (thank you China again!), Gutenberg's printing press, and the discovery of the Americas.

Notes:


  • This article being wayyyyyyyyyy longer than I initially envisioned, I decided to split it in 2.
  • Of course, as usual, there's partiality with my account of the different eras. But how could there not be partiality in a blog article that spans all the history of homo sapiens with an eye out for the pace of evolution of knowledge and innovations?
  • At some time around the Roman empire, I noticed how my presentation of history focused on western, European civilizations, leaving aside Asian, African, and Amerindian peoples. Sorry for that, but my knowledge is limited and formatted by my European upbringing.
  • Finally, video games enthusiasts might feel a connection between this article and the "tree of technologies" that is found in such games as Civilization. They're absolutely right.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Into the wild (2007) ★★★★★








































Plot

Christopher, 22 years old, just graduated with high honors from university. Telling his parents that graduating was his last act of submission to the family's authority rather than his ambition, he leaves them, destroys his identity documents, and separates himself from all his possessions except his old car, which is soon destroyed. He travels across the USA, thirsty to discover nature and the world as it really is. His journey will take him far and will bring him to meet people who will contribute to the building of his character and his world view.

My verdict

This is a truly beautiful movie. The scenario may be simple, but it is original, easy to follow, and it doesn't remove anything from the images and experiences that the main character is exposed to. It is deeply humane, emotional, and it helps the viewer distancing himself from the everyday scenery of house, car, work, shops, house. In some ways, the character's views of the world and nature are idealized beyond what we can suppose of a life of wandering. But still it remains powerful. It deserves 5 stars!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Noam Chomsky

Of course, you could just read Noam Chomsky's wikipedia page and get a more factual account of his life. But this is a blog and it's not meant to be absolutely factual, rigorous, and devoid of errors. This is my account, maybe riddled with the inaccuracies that (very normally) affect memory over time and the partiality of my opinions.



When I was 18, I left my home for being an intern in a high-school kind of far away. Being an intern gives you time to read... even after you've met the friends with whom you'll spend most evenings playing role-playing games. I encountered Noam Chomsky's name in a book about artificial intelligence. Indeed, Noam had been one of the pioneers (alongside Marvin Minsky, for example) who laid the first stones of the road towards creating computerized intelligence. These first steps took place a surprisingly long time ago... in the 1950s.

Then I forgot.

Then I finished my studies and as I started being interested in the news and politics and stuffs... I saw his name popping up again around a conversation about the wars waged by USA in Afghanistan or Iraq. Or maybe it was about Israel not giving a damn about international laws and treaties, and running a military operation, killing a handful of civilians and then spewing out a propaganda campaign with faked videos on Youtube. And I was surprised. Because I knew Chomsky's name as being associated to computer science. Not political advocacy.

And then I started broadening my horizons, educating myself by reading books, watching conferences available on Youtube, listening to audiobooks. And there he was again! A rather young Noam Chomsky being interviewed about some of his most important work: generative grammar. And he explained how our brains are naturally wired for a certain sort of grammar, and that explains how languages may have emerged among different humanoid groups with very similar structures: a subject, a verb, a complement.

And on a forum on the Internet, during a written debate, I heard about the notion of "manufacturing consent", a political ploy to influence the masses into adopting certain behaviors or thoughts, by feeding them skewed information, false dilemmas and false equivalencies, rhetoric, by giving them false choices between a democratic candidate who's sold to the rich or a republican candidate who's also sold to the rich. So I looked up this notion of "manufacturing consent", and there it was again: Noam Chomsky was the one who put words on a form of manipulation that was not so new.

At this point, I became (more) curious. Who was this superman of the intellect? Who was this guy, qualified to intervene in computer science, linguistics, politics, and with one hell of a broad knowledge of the political history of the world through the 20th century? Well, he deserves an incredible amount of credit. Raised in a Jewish family in the USA, he learned English and Yiddish and showed early signs of high intellectual aptitude. Some essay he's written when he was 12 would put to shame half of the adult population. Fast forward: he became a professor of linguistics at MIT and his command of many languages allowed him to read many newspapers from many countries. From his own testimony, he's declared reading some 80 different publications. Since the Vietnam war, Chomsky became a peace-activist and political activist speaking in favor of labor unions and against the imperialism of the USA and other powerful nations.

Intellectually and politically, the following figures can be associated to Noam Chomsky: John Pilger, Bertrand Russel, Stephane Hessel, Julian Assange, Jeremy Scahill, Amy Goodman, Michael Moore, Steven Pinker, Daniel Ellsberg, Lawrence Lessig and of course I'm forgetting a lot of others. Chomsky has written over 100 books and given uncountable conferences on either politics or academic subjects.

Conclusion:

Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th and 21st centuries. Being one of the most cited sources of all time, he earned this phrase in The Pennsylvania Gazette by Hugues Samuel: "According to a recent survey by the Institute for Scientific Information, only Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, and Freud are cited more often in academic journals than Chomsky, who edges out Hegel and Cicero". So I highly recommend you to head to Youtube and look for anything you can find on Chomsky. Being able to still hear what he has to say in the political and social context that he has known (unlike the commentators of the past) is precious. Huge props to him!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Video games are good

After watching the latest episode of Extra Credits, I decided to dedicate today's article to claiming that video games are good and explaining why, and what games.

I'm only paraphrasing EC's show, but the only time that the general public (let's say my mother, aunts, uncles, and grandparents) hears about video games is when somebody committed a horrible crime with guns and that the media sheepishly copy one another, blaming video games for it. In fact, when a crime happens and journalists want to put out a paper before their competitors about the criminal, video games are the first information they look for in the criminal's curriculum. If he played video games, then they feel entitled to blame it on video games without establishing any real causality between the pastime and the crime. But nowadays, more than 50% of the total population plays video games (you too, Mom! the Sudoku and the Tanglet games I installed for you make you a VG player too!). So, journalists could equally or actually more reliably, blame crimes on gender. Virginia Tech shooter? Male. Columbine? Males. Norwegian Christian fundamentalist? Male. Aurora shooting? Male. Male, male, male, male, male! And wait till we explore those criminals' eating habits! I bet you that most of them eat meat. Would you really think that non-vegetarianism drives people to murder innocents? I don't think so. But TV being what it is, and newspapers being what they are, the usual nonsense about VG will go on if we don't speak about the good of VG.



Everybody knows Tetris. But what is less known is that Tetris helps after a traumatic experience to prevent long term consequences associated to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because Tetris mobilizes sensory, visual and spatial faculties of the brain, the same ones that traumatic images anchor themselves into, Tetris interferes with the traumatic consequences. Therefore, it could be used with victims of any kind of traumatic situation (fire, robbing, assault, etc.) to alleviate the long-term shock.

Foldit is less known. In this scientific game, you earn points by folding proteins into more stable configurations. Thus, some players have solved some problems that had eluded scientists for years, and opening the door to progress in the fight against AIDS.

Surgeons who play video games have a better eye-hand coordination.

Playing First-Person Shooter games (FPS) also improve vision and spatial perception.

Amblyopia is a health condition also called "lazy-eye", in which the brain favors input from 1 eye over the input from the other eye. if left untreated, this condition leads to the second eye being totally forgotten, leading to the loss of vision from that eye. The current treatment generally consists in covering the good eye with a patch in order to force the usage of the weaker eye. But a recent study found that Tetris (once again) can be a more effective treatment. By using special goggles that allow to see the falling piece from one eye, and the wall of fallen bricks from the other eye, this leads to a coordination of both eyes to form a complete image in the brain. For the record, this is a rather frequent syndrome between 1 and 5 percent of the population, and one of my friends' kid suffers from amblyopia.

"Any kind of game with some text" also helped me learning English when I was a teenager. Back then, few games were translated in French (which is my native language) so I always kept a bilingual dictionary at hand and the exposure to English text certainly contributed to my learning of the language I'm now using to write this article.

MMO's (massively multiplayer online games) lead to theorycrafting, which leads to mathematics and statistics.

Minecraft develops creativity... though I admit, this is a personal, opinionated statement without scientific basis.

Gamification has also been used for a variety of purposes including learning. The Khan Academy is an online course of almost every subject that a child will encounter at school until university. And the method of teaching is akin to a video game. Gamification is also used as a narrative context for teaching programming languages like Python on checkio.org.

Many video games also offer exercises that maintain some brain functions as we grow older.

Conclusion:

It would certainly be dishonest to claim that all video games are good. But if you think for a second, it is the same sort of claim that lazy journalists offer to their audience after each tragedy, by claiming without any sort of evidence that video games are the cause of violent crimes. So, the current state of affairs in the media, the one that policymakers are exposed to, is a dishonest attack on video games and their players. As I have shown, video games can be good beyond the sole entertainment they provide. Hopefully, this article will contribute to opening the horizons by providing examples.


Update:

A tragic event happened recently in France, a fight involving left-wing extremists and right-wing extremists, resulting in the death of a young man. A member of the French Parliament mentioned violent video games as being a cause of children growing into violent young adults. No evidence, no demonstration, of course. Let's just throw anything and see what sticks! I condemn this kind of accusation and hopefully we can educate politicians so they stop blaming video games like Rock'n'roll has been blamed for all the evils in the past. We deserve better politicians and that can be done in only one of 2 ways: replacing them or showing them how and why they're wrong.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Culture sacrificed on the altar of DRMs

The video games of our youth are now part of our culture and for decades to come, they will influence the future of video games. Though nothing has been formally planned to preserve these old masterpieces (or pieces of junk), some initiatives and some individuals have made copies that will allow the safeguard of those creations... either on their personal hard drives or on websites dedicated to "Abandonware". So even after decades, after Windows disappears, after smartphones will have been replaced by whatever... we will still be able to get our hands on those oldies and play them.

...like we can play the "golden oldies", the music that was edited on vinyl discs on modern supports like CD's or even in digital format by streaming or by playing an mp3 file.

But something has been broken in the world of video games. Something that dooms some games to oblivion. That something is a form of anti-piracy protection called the always-online-connection. This system forces buyers of a video game to constantly be connected to the Internet. Even for a solo game, the source code has been structured so that a remote server retains vital information that your computer will obtain by regularly shaking hands with the server. Such a server costs money to maintain and it is necessary that someday, in 1 year, in 5 years, maybe in 10 years... or just in a few weeks if sales are disastrous, the server will be shutdown for good. This might also happen because video game studios are struggling to survive and many of them disappear.

So what happens when a server is shutdown? A deafening silence happens. The game you bought, the whole game that you paid for, sometimes as expensively as $50 or $60, stops working. Because truth be told, you did not buy a game. You bought only the client part of a game and you implicitly agreed that your game would be unusable after the server is stopped.

So, these games are doomed to disappear unless the editors release the servers' source code at shutdown time... which, let me reassure you, never happens. These games will be lost forever. Imagine if the same was true of music! Imagine that a label would insert devices into vinyl discs that would destroy those discs upon bankruptcy of the label! Imagine that we burn paintings upon the death of a painter, if he didn't achieve fame by that time. What a disaster! What a waste!

The same principle goes also for Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) but in their case, we understand the technical need for the server-client architecture. But unless they release their source code at shutdown, the game is lost. Games like "Ultima Online" or "The 4th Prophecy" have been major milestones that paved the way towards World of Warcraft. So, alright... there might still be a handful of obscure companies still operating shards (servers) of these games but they'll stop someday. Then these games are lost.

Conclusion

Our modern societies are advanced enough to understand the need for documenting history and documenting culture. We're having enough of a hard time trying to understand the Zeitgeist of times not so distant. We should think about the preservation of our cultural patrimony and set rules for this. We could vote laws that compel the owners of these games' Intellectual Property to archive their source code for future release as the rights expire or as the company disappears. Even if we don't write it into law, it would be good to see companies doing it. Well, in a way, ID Software did it by releasing the source code of older games (e.g. Quake 3) under a free open source license. But this is the exception, not the rule. The future is coming, no matter what. So how about we prepare for it?
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