Blog Archive

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Futurological Collection

With a nod to Jens, here is some Sci-Fi literature I've had on my reader recently:

George Alec Effinger - When Gravity Fails
Nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1987 and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1988, this book has received a lot of praise. When Gravity Fails takes places in a near-future cyberpunkish middle eastern city where cybernetic implants, downloadable personality and highend drugs collide with conservative Islam. The low-level hustler protagonist becomes involved in a murder case and gets hired by a local mob boss to investigate. This book is so interesting because it has a very unconventional setting (far from the ultra-urban sprawl of other cyberpunk works) and involves many issues society deals with today, like transsexuality or the collision between modern technology and religion. There's lots of drugs, lots of thugs and lots of praising Allah. It stands out from the mass of the genre, and it happens to be a good read as well.

George R.R. Martin - Dying of the Light
I admit I only read this because of his Game of Thrones fame. Before GRRM did fantasy, he was a Sci-Fi writer and this was his first full length novel. Set on a mostly abandoned planet moving away from its sun, the protagonist comes to the aid of his former lover only to find her entangled with a tribe of warriors. The whole book reeks of decay, of lost hopes and ghosts of the past. The main character isn't a hero and his desparate outreach to his former girlfriend lacks a future as much as the scenario. This gloom becomes a bit hamfisted at times and none of the main character is likeable, but it transport the idea of this abandoned world really well.

Bruce Sterling - Schismatrix Plus
Schismatrix takes place in the Shaper/Mechanist universe, where humanity has colonized the solar system and split in two factions, the shapeshifting shapers and the technology-absorbed mechanists. Exiled from his aristocratic home for switching sides, the diplomacy-trained Abelard Lindsay becomes a fraudster, a pirate, a miner and a hermit - until first contact with a peaceful alien species that is obsessed with trade turns him into the foremost ambassador to them. When these alien visitors offer no way out from the stuck development of humanity, Lindsay becomes the figurehead of a movement to terraform the solarsystem, while his past catches up with him. This space opera has enormous breadth, jumps between styles and gets confusing at times, but it has many fun elements.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle - The Mote in God's Eye
Ringworld is one of my favourite books of all time, so more Niven can't be bad. In this collaboration with Pournelle, humanity sets out to make first contact with an alien species. The "Moties", while fuzzy looking and generally friendly, are stunningly different from humanity and keep secrets from their visitors that will decide over the course of mankind's development for the next centuries. Written in Niven's easy to digest wording, it's a fun excursion into the implications of first contact and a very original alien species...

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes - Legacy of Heorot why not have another one. Legacy of Heorot is about the first human colony on an alien planet. The settlers, while expertly chosen and diversely skilled, suffered minor brain damage from cryosleep and still work on setting up their first village, when they encounter local fauna that is more dangerous than anything they were prepared for. Not as exciting as other Niven works because it is not as fantastic, with most of the book about surviving huge dinosaur monsters.

Iain M. Banks - Excession
Part of his extensive Culture series, (I read Use of Weapons before), Excession takes a look at the minds, the powerful AIs that govern humanity and their colonies across the galaxy. When an alien artefact that offers unprecedented knowledge and power turns up, it becomes a race between the Culture's minds and a warlike alien species. I generally dislike it when machines in Sci-Fi become to humanized, but Excession is the exception to that rule. My biggest criticism is that the human protagonist follows a plotline that ultimately goes nowhere and contributes little to the events. Still, makes me want to read more Culture novels.

Dan Abnett - Titanicus
Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. I've read Abnett's Eisenhorn before, this is my second Warhammer 40k novel. Focusing on the Adeptus Mechanicus, humanity's biomechanical tech-priest offshoot, the story takes place on a forge-worlds under attack by chaos forces. It's engine war, towering mech against towering mech, with footsoldiers reduced to ants by comparison. It's as stupid, banal and entertaining as one might expect and therefore a thoroughly enjoyable read for anybody with some affinity for W40k.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Strike of the Morning Star

[Years ago, at the Bonn headquarters of HARIBO, Germany's largest producer of gummy candy.]

"Now people, let's keep this meeting short and to the point. As you all know, we are about to launch our snack box, which is effectively a bucket to eat out of because that is the kind of audience we want to address. We need to hand over what forms we want in it so production can get their machines ready in time for the schedule. You've all had the task of coming up with designs for the new gummy pieces, so let's get to it. Jenkins, what do you got?"
"Well Sir, the cola bottles were quite successful with our focus groups, we already have the forms in production, so those would make sense."
"Good thinking, man. What else do we have? Bottomsworth, suggestions?"
"Uh...dinosaurs! Kids love the horrid creatures, and they'll literally eat up anything that looks like their favourite plastic toys, so let's have some dinosaur creatures in there. Yeah."
"Alright, dinosaurs it is. Next up? Dingleberry?"
"So uhm...I thought maybe we get some race cars in there, every kid and adult male loves race cars, and also they are usually very colourful so it fits in with our gummy colours. Also...maybe a crocodile? Like a 'cooler' version of our frogs, uh..."
"Well done, Dingleberry. Race cars and crocodiles it is. We only need one more...what about you there, whatsyourname."
"How about Satan, Lucifer, lord of darkness and despair, master of demons, monstrous tyrant of the eternal hellfire, before whose infernal legions of death we vow and and praise?"

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Windows 10 UI Design

This week, Microsoft has released Windows 10 Build 10240 to the Insider program, which is the RTM version that has already been handed over to OEMs by now. Vendors like HP will now be making new devices that come with Windows 10 preinstalled, the retail version and the downloadable upgrade for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 will follow at the end of the month or early next month. There will probably be a few more fixes released via Windows Update soon, but the functionality and looks will remain the same.

Leaving the changes under the hood aside for this post, let's take a look at the UI, which was the centrepiece of this new version.Windows 8 and 8.1 weren't much criticized as a platform but for painfully forcing tablet controls and metro/modern apps onto desktops, so this release feels like it is mostly about the user interface.

First of all, the fullscreen metro app selection (aka "the tiles") only appears when you explicitly enable tablet mode. Instead there's a new start menu that gives you a left column that works roughly like Windows 7 (or Vista, *cough*) and a right column that contains metro apps. You can unpin the default tiles and resize the start menu to remove those completely as well, but with only one or two columns of metro apps, they actually make sense, especially when you want to use live tiles that show you stuff like news or the weather without having to open them.
Said tablet mode pushes icons further apart and gives you a slightly modified fullscreen metro launcher to make it easier to access the menus, going fully optimized for touch. This works much better than the compromise between touch and mouse that was Windows 8.
The utterly terrible charms bar from Windows 8 is gone, but now there are two more places in addition to the start menu for notifications and interactions: First is the search / hamburger / Cortana menu that opens on the left side of the screen and contains your search results. You can still press the Windows Key and start typing, so it tricks you into thinking it's the same menu. Second is the notification center which has greatly expanded since the last version and is now reminiscent of what Android does - you'll be notified if there is an update available, you've received a new message, etc.. This is on the right of the screen instead of being integrated into the start menu.
Regardless if you turn on transparency or not, the start menu and the taskbar are different colors, which was probably intentional, I personally would have liked it better if they blended into each other. Transparency only works for that start menu and taskbar, the windows themselves remain opaque. I found the huge search field in the taskbar irritating, they should have put that into the start menu as well, but they probably did it to increase exposure to Cortana.
Three management consoles
The icons are a wild mess. Few are from NT4 (event viewer), some unchanged Vista/W7 style (devices and printers), some had their gradients taken away to look flatter (appwiz), many are new versions of old icons (recycle bin and disk drives look really nice) and some use the metro app super-flat style of single-color stencils (Edge, Store). Of course not everything has to be redesigned if it still works, but there is no consistency other than the generous use of blue in most of the new icons.
This clash between the new and the old design is a constant theme. The worst iteration of that in my eyes is the new settings metro app (used to be in the charms bar) that splits its functionality with the classical control panel even further. Some things are configured from the metro app (wallpaper and colours), some from the control panel (screen resolution) and some from MMCs (all administrative tools), giving you three kinds of interfaces to configure the system. The older the interface, the more basic and important the changes you can make. One more example are the context menus, when you have a broad variety of differently formatted menus when you right click on different things. I get that there are multiple teams involved, but ought there not to be some oversight and standardization?
Another example of "too many cooks" is the login process. First you have the lock screen that Windows 8 introduced, second you have the user selection screen that now has the Windows 10 default wallpaper as a background instead of a flat colour, and third you have the actual desktop. You can or course configure the lock screen and desktop picture, but not the login screen. Most users will probably end up seeing three background pictures.
Context menus (build 10162)
Speaking of which, the new default wallpaper looks like it was released on deviantArt in 2004 and even though it was actually physically built, it appears more like a simple 3D rendering. Of course this is the easiest design aspect to change and personalize, but it will still show up on many screens in the next years, at least on the login screen. Microsoft bundles nice pictures for the lock screen, and many people are still nostalgic for Bliss.
On a more positive note, virtual desktops/workspaces have finally made it to Windows after having been common in all other desktop environments for many years and will especially help those with many open windows and too few monitors. Best addition since the glorious snap-to-edges. Another good thing is that the icon for the new Edge browser looks almost exactly like the one for Internet Explorer, so mommies and daddies can still click on the E to go on The Google, i.e. the internets.

So all in all, Windows 10 looks the way Windows 8.1 should have looked. It still feels like any Windows since Vista, with the forced duality of the metro era pushed out of the way. It is still a convoluted mess in many small aspects, but it works well enough to establish itself as a successor to Windows 7. Microsoft announced that the Home edition will receive forced feature updates while the Professional and Enterprise edition will be able to delay them for eight months or loose new security updates. We'll see if Microsoft will make changes to the design of Windows 10 over the years, as there will be no new mayor release for the near future, only lots of updates.

In a future post, I will probably look into the changes under the hood after having used W10 at work for a few weeks.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Ancient Sentient Ooze

High On Fire - Luminiferous [2015] []
Within the first few seconds of the new record, you learn that Matt Pike is not going to mess around. Song like "The Black Plot", "Slave The Hive" or the title track cause rampage in the tradition of Fury Whip or Devilution, other songs like "The Falconist" or "The Cave" take on the sublime, stately heavyness High On Fire do so well. While the lyrics shift away from ancient mysticism and move to thinly veiled tinfoil hat alien reptile conspiracy theories, the sound remains consistent with the last two albums, which means that the production is perfect for this kind of music. Luminiferous' songwriting feels more inspired and urgent than "De Vermis Mysteriis". High On Fire refuse to ever make a bad album, which means there are no surprises either. You get your ass kicked, but you expect it to after such a discography. Consistently good.

Xoth - Hostile Terraforming [2014] []
Xoth from Seattle feature members of Warbringer and Bonded by Blood, a mixture of Sci-Fi and Lovecraftian themes and thrashy yet technical death metal. What's not to love? This four-track EP can be downloaded at "name your price" on bandcamp, and holy fucking shit it totally kills. There are bits that feel like Hypocrisy (melodies), Vektor (riffing), Absu (production and vocals) and Obscura (technicality) at the same time. The roughly 17 minutes (excluding the intro and outro track) are tightly packed with lots of shifts and tiny bits that stand out and yet work for the songs. The best part might just be how they work in rather clean sounding guitar lead parts into their otherwise grizzly texture to direct you through the songs. This is the first effort of a newly formed band, if they manage a full-length at this quality, colour me impressed!

Xibalba - Ah Dzam Poop Ek [2005] []
I've had this record for half a year now and I still haven't really figured it out. Xibalba from Mexico City do black metal with lyrics diving into Mayan mythology. The weird part is how the record sounds very similar to Darkthrone's "Total Death" in terms of the raw production and monotonous (the good way) riffing, but doesn't feel as frustrated and burdened as Norwegian Black Metal or as desperate as the USBM of the last decade. It's not Sunbather either, but it falls somewhere in between, which makes it an interesting album without cheap tricks of splashing elements foreign to the genre into it. The shifts in the songs are subtle but significant, it's very driven and forward-pushing, like the black metal version of a trance song. It's a strange record but it's not hard to access if you are familiar with the genre, making it one of the most untiring BM albums I know.

Old Iron King - The Curse of the Crown [2015] []
At first I thought I already had this record until I realized I had it mixed up with "Tombs" by Skeletons, which sounds exactly the same - turns out they're both the same one-man band under a different name! It's Sludge Metal with a bit of thrash in it, played by the next door neighbours, which brings me to my biggest complaint: I'm sure it's supposed to sound blunt, but especially the vocals sound like they were recorded through a wall and you're missing out part of the songs. I get that it is supposed to be dirty and lo-fi, but when you take it too far, you will drown out the impact. When you listen intently (or turn up the volume a lot), there's actually a decent metal album hidden in that mush. Especially when Dominic Goulding increases the tempo, the songs use their weight to slam your head in sideways. An album with potential that lacks finetuning.

Further listening:
TOBACCO - Fucked Up Friends : Cool electro album with as many forgettable as great parts
Savatage - The Dungeons Are Calling : Rediscovered this EP, like it a lot more now
Ufomammut - Ecate : Tried to get into Ufomammut again. Failed again.
Kraftwerk : Music Non-Stop. Techno Pop.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


You should check out these items from the public library in which we are all visitors, authors and librarians. Most are fairly popular already, but always worth mentioning.

Polish artist Jakub Rozalski, besides the occasional standalone piece and tributes to The Witcher or Monkey Island, features his series 1920, in which huge war machinery stomps across pre-industrial farmlands, an extrapolation of World War I in which the conflict between Russians and Germans has led to ever larger weaponry. Especially the outgunned Polish resistance troops on horseback lend a lot of perspective to this amazing portfolio.

Simon Stalenhag from Sweden also has an ongoing theme, one of Sci-Fi machinery framed in rather contemporary settings. Old Volvos and huge flying machines, kids in thick sweaters and wooly hats climbing on top of mechs, futuristic buildings behind calm, but mundane fields - it should clash, but it doesn't, thus making the Science Fiction elements much more palpable.

Darran Anderson, @oniropolis, refers to lots of artwork from every different artists that all show imaginary cities. From abstract to postapocalyptic, from retro-futuristic to fantastic, from 2000AD to renaissance artists, there is a huge diversity in how people imagine the places we live in.

Daily Overview has been featured on the BBC, Washington Post, Wired, Guardian and many more, but in case you missed all of those, they collect amazing satellite photographs of the planet as seen from above to convey the overview effect.

Uel Aramchek not only tweets wonderful micro-fiction @ThePatanoiac, but also writes short stories at North of Reality. Mixing Sci-Fi and fantasy, fright and frivolity, always visionary and lively, condensed into bursts of very diverse ideas, he trickles tiny insights into worlds too fantastic to fully explore.

More weird micro-fiction that I enjoy more than anything on Twitter comes from @FORBIDDEN_GEM, @TheCityofNames, @QuietPineTrees, @FORGETTHATNOISE, @dvoted_hubsand, @hottestsingles, @Ghostly_Juice and @georgelazenby. What bugs me to this day is that @UtilityLimb might still be out there.

KurzGesagt is a Munich-based design company that does short videos explaining scientific concepts with fantastic illustrations. Many of their subjects like nuclear weapons, the death of bees, the banking crisis and the war in Iraq and Syria almost make you overlook how beautiful their visuals are. Other videos are about the solar system and the planets in it, the immune system and how atoms work. Some of their videos are also dubbed in German.

Zogg from Betelgeuse is an alien that provides a guide to planet Earth for other aliens, explaining the concepts that govern this obscure lump of rock. To provide insight for alien tourists, conquerors or scientists, Zogg takes a look at evolution, vision and mathematics as well as more abstract concepts like beauty, rituals or humour. All of his videos are as insightful as they are funny and we can only hope that the central galactic bureaucracy will finally give him his permit to make new videos.

OpenCulture has a long list of art, history, literature and classical film that they catalogue, comment and put into context. From rather banal but pretty illustrations to historic documents and free online classes, they provide a huge source of material if you ever feel that there need to be more things in your head.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Hawken (2)

In August of 2014, I posted about HAWKEN, a fun free-to-play multiplayer shooter that plays like Unreal Tournament with mechs. I left HAWKEN at some point, but recently returned to it. In the meantime, the game was practically dead, as Adhesive Games had stopped updating it (officially, it is still in beta). With the acquisition of Adhesive by Reloaded Games, development has returned, an entirely new backend has been implemented, new servers were put up, network performance was improved, bugs were fixed and some slight adjustments made in terms of the scoring system. Under the new management, there are now weekly updates about the latest changes and supposedly, additional people were hired to further the development.

The one thing that is missing is new content. There are already plenty of mechs, none of which are over- oder underpowered, and the selection of items (like grenades, gun turrets or radar scramblers) is fine - but what might really pull former players back in would be a new map or two. Sure Counter-Strike players have been playing Dust and Dust2 for 16 years, but a new and very different setting and maybe putting a "final release" on it would be a measure to bring it more publicity.
One thing that also hasn't changed is how much fun HAWKEN is and how well it manages to do the mech thing without the game becoming sluggish. There is no pay-to-win, only pay-to-make-your-mech-look-pretty. So again, especially with development back on track, I heartily recommend giving HAWKEN a chance - it's free of charge after all.