Friday, March 30, 2012

Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time 13), by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Book coverTowers of Midnight, the 13th book in the Wheel of Time series and the book before last in the saga, was a great read. As the second volume written by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan's death, it benefited a lot from Sanderson's fluid writing style and the fact that all the stories are coming to their end.

The plot was interesting, too, with all three ta'veren characters doing their part, all the girls (except Nynaeve!) being involved and quite a few Forsaken as well, with interesting gimmicks the Darkfriend previously known as Luc and even a gholam!. The entire Trakand clan is represented and there are blessedly few Aiel. In this book Moiraine is found, there is some news of lovely and terrible Lanfear and someone dies (although, of course, nobody important and they die quite uselessly) while battling Aelfinn and Eelfinn, while The Final Battle approaches, with the revelation of red veilled dark Aiel?

My feeling of the book was one of discovery. Brandon Sanderson is writing this book with the enthusiasm of someone that just started work on a story (because he did!), yet with all the legacy material from Robert Jordan to build upon. No wonder the last part of the series was supposed to be just one book and resulted in three at the end. That means the story feels fresh, even if I have been reading it for the last four months. Also, it is no surprise that Sanderson could not maintain the fearful and deferential view of women that Jordan cultivated in the previous books. Oh, don't worry, they continue to meddle in all the affairs of others and their behaviour is just as erratic and irrational as before, it's just that men don't act like cowed idiots anymore and actually have a backbone. I don't know if this was supposed to happen in the original author's view, but I am willing to bet that it was not. Actually, this is one of the worse points of the story, when Elayne (the queen of Andor), Egwene (the Amyrlin seat) and Faille (Perrin's wife and princess of Saldaea) are plotting and acting like they own the world, while at the same time putting themselves in all sorts of dangers where they have to be saved by others. Of course, the others more often end up dead, but there is always some handy rationalization for behaving like an idiot. Amazingly enough, though, Cadsuane and even Moiraine are behaving quite well. The End must really be coming!

The bottom line is that I have finished reading the series. The last book won't be published until 2013, so now I am free to read other books. Yatta! I've gathered a technical book about refactoring, The Rites of Passage, by William Golding, and The Checklist Manifesto, which I hear is both instructive and interesting to read (not to mention short). So, I guess the wheel won't be turning as the wheel wants until next year. Meanwhile, you're stuck with me!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Gathering Storm, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Book coverThe Gathering Storm is the 12th book in the fantasy series Wheel of Time and the last in the saga to be written (partially) by Robert Jordan. The guy died while writing it and the book was continued by Brandon Sanderson. The result? A better book! I firmly believe that Sanderson is writing better than Robert Jordan, while at the same time retaining enough of his style to not feel too much of a disconnect. I wish I was a literary critic right now, so that I could tell you what was better, but I am not; as a reader I can only tell you that I felt less like crawling through thick fluid and more like swimming. There is proof: I've finished reading this book almost a week ago and, while not having time to write this post, I did get two thirds in the thirteenth book of the series.

Ok, I must admit that being a series finale, it was bound to be more interesting, however more focus on the action and less on Nynaeve's braid pulling helped a lot. The plot revolves more about Rand and Egwene and less on the others. Rand is getting more and more erratic do to his obsession for eliminating his emotions. Instead, he buries them within, causing more and more insanity. Luckily, he gets over it, and not by psychotherapy, either. Egwene, instead, having been captured by the White Tower, has been demoted to Accepted and forced to do chores and beatings in order to stop calling herself Amyrlin. She uses her enormous ego and Aiel teachings to overcome the hurdles and reunite the Tower with the unexpected help of Verin, as we finally learn who she was.

The story of this book is interesting in itself. It was supposed to be the last book of Wheel of Time, but then it grew too much and it was decided a split into no less than three other books. The initial target was 200000 words, but the final estimation reached 750000. That means most of the book was written by Sanderson. The reception for the book was positive, since many of the threads left unended in the previous books were clarified.

Right now I am almost at the end of the final published book in the series, Towers of Midnight. The fourteenth book is supposedly ending the saga and will be published sometime at the beginning of 2013. So in about 9 months it will all be over :-)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Bryntse Gambit

It was a while since I've written about chess. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, I was left with no friends to play with and it all kind of flopped. However, I've met several people at the office that are interested and even passionate about chess. So it may be that many nice chess blog posts could be coming.

This one is about the Bryntse Gambit. I wanted to write about it because it is relatively unknown. Here is the short version of it: 1. e4 c5 2. f4 d5 3. Nf3 dxe4 4. Ng5 Nf6 5. Bc4 Bg4 6. Bxf7+ Kd7 7. Qxg4+ Nxg4 8. Be6+

At this point, the king has only two reasonable options: Kc7 or Kc6. I've continued the game a few moves from there using the Rybka and Houdini chess engines. The extended game with the respective variations is here: 1. e4 c5 2. f4 d5 3. Nf3 dxe4 4. Ng5 Nf6 5. Bc4 Bg4 6. Bxf7+ (6. Be2 6. .. Bf5 7. g4 Bd7 8. Nc3 Bc6 9. Bc4 e6 10. Qe2 h6 11. Ngxe4 Nxe4 12. Nxe4 Qh4+ 13. Kd1) (6. Be2 Bxe2 7. Qxe2 Nc6 8. Na3 Nd4 9. Qc4 Qd5 10. Qxd5 Nxd5 11. c3 Ne6 12. Nxe6 fxe6) 6. .. Kd7 7. Qxg4+ Nxg4 8. Be6+ Kc7 (8. .. Kc6 9. Bxg4 g6 10. Nc3 Bg7 11. Ncxe4 e5 12. O-O exf4 13. d3 Be5 14. Ne6 Qh4 15. h3) 9. Bxg4 Qe8 10. Ne6+ Kb6 11. Na3 a6 12. Nc4+ Ka7 13. b3 Nc6 14. Bb2 h5 15. Bh3 Qf7 16. O-O-O Rh6 17. f5 b6 18. Rhf1 Nd8 19. g3 Nxe6 20. fxe6 Qg8 21. Bf5 Rxe6 22. Bxe6 Qxe6 *

The article that prompted this post can be found here: Bryntse Gambit Revisited

What I find interesting about this gambit is the voluntary sacrifice of the queen in order to gain a positional advantage. It is true, the black king is harassed all over the board and left with almost no safety, the black pieces are undeveloped and the pawns are scattered in three islands, but white has no queen anymore, exchanged for a knight and a bishop. I wish I was confident enough to play this gambit and know what I am doing after losing the queen. Just in case you were wondering what could one do if suddenly afraid of going on with the Bryntse, I've added two possible continuations where the queen is not sacrificed.

TV Series I've Been Watching - Part 11

I have dreaded the necessity of this post. Not only there are a zillion TV series that I have watched, but there are many that I had to dismiss for lack of time. Even so, I find myself more and more unwilling to spend evenings and mornings watching these stories. I've abandoned TV a few years ago, then TV shows on my computer have overshadowed full feature films and now... I feel I am wasting time. Perhaps this post will serve as data point in a statistic of my interests in time. Perhaps in itself it is not yet a waste.

Also, since it is obvious that I am also watching shows I don't particularly like, I will employ a colour coding scheme: red for shows I do not recommend, green for those I like.

  • The Sarah Jane Adventures - following the death of the main actress, the show has been cancelled after a short fifth season made of the completed episodes that far. I can't say that I will miss it, but it was an entertaining series.
  • Doctor Who - watched the Christmas special, but it wasn't that special. At least this year it was a flop. I will continue watching it, for originality's sake at least.
  • Torchwood - the other Doctor Who spin-off continues with bursts of episodes. Miracle Day was weird enough to warrant continuity of watching.
  • Eureka - ridiculous series, but one of the few that I can watch with no expectations whatsoever. That is pretty refreshing. Their Christmas special entered in the domain of animation, changing styles as it went along.
  • House MD - not watching it anymore. The medicine has taken a backseat role, as it happens eventually in most medical series, so there is no reason to.
  • Criminal Minds - a season and a half are waiting for my viewing pleasure. I've always found something else to do that took precedence.
  • Dexter - the sixth season started really well, only to end in a sort of twisty, fancy way that did it no good. Two more seasons have been announced. Oh, and dirty Harrietta now knows Dexter is a killer, more like the original books.
  • Fringe - the show continues to make no sense. It has become a sort of darker Eureka for me.
  • True Blood - season 5 is due to begin in the summer. I have high hopes.
  • Men of a Certain Age - I've finally got myself to watching the second season. It was great. Then they cancelled it. Fuck you!
  • Weeds - The last episode of the last season is still waiting for me to watch it and I just can't make myself do it. I think this series will fall out of my viewing list
  • The Good Wife - the show is back on track. Alicia is no longer having an affair with Will and she was considering buying the old family house back from the people who owned it. Her feud with Kalinda is over as well and the new partners in the firm (except Eli Gold) have been removed. It feels like getting back to the first season story arch and still well done.
  • Haven - the series has some left potential, but not much. Along with Eureka and Fringe, they are just there to pass the time when too tired to think. I believe I will stop watching all of these three or keep watching them all.
  • Lost Girl - from time to time I watch it. It's not guilty pleasure, because I don't like the girl so much. Sometimes it is fun. Rarely.
  • Falling Skies - one of the few true sci-fi series left, it will start its second season in the summer. No high hopes, but what else is there?
  • Southpark - the 16th season has just started with a pretty hilarious TV seat debate. May it continue in the same funny spirit!
  • The Killing - still on my watch list, as it was in October. I keep away from shows with cops nowadays.
  • Suits - second season to start in the summer. Might be fun.
  • Breaking Bad - no watch. I have not yet deleted it, but I am not watching it, either. Perhaps when on a long vacation...
  • Californication - fifth season has started and it's pretty good. A bit too much over the top and starting on the downhill path of "I'm a daddy and I need to be responsible", even when his daughter starts dating a guy that behaves like Hank's younger self, but still good.
  • Beavis&Butt-head - when I was in highschool I would watch this religiously. Some of the episodes were really really funny, complete with the mischievous fun made of MTV music clips. Season 9 did not feel as funny to me now, maybe also because instead of music clips they work on MTV's reality shows. Anyone remember that M stood for Music in MTV? Some episodes were nice, so I will watch them if they continue. At least I owe them that from my childhood years.
  • Homeland - a paranoid female CIA agent is convinced a war hero saved from the terrorists is actually a sleeper agent. The show is pretty dark, but it didn't go anywhere fast. There are some episodes unwatched that I need to decide to see in order to make up my mind about the show.
  • Lie to Me - it "Housed". When the show is more about the people than what they do, it becomes boring for me. Off my list.
  • Terra Nova - a true disaster, it was cancelled after only two seasons. It felt like a 70's show, without the story.
  • The Fades - brilliant tv show. Something that we should all watch for quality's sake alone. The second season is still unannounced, but I loved the first season!
  • Hidden - still haven't watched it, but it seems intriguing.
  • Grimm and Once Upon a Time - TV shows about fairy tales. Unfortunately not even the presence of Robert Carlyle in Once Upon a Time could not make me watch more than a few episodes each


Time for shows I didn't mention in the last post about TV series:
  • The Walking Dead - it's a zombie series! As excited as I was before I started watching it, I am now abashed. Of course stories with zombies will be about the people and their feelings and less about the zombies. Wait, what? Some of the episodes are interesting, but most are simply boring. It was an interesting video I've seen, an interview about the show, with some pretty slick ideas from the director just being dismissed out of hand because they were over budget. They were story ideas, not big explosion ideas, mind you. TV networks are dicks.
  • A Game of Thrones - I've read the books and I liked them. The show is pretty much following the books, but the feel of it is a bit off. Sometimes you gotta move away from the story in order to preserve the spirit of a book and they are not doing it.
  • The Firm - a TV series based on Grisham's The Firm. It started really bad and I could not watch it. Meanwhile, it was cancelled.
  • Awake - a guy lives his life during day time, only to fall asleep and find himself live a slightly different life. Interesting concept and people have said nice things about it, but I haven't started watching it, yet.
  • Black Mirror - a British sci-fi show, only three episodes, and they are separate stories. Again, I've heard nice things about it, but haven't watched it, yet.
  • Boss - tough American politician and the world of corruption and power in which he lives. Interesting, haven't started it yet.
  • Great Expectations - another British mini series, three episodes so far. It seems nicely done, but have not watched it yet.
  • Inside Men - watched the first episode, but I don't think I will like it much. It is about people that decide to steal from their place of employment, then cover up the thing. It involves a heist, sordid decisions, huge regrets, enormous tension.
  • L5 - this is another VODO film, you know, the freely distributed shows that depend on donations to continue. It is a true sci-fi show, with a colonisation spacecraft returning to Earth after a failed exploratory mission, only to find themselves 200 years into the future and no living human anywhere. Interesting!
  • Mad Men - this is a very good show about the advertising world in the 60's. I've watched the first four seasons and the fifth is to start this March. Nice atmosphere, well acted and directed. Just be prepared to have smoking and drinking urges while you watch it :-) (and I don't smoke)
  • Misfits - another show with great potential. Imagine Heroes, only made by the British, so it's funny and original. The final season was a bit of a downer, with a lot of characters leaving the show, but it is nice indeed.
  • Person of Interest - I doubt we're going to be watching it again. It's another police procedural, only with a lone vigilante employed by a rich computer genius.
  • Pioneer One - the first season has ended. It was interesting to watch this VODO distributed film, as it was both interesting and captivating. I hear the second season is going to be sponsored, so it will have a true budget. Unfortunately, I don't know where they can go with the idea.
  • Sherlock - British revamping of Sherlock Holmes in the modern times. A bit interesting, but also a bit Doctor-Whoish. First and second seasons (both of three episodes each) were fun to watch and I await the third with mixed feelings. It could have been better, I guess, but it was pretty good as it was.
  • Spartacus - Vengeance - The actor in Spartacus had cancer and died, so after the first season and a prequel, they replaced the actor and went on with Vengeance. The show is gory, sexual and full of intrigue. Some episodes are brilliant, others are less so. I will continue to watch it.
  • The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff - British comedy show, parodying the work of Charles Dickens with the people in The IT Crowd. I didn't like it.
  • The River - another show I haven't got around to watch. This one is a horror show situated in the forest of the Amazon, where people are trying to find a lost explorer, husband and father, while being surrounded by mystery and black magic.
  • The Royal Bodyguard - seems to be another British comedy show about a ridiculous guy inside Buckingam Palace. Haven't watched it and I don't think I will get around to.
  • Todd and the Book of Pure Evil - Ha ha, this Canadian show was pretty funny. I've watched the first season and I am now occasionally watching an episode from the second. Don't expect anything intelligent, it is like a satanic horror B movie, complete with weird special effects, only it is funny and a series. Canadians are getting good at this stuff.
  • Touch - only the pilot has aired so far. Keith Sutherland is the proud father of an autistic son that seems not to want to speak. However, he sees patterns between people and makes random connections that are extraordinary. I am going to watch the first episode when the others start airing. I can't say I am terribly excited, but it could be nice.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Knife of Dreams (Wheel of time 11) by Robert Jordan

Book cover
Knife of Dreams is the last book in the series written by Robert Jordan. He died after finishing it. It was one of the nicer books in the series, mostly because it prominently featured Mat, who is one of the few characters in the Wheel of Time series I can empathise with.

The obvious and unnecessary story arch with Perrin's wife abduction by the Shaido Aiel finally ends, Elayne, Egwene and Nynaeve are all acting like they know everything and some get abducted by the Black Ajah and the White Tower, only to deny any wrongdoing or link to the cause of their predicaments. Cadsuane continues to be a pain in the butt, without actually providing a good return of investment and Min is either worrying without cause or acting stupidly and precipitating harm to Rand. Aviendha is not much better, but she rarely appears in this one. In other words, all the women are pompous idiots in Knife of Dreams, while Rand and Perrin act like buffoons. So the only satisfying story arch remains that of Mat.

I've started to read the last three books, which the new author (working on the basis of very detailed notes left by Robert Jordan and big fan of his) points out are three pieces of the same story, only one larger than a single volume could have contained. After that, I am free of the Dark One and the taint will be gone!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ultima Underworld - The Stygian Abyss

Ultima Underworld was and continues to be an inspiration as to how and why to make video games. I've played this as a kid, on a 386 PC computer, and was blown away. It featured simulated 3D with angles that were not straight and rooms of different heights. You could jump, use weapons in multiple ways (like jabbing or cutting with swords), there was discoverable magic, NPCs, interaction that went as far as having to learn a new language or play an instrument, numerous puzzles and an amazing story.

But that is not what made it great. You see, I am telling everyone I know that this was one of the games that defined my childhood and today I've read the Wikipedia article for the game and remembered all the history related to it and I realized that I needed to blog about it, too. What made this game great was that there was no need to make the game as good. Released in 1992, it only had to compete with Wolfenstein 3D which was released a few months after, anyway. At the time Civilisation and Dune II, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II were also amazing games, but none in the genre of Ultima Underworld. They could have worked less, released sooner and gained more money. But that's not what they did, they did something to be proud of and that is why the game was great.

At the bottom of this post I will place a YouTube video of gameplay. The synthesised sounds (no recorded sounds were used in the game) and music as well as the graphics will probably make you cringe now, but at the time, it was state of the art. Just hearing that music fills me with strong emotion that I can hardly realize from where it comes, but it is deep. Ultima Underworld has left its mark on me, but not only. Look at the litany of games their authors attributed influence to Stygian Abyss: BioShock, Gears of War, Elder Scrolls, Deus Ex, Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines, Tomb Raider, Morrowind, World of Warcraft.

Amazingly enough, there was only a sequel to the game, Ultima Underworld II. The publishers refused to sponsor a third franchise and the developers ultimately decided to create a "spiritual successor", which was Arx Fatalis, also a great game. Younger people might only know Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, which has nothing to do with Might and Magic except financially, and is actually Arx Fatalis II. You can see even there that storyline and gameplay have suffered when a big corporate game company took the reigns, despite the high budget graphics and sounds.

I have voluntarily removed myself from the gaming scene. I've refused to upgrade my computer to a state where it can play any modern game and the only things I play are web games to pass the time between tasks at work. I am certain that even now there are exceptional people creating exceptional games that push the frontiers of technology, but more than that, the frontiers of imagination. I've heard of some of them: The Witcher, for example, a game made after a successful fantasy book series that features free play and allowing the character to be as bad, good or rotten as he wants, while the game shapes itself after his decisions. Look out for games like these. Even if you don't realize it, they will open your mind and your heart and will influence you to be better than you would otherwise be. They are not only games, but teachers. Love them!

There is a sentence hidden there inside the Ultima Underworld wiki page: the game is non-linear and allows for emergent gameplay. In other words, it let's you guide the story, change the game play, play multiple times with different outcomes. Embrace choice, it will only get better.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Crossdomain Ajax calls in Chrome (with jQuery) bug

Update:
I've pinpointed the issue after a few other investigations. The https:// site was returning a security certificate that was issued for another domain. Why it worked in FireFox anyway and why it didn't work in Chrome, but then it worked after an unauthorized call first, I still don't know, but it is already in the domain of browser internals.

I was trying to access an API on https:// from a page that was hosted on http://. Since the scheme of the call was different from the scheme of the hosted URL, it is interpreted as a cross domain call. You might want to research this concept, called CORS, in order to understand the rest of the post.

The thing is that it didn't work. The server was correctly configured to allow cross domain access, but my jQuery calls did not succeed. In order to access the API I needed to send an Authorization header, as well as request the information as JSON. Investigations on the actual browser calls showed the correct OPTIONS request method, as well as the expected headers, only they appeared as 'Aborted'. It took me a few hours of taking things apart, debugging jQuery, adding and removing options to suddenly see it work! The problem was that after resetting IIS, the problem appeared again! What was going on?

In the end I've identified a way to consistently reproduce the problem, even if at the moment I have no explanation for it. The calls succeed after making a call with no headers (including the Content-Type one). So make a bogus, unauthorized call and the next correct calls will work. Somehow that depends on IIS as well as the Chrome browser. In Firefox it works directly and in Chrome it seems to be consistently reproducible.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Crossroads of Twilight (Wheel of Time book 10) by Robert Jordan

Book coverThe tenth book of the Wheel of Time series was by far the least interesting. The action is taking place simultaneously or a bit after the events in Winter's Heart. I had waited to see what is going to happen next only to get a "parallel" book that only showed how everybody is taking their sweet time before doing anything. Of course, we know by now that Rand has finally done what needed done a few books ago, but what about all the not interesting characters? Well, we will get to know that in Crossroads of Twilight.

Having finished it, I embark on reading the last few books and see how the hell it is all going to end. That is the problem with stories based on prophecies. By the time the book gets anywhere, you know how it is going to end.