Blog Archive

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network

"Computer!", hailing a machine to await your command, has been embedded in popular Science-Fiction for a long time. In 2015, all major smartphones offer a digital "personal assistant" that is controlled with voice commands, whether it is Google Now on Android, Apple Siri or iOS or Microsoft Cortana on Windows Phone. More recently, similar systems have expanded outside of smartphones, like Amazon Echo or Microsoft Cortana on the upcoming Windows 10 (the first builds with Cortana embedded are available). Most usecases focus on the collection and relay of information, like "what's on my schedule for today", "where is the closest fuel station" or facts you would otherwise type into a search engine. Some functions are more active, like writing e-mails, playing music or entering appointments into a calender. None of these female-voiced interfaces offer really new things for users to do, it's just a new way of accessing the same information and tasks. 

There are two things that dampen my excitement about these voice-controlled interfaces. 
First, the usefulness. When I imagine how I would use these functions in everyday life, very little comes to mind. They are like the products from infomercials, made to solve problems that don't exist. The voice interaction seems most useful when driving, when you don't have your hands free to type. However, there appears to be little use for voice searches at home or outside. With other people around, talking on your phone is obnoxious enough, but talking with your phone is a whole other level, especially since you hear the responses as well. In an office environment (when it comes to Cortana on the desktop), it is too imprecise for people in their own rooms and too loud for shared office spaces. Also, keep in mind that these products are sold as personal assistants, which is a way for people to compensate for their own lack of organization, but when they are the only human logic involved, the digital assistant will be just as cluttered as the users themselves.
Second, the backend. All these interfaces I mentioned are powered by systems outside of the user's control, like the Bing engine, Amazon's infrastructure or Google's conglomerate. It certainly makes absolute sense to use these immense sources of information to make the assistant software as competent as possible, however you're using them as a service, you don't own this software. There is no server you control yourself, it's all in the datacenter of a foreign corporation, i.e. "the cloud". This means that not only is there a pulling of the information towards you, there's also a pushing of information about yourself into a profile that is kept somewhere out of your control. Microsoft for example promoted that you can delete fields of interest from your Cortana profile to make searches more relevant, but it is to be expected that they are not removed from your profiling, only not used in searches. You effectively have no control over what information the software vendors collect about you.

2015 and 2016 are the make-it-or-break-it years for voice controlled computer usage. While I don't see a really broad adoption soon, it might become a popular gimmick for mobile devices at least for a while, mostly because it makes some things more comfortable, which appears to be the major concern for consumer electronics. On classic desktop PCs, I don't see these assistants becoming more than a gimmick nobody really uses productively. Computer, post this article on the Internet!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition

I played Dragon Age: Origins some years after it was released and while it was mostly entertaining, I wasn't really impressed by it. I skipped Dragon Age II because of the often unfavourable reviews, so Dragon Age: Inquisition wasn't something I looked forward to. But because my life is empty and devoid of purpose I got DA:I anyways.

The story: An outcast joins a legendary paramilitary faction and faces a powerful villain that wants to enslave the world with his disfigured army and a big dragon so our hero has to make allies with a diverse crew of warriors, mages and rogues to face off against bla bla bla and so on and so forth. The story takes place in a high fantasy pseudo-medieval feudal setting with humans, elves and dwarves that live in fragile peace with bla bla bla. At one point, everybody sings (no joke). In the end, the villain is defeated because the good guys form a team of four that travels diverse places and kills the bad guys with swords and fireballs until the elusive antagonist shows up and they kill him too. The morale behind the story is that mostly humanoid people must team up and use violence to stop monstrosities from hell, something we can all relate to. 
The player, like Origins and unlike the second game, gets to choose between being male and female, human, elf or dwarf and whether he prefers melee weapons, bow and arrow, magic or bla bla bla. The game is then spent killing anything that can be attacked, leveling up characters and advancing skill trees, collecting or forging better equipment and completing tasks that more or less serve the goals of the Inquisition, a trust-invoking name for the army our hero whips up along the way. Sometimes you spend your time slaughtering through squads of demons that pop up throughout the landscape because of tears between the demon and the not-quite-so-demon world to save poor civilians from being eaten, sometimes you shepherd golden antelopes to befriend elves or collect rare herbs so your army can have that nice cup of tea that makes the colours all funny. 
The combat allows you to pause the game to give tactical commands to your groups of four (because five people traveling in one group would be ridiculous), but in most cases you just run up to an enemy and use all your special powers like "hitting really hard" or "throwing a lightning bolt in his face" as fast and as often as you can.

With all these demeaning comments in mind, Dragon Age: Inquisition, though flawed, is pretty good. While it is exhaustingly generic at times, everything it copies from the indifferent sludge of high fantasy it does rather well. The game on ultra settings looks fine, sometimes amazing, especially in terms of the landscapes one visits. The voice acting is great (with rare exceptions), the main characters (see picture above) are fairly diverse and the loot-and-level grind always brings some tiny improvements to your current equipment. 
The game feels very large at times, up to the point where one wonders why they spent time giving you customizable beds and curtains for your stronghold's bedroom that you never ever use. It was only unless the very last main mission that I had completed all regular sidequests I found. There's always some stuff you can collect, some creature to kill or some new task to choose at the war table, where you can assign your forces to complete tasks that bring coin, equipment or new quests. However it doesn't feel as organic as Skyrim, because here you have independent, diverse locations instead of one coherent style. Especially the pomp of the human capitols seems out of place with the rest of the setting.

Just because of the graphics and the level design, the third installment in the series might be their best yet. If you're willing to overlook how bland much of it is, you'll get around sixty to seventy hours of traveling fantasy world, murdering wildlife and collecting dragon bones to forge the ultimate Legion of the Dead Armor only to discover that it turns silver and gold with those materials instead of black and grey.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Daily Grind

Let me tell you something about the place I work at. 

First, there's the guy on top. He's actually just the CEO, the proprietor doesn't show up in our place. Our boss used to be this big shot, but due to some dispute many years ago he sort of fell off the face of the earth for a while. This enterprise now is his way of getting back to where he once was. Most of the time you don't see him do anything practical, but you know he's keeping an eye on things.
Our workforce is surprisingly diverse. Most of us who do the simple, daily tasks are treated like an anonymous mass, which is kind of sad but understandable. In terms of departmentalization, there are specialist groups, like our highly qualified team for field work, which is just nine people. We pride ourselves in also having a large support team from far east.
Right now, our main target is expansion. We're pretty much through with local opportunities and need to seek out new markets. Therefore, we have recently completed a merger with another place that used to be our competition but now they've become a branch office. Must be pretty exciting for them, because from what I've heard it was just two people, and now there's a whole bunch of our employees over there. They had to do some serious remodelling of the place to accompany all these new people.
What has been bugging me is how very negative the public response was to our expansion. PR didn't do their job it seems. Most people don't appreciate our hard work. It even went as far as some guys trying to break into our place and do damage to our core infrastructure.
Anyways, that's a short description of what is going on at my workplace right now.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

So much for 2014

It's that time of the year again.

The Blog
This year was the first since 2009 in which there were more posts than the year before (35-42). However I still struggle with every post. I've mostly given up on writing about mainstream news stories because they've been covered by so many others and much better than I could. It would feel too redundant. Even Twitter is getting harder, I don't know why. On the bright side, I've finally tagged a lot of the content properly and switching to the new layout made the site more accessible via mobile. I also deleted all posts from 2006 except for the very first one because I can't identify with the utter garbage I wrote at the time.

The Individual
As a personal milestone, I moved to a rented apartment in the crystal caves beneath our regional active volcano. Getting along on my own works out ok and has brought new concepts into my life such as the "I'm all out of everything"-diet. Didn't go down as well when I got sick though. Work has been the same soul-draining chore and now because of the apartment I'm more tied to it than ever. The neighbours seem nice though, despite the sulfuric acid leaking out of their eyesockets.

The Music
Like last year, I was more focused on older music. There were some good new records out this year, but the selection was rather sparse so it's difficult to pick out a distinctive champion. Last year Inquisition and Portal were absolutely outstanding, this year it seems not as clear. While Godflesh, Artificial Brain, Crowbar, Mantar and Triptykon all had good albums, I think it was Diocletian - Gesundrian that did the most for me. I found myself listening to grimmer and harsher stuff in the last months, and this brutal war metal monstrosity takes pole position.
My favourite song this year was Sacrilege - The Closing Irony, an underrated song even among those few who appreciate the album. That sledgehammer of a track + headphones at maximum bearable volume = pure happiness. A close second must be Fear of the Dark by Damien Thorne. My favourite album this year was Summoning - Minas Morgul, just a perfect piece of athmospheric black metal. Lights out, heating off, volume up, brilliance.

The Film and Television
Scrolling through the first fifty entries on the IMDB "Most Popular Feature Films Released In 2014" list, I find four movies I've seen: Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a fantastic movie if you're fourteen years old; Edge of Tomorrow, maybe the most positive surprise of this year in cinema; Grand Budapest Hotel, which was fantastic; The Expendables 3, let's not even talk about this embarassing shitfest. Two films that weren't on that list were The Guest and Calvary, which I can only recommend. I'd still like to see Nightcrawler and Birdman, but overall this year seemed weak. Most things are adaptations, sequels, prequels, remakes and so on, and considering the list of upcoming releases it's going to be even worse next year. 
What I've seen instead was a few from this decade (recommeded: Blue Ruin, Locke, Snowpiercer, Trollhunter, The Skin I Live In), but most were older (All The President's Men, Blue Velvet, LA Confidential, Patton, Richard III, etc.), so I'm still catching up on some classics.
I didn't watch many TV shows in 2014, but there were some good popscience ones like Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and even more so Human Universe with Prof. Brian Cox, to be honest the only shows I keep up with are cartoons (Rick and Morty, Gravity Falls, King Star King).

The Literature
Just like film and music, I've been reading mostly older material. My heavy focus on Science-Fiction became somewhat more loose. I discovered Albert Camus as one of my favourite authors and finally read some fascinating non-fiction and historical literature.

The Technology
To me, the most interesting mass technology of 2014 was in the areas of electric cars. The biggest scientific thing of the year seemed landing on a comet, despite the somewhat problematic landing. Also, hats off to Alex Gerst.
Some of the projected upcoming trends in tech turned out to be overhyped (smartwatches), others are bigger than ever, especially cloud services. Holy shit cloud services. Everything has to run on a platform from the manufacturer so they have absolute dictatorial power over stuff you already bought from them, regardless if it makes sense or not. Also, everything now has a wireless network interface so you can flush your smart-toilet or "intelligpotty" from an iPad app. Because that's what you needed most to improve your quality of life.

The Return of Vidyogaemz
At the very end of last year, my PC hardware failed. With the intention of briefly testing my new setup and putting it under maximum stress, I installed some of these electronic videogames the kids are all fuzzing about. Crysis 3 ran perfectly smooth, even Minecraft had stable framerates (!!!). What was intended as a short performance test turned into a trip across many titles that I had skipped over the last years, with one or two new releases strewn inbetween. My personal highlights were Skyrim, Hawken, Assassins Creed 2, Far Cry: Blood Dragon, GRID2 and Wolfenstein: The New Order. Others like The Witcher 2, Dishonored, Mass Effect 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dragon Age: Origins or Crysis 3 were alright, but didn't really live up to their potential. Some I quickly uninstalled because I couldn't get into them, like Civilisation V (I don't get it), Ryse Son of Rome and Shadowrun Returns.
Right now I'm on Dragon Age Inquisition and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, both underwhelming, but at least it's something to do. I dropped Minecraft when I moved. Sometimes think I should reinstall but then I remember how unrewarding it all is.

The Entire Rest of World
Ruthless mass surveillance, brutal public slaughter of innocents, mass racial rioting, unending civil war, destabilization of nations, conjuring up a new cold war era between NATO and Russia, the most extreme and catastrophic weather since the last Ice Age, mass exctinction of animal species, pandemics of deadly diseases, destabilization of the EU, financial institutions carrying on without punishment for ruining the world economy, public fights over sexism and racism, widening chasms between the rich and the poor, religious fanaticism, terrorism everywhere but hey Germany kicked the shit out of Brazil at the World Cup so that was pretty good.

Saturday, December 27, 2014


In late 2005, the application of Turkey for an accession to the European Union was first officially treated. At the time, I thought it was a bad idea not only because of cultural differences, but mostly because Turkey isn't geographically a part of Europe. Since then, my worries have been significantly reduced. Not because I was convinced otherwise, but because of Mr. Erdogan's policy. Somebody who locks down Internet access and then claims to have the highest freedom of press in the world, says that muslim explorers landed in America before Columbus, violently breaks up protests a Taksim square, calls the idea of equal income for women and men unacceptable because of women's inferior physiques and breaks up the separation of church and state that Atatürk based a flourishing Turkish state on; such a statesman automatically disqualifies himself. The German government seems to agree. So it seems the issue sorted itself out.