Friday, September 20, 2013

Voyages

  Few people know this, but for a while now I've kept tabs on what happens in outer space, specifically Solar System colonization and asteroid mining. This means I've been connected to the wonderful revolution that is silently unfolding regarding human understanding and access to our small patch of universe.

  But this entry is not about space news, but rather my own thoughts on a subject that keeps bugging me: our own place in the world. You might have heard about the Fermi paradox. It is the theory that as big as the universe is as much time that has passed, the possibility that life and intelligence arose somewhere else is very close to 1. Not only that, but it remains close to 1 even if we look at the universe a few billions years back. The Fermi paradox asks then, how come we haven't heard of anybody else? Look at how fast we are evolving technologically; given a billion years surely we would invent at least the grey goo (although admittedly we would have the good taste to have it in more beautiful colors). What is going on?

  You might think this is not a real problem, but it truly is. To believe that no one in the whole of the universe did think to create self-reproducing probes is as ridiculous as believing we alone are intelligent enough to do it. Even at non relativistic speeds (stuff drifting aimlessly in the void) such a machine should have spread across the galaxy. Why aren't they here already?

  I am writing this piece while we have received confirmation that Voyager, one of the space probes launched in the 70's, run by computers with 4Kb of memory and spending power equivalent to that of a small light bulb to send info back to Earth, has reached interstellar space. It took more than three decades, but it is there. Another few tens of thousands of years and it leaves the Solar System. Triple that time and it reaches our nearest star. Billions of years have passed, though, and a thousand centuries are nothing on that timescale. And we build Voyager in the 70's! Of course, one could get pissed that no 20 Watt light bulb ever survived 30 years here on Earth, but that's another issue entirely. So where are the Voyagers of other species?

  There are several schools of thought on the subject. One, which I won't even discuss, is that we are the chosen people and are the only ones intelligent or even alive. Some versions of panspermia that suggest the ingredients of life came from meteors and are extremely rare on planets seem equally implausible to me.

  Another one, which I found really interesting, is that as technology advances, we are bound to create more complex virtual worlds, which, as comfort goes, are much easy to live in than "real" worlds. And I double quote the word here because when the simulation is advanced enough, the inhabitants there will also make other simulations of their own. In this view, we are most likely creatures that have evolved on the spare CPU of some machine, which is itself a simulation. It's turtles all the way down, man.

  Anyway, I find this theory fascinating because it also fights the law of entropy and the infinity of time. You see, in a simulated world, time would run faster than in real life. There is no need to wait 4 billion years for life to evolve, if a computer can simulate it faster. Do this until you reach the quantum limit underneath which time and space cannot be divided into smaller units anymore (if that even exists in the "realest" world) and you get universes that function with the fastest possible speed. Duplicate one of these virtual machines and two universes live simultaneously at the same time. It's a wonderful concept. Also, the quantum nature of our universe is eerily similar to the bits in a computer. Of course, once we get on that path, anything would be possible. We might be alone in the universe because it was designed as such. Or because the developers of our world are using a very common trick that is to render the graphics of a virtual world only where there are people playing. Another eerie similarity with the quantum world that changes behavior when someone it watching.

  There is also the concept of the multiverse. It says that all the possible states that can be taken by the universe are actually taken. We just happen to live in one version. If a particle can go one way or another, it will go both, once in each of two universes. Universal constants have values in the entirety of a range and a universe for each. We haven't met aliens yet and we were not destroyed by the culture shock because we are here not destroyed. It's a sort of a circular definition.

  Then there is the quarantine hypothesis. Aliens are not only present, but very much involved into our lives. They are waiting patiently for us to discover space flight or quantum matrix decomposition or whatever, before they make contact. They could even make contact just to tell us to stay away, all the universe if full, we are just late to the party. I guess it's possible, why not?

  Another idea, a more morbid one, is that no civilization survives beyond a certain threshold that we have not reached yet. When a global problem arises, there are people who are quick to associate this idea with that problem. Nuclear weapons, global warming, terrorism, sexting, Justin Bieber, twerking, etc. In the universal landscape they are irrelevant, at least until now and in the foreseeable future. Still, there is always the possibility that a game changing technology, what we call disruptive, will emerge naturally and will make any civilization disappear or simply obsolete or completely pointless. Just like the others above, this idea may assume a type of absolute. We could have a tiny chance to escape doom, only its probability is as close to 0 as the probability that there is a whole lot of life in the universe is close to 1. It's a bit terrifying, but because of its inevitability, also pointless to worry about.

  This idea of a chance, though, is interesting because it makes one think further ahead. If such a disruptive event or technology (Kurzweil's singularity, maybe) is about to come, what will it be? When did we burst technologically? When we developed mass production of commodities. When did we explode as a populace? When we developed mass production of food. When will we become more than we are? When we develop mass production of people, perhaps. That's one scenario that I was thinking about today and spurred this blog post. After all, it would be horrible to live in a world where every cell phone or computer is designed and/or built individually. Instead we take the models that are best and we duplicate them. We could take the smartest, more productive and more beautiful of us and duplicate them. The quality of the human race (as measured by the current one, unfortunately) would increase exponentially. Or we don't do that and instead create intelligent machines that surpass us completely. Only we design them to take care of us, not evolve themselves. Lacking the pressure to survive, we devolve into unthinking pets that robots feed and clean. That is another of these scenarios. What is both exciting and worrying is that there are a number of these scenarios that seem very logical and plausible. We can already see a multiverse of doom, but we are not doing anything about it.

  This brings me back to the colonization of the Solar System. For most of us, that sounds pointless. Why go to Mars when we haven't really finished colonizing the high mountains, the deep seas or even the African desert. All of these are orders of magnitude more friendly to human life than Mars. But the overwhelming advantage, the only reason why we must do it (there are others, but not necessary, only compelling), is to spread humanity in more than one basket. It is the good thing to do exactly because we don't know what is going to happen: just make a backup, for crying out loud, otherwise our simulated worlds of increasing complexity will just cease to exist when a larger meteor hits the planet.

  And speaking of meteors, I met people that had no idea that recently a meteor exploded in Chelyabinsk. What does it take for people to take notice of this very plausible threat? A meteor crashing into the new World Trade Center?

  This last point of view, of all I have discussed, is the most liberating and the only one worthy of consideration. Not because it is the best idea ever, but because it leaves us with a way out. We can, if we are careful, see the threat before it becomes unavoidable or spread ourselves wide enough so we don't get wiped out instantly. It gives us both hope and vision. All the others are absolutes, ideas that, just as the concept of an almighty god, are pointless to consider just because we can do nothing about them. All of our voyages, the most treasured discoveries and realizations of human kind, they all start with a thought. Let us think ahead.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Culture Shock

As you know, I have been living in Italy for a whole two weeks now - I am a veteran, practically - and since friends keep asking me how things are, I am writing this entry. I will not dwell on the regular stuff; this is a hill region, close to the mountains so you can see them on the horizon, but not really mountainous. I am stationed right between the villages of Ispra and Cadrezzate and working 10 walking minutes from where I live. I don't really have anything else to say about the region, it's not that interesting. What I did find interesting are the differences in culture between this place in Italy and Romania. For starters, it seems the northern part of Italy is - proudly - different in culture from the rest of Italy as well.

Pizza, for example, is something that I find hard to understand. In this region close to Milan they make pizza like a sort of prosciutto, very thin. But it's a weird and cumbersome thin, since the outer crust is hard and brittle, while the interior is soft. That means that one cannot cut it easily unless the knife is very sharp, one cannot roll it up like a shawarma or doner kebab, since the margins break and the content of the pizza is not really bound to the dough, so it falls down, and one cannot hold a slice in hand because the core is soft. The way I found works best for me is to cut it into thick ribbons, then kind of compressing them with the fork so that you get several layers of rectangular pizza that you can put into the mouth and chew. I've also tried folding the pizza, so that it becomes a sort of quarter pizza of regular thickness, but that soft core makes it rather difficult to manage and often the ingredients tend to try to escape from the sides when you bite on the thing. Another difference in pizza culture is that they don't use tomato sauce on the pizza, they barely use any in the pizza anyway, instead pouring oil, spiced or not, over it. In my mind a pizza is made out of dough, tomato paste and cheese. They use little tomato paste and, since they feel the need to put oil on it, they probably use little cheese as well.

Coffee. Italians love their coffee, which they call espresso. It's a (pinky) finger thick layer of coffee, which they savor for the taste of it, then get back to work. My colleagues have this ritualized fixed hour coffee breaks, about two or three a day. They also have something called a lungo coffee, which means tall in Italian. This coffee is about two pinky fingers thick, but not quite. To get a full (small plastic) cup of coffee from the machine here, one has to ask for a cappuccino, which is a normal coffee with a lot of milk foam. Apparently they don't have anything like Starbucks in Italy; market research showed that they would not be successful. A mug of coffee is as abhorrent to Italians as a pint of palinka would be for a Romanian. Actually, some Romanians would not mind... Also, while this espresso thingie is small, it only concentrates the taste, as far as I can see, since I feel almost no caffeine effect.

Alcohol. Italians need to have beer with pizza. Drinking anything else, like wine or - God forbid - Coca Cola, is uncouth. However a half a liter of beer is in any bar at least 4 euros. Usually it is tasty, so it's probably a little higher end than a Romanian beer, but consider that in my country a beer is as expensive as mineral water. In comparison a glass of grappa (a grape brandy that seems to be the most alcoholic beverage they have) is about 3 euros. I don't know yet, but it might be that wine is as cheap here, if not more so, than beer. And speaking of wine, they don't have a clear marking on their wine bottles specifying the sweetness of the contents. Worse, I've bought a "secco" bottle of wine which was sweet as honey (this is bad for wine). At first I refrained from buying Chianti, because the name sounded sweet. But no, that's the good wine, apparently, while most wines in Lombardy as crap - lucky me. There are other wines here, as well, but you must know them. It is good that my colleagues are well versed in the alcoholic arts. Apparently in Italy you are allowed to have some blood alcohol content while driving, the equivalent of a having drunk a beer or so. But they don't check for it anyway, so it is customary to drive to a bar, eat and drink there, then drive back. Drinking at work doesn't seem to be a problem either.

Coperto. Sometimes translated as service on the bill, the coperto is the price of staying at a table, having a paper towel and using their utensils. At first I thought they were trying to rip me off, as in Romania we don't have a tax per place - strangely so, I would expect establishment owners to want to encourage people staying in, rather than making them pay for it. Italians don't really tip, though, as the coperto and the price of the food includes the tip. As a comparison, in Romania we habitually tip around 10-15%; not doing so sending a message that we are either cheap or that we disliked the service.

Services are very expensive. If the prices in a supermarket seem similar to ours, anything one does for you seems overpriced to me. I know it's a perception issue that I have and I must adjust it, but still when I got an offer to wash and iron my shirts with 4.5 euros each, I thought they were kidding. Luckily I found a Romanian speaking woman who will do all the work and not give me these insane prices, so maybe the price of service only seems high because I don't know where to find it, yet.

What else? There are no stray dogs or cats that I could see in the area. That's something I miss, actually. In Bucharest there are a lot of dogs and cats. Unfortunately scare tactics in the media and politics will probably lead to them being killed in the name of "progress" and "Europeisation". I did see squirrels and wild rabbits around here, though. Everybody moves around in a car or a bicycle. Not having either makes me the odd fruit in the tree. When I told them I don't even have a driver's licence my colleagues were flabbergasted. Italians don't shake hands when they see each other every day, so when I came to work the first few days and went to everybody to shake, they got freaked a little. I still haven't gone to Milan yet, but I went there to visit and work when I was employed in an Italian company, so I know the city is nice, but the culture is similar. No dogs there, either.

That's about it for now. More to come soon.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Your Inner Fish: A journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, by Neil Shubin

Book cover Your Inner Fish is a very nice book, popularizing the science behind paleontology and anatomy and making a surprising and thorough connection between the two. In short, Neil Shubin describes the way bodies are built and how our ancestry, from single cell organisms, fish, amphibians to primates, influences our design. It is a rather short book, and also easy to read. From field stories of discovering fossils in the wild to the anatomy classes that he teaches in university, the pages take one through a journey of true discovery and makes us understand so easily some things that very few people consider simple.

I could review Your Inner Fish for you, but someone did a lot more effort of it here. Also, the University of California Television YouTube channel released a one hour video presentation of the book which I am attaching to this blog post, as well as what seems to be the book's Facebook page. What I can say is that I liked the book a lot and I recommend it to everybody, science minded people or not.

[Solved] Bittorrent stuck on "Connecting to peers", even if it sees and has seeds

I realize that the original format of the post was confusing, so, before you start reading it, here is a summary of solutions. You should read on afterwards in order to understand the context of each solution in part, though:
  • Torrents seem to keep a reference to some of the proxy settings when they started downloading. I don't have a clear solution for this, in my case changing the configuration of the proxy and restarting both proxy and Bittorrent eventually solved it. An aggressive solution is to remove all of your torrents and readd them later.
  • Sometimes the settings file gets corrupted or the settings don't make a lot of sense. Save all your ongoing downloads, remember all the relevant settings - like download folder -, stop Bittorrent, go to your user's Application Data folder and remove the settings.dat and settings.dat.old files in the Bittorrent folder. (usually C:\Documents and Settings\YourUser\Application Data\Bittorrent or.and C:\Users\YourUser\Application Data\Bittorrent). After restarting Bittorrent you will have a fresh set of settings, so change them to what you need and reload the list of torrents that you saved.
  • Check the connection settings. Sometimes you want to minimize the number of connections Bittorrent makes because your provider gives you only a limited connection pool. Make sure the value is not too small. Bittorrent needs a lot of connections: to find peers, to download and upload stuff, to open new connections in order to find the faster one, etc. In my case 15 was too little and I had to restore it to the original 150, even it 15 worked with previous versions of the program.
  • Solution from a comment: check your firewall settings and the firewall settings of your router/modem
  • Solution from a comment: check your internet provider. Some, like Comcast, are throttling some types of traffic. This link might help: Stop your ISP from Throttling Bittorrent Speeds
  • Solution from a comment: enable Bittorrent protocol encryption and restart the application
  • Solution from a forum: disable DHT from the Bittorrent client settings (or enable it, if it is disabled?)
  • Solution from YouTube: start the torrent client 'As Administrator', suggesting there may be some file access issues you have.
  • Solution from a comment: enable DHT. If only some torrents seem to be stuck, see if you can enable DHT in those torrents' properties.

Hope that helps. Now for the original post:

Update (again): While resetting the settings did solve my problem temporarily, I had the same problem the next day as well. The only meaningful thing that I had changed was the global maximum number of connections (Preferences -> Bandwith) from 150, which seemed excessive, to 15. I changed the value back to 150 and it started downloading immediately! This is strange, since the value was 15 for years, I think. Well, I am getting tired of these solutions that only work until the next day. Hopefully this is the last time the problem appears.

Update: The enthusiasm I had after making some of the torrents work faded when I noticed most of the other torrents were still not working. My only solution was to go to the Application Data folder, then Bittorrent, and delete settings.dat and settings.dat.old while the program was closed, then restart Bittorrent. Warning! You will lose all the torrents and settings so save them first (I selected them all and copied the magnet links, then added them back one by one afterwards). The weird thing is that, while it worked, the software also looked quite different from what I was used to. Perhaps just blindly updating the version of Bittorrent all the time is not the best option. Sometimes we need to reset the setting to take advantage of the new software settings.

I've had a problem with a router which prompted me to remove it and put the Internet cable directly into my computer port. I wouldn't recommend it for you, since a router adds a level of protection against outside access, but still, I was not home and a friend of mine "fixed" the problem. Since then, I couldn't download anything on Bittorrent, as it got stuck at "Connecting to peers", even if it connected to the trackers, and saw all the seeds and leechers. Googling around I found a suggestion to remove "resume.dat" from the Bittorrent Application Data folder, but it didn't work for me. I tried a lot of things, but none worked until I found an obscure forum asking about a proxy server. And it dawned on me that it could be from there.
You see, I had previously installed a free proxy program called Privoxy, but I had bound it to the previous IP address of the computer. As a result, it didn't load anymore. The Internet settings were OK, I had removed any reference to a proxy, but strangely enough something in the Bittorrent client kept some information relating to the proxy. After I only bound the proxy to the local address, Privoxy started and miraculously also did the Bittorrent downloads (after a restart of the program).

So, if you have issues with the Bittorent client getting stuck at "Connecting to peers", check if you have recently changed your Internet proxy settings.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Dishonored, another great Arkane Studios game

Update: I recognized the voice of Brad Dourif as Piero (how can one not?) so I went to see who the other voice actors were. If you, like me, felt a strange attraction to Callista Curnow, that's because her voice is that of gorgeous Lena Headey. Also you might recognize Susan Sarandon as Granny Rags (hee hee!) or John Slattery as Admiral Havelock. But pretty much no one comes close to Brad Dourif, except perhaps Roger Jackson, who is the voice of Mojo-Jojo!

Dishonored - Revenge Solves Everything As you may know, I am a great fan of Arkane Studios games. They did Ultima Underworld, Arx Fatalis, Might and Magic X (which for all intents and purposes was Arx Fatalis 2) and now they did Dishonored. You will probably say that Ultima Underworld was actually a Looking Glass Studios game, but when they dissolved, some people from their team went on to work for Arkane and the resemblance of the games is pretty obvious. Anyway, I am now in a small village in Italy and only have Internet at my work. Imagine my great surprise when I discovered a kit of the Dishonored game on my laptop. I immediately installed it and played the game for a non stop 20 hours until I finished it. However, it was my desire to see the entire story (and to get some sleep in the weekend) that made me finish so quickly. You see, the game is a first person shooter-adventure that follows a storyline. However, on each stage you can explore and find a lot of secrets and side quests and even influence the story a little bit through your actions. The universe in which the game is played is a wonderfully crafted steampunk world, driven by whale oil and technology invented by mad scientists and filled with political intrigue. I can safely say that the game is a combination of Arx Fatalis, Thief/Assassin's Creed and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.

For an analysis of the game, there are a lot of things to be said. One of them is that the 3D world was, as far as I could see, almost perfect. I didn't get stuck in some fold of the wireframe, I didn't reach places I shouldn't have reached even when having the power to Blink, I didn't see through textures or seen any major bugs, actually. The game is a huge collaboration of companies, with people from all over the world, they could have screwed up anywhere: design, storyline, sound bits, software, 3D world, etc. It did not happen. You can also see the love that was poured into the game when the story does not end with an obvious finish, but continues on for a few stages. They could have worked less for the same money, but they somehow chose not to.

The gameplay is a joy. You have different ways of solving problems: you can kill anything that moves, you can choose to not kill them, but perform a chokehold on them and hide their unconscious bodies so you can avoid detection or you can go on high ledges and sneaky paths to avoid conflict all together. An interesting component of the story is The Outsider a supernatural being, probably a god, that looks like a normal guy, dressed normally for the age, but having black eyes. He is treated as the Devil in the official religion of the country, but he acts like your ally in the game. His only obvious interest is to have fun watching the chaos. For these purposes he gives you his mark and the gift of magic, which allows you to teleport, possess small animals and humans, summon a pack of ravenous pack of rats to devour your enemies and other fun things like that. The world if very interactive. You can, for example, take a random item like a bottle and throw it away. This would either unbalance your enemy, if you hit them directly, so you can deliver a deadly sword strike, or cause them to go to investigate the noise of the bottle breaking. One interesting option is to take the head of the enemy you have just beheaded and throw it into another opponent. Each level had hidden magical artifacts which you can find using a special Outsider device, a living heart with mechanical bits which you hold in your hand and that talks to you - told you, fun stuff. This usually prompts you to go out of your way to find said artifacts. The complexity of each stage is staggering. The first two stages I tried to play as completely as possible, which took me a lot of hours. After the first level ended I felt pretty good about myself. I had explored a lot of the map and I felt pretty smug about it. In the final summary of the mission I saw, to my chagrin, that I had found about half of all the valuable objects that I could have found. The rest of the missions I just breezed through, in order to see the ending. If I would have played this game as thoroughly as I possibly could, it would probably have accounted for many tens of hours of gameplay. Well, maybe it's me, but emergent gameplay is the coolest thing since fire was invented.

The devices you possess are old school enough to be a lot less effective than magic. You have your trusted one bullet pistol, which you must reload after each firing, you have your crossbow, which can fire darts, sleep darts or incendiary bolts, you have delicious bombs which, when triggered, fire a fast winding metal wire that cuts your enemies to pieces, grenades are always fun, and so on.

There are some issues which I had with the game though. It seemed to me that the magical spells were rather unbalanced. I cannot tell you how much they are unbalanced until I play the game again in another way, but it seemed to me that you absolutely needed to have Blink and Dark Vision and that the best offensive spell was the summoning of the rat pack. The rest were almost useless, at least by description: something that allows you to attack stronger and more enemies at once if you have enough adrenaline, something that allows you to possess animals, but there aren't that many animals in the game, and only partial possession of people, something that causes a gust of strong wind. Well, I will try them soon so I can tell you more in an update. Another thing that felt useless to me were the bone charms who gave me stuff that didn't really seem important. I did play the game on Easy, since I didn't have a mouse for the laptop, so that may explain my disdain of the things.

It is important to realize that the game has downloadable missions and content through Steam. This means the story can go on. I intend to explore this avenue. Also, after playing a second time I have to say that I was amazed of the option to not kill anyone the entire game. Even the assassination missions have ways of getting rid of the characters without killing them (even if their fates are usually worst than death). If you want to go that way, please always check that the unconscious victim is actually unconscious. Otherwise you end the mission with one or two dead people and there is no going back. One example is if you choke one guy, then let it fall with the head in the water. He dies even if you immediately remove him.

All in all I cannot recommend the game enough. Add to this that after you buy it, you also get extra chapters as downloadable content and, who knows, maybe they will allow the community to make their own chapters. It was just fantastic. Go play it!

I embed here an example gameplay from someone who is obviously more skilled than I am.



Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Double Tongue, by William Golding

Book cover I've reviewed two books of William Golding already and both of them were complex analyses of the human nature. This little novel, The Double Tongue, is similar in complexity. A note at the beginning of the text is explaining perhaps best why Golding's books are so great in details. You see, the novel was published posthumously, after a draft of it was found in Golding's belongings. He has already finished the book once, wrote another version and had started on another draft. No wonder his books were so reflective and self referential and connected to so many other works of literature or philosophy.

About the content, it is rather interesting, as it details the story of a girl in ancient Greece, just before Romans started dominating the country, who becomes the Delphi Pythia. The story quickly goes to the decorative role a "well bred" female would have had in those days, carefully instructed how not to draw attention, kept in total ignorance, all for the moment when she would be offered to a husband. After attempting escape from this fate, the only option her father has to "do with her" is to give her to a priest of Delphi called Ionides. Thinking she was going to become a servant of the temple, sweeping floors, she becomes the oracle. This is used to analyse concepts as religious sentiment, political use of faith and to describe the parallel system used in this world of superstition and showbiz.

I thought that it was a really short story. Told from the point of view of an octogenarian woman, it dwells on the adolescence, the initial shock of coming to Delphi, but very quickly skips entire decades to bring the conclusion. The title is relating to both the Python that the god Apollo killed in the Delphi cave, which gave him the forked tongue that said two things at once, but also to the double system of religious ecstasy backed by very real intelligence networks and the duplicity of people who either declare themselves religious while lacking the sentiment or the other way around . The story is inspired by Ion of Euripides and the ending is revealing only to a select few who understand the reference to a passage of the Bible (see here and here).

I can say that I liked the novel. It wasn't a "wow" thing like in the case of Lord of the Flies, nor did it cause me to feel more enlightened with the final reveal. Being that short and the last novel of Golding, there is really no reason not to read it.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Magical Spot

I have already spoken of the incredible lack of Internet connectivity in the area or Ispra/Cadrezzate. Of course, they are only villages. In Romania you would be lucky to have a telephone. However, this situation has brought to my attention two interesting and strange things.

First, lacking the distraction of the web and of other people, I found myself rediscovering introspection. It felt like meeting an old friend, as my brain was beginning to spout ideas for movies or short stories, computer programs or blog posts. It felt nice and perhaps I ought to try this more often. Apparently, I will have the opportunity every weekend, but already the universe is working toward bringing me a cellular card, so I don't know if I will have the disposition. If you want to try it, go somewhere where you have no Internet, don't call anyone and don't take any other creatures with you, be them dogs, cats or humans, and stay at least two days. I am already after a month of not working, so if you find yourself focusing on work issues, you are not doing it right.

Second, I actually found a magical spot, almost no metaphor here. So strong was my need for connectivity that I actually found a place where a wi-fi connection was available and I could guess its password. It must have seemed weird to see a guy with a cell phone in his hand, triangulating wi-fi spots. The magical part of it is that the spot is on the sidewalk and restricted geographically to an area of 2 or 3 squared meters. Apparently the wifi comes from a clubhouse, but I could not find it in the area and whenever I make a step to exit the area, the signal strength goes down and disappears. If you are old enough to have played Quest for Glory, you know there was a magical area in the forest where you could sleep and find yourself refreshed, without fear of attack and even having a fruit tree that you could eat from. It's kind of like that. Now, I have no idea what Italians think when seeing a big guy standing in the sun on the sidewalk in front of a metal sign for Cadrezzate and either furiously tapping on his smartphone or reading some web pages, but at least I get to read my e-mail and RSS feeds.

The metal sign is probably the reason this works at all, it must function as an antenna. I wonder if my landlord will be OK with me trying to install big metal plates on his balcony... My search for Internet took me almost 2 kilometers away where, after unsuccessfully trying to find a bar or a restaurant with wi-fi and not being able to guess a single password from private networks, I found one that was an actual ADSL line! Couldn't guess the password for that, either, but for someone to have ADSL in this starved out region and not share it felt like a crime to me. Perhaps I will be able to get a contract for myself here, then share it in the building and become the hero! [Enter Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero soundtrack]
Anyway, tomorrow will be my first day of work here, so probably my hunger will be alleviated a little, otherwise I am half a mind to root my Android phone and then install wi-fi cracker programs.

Ispra, Italy.

This would be my first post from Ispra, Italy. There is no broadband Internet. Anywhere! I guess I will have some at work, but soiled by IT guys with God complexes who will filter every port that is remotely significant. When asking about it everybody recommends cellular cards that have "a flat rate" of 12 euros, which would be pretty cheap if it weren't limited to 2 GB transfer and wouldn't have ridiculous speeds. So probably I have a lot to say, but I will write blog posts when available. This one, for example, I am writing as a text file on my lonely laptop, hoping to get a chance to post it soon.

Well, after ranting about the lack of Internet access, which was probably the least of your curiosities, I can continue. I got here using the plane from Bucharest to Malpensa, which is one of the airports close to Milan. I've bought the ticket online, checked in online, they gave me a PDF to download, I printed it at a local printer service and so I had my ticket. Being a tall guy, I requested extra leg room and being a lazy guy, I requested priority boarding. In order to get from Malpensa to Ispra I would have had to take a train to Gallarate, then switch to one that would take me to Sesto Calende, then switch again for Ispra. This would have taken me 2 hours and a half, carrying the mother of all baggage. You see, my wife prepared everything that I would ever need in a single bag (except the Internet!!!). Well, screw that. I also ordered online a taxi cab to wait for me at the airport and take me to Ispra, which did cost as much as a third of the plane ticket. Estimated arrival time: 40 minutes.

So I woke up at , got clothed, took the dog out, read some of the news, got in the car with the wife, she drove me to the airport, I brought my printed ticket to the lady in charge, she took my baggage and that was that. I was ready for boarding at , when the plane was leaving at . You see, in Romania the public services have been so poor for the last decades that people still expect something as simple as a plane boarding to take hours. I spent some time with the wife, connected to the airport Wi-Fi, downloaded two podcasts and then went to the boarding gate. There I found a lot of people standing in a huge line. I went to the girl in charge and asked her what should I do, considering I had a priority boarding ticket. She said "well, take a seat and we'll call you". And so it happened. The entire line moved back to allow me and a few other people, mostly foreigners, to pass through. Then people with children, then the regular folks. I guess this is one of the few advantages of having a child. The disadvantage being that it could cry the entire flight to Malpensa, which one of them did! Luckily I had my new smartphone with me, which allowed me to listen to two podcasts and watch most of a Japanese anime film with my headphones on.

I have to digress a little here, as I have mentioned my new smartphone. The reason I've abandoned my trusted Nokia E60 is that the head of the new project implied we could be writing code that would work for cell phones, as well. Another reason was that I wanted something I could watch films on and also read books. Previously I would have used my other trusted device, my PalmVX, a PDA built in 1998 that still works perfectly. Unfortunately, the way to connect the PDA to a computer is either via Infrared or via a 9-pin serial port, which have long disappeared from computers and laptops. And since I could not bring my trusted Athlon 2500+ desktop PC with me, I had to buy a smartphone that is faster than the desktop PC, has more features than the PalmVX and also functions as a phone. Pretty awesome, in a way, but also pretty shitty if you think devices that are decades old could easily carry the load of most of the usage of this incredible device. They couldn't do fart sounds, though.

Anyway, I passed via customs instantly, had to wait for the luggage to arrive (which is always a lengthy process, probably because it doesn't interfere with the plane schedule and we've already paid). Then I went outside. A lot of people there, some were carrying signs with pen written names. There was a cute little chick there, with a printed A4 paper with my name on it. It was like in the movies when they do that. I felt pretty good. Apparently, the designated driver had some delays with his previous customer and so they've sent this girl with a big van thing, even if I had only paid for a small car. I am not one to complain, though, am I? Don't answer that! The girl was very polite, knew English well and we conversed until I got to my destination.

The residence, which is a sort of long term hotel, was right across the street to my new job. I checked in, conversing with the owner's wife, who is also Romanian, and at I was "home". By all accounts I will be living here for at least two months and probably for many years.

Next I phoned my new employer, who graciously invited me to a beer (he is Belgian, you see) and we got to talking. Well, things look pretty good, but also are really not well defined. I will not talk about details here, but let's just say that there is a deadline in two months and not many ideas on what exactly we are building. This is a Research Center, though, my new boss assured me, that's what we do: research.

My hotel is right across the street from my job, which is awesome, but one kilometer away from the nearest supermarket. Ispra is a small village, 5000 people or so living in it, and as far as I saw, there are a lot of small villages here, but very few services. You need a car to go to anywhere that matters, including daily shopping. Well, in a way that's the way in Bucharest, as well, but there are a lot more shops on the way instead of lizards running for their lives and squirrels running up trees. Supposedly there is a lake close to here that is warm enough to swim in, there are trees and green things (also known as plants) everywhere and it is rather chilly, which I love. One of the reasons I came here was to escape the horrible wet heat of my apartment, where my wife could not suffer air conditioning. Here I don't have air conditioning, but people assure me I don't need it, I will only need heaters for the winter. Well, let's hope so.

So after I've met with my new employer and most of the team (we will be five people in all working on this) I went shopping. I was very confident that 1 Km would be close enough to get to on foot. And I was right up to the point where I had to return with my hands filled with bags of stuff. But it was OK, I got myself some vegetables and eating utensils, even if later on I discovered I already had some. I went to sleep listening to music on my smartphone. The next day I made myself a salad, went for more groceries, and wrote this post.

In conclusion, I still have to get my "codice fiscale" without which I cannot buy things of importance (like cellular dongles to give me Internet), but other than that I am a brand new inhabitant of Ispra, of the Varese province in Italy. Although that is debatable, as well, since my job is certainly in Ispra, but my hotel seems to be in Cadrezzate. Next to do is explore the area, find some way to wash and iron my clothes, buy decent glasses, cups and water boilers, not these silly Italian espresso things, maybe get to lake Monate and swim a little and, of course, get myself some Internet.

Kara no Kyōkai

The main character under the anime title Kara no Kyōkai, translated in English as Garden of Sinners, but literally as Boundary/Border of Emptiness, is a strange little series of seven Japanese anime films. The lead is a girl who has a double personality, conveniently both named Shiki, but written with a different Japanese character. One of the personalities likes to kill people brutally, while the other is afraid of human contact. Enter Kokutou, a guy in the same class as Shiki, who falls in love with her and accepts her as being split like this and even covers some of her murders as he, after all, is in love with the one personality that does not kill.

Now, this is the least weird bit of the films. This story that I have been telling you is not told as linearly as I present it, but starts from the middle, then shows what happened in the past and future by flashbacks, prequel movies, and something that I can only call experimental movies, since they show scenes from what actually happens, but not in their normal order.

You see, after Kokutou starts camping outside Shiki's house to stop her from killing anyone, she attempts to murder him, only she can't and attempts suicide by throwing herself in front of a car. Only the murderous personality actually dies and when she awakens from a two year coma, Shiki has the Mystical Eyes of Death Perception, which see the seams that bind things to existence. Once you cut those, the thing dies.

In order to make her understand and control her condition another chick appears, one that is a magus. Yes, magic! I told you it was going to get weird. In the end, these three characters form a sort of private investigator agency that often deals with the supernatural and rogue magi.

All in all, the animation is rather good, the characters weird, most of them displaying some sort of emotional detachment bordering on psychopathy, but the story leaves a lot to be desired. just like the erratic order of the films, the story also jumps violently from brutal murders, criminal investigations, magic, philosophy and romance, making a mess of it all. It's not that i did not enjoy watching the films, but at the end of the seventh, when Shiki says "this is the end of my story" I couldn't actually feel it was any end at all. Perhaps the manga makes more sense, but as such, I can't really recommend watching it.