Friday, August 30, 2013

Of cartoons and pedophiles


TL;DR: jump to "The point I wanted to make"!

Foreword

Sensitive topics require a serious attitude and disclaimers. This foreword will be used as the necessary disclaimer to this sensitive topic.

Democracy is not just about majority rule. If the majority wants to abuse the minority, that's not democracy! That's exploitation. In democracy, the vote of the majority determines who gets elected but we have rules, laws, constitutions which make it so that we're supposed to stand for each other even if we have differences. I'm not a woman but I stand for gender equality. I'm white in a dominantly white country but I stand against racism. That's pretty simple to understand, right?

I'm going to talk about pedophilia. I'm not a pedophile. Nor am I an ephebophile (people attracted to teenagers). I'm a straight guy, attracted to women my age.

Because this subject is difficult, I will leave aside humor and illustrations. So it's all gonna be just text. It's less fun but more fitting.


What are we talking about?

In political discourse and propaganda, there are 2 topics that are brought up whenever politicians want to abuse citizens and pass crazy laws that do away with liberties: these 2 topics are terrorism and pedophilia. The discourse always goes like this: "either you're with us, or you're with the enemy". George Bush used this tactic to sell his wars. They don't propose the alternative where people take a step back and think for 5 seconds, realizing that it's a false dichotomy and that there are more intelligent ways to consider the issue.

The media, newspapers and TV alike, have understood that what gets people's attention and what therefore contributes to making money is shock. So when they get a chance to get to us with a shocking headline, they won't hold back and they will serve us the short shocking version of the story rather than the balanced intelligent account of events. To this end, they will always employ the word "pedophile" to refer to a child abuser. But that's wrong. That's incorrect. A child abuser is a pedocriminal. A pedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to children. That's not the same! There's plenty of pedophiles who realize that their natural attraction to kids cannot be satisfied without harming a little human being. These people, while being pedophiles are not criminal and they will resort to alternative solutions to be able to live with their problem without harming anyone. These alternatives consist of mainly psychological counseling and cartoon kiddy porn.

People unfamiliar with the topic of pedophilia might think: "it's their nature so how can they hold back from raping children?" so this question needs to be addressed. As a straight man attracted to women my age, it's in my nature to be attracted to 30 year old women. It's in my nature to be attracted to women and still I don't rape them. Well, for pedophiles it's the same. They are attracted to children but they don't want to harm other people so they refrain. It's that simple.


So about those videos

Shooting real videos with real children involved in sex acts is a crime legally and morally. So, using videos from real child rapes as porn material to satisfy pedophiles is not acceptable. On the other hand, there are cartoons depicting sexual acts between fictional child characters and fictional other characters of whichever age. Creating these cartoons doesn't involve any real child therefore nobody gets hurt.

The n°1 scientist who published studies regarding the availability of porn material and the effect on rape statistics is Milton Diamond from the University of Hawaii. In relation to the present article, I would recommend people to check out the first 2 articles listed for the year 1999:


The summary of these studies is that when pornography is available legally, statistics of sex crimes go down and the explanation for this is that people with a sex drive will be able to legally satisfy their desires. On the specific case of cartoon child pornography, which was legalized in Japan and is known by the name lolicon (contraction of "lolita complex"), the same observation was made: the legalization of it drove the statistics of child rape down. And since religious people often assume that everything sexual is sinful and that pornography encourages people to have more sex and reproduce criminally what they may have seen in porn videos, I need to mention this clearly: those studies simply prove them wrong. Legalizing pornography DOES reduce criminality.

In 2010, the French branch of ReadWriteWeb published a fantastic PDF book explaining the story of the online commerce of child abuse videos and advocated against electronic censorship since it only swept the problem under the rug and would have made the job of the police more difficult by pushing these activities to places and web technologies more difficult to track. What's more, censorship is bad for civil liberties and ALWAYS end up being used abusively by people in power against their opposition. That book (French version only) is available from that page and has been written by people with amazing street creds:

  • Robert Menard (founder of Reporters Without Borders)
  • Fabrice Epelboin (author at ReadWriteWeb and teacher at Sciences Po)
  • Guillaume Champeau (journalist at Numerama)
  • Jérémie Zimmerman (founder of online liberties advocacy group La Quadrature Du Net)
  • Tom Morton (expert counsel to England's tribunals)
  • Hervé Recoupe (adjudant investigator at Gendarmerie Nationale, the French military police)
  • Matthieu Pasquini (founder of book editions InLibroVeritas)

If you can read French, go and read at least the first 50 pages! It's as down to Earth as can be and explains how criminal distribution groups came to prominence, how they built technology that is far in advance of everyday's Internet usage, how numerous their customers are, how these organizations are structured, and also how irresponsible teenagers having their personal sexual videos leaked on the Internet are creating an unexpected disruptive alternative to the commercial criminal distribution of underage pornography.


The point I wanted to make

But back to the subject: even though lolicon is distasteful to the majority of people, its legalization would help preventing crimes against children. But politicians are NOT legalizing it. I can only speculate as to the reason for keeping it illegal, and I suppose it's simply difficult to have an intelligent discourse inside parliaments when radical religious officials will refuse to hear the factual arguments. Also, keeping the status quo means that they can keep using the pedophilia card for passing crazy laws in the future, claiming that we're either with them or with the enemy.

In France, transfering lolicon to another person or simply being in possession of lolicon material was punishable by law and it still is. But the repression is actually increasing, and that's the reason why I am writing this article today. It is now also illegal to draw lolicon by yourself for yourself at home, as reported in this (French) article (here's a link to the google-translated version).


Conclusion


  • There is an obvious good and efficient thing we can do to prevent some sex crimes against children but we're not doing it.
  • And you have learned some things about pedophiles which might help you think about this topic in more rational terms than just following the lynch mobs who get excited by the deceptive headlines of television and newspaper.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion


Introduction

It's been 200 years since the events in the previous game of the series, so we can forget everything about the past and start fresh. The player's character starts as a prisoner in a prison of the Imperial City, capital city of the Cyrodiil province and capital city of the whole damn empire... but sadly this city is not quite big enough to honor its title. As guards lead the emperor through secret passages to escape assassins, one of these passages goes through your cell and you follow along. As the assassins get to the emperor and he is dying, he tells you that he's seen you in his dream and bla bla bla... prophecy... the fate of the world rests on your shoulders. Have a good day!

OK... The scenario's bunk, but the introduction offers a tutorial that leads you through some corridors, teaching you how to sneak, fight, use magic, equip armor, etc.


Graphics

The first thing you notice when you're out of the secret passages is that Oblivion is a beautiful game with vibrant colors. It also has a dense vegetation which makes the scenery alluring. The water's surface looks pretty good too. When it was published, in early 2006, no doubt that it rocked the video game world for its magnificent graphics.

But as you'll see, Oblivion is a game of contrast. For every great thing, there's a caveat. Whenever you dive, your view is restricted to about 1 meter away. Is it supposed to be realistic? I don't think so. But what I'm sure of is that it is a pain in the neck. There's probably tens of treasures hidden underwater but unless you have the cheats telling where to find those treasures (which defeats the purpose of playing the game), you won't find 2. There's even a thieves' guild quest where you'll get stuck unless you grab the cheats and search, search again, search more for an underwater hidden passage. So... everything going on underwater is trash.

Another critique but this could be related to my environment, the lighting of caves, tunnels, and the likes is not standardized. After adjusting my settings, some caves will be ok to find my way in, but some will be very dark to the point of missing most of the content. Pity!


Guilds, affiliations, quests

As in previous games, you can and should enlist in guilds. They give you tasks to perform and if you behave, you'll be rewarded. Since daggerfall (and Diablo), I've had a thing for magic so the Mages' Guild was my first choice. And no doubt: spells offer you invaluable perks. But the MG is quite demanding and getting your 1st promotion will take a long time and a ton of efforts to get. Looks pretty much like hazing to me.

Also, and I might discuss this further down this article, when you start the game you're dirt poor. You absolutely struggle to earn 50 gold coins, and that's hardly enough to buy you a useless spell. Any nice spell will cost you 400 golds minimum and you'll need to buy an upgrade when your level increases. And you probably need 10-15 of these spells to go by.

Other guilds may be a bit more welcoming, even though it'll take you some efforts to find the thieves guild.

On the bright side, there are some very diverse and interesting quests. You want a master of alteration magic to teach you some high level stuff? you'll have to find him underwater in the middle of a lake and spend 3 hours underwater with him, using your alteration magic to let you breathe underwater. Nice! Buying a house and discovering it's haunted, then finding the seller to discover his ancestor was a nasty sorcerer whose undead body lies in the basement? Pretty good! Frankly, there are people with good ideas working at Bethesda!


Bugs, translation disaster, character development and other fun-killers

The first disaster when you play the French version of the game is the shameful quality of the translation. Even Google would make a better translation. You know "scales", right? The instrument to measure weight... This got translated to "écailles", which is like fish scales or lizard scales. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Sentences are out of whack all through the game. There's even a quest where you're supposed to get hints from the 1st letter of each paragraph in a book: well guess what! The book's (poorly) translated and the 1st letters correspond to nothing! it's like "hey! sorry French players! there's only a million of you guys out there so I'll have my 10 year old son use BabelFish and translate the whole game for you rather than hire a real translator". And as you get nearer to the end of the game, you start having mixes of English and French, then some pure non-translated English, and somewhere I even spotted a variable name that looked like "%CharacterName". WTF Bethesda?

Bugs do happen in the game. There's probably 2 or 3 possible bugs per quest, but they only happen given certain conditions, so you won't face too many of these and if you do... well, it won't kill the game. There's also a few graphical glitches but they're no big deal.

Character development was an important novelty in Oblivion. Of course, as usual, the number of skills available went down but it's still ok. No, the real deal is that monsters level up when you do. And also, depending on which skill increases (and by how many points) granted you a level up, you'll get between 7 and 15 points to increase your characters attribute. Wait a minute! Between 7 and 15? There's a factor 2, here! So if you play casually and you use a diverse set of skills, your character will soon be a weakling unable to complete any tasks given to him as you'll be beaten to a pulp by wolves and whatnot that you used to slay in 1 or 2 strikes. This is absolute rubbish. So if you want your character to be of decent strength, you'll have to keep a constant monitor on your skills' level and painstakingly raise this or that skill depending on this or that attribute just so you'll stay above the fray. That's a giant fun-killer. It's like being a surfer and having to interrupt your wave riding after 30 seconds to come to the beach, do 30 minutes of accounting or knitting or whatever, and then being allowed to get back in the sea for 30 seconds.

Managing your inventory is also not fun. When you have gathered 50 weightless keys obtained legally, what's the point of listing them in your inventory except forcing the player to scroll down, down, down and further down in his inventory to find relevant items?


Conclusion

As mentioned above, Oblivion is a game of contrast. There's some excellent stuff in there (graphics, quests) but also some real rubbish (character development, translation). While it can be recommended to people who want the full Elder Scrolls experience, I would personally not recommend it, mainly because the character development wastes everything.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Hey Google! Stop bugging me on Youtube!



If you follow the IT business, last year Google regrouped all of its services under 1 common set of rules (or "Terms of services" or whatever you want to call that).

Now that the legal framework is in place, they're doing the technical job: in other words, they're linking accounts together and if people had accounts with different names, Google is trying to trick them into using 1 single account name. Of course, I might be totally misinterpreting Google's good intentions of making things smoother... but after 20 times sending me popups letting me know that it would be a good thing to use a single name, and never offering the option to say "stop bugging me", Google keeps pushing users.

Hey Google! Hear me? I don't want to use a single user name everywhere! You created a Google+ profile for my Youtube account but I don't give a rat's ass about Google+. JUST-STOP-BUGGING-ME!

So what's ahead of us? What's coming in the future?

More pushing, more tricking users. There's got to be some target KPI (key performance indicator), maybe 0.5% of Youtube users and when less than this amount of people still have more than 1 name, Google will choose for them. Mark my words! Quote me! And let's review this prediction in 2 years!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind



Introduction

You start the game as a prisoner being taken to land by boat in order to be released and the first steps of character creation will take you through the office of an administrator asking you who you are and where you're coming from. Smart and smooth introduction!


Gameplay

The prime improvement that made Morrowind accessible to a large audience (as opposed to its predecessor Daggerfall) was the new 3D engine. While Daggerfall was constantly making use of 2D sprites constantly facing the player's character, Morrowind adopted real 3D models that you could walk around and look at under any angle.

My personal guess is that, being published in 2002, Morrowind was also able to appeal to a larger audience than Daggerfall due to the public's greater familiarity with first-person view popularized by first-person-shooters like Doom, Quake, Half-life and Counter-Strike.

Another quality of Morrowind was the beauty of its environments. Bethesda doubled-down on water shaders (the water texture and its light-reflecting patterns) and luxuriant vegetation to engage players into an exuberant world. And it worked!

Also, the named NPC's (non-playable characters) such as guild members or characters important to the main quest, were not static as they used to be in the previous opus. Instead, they were walking about within a still tight environment but it gave a greater feeling of immersion in a lively environment.

The final nail in the coffin that made this game a best-seller was the possibility for players to create their own mods (modifications) to add functionality, items, quests, characters, or any kind of content imaginable to the original game and to exchange it with other players. Thanks to this possibility, players could get new content or improved content for free from other players... A choice of game design that has since been provided with every new game in the series.

As for the storyline itself... it was ok. You know: prophecies and stuff! Guess who's the man of the prophecy! I'm exaggerating a little since it sends you to explore archaeological sites of long gone civilizations and befriend the local majority race (dark elves).

Apart from that, it was quite similar to what Daggerfall had to propose.


Downsides

Morrowind had few downsides. The 3D engine could lag a bit on the less powerful machines and the camera placement was less than optimal when playing in 3rd-person mode. Also, probably too much clicking involved in picking up loot but that was tolerable.


Conclusion

To the public who had never played Daggerfall, Morrowind appeared as a very fresh new way to engage into RPG. It did almost everything pretty well and received the success it deserved.

To me, the game mechanics were fundamentally a copy-paste of Daggerfall's and that's why I didn't find it as revolutionary as other players did. Daggerfall was the revolutionary one.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall


Introduction

Daggerfall is probably my favorite game of all time. For this reason, i'll undoubtedly be partial in this review. It came out in 1996 and I played it in 1997. By that time, the graphics were already considered poor, but it didn't matter because it was the best game ever.

After Bethesda had published Arena in 1994 (see my review here), they had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do. They were fans of RPGs, their previous fighting game had turned into a hallmark RPG, and they wanted to create a RPG by RPG-fans for RPG-fans. And that, they did!


The background story

The Tamriel empire encompasses all of a continent, plus an island where elves can be their usual selves and look down on other races. In Tamriel, each province is associated with a race of characters, most of which are human but there are also humanoid cats (Khajit), humanoid lizards (Argonian), 3 different kinds of elves, and the occasional orcs. Daggerfall is the westmost province, populated mainly by humans.

You are a personal friend of the Emperor and he sends you to Daggerfall to investigate why the ghost of the local king is haunting the walls of its capital city. There's also this secondary concern about a very private letter he sent to the queen and which was lost... he'd like you to find it and destroy it. Naughty, naughty! As your boat was reaching the coasts of Daggerfall, a storm capsized it and you swam only to find safety in a dungeon's cave whose entry collapsed. Admittedly, the introduction is lackluster but who cares? They needed an excuse to make you start inside a dungeon and provide you with a tutorial.


The game itself

Like Arena, Daggerfall adopts a first-person view and you're free to move around in a 3D world. Unlike Arena, the game world of Daggerfall is made of one continuous geographical area rather than several discrete places. The size of the game is monumental. It is as big as Great Britain. As far as I know, no other game has ever come near this size. Your character has a set of 35 or 36 skills: fighting with blades, fighting with blunt weapons, destruction magic, healing magic, climbing, running, jumping, backstabbing, inflicting critical damage in combat, lockpicking, pickpocketing, bartering, speaking languages that will reflect on the reaction of some monsters (orcs, spriggans, daedras...) or nobility.

Unlike most other RPGs, you don't level up by defeating enemies. Instead, your skills improve as you use them and when your skills have improved enough, you receive the benefit of a level up: extra HP and some improvement of attributes (strength, endurance, intelligence, etc.). This idea of improving skills as you use them seems simple and yet it was rare back in those days. And it offers a rewarding experience for the player.

You can join a number of guilds and run errands for them. You'll be rewarded by some money and equipment of course, but most importantly by access to services that the guilds offer. The Mages Guild will first propose to sell you standard magic spells. Then later it will allow you access to the equipment for enchanting your equipment by yourself and it will let you create your own custom spells with customized duration, magnitude of the effects and combining several spells into one. So you could create a spell which, used before combat, would simultaneously offer you resistance from enemies' magic, increase your armor, and regenerate your health for 30 or 60 seconds. Or you could make an offensive spell that would paralyze an enemy, make it more vulnerable to fire, and deal fire damage at a distance.

Along the way, you may summon some demigods (Daedra) who will reward you with their unique magical object in exchange for a service. You will also encounter a guild of undead characters. You may be turned into a vampire or into a werewolf and enjoy the advantages and endure the drawbacks associated with these conditions. You may bust some witches' covens not initially marked on your map. And more than anything else: you'll spend endless hours in dungeons either looking for the big bad guy or for some treasure that your guild asked you to recover.


The bugs

Today's standards and expectations of having a (almost) bug-free game are pretty high. Standards were not that high back in 1997. And still by those old loose standards, Daggerfall was considered horribly bugged. Bugs happened often and their results were unforgiving.

Walking through walls: this was especially damning for the adepts of climbing and people who walk too near to the walls. Every so often, the game would let you pass through a wall, either partially or totally. When you're in a dungeon, if you pass through a wall, you either fall to your death or fall on top of another lower room of the dungeon. If you fall on another room of the dungeon, you probably won't be able to walk back on top of all the corridors to the dungeon's entrance, so you can consider yourself dead too. Sometimes you would walk only partially through a wall or a door. Then you're stuck. It's that simple and there's no getting unstuck.

Also, every 45 minutes in average (as per my experience), the game crashed and took you back to Windows or MS-DOS... And every second crash actually crashed the whole PC rather than bring you back to MS-DOS.


Conclusion

So, after 45 minutes you could expect a crash of Daggerfall and after 1h30 you could expect a full reboot of your PC. And in the minutes in between those crashes you had to deal with the bugs. There's only 2 possibilities with a game that is so terribly bugged: you get rid of it and defame it for the piece of junk software that it is, or you endure the technical problems because this is the best game that you ever laid your eyes on. I loved Daggerfall and I have fond memories of it. Bethesda still offers it as a free download on its website. The version they offer is a patched version which is supposed to have gotten rid of the most outrageous bugs. If you can live with graphics of the 90's, then I recommend it, either for the fun of the game itself or for getting a feeling of its gigantic world.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Homeopathy: why it is dangerous


Homeopathy is part of everyday life. We see the commercials on TV. Our parents gave us some. And we still see friends giving it to their children. The common and mistaken idea about homeopathy is that it is medicine with a low concentration. It is erroneous. But let's see why!


The origins

At the origin of homeopathy was the belief that giving a tiny amount of X would generate the opposite effect of X. Modern rationality alone is sufficient to see the error of this postulate as would appear with the example of coffee: coffee generally keeps people awake. If the homeopathic principle was true, then giving a tiny amount of coffee would make people sleepy. Even worse than that: it assumed that the effect will be greater by having less of the substance. So if a drop of coffee would make you sleepy, then a fraction of this drop would have even greater effect to bring you to sleep.

So, according to homeopathy, the substance that will take effect should be diluted A LOT.


How it's prepared + some maths

So in order to prepare a homeopathic recipe, we need the so-called "active ingredient", which I'll call X, and we will dilute it.

As illustrated, we start with solution X. For each dilution, we pour 1 drop of the solution in a new solution of water. For easy maths, I'll suppose that our drop is diluted by a factor 1,000. Rinse (literally) and repeat! After the second dilution, X has been divided by 1,000,000.


Rinse and repeat!

Rinse and repeat!

After 50 dilutions, X has been divided by 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or in a more user-friendly notation: 1E150 or 10^150.

Such a number is impossible to apprehend, even for a lot of people who studied scientific subjects. So I need to explain it in a simpler manner: if you hope to find 1 single molecule of X in the final vial, your vial should contain 1E150 (or 10^150) molecules of water. That is 70 orders of magnitude more than the number of atoms in the observable universe.

Let's say it as it is: when you buy homeopathy, there's NOTHING in it.

Well... don't take my word for it! Take the word of Gina Casey for it, a spokesman for homeopathy producer Boiron who produces Oscillococcinum. She said: "Of course it is safe. There's nothing in it".


So it's safe, then? ...Not so fast!

In itself, yes, homeopathy is safe since there's nothing in it. And just like anything else, it can have a placebo effect.

The problem comes from the way homeopathy is presented as a medicine or alternative medicine to the public. People will be tricked by its presentation and, not knowing the scientific facts behind it, will believe it to be a real treatment. It has 2 consequences:

  1. it will deprive them of the opportunity of going directly for the real pharmaceutical treatment, and because of the delay, their health is likely to degrade.
  2. it will lure them into spending their money for a deceptive product, while enriching the people who market homeopathy



Conclusion

Homeopathy is fraud. It is not science and it misdirects ill people and delays their access to real treatments.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The incredible story of bones



Foreword

This article is inspired by Neil Shubin's book: Your inner fish. A highly recommended read!

Few are people who really understand evolution. Fewer still are people who know how bones appeared, despite how important bones are in our lives. We often think of our bones as as a part of our body that "protects" us, and that's true, but was it intended as a protection from the start? I think not! This story absolutely amazed me when I read about it and so I want to share it.


Once upon a time

...in the oceans, hundreds of millions of years ago, all creatures were soft. The game of life with some of the protagonists eating each other was already going on, of course, but nobody was equipped with bones. It was all a world of flesh. Think of starfishes! They eat algae, decomposing matter of dead plants and animals that litter the ocean floor, and also snails and shellfish. Think of jellyfishes! They eat crustaceans, plankton, small fish.

Now, think of ancient prehistoric fish! When I tell you this, you'll think of fish as you know them! with teeth, fishbones, etc. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about old fish. And by that I mean swimming animals that look a bit like sea cucumbers and worms. They were soft, which means they had a soft mouth and their preys sometimes escaped. And someday, thanks to a random mutation, one of them was born with teeth. All of its body was still soft, but it had teeth. And teeth in a soft fish-eat-fish world are a gigantic advantage. So, this fish thrived and it was then able to reproduce and have many children equipped with teeth who would also be as successful and have children of their own. With generations, they reproduced, their lineage ruled the seas, they ventured into new territories, adapted, and diversified into several separate species who would then consider each other as a potential meal.

And among the uncountable mutations that happen all the time, one of them proved again to be a game-changer. This mutation was responsible for grossly malformed teeth. These malformed teeth would become the backbone and would offer a resistance that flesh alone didn't have. It offered a chance of survival when being bitten. Different mutation, same story! If it offers an advantage, it increases the chances of surviving until reproduction and it will be passed on to further generations.

However, teeth are incredible things. They're the hardest part of our body, due to enamel. And that has a cost: the body has an economy of its own, based on the food it can get and the energy it needs to expend. The cost of maintaining enamel on bones was high while enamel was not necessary. Softer layers of the bones were hard enough to offer protection and had a lower evolutionary cost. This is why bones lost their enamel layer.

And one vertebra, one day, was malformed and enclosed the head. Thus came to be the skull. And with other mutations, duplication of genes or chromosomes, some new extra body parts appeared becoming fins. And about 700 million years ago, some fishes that were prey to others found safe harbor on land. This required adaptations for breathing, but they were able to temporarily escape their predators by climbing on land while their predators couldn't. As time passed, the evasive tactic became a lifestyle and fins turned to legs. The emblematic half-fish-half-reptile Tiktaalik would be the first conqueror of land that would give rise to reptiles, dinosaurs and other vertebrates like us humans.


Conclusion

As I recounted this story, I realized that I have forgotten many of its details and that I probably made a few mistakes (of little importance for my popularizing purposes). So I recommend you read Shubin's book or listen to the audiobook version of it. This journey through the evolution of our bodies is a fantastic one, and probably a little more accessible, because more focused on humans, than Richard Dawkins' The ancestor's tale.

I hope you enjoyed this short journey through evolutionary history and that it made you want to know more about it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Analysis paralysis



Analysis paralysis is a serious problem, of which I believe I suffer. It is the over-analysis of problems which results in nothing being done at all, instead of doing something that can be bad.

I have several topics I want to treat in my articles, but I want so much to give justice to the subjects I discuss that I think about these subjects through and through and through... trying to come up with a better approach... and in the end, I still don't have an article ready.

An example: since June of this year, Edward Snowden's revelations have cast an incredible light on the excessive spying by Uncle Sam on... well... on everybody in the world who uses Internet. I'd like to write 1 more or less definitive article encompassing all of this subject but I get paralyzed. Should I, instead, cut this big subject into several pieces and later create one more subject, merging everything together? probably. Or I could write 1 crude version of my master-article and refine it over the course of several days. But that doesn't seem right. It's not like I'm doing this professionally and creating a dossier. I'm just a blogger who wants to communicate interesting and sometimes complex topics in a simple way.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Firefox *sigh*




From Opera to Firefox

So I just recently said goodbye to Opera, the web browser I used and loved for years, and I have decided to move to Firefox.

How satisfied am I with the change? Not much at all. FF is slow, its settings are not the way you'd want them to be, it becomes even slower with a mere 5-6 tabs open simultaneously while I used to juggle with 20-30 of them in Opera, and it even crashes every so often (4 times today) + it even crashed the whole PC once, freezing the screen and requiring me to reboot the PC. Just for the record, this PC is about as high-spec as it gets among laptops, with i7-2630QM processor and 16GB of RAM (and swap disabled to prevent back-and-forth read/write between RAM and disk).

What's wrong, exactly?

The main source of crashes, I suspect, seems to be the add-on Lazarus. For many days, I had several add-ons installed, including Lazarus, but I had kind of muted Lazarus by not letting it perform its initialization (generating some key) so it had stayed dormant and even though I experienced the slowness inherent to Firefox, I don't remember having phases of lag where FF would put itself in "not responding" status for 10-20 seconds before resuming normal function (or crashing). That's why I am highly suspicious of it.

Oh the irony! Lazarus is an add-on whose function is to preserve/restore whichever text you had already typed in case of a crash... And Lazarus is the main source of crashes. So, Lazarus is THE problem, but it is also the remedy to itself. That's terribly ironic! Well played, Lazarus developers!

Another problem I encountered is with my RSS feeds. If you're unfamiliar with RSS, it's a bit like mailing lists generated by websites and which you can subscribe to so you stay up to date with new updates on your favorite websites. Good RSS readers will display a bit like emails: you can differentiate unread items from read items, you can know how many items are unread, and you can read the messages which are gathered by the browser. But no! Firefox doesn't want to include a good RSS reader. They want you to look around for some addon that does the job, and instead it leaves you with a poor tool that doesn't let you see the number of unread items, that doesn't let you select several items simultaneously so you can "mark them as read", and it doesn't load the messages content, so you'll miss the messages and be sent via a hyperlink to wherever on the web. Thanks but no thanks!

So I'll have to find a decent RSS reader. I've seen a few names out there that look OK: NewsFox, Sage, Wizz...


Conclusion

Yes, humans have a resistance to change and this certainly is part of the reason for my frustration. Being aware of it should help me adopt a more hopeful and positive attitude while still looking for the hidden gems among add-ons.

As for Lazarus... It is aptly named. It should be dead, and yet it is still moving. I guess it could also have been named Catch22. I will look around for similar add-ons (minus the crashes) and if I don't find any, I'll take my chances without it... taking the risk to lose things I wrote, but with much fewer crashes.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Goodbye Opera


What's Opera?

Opera is a web browser. What you usually do with Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, or Safari, you could do with Opera. Except Opera was doing it better.

I first used Opera in the year 2000 when I worked for an IT start-up. Opera was an excellent browser already and its only flaw was that you had to either pay for it or endure some built-in advertisements in order to use it for free. The 2 things that mattered about Opera were

  • The respect of web standards: if you never programmed anything web-based, you probably don't know it, but web sites work correctly in several different browsers because some organization established standards. Back in the day, Internet Explorer was king due to its illegal monopolistic practices and it encouraged programmers to develop non-standard websites that would work correctly only in IE. Since it was in a monopolistic position, IE could flip birds at the rest of the world and do away with standards. But Opera allowed conscientious programmers to do good work.
  • Extra functionality: Unlike Firefox that offers only basic functionality and lets you install tons of plugins with the associated risks, Opera packed everything it could so that users had everything already at hand.

The journey forward

After 2000, I went back to IE because that was the only browser available at my university, so I didn't care anymore about it. I got myself a job, did some ugly non-standard programming intended to run in IE only and hated myself for it. Then disgusted by IE in 2004, I turned to Firefox which was a light of hope due to its free open-source licence and its greater respect than IE for web standards. But as the years passed, Firefox became heavier and heavier, slower and slower, and taking up a huge amount of RAM.

At that time, in 2007, Opera was very far behind me, lost somewhere in my past. But I read some news about it and decided to give it a new try. It was tremendously lighter and faster than Firefox. And it had extra functionality, which I won't go over as that would take too much space and time. Opera was also safer. Due to its low market share, it was not considered a profitable target by hackers. And also, the company Opera Software was doing a fantastic job at solving security problems lightning-fast when problems appeared (unlike Microsoft who left major security holes unpatched for months).

Since then, I've been using my computer about 15-16 hours a day for 6 years and I've loved Opera. What disappointed me though, were its unfairly low market shares. The only explanation I find for this is that Opera Software, the company developing the browser, totally sucked at marketing. But it excelled technically.

And that brings us to 2011. Jon von Tetzchner, the founder of Opera Software slammed the door because the board decided to sell its soul. No more striving for technical excellence! They wanted to sell out, get some cash fast, and didn't give a flying fuck about destroying the browser's immaculate reputation. Since then, they have retired their excellent browser and started rebuilding more or less from scratch, around Webkit, a browser's engine controlled by Google and Apple which encourages web developers (like IE back in the day) to go against standards. And of course, the browser's functionality is back to... well, not much.

So today, after 6 years of devotion, after loving my browser and praising it for its objective qualities on the internet, I have uninstalled it.


What about the future?

For now, I have decided to go with Firefox. I disagree with its model but it's the least bad as far as I can judge. Most other browsers are controlled by evil companies and do shady stuffs, when they do anything at all. Yes, IE! I'm talking about you being lame, lacking functionality, being an entry point for viruses and embodying everything evil that Microsoft has been about.

I've decided to complete Firefox with a few useful add-ons:
  • Adblock Plus: spares me a lot of ads. The web goes faster, is safer, and is more enjoyable without those ads.
  • Ghostery: blocks third-party stuff. A bit like Adblock Plus in a way, but instead of blocking ads, it blocks the spying and tracking of your browsing by spyware and ill-intended companies.
  • WOT: informs you of websites reputation. It also indicates in advance if hyperlinks are leading you to a legitimate or nefarious website.
  • Omnibar: merges together the URL bar and the search engine bar. It just makes life simpler.
  • All-in-one sidebar: it puts functionality on the side of the screen rather than at the top. This is better on laptops since laptops have wide screens nowadays.

I hope Opera will fail in its short-term near-sighted venture, and I hope it will come back to reason and restore its virtue. If it does, I will welcome it back. But I don't see it happening in the next 2 years.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Elder Scrolls 1: Arena



Introductory remarks

This article is the first one in a series of 5 articles related to the video-game series The Elder Scrolls (TES). This article is highly inspired from this video game review on Youtube, which in turn seems highly inspired from the Wikipedia article about this game.

The game itself is available for free on its creator's website: http://www.elderscrolls.com/arena/. Since it was developed for running in a MS-DOS environment, you will need a DOS emulator like DOSBox to run it.

I have not played Arena but came to TES through the 2nd game of the series: Daggerfall which uses the same engine, with modifications.


Remember 1993!

Back in 1993, first-person view in video games was rare. If you except the car/plane/spaceship simulations which are not exactly first-person, only role-playing games were created with a first-person view. Such games include the Eye Of The Beholder series and Lands of Lore series. Granted, there was also a game-changer (pun not intended) that appeared at the same time: the Wolfenstein/Doom series. But all-in-all, 1st person view was rare. Rarer still was the use of 3D and most games only offered the option of moving in discrete increments and always facing North, East, South or West. A few role-playing games (RPG) offered more freedom of movement like the Ultima Underworld series or such games as Legends of Valour.



And then Bethesda Softworks decided to create a gladiator fighting game in 3D. This is where the title, Arena, comes from. That gladiator fighting game would have been absolute rubbish if really developed and released as such. But in order to add depth to the story, the developers added side quests. And side quests were fun and gave more sense of purpose than the core idea of Arena fighting. More and more quests were added. New skills were introduced. Magic made its way into the game. The world grew. Basically, the game was re-purposed as a medieval role-playing-game (RPG) and the initial idea was binned, leaving the creators to expand the RPG aspects of their project.



And voila! Bethesda had a full-blown quality RPG but due to marketing deadlines and previous artwork being already created for the fighting game, the original title "Arena" remained and they added "The Elder Scrolls" to make it look more RPG-ish.

What made this game a hallmark of RPGs despite terrible sales is the depth of its world. You could do uncountable things, create customized magic spells, steal, go to a great many dungeons and loot its denizens if you survived. It had a day-and-night cycle with baddies coming out at night. In other words, it was awesome... except for the combat system that totally sucked and a heapload of bugs that crashed the game every now and then. But it was almost everything that RPG enthusiasts could dream of at the time.

Conclusion

Arena was a turning point in computer RPGs. It marked the end of the Eye Of The Beholder era and the dawn of a new age for the genre. Of course, hardly anyone will play this game today and its flawed combat system will likely make it unbearable for any modern player. But it is to be remembered with fondness like a great-grandparent whose temper was horrendous, but who contributed greatly to make the family what it is today. And The Elder Scrolls family is absolutely awesome!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Quote of the day

Being a little lazy today, I'll go with a quote. But it's a good one:

In cases where prior knowledge is available, the alternative to "an open mind" is not a "closed mind". It is "an informed mind". In such contexts, any appeal to "keep an open mind" is an appeal to prefer ignorance over knowledge. This is not advisable.
-Ian Rowland-

Friday, August 2, 2013

Introduction to programming



When you don't know how it works, it seems very complicated. But it's not, of course. It's a matter of understanding the basic principles which are very simple. It's a lot like cooking: you need to know the concepts of cutting and cooking, then all the rest is just details.

Programming relies on few stuffs:

  • input data
  • tests (if this, then do that, else do something else)
  • loops (repeat a similar operation enough times to process all of the input data)
  • output data


We call "algorithm" the idea of using everyday language to describe a simple program.


Input data

When you create a program, you will need input data. Maybe the current date, maybe the name of the user, maybe the size of the hard drive, maybe the name of an Excel worksheet where you have information that you want to process.

Programs use "input data". In order to manipulate this input data, we must be able to access it, and this is done with variables. Variables are words that store the data. Here's an example:
x = 4

Here, my variable is "x" and I assign the value "4" to x. So, further in my program, I can refer to "x" and my program will replace x by its value: 4. It's very much like our everyday use of names. If you have a boat and your boat's name is "Alice", then you can say: "I'll go out with Alice for an hour or two". And everybody understands that Alice is your boat. You can substitute one for the other.

Of course, variables are not limited to "input data". When you process your input data, it produces output data, which can, in turn, be used as input data for more processing. Example:
x = 4
y = x + 6
There you go! We've created a new variable: "y".


Tests

Programs react differently given different conditions. So, at the core of all programs is a mechanism that tests the conditions and allows to process the information in different ways, based on the conditions. Imagine the following example: taking care of the washing-up is conditional to the presence of dirty dishes in your sink. This situation could be described in a program with the following algorithm:
if (there are dirty dishes in my sink) then
  do the washing-up
else
  go out and enjoy life
endif

This structure of if...then...else...endif exists in all languages. After the endif instruction, the program resumes processes that are independent of whether you had dirty dishes in your sink or not.


Loops

Imagine that you are a salesman. You've made a lot of sales and you don't get the same number of customers every month. So, if you have a program that takes action, like sending an email, for every customer you will need to repeat the same operation "x" times (where x is the number of your customers). There are 3 kinds of loops but they're all very similar to each other and will look like this:

numberOfCustomers = 37
currentCustomer = 0 
repeat numberOfCustomers times:
  currentCustomer currentCustomer + 1
  send email to customer (currentCustomer )
endrepeat

Here, we have 37 customers and all of them are identified by a value between 1 and 37. As many times as needed, we will move on to the next customer (currentCustomer +1) and send him an email.


Output data

Generally, a program returns information to the user. It can be an information of success in performing its tasks or an information of failure, or a return value in the case of calculators for example. Because we are talking of returning a value, programming languages often include a function called return which is intended exactly for this purpose. Here's an example of a program that calculates the square of an input value:
program square(x)
  y = x * x
  return y
endprogram

As you see, we have this program named "square" and it takes "x" as input data. Then it calculates the square value, which is x*x and puts this value in the variable y. And finally it returns y.


Conclusion

That's it! This is the core of all programs. Once you know this, you can move on to learn the details of different programming languages.
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