Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Black Company (Black Company book I), by Glen Cook

Book cover Another fantasy audio book, The Black Company is the first of ten of the ongoing series with the same name. Glen Cook probably thought about it for a while before writing it, because you can see that the first three books in the saga were published mere months apart (*cough*R.R.Martin*cough*). I was attracted by the story, because it seemed similar to my favorite Malazan Book of the Fallen series: a mercenary company fighting under the flag of powerful god-like magical beings that want to conquer the world. And in part the plot and characters were satisfactory. Alas, the many details and focus on small things like what games they played to pass time or what each character was like or maybe the narration style... I don't know; it all made it hard to focus on the story. I felt like the book could (and should) have been half in size, and better for it.

The main character is the doctor and analyst of the company, Croaker. Before your filthy mind thinks of other things, analyst in this context means he is a keeper of records, a chronicler of the company's history and, occasionally, the person who draws parallels between past experiences and current events. Croaker is an inquisitive person, often risking his personal safety to unlock a riddle or reveal a secret. Unlike Malazan, he is the lead character, through and through, and the company itself with its many soldiers and camaraderie just the backdrop.

Plot follows the Black Company in employment of The Lady, a powerful magician who wants to conquer the world, fighting the Rebel, a group of lesser magicians who have gathered the people of the land in response. Croaker has romantic fantasies about her, but throughout the book he discovers that his affections are misdirected, even if a strange relationship develops between them. Most of the story is about various battles, painstakingly (and painfully) described, only to be followed by the occasional interesting bit of character and plot development. In fact, I was kind of annoyed when I read the book summary on Wikipedia and I couldn't think of much that was left out. I mean, it's a big book.

The bottom line is that I am unsure if I want to listen to the rest of the series. While I can't say it was a bad book, or that is had weak plot or characters, I am reluctant to go through all that again for nine times. Basically I feel that the characters were never made empathetic enough, at least for me, and in the end all I cared about was what was going to happen next and how it would all end. In that case I would be better off reading synopses rather than listening to the entire thing. The overall structure of the story, though, has a lot of potential and I don't know if the series would not become really cool afterwards. To make the final parallel with Malazan, the first book in that series was not really making people eager to read the next, but it turned out to be great overall. I guess time will tell.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Mobile operators transparently change the content you download from the Internet

... and I don't mean something like injecting ads; I mean they modify the images you download and the pages that you read. They do that without telling you, under the umbrella of "improving your browsing experience". Let me give you some examples.

Today I copied two image files on a server: a JPEG and a PNG file. When downloaded via a normal network connection, I was getting the original file, about 50KB in size. When downloaded via 3G the image was different! In the jpeg case the file was smaller by a few hundred bytes and in the case of the PNG the file was actually bigger than the original. What was worse, the metadata information in those photos, like the software used to compress it, for example, was completely lost.

I couldn't believe my eyes. I strongly believe that what you ask for from the Internet you should get. This may not have been obvious for someone downloading the images in order to see them, but I was actually conducting a test that depended on the exact size of the file I was downloading. This practice seems to be widespread, but when Googling for it very few links pop up, showing that people mostly have no idea that it happens. In this operator's case, they seem to only change images, but people on the Internet tell stories of bundling CSS and Javascript files inside HTML files, or removing comments from either of them.

The morality of this is dubious at best, in my view it should be illegal, however things are worse than that: this behavior breaks functionality in existing sites. How can you possibly guarantee that your application works as expected when mobile operators (and I guess any ISP) can change your content arbitrarily and without the possibility to opt out? It's like that joke with the boyscout explaining at camp that little old ladies are hardier than one might think, as they squirm and shout and hit you when you try to cross them the street and the instructor soon finds out that it never occurred to the boy that he should first make sure they want to get to the other side.

Here are some links regarding this, just to make sure people can find them more easily:

Mobile operators altering (and breaking) web content
Should mobile operators be free to modify content they deliver?
Mobile Proxy Cache content modification by O2
O2 UK mobile users - your operator is breaking this site for you.
Prevent mobile website image compression over 3G
Get rid of image compression on O2′s network
ByteMobile Adaptive Traffic Management

From the last link you can see that they are caching and modifying even movies, through practices like giving you a lower rate movie or caching a version with a lower resolution. They do this in the name of delivering you video content compressed with a format and codec that your device can safely open.

A solution for this? Encryption. Using HTTPS prevents access to the content from a third party. HTTPS is becoming more and more used, as the hardware requirements for its implementation become less restrictive and with the many revelations about government scrutiny of Internet communications. However, you might be interested to know that mobile operators are feeling threatened by it. Articles from their point of view decry the "threat" of encryption and the solutions against it! The terrible impact of encryption is seen as an impediment in their rightful "content and delivery optimization techiques".

Things are getting even worse. Remember the concept of network neutrality? It is a very hot topic today and a very important political and economic fight is being fought right now to protect the transparency of the Internet. However, if you look further, you see that nobody considers the practice of "optimization" as something net neutrality should protect. In December 2010, the US Federal Communications Commission set three basic rules for net neutrality:
  • Transparency. Fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of their broadband services;
  • No blocking. Fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services; and
  • No unreasonable discrimination. Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.
So they are primarily focusing on blocking and throttling, but not on preserving the integrity of the transmitted data!

The Death of the EZTV site

EZTV.it was a site that listed in a very simple interface the latest TV shows in the English language, together with links to their torrent or magnet links. It was very easy to use and, as opposed to other similar sites, was selective in bringing you the best link for a TV show. You didn't get a billion different torrents for an episode of a TV show, you just got the low resolution and high resolution versions and sometimes the repacked or fixed versions when the first upload was defective. It was almost ad free, as well.

Well, lately some strange things have happened and it seems to me that there is more than meets the eye in the entire story. It started with the eztv.it domain being abandoned after the intervention of the Italian authorities. EZTV were planning to change the domain to a more amenable country, like Switzerland. That happened in January.

It didn't take long until someone bid for the domain name in auction and in March the eztv.it site was back, but under a different management. For a while they were content to proxy the new EZTV site (eztv.ch), in a site that looked exactly as the old one. As you can see from the link above, the new guys actually wanted to "manage" EZTV, getting money from the torrent link business, while doing nothing than own the domain. Novaking, the guy who fronts the EZTV group, refused any deal and so, after a while, torrent links started redirecting to ad sites.

It gets even more interesting, as somehow - and I admit domain name auctioning is not something I am an expert in - the eztv.ch domain was also captured by the same people who got the .it domain. As of now, there are no official EZTV sites anymore, both eztv.it and eztv.ch are impostor sites and with a horrible quality of service.

We have to consider several factors here. First of all, Novaking is the nickname of a person that, as far as I know, desired to remain anonymous. Probably that is why it is easier for someone to seize domains like that if they are willing to pay money and even name themselves. Then there is the actual intervention of the Italian authorities. They seemed to be angry about a site that provided torrent links, but don't seem to have anything against an exact copy of that site bought money down and that intents to make a lot of money out of ads. What happened in Switzerland is less clear. Did Novaking just abandon the fight and ditched that domain as well because he thought the entire thing was too big a hassle or was there some kind of hostile takeover, just like with the Italian domain? And finally, you have the new registrar of the two domains listing a Dominguez Emmanuel Hernandez, with an address in the United Kingdom. As several cases in the past showed, UK is really against file sharing sites, even if they are just linking to illegal content.

As far as I can gather, it should have been more difficult, not easier, for an entity as Hernandez to do the kind of work that Novaking did. It could all be foul play from the authorities and/or the legal and commercial entities dedicated to fight piracy. Certainly they would not be shy to use the vague laws that govern the Internet to their advantage to hurt their adversaries who do the same thing. However, if that would be true, they would lose the moral ground for their supposed reason to fight against file sharing.

Of course, it may also be some sort of internal split and subsequent power struggle inside the EZTV distribution group. Maybe this Hernandez guy was an inside man all along and he decided he wanted more money from his work. However that doesn't sound all true either, as the quality of the work on the fake eztv sites is terrible compared to what it was before and the functionality of the site is not all there, like someone has copied the old EZTV site from the web and not having access to the source code. There are some tweets that mention the site having reverted to "ancient passwords", though, so maybe there was access to the database of the site, somewhere in the past.

The last speculation I have is that after losing the .it domain EZTV voluntarily sold the .ch domain. An IRC message on the EfNet #eztv channel announced the end of the Novaking EZTV era:

[2015.04.25 20:24 PDT] <@NovaKing_> it was fun running eztv. Hope you guys had enjoyed it. site has new owners now. farewell.

As you can see he uses the term "owners", which might suggest a sell.

Well, I am curious of what actually happened in this very interesting story, but as things are right now, I am not sure I will ever find out. TorrentFreak has posted a more detailed explanation of what happened: it was a dubious hack, involving snatching one's domain from under them, stealing their email and impersonating them with inpunity. One thing is certain: you should not use the eztv.it and eztv.ch sites anymore, as well as search the net using the eztv brand name. In the best case scenario, you would be supporting an immoral act of web site theft and impersonation, and in the worst you would be using a web site handled by antipiracy organizations.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker

book cover The Gift of Fear has popped up repeatedly in my field of view, recommended by multiple sources. I started reading it and at the beginning I thought it had a nice concept: the systematic study of violence perpetrated by people, written for reasons of protecting ourselves. However, Gavin de Becker has a writing style that got to me really fast. He sounds like he is the lecturer in a police conference, and half of everything he says is just marketing for the bits that are going to come next. You know the type: "I will reveal to you the secrets of the universe, but before I do that in one of the next chapters, let me tell you a little story". I mean, what he is saying makes sense, but he oversells it so brutally that I could not continue reading past the half of the book. You know, he sounds a lot like Walter O'Brien, the guy who's life is supposedly the basis of the TV show Scorpion. He doesn't sound like the O'Brien on TV, but like the actual guy, always overselling and overstating everything he allegedly did. Also the little anecdotes are useful in the book, but his explanations are so over the top. Man!

Anyway, the things that I chose to take from the book is the JACA system for assessing threats and the fact that when your intuition is telling you something, it either means it has access to some data that you are not conscious of or that it malfunctions and in either case you need to pay attention. The JACA system is about someone being more of a credible threat if they pass four tests. J: they feel Justified to harm you. A: they feel that they have no Alternative to violence. C: they believe the Consequences of violent action will be manageable. A: they believe they are Able to do you harm. Of course, that immediately makes someone believe that the first step of counteracting such a person is to convince them they are not justified, which fails on so many levels, especially with an antagonist.

The book covers all kind of violence: rape, murder, stalking, assassination, road rage, office vengeance, domestic violence, even violent children (I haven't gotten to that part). I can imagine how this book would be very useful to young people, scared women, maybe even children, but with the language being so pretentious and the guy making it all sound like a marketing pitch, I doubt it would be accessible to any of them. Let me reiterate: I believe the subject of the book is a good one and it should be addressed. I also don't criticize the conclusions that Becker reaches or doubt his professional experience. What I am saying is that the way the book is written stylistically made it unreadable for me. So instead of reading a few pages every week, I've decided to stop reading it. Sorry, Gavin! I only wish someone would make a short summary of it, since a lot of the stuff there is at least interesting, if not downright useful.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Star Trek: Odyssey, another fan made Star Trek series

the starship Oddysey and its crew The same people that did Star Trek: Hidden Frontier created the three season Star Trek: Odyssey. The first season was pretty good, beginning a story that was a combination of Voyager, Deep Space Nine and even Enterprise, the second season had fewer resources and the third season was decent, but the story was a complete mess that was very hard to grasp. Luckily enough, the superfluous homosexual stories in Hidden Frontier were almost not existent in Odyssey. Instead we were treated to intergalactic invasions, religious empires, slipstream drives, artificial wormholes, omega particles, anti-omega particles, Romulan first officer played by lovely Michelle Laurent and some decent (not good) screenplay. The technical effects, acting and directing varied from OK to really bad. They clearly learned a lot from Hidden Frontier, but the green screen continues to be their greatest enemy.

Even better, it is a crowdfunded show and you can watch it all online, for free, on YouTube. Here are the links for all three seasons:

Season 1
Season 2
Season 3

Enjoy!

Monday, April 20, 2015

The correct log4Net RollingFileAppender configuration

I was trying to do a simple thing: configure a daily rolling log for log4net, meaning that I wanted that log files would be created daily and the name of the files would contain the date. The log was already configured and working with a normal FileAppender, so all I had to do was find the correct configuration. There are several answers on the Internet regarding this. I immediately went to the trusty StackOverflow and read the first answers, copy pasted lazily, and it seemed to work. But it did not. So warning, the first answer on StackOverflow about this is wrong.

So, my logs had to be named something like Application_20150420.log. That means several things:
  • The name of the appender class has to be set to log4net.Appender.RollingFileAppender
  • The name of the log files need to start with Application_ and end in .log
  • The name of the log files need to contain the date in the correct format
  • The logger needs to know that the files need to be created daily

This is the working configuration:
<appender name="FileAppender" type="log4net.Appender.RollingFileAppender">
     <filter type="log4net.Filter.LevelRangeFilter">
         <acceptOnMatch value="true" />
         <levelMin value="DEBUG" />
     </filter>

  <file type="log4net.Util.PatternString" value="c:\logfiles\Application_.log" />
  <appendToFile value="true" />
  <rollingStyle value="Date" />
  <datePattern value="yyyyMMdd" />
  <preserveLogFileNameExtension value="true"/>
  <staticLogFileName value="false" />

  <lockingModel type="log4net.Appender.FileAppender+MinimalLock"/>
  <layout type="log4net.Layout.PatternLayout">
    <conversionPattern value="%date %-5level %logger - %message%newline"/>
  </layout>
</appender>

As you can see, it is a little counter-intuitive. You do not need to specify the date in the file name, it will be added automatically, and you absolutely need to use preserveLogFileNameExtension, otherwise your files would look like Application_.log20140420

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) bored the hell out of me

the three girls in the group I took the name of the anime from a YouTube video, recommending it as one with a great twist in it. I watched for two episodes as the main protagonist, an ordinary guy in a Japanese highschool, starts talking to a strange girl (Haruhi Suzumiya) in his class, gets coopted in a mad scheme to create a club that investigates mysteries - specifically aliens, time travelers or espers, then adding the three other members of the club. I thought it was going to be about this club actually investigating something. But no, in the third episode we realize that the three other members are an alien, a time traveler and an esper. Soon after we find out that they know about each other and that each of them and, indeed, their entire race/organization were figments of Haruhi's imagination made reality. Haruhi apparently has the ability to create entire universes, essentially making her a goddess, albeit unknowingly.

So far so good, but then for 28 episodes I waited for anything interesting to happen. Where was that amazing twist? Apparently, the twist was that she was some supernatural phenomenon and that's it. The rest is just a typical cliched Japanese high-school story, the one where the lead character is a male boy surrounded by beautiful girls that have an almost undisclosed interest in him and that do crazy stuff together. When the last episode wasn't even closing the series, I got really mad. It was a complete waste of my time. Ugh!

A World Out of Time, by Larry Niven

Book cover A World Out of Time is a book out of time as well. Larry Niven wrote the book in 1976 and it describes events that happen over a span of three million years, but it feels like The Time Machine. The hero is a guy from the 70s who's memory gets uploaded in the body of a convict hundreds years later, sent on a mission that was supposed to last tens of thousand of years (Earth time), but ending up in a joyride around the galaxy that brings him back on Earth millions of years later. The strange world of immortal creatures living like feudal savages in a world filled with broken and discarded technological wonder, but somehow still looking human, is difficult to take in. The cowboyish behaviour of the lead character and his inconsistent switch between genius and ineptitude don't help either.

It doesn't mean the book is not entertaining. I had fun with it. However it feels really long and old and I don't intend to read the other two Niven books in the same batch: The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring, even if they sound slightly more interesting.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Firefight (The Reckoners Series book 2), by Brandon Sanderson

book cover The second book of The Reckoners series revolves around Firefight, a character from Steelheart, the first book, that I cannot explain without spoiling it. Brandon Sanderson outdid himself, managing to describe a dark world of bright colors, a desperate and dramatic situation in which hope shines through, an impossible romance inside a war story and a totally positive view on fear. Contrasts everywhere, like a bad metaphor that discovers it is a simile before a book ends. Well, if you read Firefight you will get the reference.

The action and plot of the book are much more detailed and a level above what happened in Steelheart. The villain is more interesting, the interactions between the members of the team are more complex, with various shades of conflict, plus an interesting new location in a sunken city filled with glowing plants that feed the people and provide light at the same time. I can't wait for Calamity, the third book in the series, to appear in 2016.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart cover I am starting to like Brandon Sanderson. Only at the end of Steelheart did I realize that he kind of used the same plot device that he used for Elantris: the ten-years-ago one. Ten years before the action of the book, Calamity struck: a red star-like light in the sky that gave random people immense powers. The governments of the world tried to fight back, but all of them ended up capitulating, declaring "epics" as impossible to control as natural disasters. Enter David (the name probably not chosen at random) an eight year old child who witnesses the death of his father at the hands of an epic that then proceeds on taking over Chicago as his personal fiefdom. Now, at 18, David meets with The Reckoners - a group dedicated to fight back - in order to avenge his father.

First book in The Reckoners series, which is a planned trilogy, Steelheart is a very refreshing take on the superhero genre, original in the sense that it takes its name after the main villain and follows a young boy who advances in life using his cunning, knowledge and personal effort, not some random superpower. The characters are easy to sympathize with and the story is very nice. Not everything is perfect, as the story contains many political, economic and even technical plotholes. However, the writing is very well done, easily making the reader forget and forgive any inconsistencies between reality and the storyline.

As with Elantris, I listened to the audio version of the book. Classical narration, but was very nice. The book is a sort of young adult thing, but I enjoyed it very much nonetheless. I can't wait for the second book in the series: Firefight. I may have to first read Mitosis, a short story placed in the same universe.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

audio book cover for part 1 In a world dominated by trilogies and quadrilogies and sagas, it is refreshing to see that some people are writing stand-alone fantasy books. I've first heard of Brandon Sanderson when he ended up writing the last books in the Wheel of Time series, after its initial author died; those books were the best in the series, even if he had to work with Jordan's notes. Recently, I've stumbled upon this audio adaptation of Sanderson's book Elantris, produced by Graphic Audio, a company that doesn't just created narrations of books, but full audio plays - while changing nothing of the initial text.

Despite some parts being a bit too optimistic, some too slow and some really obvious - waiting for a character to catch up with you is not fun - the book was really entertaining and original. It also was Sanderson's first widely released book, so I can forgive his lack of perfection :). I really liked the story and the characters in the book. In truth, the book's message is one of hope, one of encouragement toward the human spirit becoming the best it can be. I couldn't help thinking that Sanderson probably portrayed himself in Raoden, and that guy is great.

Anyway, the plot revolves around the magical city of Elantris, populated by God like creatures that shine with the light of magic and are almost omnipotent. However, the story starts ten years after a horrible collapse of said city, which transformed every Elantrian into an immortal husk, heart not beating, hair falling, skin blotched by dark spots, incapable of healing the smallest cut or bruise, but fully capable of pain, unneeding of food, but fully able to feel ravenous hunger at all times. The process, called Shaod, has not ended, it still occasionally picks people at random and turns them into these creatures of eternal pain. The human inhabitants of nearby towns have quarantined Elantris and anyone affected by the Shaod is thrown inside the rotting city.

There are two main characters: prince Raoden and his bride to be, princess of a nearby kingdom, called Sarene. Not only them, but almost every actor is full of spirit (pun intended) and really likable, even the antagonists can be understood and sympathized with. The story is full of events that lead to character development, politics, smart plotting, drama and comedy.

Well, in the end, with all my talk of stand alone books, I was a bit sad to see the story end. I wanted more, and that's a good sign, right? Sanderson is supposedly considering writing a sequel, but it's not something that will happen soon and it will involve different characters. I liked Elantris and I recommend it to all fantasy fans.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Chronicles of Amber books 6 through 10, the Merlin Cycle, by Roger Zelazny

There would be no point for reviewing the individual books, since, like with Corwin, it is one big story spanning five books. Eight years after the first five disappointing books in the series were published, Roger Zelazny comes back with a little more writing skill, a more interesting plot and a different character. That's the good news. The bad news is that it is pretty much like the Corwin cycle, only with a guy that uses magic instead of a stupid sword. His name is Merlin and he is Corwin's and Dara's son, inheriting both Amber and Chaotic blood. Somehow he still gets his ass kicked by his father, though.

The characters are again, like something from a high school teen movie set in the middle ages. People are mortal enemies and then make conversation, make up and help each other against another mortal enemy, who will probably help them both sometimes later. Arrogant nobility behavior mixes with a general ineptitude to use any knowledge from the "shadow lands" even if a lot of the characters gain their education on Earth. The only interesting thing seems to be an AI that Merlin created... which then calls him dad and acts just like every other generic character in the books. And everybody is just so amazingly and mind stunningly stupid! I couldn't take another book in this crappy series.

Bottom line: The Amber Chronicles was a total waste of my time, the only advantage it has being that its writer ended both cycles and then died, making any sequels improbable. I kid you not, Eragon was way better and it was written by a 19 year old!