Blog Archive

Monday, September 15, 2014

Desolate Worlds

Artificial Brain - Labyrinth Constellation [2014] []
Between the frosty harshness of Diocletian and the monstrous hypnotism of Portal,  in the gutters below Gorguts, lies the depravity of Artificial Brain from New York, featuring Dan Gargiulo from Revocation. Guttural, dissonant and ugly, yet complex and diverse, you really need a prefix to call this record death metal (brutal and technical seem the adjectives of choice). It took me some time to get into, because one really needs to pay attention. This isn't background music and this isn't something you listen to for three minutes. Labyrinth Constellation is unique in that it sounds both mechanical and organic, both sharp and blunt at the same time. Alien insect organ soup with cyborg sawblade shards in it, as the Sci-Fi lyrics would put it. This album is worth the effort.


Bongripper - Miserable [2014] []
I usually try to avoid bands that have references to weed in their name, because the music was always the same interchangeable dull blur of bass-only stonerdoom to me. This moloch of a record might have somewhat cured me of that attitude: Bongripper's three song instrumental record manages to find a sweet spot somewhere between the massaging, hypnotic repetition of drone, the palpable groove of stoner and partially the uneasy feeling some death/doom records have. It's not even a harsh record, it's not Eyehategod slowed down even further, it's not Acid King, it's rather Pelican gone dark. Most importantly, there's still texture and structure and a plot to it, it's not an undefined blob. I caught myself just listening to this and doing nothing else. Well done.


Entombed A.D. - Back to the Front [2014] []
It's been seven years since the ok Serpent Saints. Meanwhile legal struggles have torn the founding members of Swedish death metal legends Entombed apart, thus the name change to Entombed A.D.. The new record eagerly stays true to the band's trademarks, however to the degree that it is predictable and disappears somewhere in the blur behind the gamechanging releases of the early 90s. When it comes to the bare ingredients - Petrov's roaring vocals, the trademark guitar sound, fine production - Back to the Front has everything it needs, but the mixture won't exactly blow you away. Maybe there aren't enough catchy hooks, maybe the album starts out too slow, it's hard to put a finger on the reason why this record is alright, but that's about it . 


Paranorm  - The Edge of Existence [2014] []
I love Voivod, Vektor, Obliveon, early Nocturnus, all that space metal stuff, so why not give these guys a try. This is the second EP from Swedish band Paranorm, who at first listen sounded a lot like a sterile version of Coroner to me. The Progressive/Technical Thrash Metal label seems to fit well. Paranorm display well-crafted instrumental work here, with nice changes between the melodic lead and grinding rythm guitars. One release it reminds me of is Demolition by Vektor: there are some great songs on that, but it took them until the next album to play them as well as possible. On paper I should love this EP, but it feels too stiff to leave a lasting impression. Should the parallel work out, these guys have the potential to release a killer full length debut.


Vaniardur - Ithryn Luin [2012] []
I admit that I've been very superficial about this one. I was interested in the kind of music a guy makes who puts the two blue wizards, a minor footnote in Tolkien lore, onto the cover of the album. Exactly what you'd expect, it turns out: Ambient with black metal elements, wavering keyboards, guitars as stringy shapes of noise, more keyboards, sounds of nature, big organic drums, more synth. Don't get this mixed up with the condensed, bitingly sharp Minas Morgul by Summoning, this soundtrack to a story that never was is significantly more clear, serene, just as majestic, but in brightness, not darkness. Minas Morgul terrifies you, this enchants you. A one-man project from Denmark, Christian Grønning has put together a coherent, if somewhat monotonous soundscape.


Sacrilege - Behind the Realms of Madness [1985] []
This bloody little gem from England's Sacrilege is an often overlooked milestone in extreme music history. The mixture of hardcore punk and metal, which rushes back and forth into grindcore territory, provided a blueprint for Bolt Thrower's "In Battle There's No Law" and Napalm Death's "Scum", not only for the ingredients, but also very much for the overall sound. Vocalist Lynda Simpson spits fire and acid above a sawing and thrashing instrumental sledgehammer that would later join Benediction, Napalm Death, The Damned, English Dogs and others. Classical grindcore often cites punk bands on one hand and metal bands on the other as an influence, but Behind the Realms of Madness might be the purest aggregation of both worlds.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Enough


At the end of July in Ar-Raqqah in Syria, soliders from the Syrian army were killed by members of IS. After taking the military base and control over the city from the army, IS executed more than 50 captured soldiers, beheaded several of them and put their heads on poles along a fence in the middle of the city. Now, almost two months later, IS has published a third video in which they executed a westerner, this time not an American reporter but a British aid worker. The reason given for the beheading was that the captive was helping arm Kurdish fighters against IS.


After a long time of non-committing statements and clear avoidance of any definite decision, US president Obama has announced that the US military will join with European forces to fight IS directly and support local enemies of IS. Germany for example has confirmed plans to support local troops like the Kurds with weapons and training and is now evaluating if further steps will be taken.

The reason behind the delayed response from the US and Europe is clear: The retreat from Afghanistan is still ongoing and nobody wishes for more military enengagementn the middle east. Obama has tried to make getting out of Afghanistan and Irak his legacy, in stark contrast to his predecessor. However the pressure from the utterly public display of brutality that IS has shown has gotten so immense that it can't be tolerated any more. Another aspect might be the long-predicted vacuum of power in the region that was once filled by the US military, but diminished as soon as the retreat started, leaving behind a divided government in Irak and an army with little training and even smaller organization.

There is lots of talk about supporting the local forces opposed to IS, especially Kurdish Peshmerga. The counterargument to this is that sending weapons does not guarantee that they won't fall into enemy hands, which is exactly what happened in Syria and Irak and has significantly strenghened IS. The only way to ensure that those weapons are used for the right purpose is to put them in the hands of the own personal, but that means boots on the ground and shedding your own blood.

Personally, I was long opposed to our governments intervening with middle-eastern local power struggles. Getting the allied troops out of Afghanistan and Irak always seemed a good idea to me. However after the last few months, I might not be the only one to reconsider this. The inhuman brutality and iron age ideology displayed by IS have crossed a threshold that brings me in favour of sending NATO personal to Irak and without warning shooting everybody waving an IS flag.
Sending out armed forces is terrible and should never be an option in today's world, but IS isn't from our millennium. The western nations have the means to utterly crush IS and not by doing so, standing idly by while these disgusting marauders publicly slaughter civilians, they explicitly allow this to happen.

I find it sad that it takes public adresses like the ones in the recent news to force our elected leaders to make up their minds in what kind of world we want to live in in this day and age. I am certain that crimes against humanity like the ones displayed by IS have happened in Africa within the last ten years, only there the media presence wasn't nearly as big.

Another thing that baffles me is that IS seems to have a large influx of foreigners from Europe and America. Educated, seemingly civilized people that lived in peaceful, prosperous nations, who then decided to travel to Irak and help spread the brutal, impoverished, anti-progress, insecure, primitive and oppressed lifestyle that IS is fighting for. What on earth would move somebody to think that living life the medieval califate way is a good idea?
If religious reasons are the answer, then these are the kind of people the world should have gotten rid of hundreds of years ago and there is no reason not to smash them with all the might of the western military-industrial complex.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Eye of a needle

I'm haven't reached middle class yet, but I've started making enough money to humbly get along. At work I often have to spend time around people with significantly more wealth than me. The longer I am surrounded by the rich, the more estranged I feel. The heaps of cash these people spend on trivial things makes my head spin. I'm all for technology, but I don't see why you would need all these idiot toys. Everyday objects that seem banal to me become the subject of elaborate discussions and intensive searches for the ultimate product to consume. I don't understand why people spend thousands on a table or hundreds on a lamp. I cannot relate to the gimmicks and trophies they so proudly compare. Good for you if you think your BMW is a great company car, good for you if your new bluetooth headset has just a bit more noise suppression than the one before, good for you if you give your money to kickstarter-fund another smartphone. Just please don't make me sit there and listen.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Protect yourself


Germany's Federal Ministry of the Interior Thomas de Maizière has submitted draft legislation to introduce higher requirements for companies and stronger competencies for agencies to counter the growing number of IT security threats. A major aspect of the draft is a system for companies to alert the authorities when an attack is taking place, report the source (or leave it as unknown) and give the agencies a specific case to follow up on. Furthermore the bill will specify minimal standards for IT security every company ought to maintain and expands the rights of the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI).


Here's what is wrong with it: It certainly makes sense to create a police interface like the emergency telephone number, only for the Internet. However I find it hard to imagine that it will find the same acceptance as the classical emergency phone number, companies will avoid getting the authorities involved unless they really have to. Most will shy away from the bureaucratic process of following up on an incident (especially when no damage was done) and just shut themselves off from that particular attack. 

More importantly though, many small and medium companies have always had a minimalist approach to security. Usually, a simple firewall appliance with an all-out, little-in rule set is in place, there's some anti virus software, and that's about it. 
To be able to report an attack to the police, you need to know it is happening. The danger of these digital intruders is that they don't come banging on your door, break a window and leave behind footsteps. Somebody qualified would have to monitor the network, maybe replace some of the appliances in use to have better tools at hand to even identify something is happening, both of which means costs that don't bring immediate benefits to productivity and thus translate to controller speech as investments without tangible return. Even more ignorant, often security measures will not be put in place because they make work less comfortable and slow down processes - safety and comfort often collide, and the latter is shockingly often preferred. 

If there hasn't been a precedent, there is little awareness and willingness to invest in security. Many will argue that they are not that special, not that publicly exposed, not that interesting, so they don't need the equipment larger enterprises have. But if that mindset would relate to reality, there would only be high-risk-high-gain burglaries. Where do criminals rather break in, the well-lit building with the cameras and guards or the small office with the lights out and easily opened windows? Not every attack from the internet has to be the big bust.

Even if there is an awareness of the need to invest in security doesn't mean something will happen. Either the budget just isn't there, or the task is given to internal resources that are used to capacity with keeping the infrastructure running and responding to the daily noise of small requests. In those cases, those risks are consciously accepted.

This is the weak spot that no matter how well thought-through the draft of Mr. de Maizière is, will remain. For comparison: It is nice to have the police patrol the streets occasionally and scare off whoever tries to breaking into houses from the front door in broad daylight, but the real risks are the guys who approach from the backyard at night and enter through the open kitchen window. In order to have a centralized, institutionalized protection, you would need their cameras in your backyards all the time to monitor everything and filter out the criminal events, i.e. total surveillance. It just doesn't work.

What is to be concluded from this is that IT security is not something that can be provided centrally, but rather has to be done in a distributed, local manner. It is something that every company has to worry about and find a balance between cost and effectiveness that is appropriate for their size. No external institution will take that burden away.

All the time, more and more things are connected to the Internet. Devices that were formerly completely unrelated to computer networks now run the exact same protocols without having the same security mechanisms (e.g. cars, machinery) or formerly LAN-exclusive systems are now stretched across the WAN (look for the marketing term "cloud managed"). The exposure to these risks has spread from the computer desk to almost everywhere (especially including mobile devices). Companies that have failed to secure their servers from external threads will fail even harder to protect these new Internet participants. I think the problem is that as so often, if something works well, people keep piling on top of it until it collapses. Same with the Internet here: Not everything that is on the Internet should be on the Internet (and I don't mean your selfie gallery). Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

I'm not advocating a departure from computers towards typewriters, I'm advocating a separation of networks. Many early adopters mourn that the Internet used to be this fun secret tree house club where everybody is equal, but now the evil big corporations take it over and threaten net neutrality. I say the root problem is that the Internet is this one huge network that almost everything operates on. In the realm of IT backend infrastructure, it is common to separate traffic into different networks - server-client communication should never be in the same network as server-storage communication (iSCSI, NFS, etc.). The same should be done for the Internet: create additional, purpose-built networks. Don't use the original, global internet for everything. Local exchange of data can already be solved with private networks today, I am rather interested in an alternative network of the same global availability as the Internet.
I am well aware that the Internet is not really one huge network, but many networks with routing between them, but there should be an additional set of networks to use for specific purposes that has absolutely no connection to the Internet-networks whatsoever. IPv6 would have been an opportunity to make that cut, but it is easier to adopt this protocol into the old Internet instead of creating a new network with new rules.

Mr. de Maizière's draft has been criticised for the cost it implies, I would rather criticize it for being ineffective. It's not a bad concept, it just won't have a significant impact on the actual level of security German companies will have on the Internet. Considering how audacious it is considered nevertheless, it seems safe to assume that no significant positive effect on IT security is to be expected from the government. It's up to the individual, for better or worse.

Friday, August 08, 2014

HAWKEN


HAWKEN is a free-to-play online multiplayer egoshooter game with mechs. The open beta was launched in late 2012, and in 2014 the game moved to Steam where it is currently still in beta state. HAWKEN plays more like Unreal Tournament than MechWarrior, because it is focused on fast-paced action rather than tactics. Quick evasions and precise shooting reign supreme. The usual Team-/Deathmatch can be played against other players or bots. Furthermore there is Missile Assault (King of the Hill), Bot Destruction (waves of bots with intermediate boss fights) and Siege (it's complicated). Shooting everything that moves outside your team is generally a good idea. You get unlimited ammo, but weapons tend to overheat.


Another similarity to UT is the Unreal Engine 3, which is also used by UT3, Gears of War, Bioshock Infinite, Mass Effect, etc. Not only does it therefore have a great technical basis, but Adhesive Games' overall design for mechs, levels, menus and everything else is glorious and really supports the Sci-Fi scenario. Futuristic industrial elements (i.e. the Hawken Virus Giga-Structure) give it a sense of belonging to the same scenario in the variety of stages, from swampy forests to frozen wastelands, crash sites of big spaceships, desert outposts and urban landscapes. There is some sort of vague story about the distant future and hunting for resources on colonized planets, but you'll be too focused on shit blowing up to care.

Other than your skill, your success depends on how good your mech is. There are currently eighteen different models that are grouped by weight/speed/agility/size into three classes. There is no overly powerful model, the balacing works out pretty well in that regard. All of them can use boosters for quick slides and hovering and allow for huge leaps onto high ledges, but there is a significant difference between the light and heavy models. HAWKEN is by far no simulation, but it gives you a digestible idea of sitting in a big machine (also they support Occulus Rift integration). All mechs can be upgraded with practical equipment (weapons, items like EMPs or radar scramblers, internal components) and cosmetic changes (paint job, different chassis, bobble head figures for your cockpit), which brings me to the economy of the game.

HAWKEN is generally free-to-play, you don't have to spend any money on it. In the game, there are two currencies, Meteor Credits (MC) and Hawken Credits (HC). HC are gained through playing the game, earch match gives you HC based on how long and successful you played. MC however can only be gained by buying them with real money (you're also given a few after playing for 60 minutes).
HC can be used to buy new mechs and practical equipment, which means that you can get the best possible mech through playing without spending any real money. MC can buy everything, it is a quicker alternative for practical equipment and the only payment method to buy cosmetic changes. Up to this point, it sounds pretty great, because you only have to pay to please your own vanity and anybody can have good equipment regardless of financial capabilities. In practice however, the grind the gain HC is very sluggish and you'd have to spend an awful lot of time until you can buy proper upgrades. Even worse, the prices for the cosmetic stuff are ridiculous - 1$ will buy you 144 MC, which will get you some of the available paint jobs for a quarter of your mech. To fully customize a single mech (bought cosmetics are not interchangeable between vehicles) you have to spend around 30$, which is a lot of money to make your digital robot toy shiny black instead of dull grey.
While the basic premise of the payment system is good (optionally pay for cosmetics), it has some flaws in execution, mostly that you'll have to spend eternity grinding your mech to get any upgrades, which means very little benefits for long stretches other people might bridge and just buy upgrades. Also there are absurd prices for individual items (why does one paint job colour cost more than the other?).

HAWKEN is still in beta and has some things to improve. I once played a deathmatch that wouldn't end, the matchmaking mechanism needs some more fine-tuning (sometimes there are huge differences between the contenders' levels), the mechs hardly show how damaged they are and they might want to reconsider how much grinding it should take to max out a machine.

Despite these downsides, HAWKEN is fun. It looks amazing, it has bigass mechs without the drudgery that usually goes with that, it's a fast-paced shooter with very different weapons and items, there is enough variety to allow for diverse playing styles, and let's not forget that you don't actually have to pay anything to play it. I therefore strongly recommend playing this little gem, but I don't recommend spending an awful lot of money on having your repair drone painted purple in the beta version of a videogame. I'm not entirely sure I want this model to become the norm for mainstream gaming where in many cases you already buy something that feels like an unfinished product and have to pay again for it to work properly. In this particular case, I'm cautiously optimistic.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Microsoft's near future


Most days, I go to a place, sit there and do things and in intervals I get money in exchange for the things. In doing those things, I have a lot to do with Microsoft and many of their products. Thus, I need to keep an eye on what is going on with that company and what changes are to be expected.


Microsoft in the middle of 2014 is trying to distance itself a bit from the course of late 2012 that is associated with Steve Ballmer, Windows 8 and the failed tile interface, as well as what felt like diversification in the consumer segment at the price of business negligence. Microsoft was investing a lot into competing with Apple on tablets, phones and touch interfaces in general, which proved unpopular. Now that Sergej Nutella Satya Nadella has replaced Ballmer as CEO, many of the developments that were started midway through the Ballmer era are now given more spotlight than before while others are slimmed down. Since the CEO switch, Microsoft hasn't really changed an awful lot, yet they intentionally make it seem like a significant intervention for image reasons.

The timing for some releases has been very helpful with that. The (now partially available) update to Windows Phone 8.1 has consistently been praised, the (when-its-done) return of a classic start menu had many people sigh with relief, the (available) Surface 3 is supposedly their best computer yet, Office for iPad sold very well. In the enterprise world, Windows Server 2012 R2 brought genuine improvements, the latest Hyper-V version has become a very good hypervisor, SQL 2014 brings a load of new features.
Two services that have greatly increased their market share are Azure, their IaaS and especially Office 365, which is the latest desktop version of Office plus services like Exchange Online or Sharepoint Online.

Recent announcements that got a lot of people excited revolved about the unification of Windows platforms. The Windows Store apps are supposed to be unified across the phone, PC and even XBox systems. The consolidation of Windows, Windows RT and Windows Phone into one operating system has entered the roadmap, although only on the horizon. Both make a lot of sense.

I think in the near future, Microsoft's strategy will be something along those lines:
Consolidate the Windows platforms to minimize maintenance effort. Make the Store apps universal to increase their sales. Reduce the previous diversification, invest less in small standalone software. Trim down Nokia. Push Office 365 as hard as possible and eventually move all of Office to an exclusive subscription model. Sell Office on Apple devices. Push enterprise software like Sharepoint, Lync, Dynamics, System Center and MSSQL. Make large contracts for hosting on Azure. Do more direct business and less channel-driven business through partners. 

I think this course will prove very profitable for Microsoft if it works out as intended and they might just win back some sympathies they lost in the last two years or so. There will however be downsides to this, not necessarily for Microsoft, but the rest of the world: Microsoft doing more direct business might hurt partners and leave customers to deal with Microsoft directly instead of talking to local businesses. Most importantly though, essential parts of the strategy I laid out will move Microsoft into a more proprietary position than ever. If you need Microsoft's approval to run applications on your PC by applying for an entry in the store, if you have your services hosted on Azure and the Office 365 back end, if you rent your software, you loose an awful lot of control over your software. 
Just as an example: Microsoft won't let you install the updates for Office 365 manually but does it in the background by itself. There is no visible integration with Windows Update services, there are no service packs for the desktop applications, it just updates by itself. Of course it makes sense to have the latest fixes, but consider this: If Microsoft releases an update that causes a problem, you cannot choose to leave out that particular update and wait for it to be fixed, you'll have to eat it up. If Microsoft is doing maintenance on the back end services and limits the functionality of some systems during a client's most important productive hours, well too bad.
Considering how well Office 365 sells, it wouldn't surprise me to see more components moving into this state where Microsoft has maximum control over the application, not the user. Still, it will sell well because it is convenient and requires no investments in locally kept hardware. The loss of control isn't felt by the people who sign the contracts because they personally never felt in control of their software in the first place.

So that's my take on the next two years or so for Microsoft. It might be a pretty good time for them, not so much however for anybody else.