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This is the butt-ugly weblog from Janne Jalkanen.


Toolalicious 2017 to all!

Mon, 05 Jun 2017 09:37:11 GMT

(So let's see about getting back on the writing train again. Been a bit dismotivated recently to write, but gotta keep flexing those muscles in order not to atrophy them...) I just want to give a shoutout to a number of tools I am using right now to keep myself productive. I'm not going to get into the actual productivity tools, since those are quite often a matter of preference (emacs vs vi anyone?), but just present a collection of things that I have, over the years, found invaluable for my own work patterns. RescueTime is the tool I use to keep track of my work. It sits there in the background on my Mac and phone and counts the seconds I use each app. It categorises the applications and web sites I visit into a few rough buckets, and lets me know whenever I have spent too much time on a computer, or too long on social media websites. It also counts any productive tools and sites, which has given me interesting insight into how I work. My rule of thumb is that two hours of real, productive work per day is good; four hours usually means I'm exhausted by the end of it. Then again, four hours of productive work means somewhat like 10 hours of actual screen time, because the machine can't know when I am thinking and stops counting... It's good, but not seeing much development though, so I'm expecting someone to take over this personal time management space. Amy and Andrew from are my personal assistants that now take care of my calendar. I don't really do that many meetings, but on those rare occasions there's something infinitely satisfying in sending an email "Hey Amy, can you please arrange a lunch for us next week?" and IT WORKS! 1password stores all my passwords and other critical info that I need. I do still store some stuff in an old-fashioned way in a GPG-encrypted text file, but most of the stuff that I need on a daily basis is now in 1password. The browser integration is excellent, and it's really easy to generate completely random passwords for any website. We also use it at the office, which makes it really easy to share passwords and things like company credit card data to those who need to know. CrashPlan does my backups. It's a bit slow and clunky (and takes an ungodly amount of memory), but on the other hand, they have a family-friendly licensing scheme that lets me run the same application on my two Macs, wife's PC and my online Linux server. Backups run automatically every 15 minutes to the cloud, restores are straightforward (have tested three times now a full restore), and the whole thing just works invisibly in the background. Little Snitch for my firewalling needs. I don't like the fact that Apple and other software vendors send all sorts of information out of my Macs without telling me what it is. But with Little Snitch I can selectively block outgoing communication with a nice little popup and watch my incoming/outgoing traffic per application. It's not for the faint-hearted though, since it has an annoying tendency to pop up right when you're typing something and then you end up pressing all the wrong buttons... Freedome is absolutely critical when traveling. Now, it might not be the best VPN client out there, but it's easy to use and I got it really cheap. Combined with Little Snitch it makes me a bit more confident about using strange Wi-Fi networks. F.lux changes the color of my screen at sunset to get rid of that blue glow that supposedly disrupts your sleep. I know new Macs have equivalent functionality, but I'm kind of used to f.lux, so I have no reason to switch :). Of course, my evidence is anecdotal, but I seem to fall asleep faster when it's on - but I'll take the effect gladly no matter if it's placebo or not :) As for browser plugins, Adblock Plus blocks ads on Chrome, Pinboard stores my bookmarks (I've been Pinboard user for years ever since was first sold), Momentum makes my "new tab" -screen more interesting, and The Great Suspender stops browser tabs once they've been idle. Why, you ask? Because sometimes these modern Java[...]


Mon, 08 Aug 2016 21:36:10 GMT

One of the reasons that I like role-playing games - even when played on the computer - is that they feel creative. Even when the game has three dialogue options that all lead to the same response, it lets me choose and create my own story, guaranteed to be different from everyone else's stories.

And not only that; it happens on games like Clash of Clans, where epic stories of combat are told every day, even though the sandbox is small compared to story-oriented games. But it's still me and my story and what happened to my village.

Looking back on the TV series I have enjoyed the most, I can always relate them to a story: Babylon 5 we watched on smuggled tapes from the USA and accidentally started a huge SciFi-club on the side. Deep Space Nine we watched with the wife when she was pregnant with our first child. Old Finnish comedy was the talk of the school yard back when we only had two TV channels in the entire country. I don't remember much about the shows, but I do remember the emotions of sharing these stories with others, and the story of watching something is, to me, more important than the story itself. The metastory of entertainment, if you will.

It even touches my work - the best jobs I've ever had were those where we were creating something together. It does not matter so much what it was, but building it was an experience that created a powerful story.

So one thing I'm always trying to do when confronted with new technology or opportunity is - what is the story that this is trying to convey? Can we help you tell more stories? Considering the things being hyped right now - VR _definitely_ lets you tell stories and once tools mature, we'll see an explosion of stories in that area. The AIs will write their own stories, and they will eventually be more beautiful and incomprehensible than anything humans have ever written. Internet of Things... Not sure. I don't care what my fridge tells my watch. It's not an interesting story. It's not even a good joke: "Hey, did you hear what the chair said to the table? { "position": "below", "color": "beige", "speed": 0.002 }."

One of the things that drew me to NFC was its storytelling ability - tagging any object would let people read its story. Rearranging things might change its story. Much of the same idea was continued at Thinglink, which has grown nicely to be a comprehensive VR/360/video/image storytelling platform, used by millions of students, teachers, publishers and advertisers around the world. I'm still having trouble grasping what are the stories of the IoT-connected world, and why should I really care. (Caveat: I'm expecting great things out of Thington, if they don't lose their way :-). I'm also enjoying Pasi Hurri's stories about his IoT connected sauna - though it's definitely on the geekier side of things. And yes, I know, there's great promise in reducing cost in industrial applications yadda yadda.)

Of course, this could just be my inability to understand the greatness that is IoT and that it's supposed to be invisible and Things That Just Work In The Background And Make My Life Easier. But until then it's just an Expensive Thing That Gets Broken In Mysterious Ways.

Timey-wimey thoughts

Sun, 07 Aug 2016 07:32:12 GMT

About twelve years ago I was watching my later Nokia colleague Chris Heathcote talk at O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference on how in ten years, there will be “no concept of lost”. This was a couple of years after US let civilians access very accurate GPS, but a couple of years before the GPS receivers became so cheap that they could be embedded in the phone.

Another thing that we didn’t have back then were global 3G networks and the concept of network time. Phones ran on whatever time you gave them, and even though NTP and the lot were keeping accurate time on the internet, the telecom industry was a bit behind the times on that.

But now we have both - almost every smartphone has a GPS chip and very accurate time information. We’re rooted very firmly in both time and place - sort of a reverse TARDIS, which is neither here or now. We’re no longer “lost”, unless it is our intent or we’re very unlucky. Location-based gaming (Pokemon Go) is something that could not have existed before this, and there’s now a lot of smart people figuring out the next possible avenues that is enabled by constraining us even tighter within a particular box of spacetime continuum. For example, Indoor Atlas locates us within 3 metres inside a building by mapping the magnetic fields. (Funnily enough, magnetic location mapping wasn’t in Chris’ original slides, which otherwise were pretty accurate.)

So yeah, it’s now possible to know well where you are - but it’s also easier than ever to know where everyone else is. There’s a gazillion of applications dedicated to making people meet in places, from the fairly innocuous to very creepy. This is a funny reversal: one thing that cell phones did at the beginning of the century was to liberate us from place and time.

The liberation is now pretty much complete: we can choose to be in different places, but still participate in the same event at the same time through tools like Snapchat and WhatsApp and Periscope; or we can participate in the same location but at different times (Geocaching, Pokemon Go), or we can be completely free of time and place (Youtube, Slideshare), or we can meet in the same place at the same time (Meetup, Glympse).

So I have to ask - is this it? Are all the niches of existence now covered? Is there room for apps somewhere else in the spacetime? Is there something that’s being ignored?

Am I being too human-centric here? What apps will the AIs write for themselves and for us? :-D


Sat, 16 Apr 2016 11:55:22 GMT

Today my 5-year old daughter asked me, after a visit to the nearby swimming hall, why the showers stop working while people are still in them and suggested that we should build showers that work only when someone is under them. It would save water too.

So I asked her, how she would build one. "We could put in pressure plates", she exclaimed! Walking home, we found other solutions too, including some scary ones (cameras in the shower).

And this is why I encourage her to play games (like Minecraft). Not because it improves problem-solving skills, but because complex games teach that the world is malleable. If you know the rules, you can play outside them. You don't have to just accepts things as they are: you can always go fix things. Games throw obstacles in your path, whereas the life of a sheltered western kid in a modern welfare society is pretty much a level grass field. Games reward creative solutions, and failing is cheap - you can go try things as many times as you like. Play is practice.

The difficulty, as always, is at the border of virtual and real: When to move the theory into practice? When to stop brainstorming and start working? When do you play, and when do you go all serious? How do you transform the lessons from play into the real world, and how do you turn your real-life experiences into play? We need to cross the grey area between these two all the time: The playtime to dip into our creativity, and the serious time to ship stuff. I believe that a lot of conflict in project work comes from a common lack of understanding where this border lies, and it seems to be a common source of conflict between parents and children as well.

But while I'm trying to grasp this stuff, I'm going to join my kids in their Minecraft world. If they don't kill me outright, I might learn something new.

Why are you ruining our dinner time, evolution?

Sun, 10 Apr 2016 18:23:09 GMT

Watching my kids eat - or to be precise, poke at the food very suspiciously and declaring that it is a) awful, b) horrible and c) that they never want this and why we can't eat normal food - it strikes me interesting how the older we get, the more varied our taste becomes. I just accidentally spread some adult toothpaste on my kids toothbrushes, and even when I rinsed them thoroughly, they still complained that washing teeth burns and hurts.

So perhaps it was evolutionary beneficial that kids are extremely picky and eat only "safe" foods, whereas older people who have already had their kids can go around, eat whatever and don't taste anything. Because a dead kid isn't good for tribe survival, but an old person who eats random stuff is a nice signal to the rest of the tribe what can be eaten and what not.

Of course, some googling reveals - now that I actually had the time to do so - that there's some science around this topic.

So yay, science of the everyday life! Now eat the f*ing fish.

Vagrant To Go

Sun, 14 Feb 2016 19:31:06 GMT

Quite a few people use Vagrant as their development environment. It provides a nice way to basically package all your dependencies in a neat fashion so that you don’t have to worry too much about installing binaries and versions - no longer do you need to worry about virtualenvs or rvms or how to install a particular database when some of the devs have OSX, others use Linux and some enjoy some brand of Windows. Just say "git clone", "vagrant up" and go. Your editor lives on your regular desktop, and everything else happens inside the Vagrant box.

It’s all good, except for the minor problem known as "filesystem notification events don’t propagate into the Vagrant box" also known as "inotify doesn't work on Linux guest". That means that when you change a file on your host machine, the automatics on the box side don't notice it and don't start a recompile - known as a hot reload - forcing you to recompile manually. There are a couple of ways around this, mostly either by polling actively (which is quite CPU-intensive), or in case of scripting languages like Python, automatically checking the modification dates on each reload. You can also twiddle with vagrant triggers.

However, go (or golang for SEO purposes) is a compiled language, so while there are many hot reload packages, they never see any changes and hence are useless. So imagine my joy when I stumbled upon the vagrant-notify-forwarder Vagrant plugin, which almost automates everything. It installs a daemon on the host side and forwards the filesystem events to the box. You can easily install it with

$ vagrant plugin install vagrant-notify-forwarder
$ vagrant reload

However, it only sends ATTRIB changes to the box. And most golang hot reloaders only listen to changes to the actual file content. But the very responsive Ivan Pusic added a nice patch to his excellent rerun utility and suddenly the world works again. Just add the "--attrib" -flag to rerun, doing something like this:

$ vagrant ssh
% go get
% cd $GOPATH/src/myproject
% rerun --attrib -s *.go


Simple hotkey locking of your Mac

Thu, 03 Dec 2015 17:58:34 GMT

At work, I quite often listen to music on Spotify or iTunes (because of reasons). However, when you have to leave the laptop for just a bit, I need to both stop the music and lock the computer, and it's a bit inconvenient. So I needed a way to make the computer go quiet and lock itself up nicely.

So I wrote this piece of AppleScript, and bound it to Cmd-L using Quicksilver (yes, I know Alfred folks can do this too, but I'm a QS user). Drop it in ~/Library/Scripts/ and bind a trigger key to it in QuickSilve (or whichever tool you prefer). You will need to also set up Keychain Access so that it has a menu item for locking the screen. This works with OSX 10.10 (Yosemite) at least.

#  Tell our noisy programs to shut up
tell application "Spotify"
end tell

tell application "iTunes"
end tell

#  Lock up the screen without going to sleep.  Needs that Keychain Access
#  is set up properly.
tell application "System Events" to tell process "SystemUIServer" to click (first menu item of menu 1 of ((click (first menu bar item whose description is "Keychain menu extra")) of menu bar 1) whose title is "Lock Screen")

Biking in electric mode

Sun, 27 Sep 2015 07:57:31 GMT

One of the great things about living in Helsinki is that we have a really nice public transportation system, which basically means that many people do not need to own cars. Some do, because of hobbies or kids hobbies or badly chosen workplaces, but most people in Helsinki choose to live without a car. So obviously I live in neighbouring Espoo, where car ownership is the norm. This makes life without a car a bit more complicated. I’ve so far been fine with bicycling and the use of public transportation, but I’ve recently gotten a bit weary of the fact that the bike travel is a bit of a hassle always. With a car, you open the lock, step in, and drive. With a bike, you first dress up in clothes that you think make you look sexy in a middle-aged kind of way, but which mostly result in spontaneous deaths by laughter by any seagulls you pass. Then you pack half of your stuff in a pannier (forgetting the stuff you’re actually going to need in your other bag that you use with public transport, ‘cos panniers are just impossible to carry and backpacks just make you sweat like the proverbial pig), pull on a helmet and goggles and open enough locks to keep anyone from stealing the building the bike is attached to. Only then can you drive to the office, where you arrive looking like you just went through a car wash that ran on sweat instead of water. Though obviously you’re totally high with endorphins, so you don’t really care about the disgusted looks of you coworkers and just bask on your own righteousness for living maybe two minutes longer again than anyone else. And the same thing going back in the afternoon, but this time without a breakfast in your belly. So I started figuring out if there would be an easier way to get my endorphins without being stinky all the time (and streamlining the travel hassle). I figured I would give e-bikes a try. E-bikes aka pedelecs be cool For those who do not know, e-bikes (or to be precise, pedelecs) are electrically assisted bicycles. When you peddle, an electric motor kicks in, and boosts the power of your legs. They do not work without peddling (‘cos that would make them electric vehicles, kinda like mopeds, and most of the EU law takes a very dim view on people rolling around with electric unlicensed vehicles), and the max assist speed is limited to 25 km/h, after which all speed increase comes from your own barley engine. But basically they’re the closest thing for an exoskeleton you can buy off-the-shelf these days. I bought a Staiger Sinus BT-20 from the very friendly folks at Elektrobike (I highly recommend them!) about a week ago, and have been driving now about a 100 km with it during the week. Roll your mouse over the image for a quick tour of the bike. It’s, simply put, marvellous. It turns what was a sweaty run into a brisk stroll. You still have to pump those legs, but it smoothens the uphills and accelerations into what feels like a strong backwind helping you on a gentle upward slope. And you get really, really surprised looks from twentysomethings on their superlightweight fixed gear bikes when you catch up on them on uphills. Another bonus that I suspected might happen is that it turns out that driving an e-bike cuts about 5 mins on my 30 minute commute. So that’s 10 minutes per day of time not spent commuting. Assume conservatively three times per week, 30 weeks/year turns out to be about 15 hours/year of more free time. Might not seem much, but if I value my free time at say €35/hour, it’s certainly a way to justify myself the higher cost of the e-bike. What I did not expect was the effect it has on my driving style: when I no longer need to worry about conserving momentum (that is, slowing down because of people congregating on the driveway), I can afford to be a lot nicer to anyone else sharing the road. No need to do human pole slalom, just s[...]

The Great Silence

Sat, 12 Sep 2015 10:54:46 GMT

The more we learn about the universe, the more pressing becomes the question - where is everyone else? Why is this Great Silence out there? Are we truly alone?

One of the possible explanations is the Great Filter, the idea that basically life is abundant in the universe, but at some point some calamity inevitably reaps the budding civilization before it can go multi-planetary and multi-solar. And, based on the imminent climate disaster that we have brought upon ourselves, and the generic amount of nuclear weapons in the world, this could very well be the moment where the Great Filter reaps humanity.

But I started wondering - wouldn’t a culture that would know of its impeding doom at least try to warn others of the same path? Wouldn’t they spend an effort spending their last resources screaming at other nearby planets with high-powered radios, or sending slow spacecraft to other solar systems, just so that others would know they existed and that they would not do the same mistakes?

Wouldn’t we?

So, even with the Great Filter, it’s mysterious that nothing can be heard. A few possibilities come to mind:

  • We could be one of the first civilizations (within our local neighbourhood). So we should go a spread out now before the others catch up.
  • We’ve already passed most of the Great Filters, and we now have the technology to cope with the new ones (Yay!)
  • The typical Great Filter comes so abruptly that there’s little time to react. Like a stray asteroid. But in that case, the climate change wouldn’t be It.

I don’t know. Much smarter people than me have spent a lot of time thinking about this topic. But somehow this thought makes me feel better about everything - it suggests that as long as there’s time, we can cope with the issues at hand. If we were to die out, it would happen so fast that we wouldn’t really know about it.

But let’s still be on the lookout for those warning signals.

Kultainen Kuukkeli 2004, final notes

Mon, 10 Aug 2015 18:53:30 GMT


As the husband told the wife: "Yes, I will fix the roof. You don't have to keep reminding me every six months."

So, I delivered the final award of the Kultainen Kuukkeli 2004 blog award contest today to Tomi. He won it for "best hacking", for having a really cool-looking blog already ten years ago.

Phew. It always feels good to check the final box of the todo-list. Even if it takes ten years.

Whisky galore!

Sat, 11 Oct 2014 21:49:00 GMT

My Facebook stream has been full of whisky - pictures, links, prices - all evening. The internet tends to react like that to news like this. For the Finnish-challenged the gist of the story is about as follows: A Helsinki-based Beer and Whisky Expo got a stern note from the "Aluehallintovirasto", a regional government official, that any mentions of the word "whisky" are absolutely banned, because of the Finnish alcohol laws. So they had to change the name to "Beer Expo". And not only that, no private blog may talk about whisky in connection to this event, or the event would get its license revoked and could no longer serve alcohol. So the expo had contacted a couple of bloggers who had already written about this, who were nice people and removed the blog posts, since as fans, they didn't want to ruin the show. The officials allegedly said that "no google search for 'viski' (Finnish for whisky) must end up on their page". OK. First of all, multiple other officials had already okayed all this - their company is even registered under this name. Second, they are threatening that if private people write about the show, the show gets the punishment. So basically me mentioning that you might get some nice Islay whiskies (for example, the Caol Ila I am just enjoying, which should cost you 5-7€ per 2cl in the expo to taste) in the show, the show might just suddenly cease to exist. The thought does make me giddy with power - HA, I CAN RUIN LIVES AND ENTIRE EVENTS WITH THE MIGHTY POWER OF MY KEYBOARD - but the sad fact is that I am in no way connected to the show. So the Finnish alcohol law is a bit of a fuckup. I get the point though - alcohol abuse does kill/maim/injure a shitload of people every year, either directly or indirectly, and it is arguably the most dangerous legal drug out there. So yeah, reducing overall consumption is an admirable goal, one which I support. And, at the turn of the year, it's going to get even more strict when it comes to alcohol advertisements: Practically every place where a minor could possibly see even a beer logo will have to be cleared out, which is already annoying people. Unfortunately the law reads like it was designed in the 1980s, where you still had a clear separation of businesses and individuals. These days, the internet has turned almost any profession from a binary yes/no thing to a continuum of newbies,enthusiasts,amateurs,hobbyists,hard-core hobbyists,pro-amateurs,experts and professionals. Bloggers get free goodies from companies so that they would write about them, just like critics get free books from authors so that they could review them. "Buzz marketing" and "virals" are standard tools for any marketer, and they're as meticulously planned out as any TV campaign of old. So, if a blogger writes about your expo, and happens to know some of the products present, and talks about them, is it marketing or not? There's no way to tell. It could be just an enthusiast, it could be the well-intentioned target of a viral, or it could be a paid advertisement. But in every case, it is a private individual, not a company. And that's where the laws start to fail - it is very difficult to make a law where you would still claim to have the basic freedom of speech, but at the same time say that marketing a particular product is forbidden. The Finnish government does not seem to have a good solution to this either. They have actually even asked Facebook to remove the "Share" button on any Finnish brewery pages, so that no-one could accidentally share the knowledge about beer (good luck there). However, at the same time it's totally ok for e.g. Fosters to have a Share button on their pages, because obviously the Finnish governmen[...]

Insane password policies

Fri, 12 Sep 2014 07:01:28 GMT

A service that I very rarely use just approached me with their new "security rules":
We are pleased to inform you that we have improved the security of XXX website. Because your idea matters, we want to keep them secure and confidential. As per the new policies you will be required to change your passwords on monthly basis. Also the passwords have to be at least 8 characters in length, having at least one letter, one number, and one special character (such as !#$&?.()@^” etc.)

Guys, not like this.

  1. Rolling passwords on a very short basis just makes them insecure.
  2. I don't use your site on a monthly basis anyway, so that means that every single log-in I have the extra burden of inventing a new password that I will never use but which still must be work within your arbitrary rules
  3. Ever heard of two-factor authentication? You know, like if you're really serious about protecting people's ideas? (Of course, this is not without its problems.)
  4. You need me more than I need you. So making the process harder is not actually in your best interest, and telling me that you "require" that I comply with your rules is even less in your best interests.

So basically I'm just shaking my head and putting this thing in my mental "nice idea, but too much trouble" -bucket.

(Yeah, I am aware of 1password and all these tools, but a) they're basically a security single-point-of-failure, and I dislike single points of failure, and 2) I use multiple devices all the time, and the thought of all of my passwords syncing to a single cloud service makes me queasy - and not having the sync makes them kinda pointless.)

Driving with Electricity, pt 1

Sat, 16 Aug 2014 12:31:21 GMT

First, a small confession: I don’t actually own a car. I have never owned one. The reasons are partly practical and part environmental - cars are fairly expensive things to own, and as long as I can manage without one, I can spend the money on other stuff. Like buying an apartment near a major public transportation hub so I don’t actually have to own a car… Also, climate change is a serious problem, and I try to avoid contributing to it. Plus that I actually like my morning commute on the public transport - it’s some quiet time for myself, and it’s faster than driving myself. However, it does not mean that I don’t drive. I am a member of a car-sharing service as well as a Five Star Gold Member at Hertz… I rent the car when I need one; and take a taxi fairly liberally. The Finnish taxation makes cars pretty expensive things to own, so I’ve been calculating that I am still saving money. Things may of course change when the kids will need to move around more; or if we move to a location where public transportation wouldn’t just work. The great thing about renting a lot is that you get to drive all sorts of fairly new cars. And I like testing them out, in case I ever actually buy a car. It’s really like getting an extended test drive from the dealer (and I know some people use the test drives as really cheap rentals too, but I haven’t yet used that opportunity). One car that I had had my eye on for a small while was the Volvo V60 PHEV - a hybrid diesel car that you can plug in at home to charge it up, but which still has a regular diesel engine for the longer trips. So when it popped up on Hertz reservation system when I was looking for my holiday car this summer, I seized the chance, emailed Hertz who got me a sweet deal on it (I’m kinda happy about it, so this is their free plug ;-). Therefore, for the past two months or so I’ve clocked some serious hours in that car - 5400 km worth of time to be precise. The car Why people want a hybrid in the first place. I’m not a car expert, so I won’t be covering a lot of the technical details - frankly, I can’t be arsed to do a lot of research on it. If you’re interested, just go check actual car magazines, who can tell you everything you need to know about how the car lights work etc - I’ll just cover my impressions and thoughts after driving a half-electric-half-diesel car both in city runs as well as a couple of long road trips. I’ve had a few earlier encounters with Volvos, and I have to admit that they kinda work for me. They’re comfy, spacious, feel a little luxurious (but not too much) and have this… aura of safety around them. Which is nice when you have your most important legacy fighting over toys on the back seat. The D6 engine (the biggest diesel engine that Volvo has) in the V60 PHEV makes this car really GO when it needs to, and the electric engine gives it a nice boost if you press the pedal. Put on the "power" mode and it’s got enough power to give me a scare followed by a big grin the first time I left the traffic lights. The most wonderful thing about the car though is the electric drive. Driving with an electric engine is pure joy - in fact, I felt slightly offended every time the nasty, polluting diesel engine kicked in. “Why are you ruining my pure experience?”, I swore under my breath many times! Of course, the battery in the car is good for only about 50 km of electric driving, and even then the diesel engine starts from time to time to provide power in sudden accelerations. But there’s a “Pure” (pure!) mode, in which the car really tries to avoid using the combustion engine, so that makes avoiding nastiness a bit easier. Driving with electric drive is ad[...]

The Danger Of Ostrich Solution

Sun, 06 Apr 2014 12:24:32 GMT

Ever asked an engineer for a solution for a problem with your Windows installation? Ever gotten the answer “use a Mac!”? Or “Buy an iPhone?” Or “Use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office?” That’s the engineer’s Ostrich Solution right there: by pretending the entire premise of the question is invalid, you ignore the problem by blaming the victim. Kinda like putting your head in sand and ignoring the rest of the world exists. I tweeted recently how I thought that Youtube is becoming useless because they’ve started adding ads directly in the middle of programs. As an automatic algorithm, it disrupts the experience of viewing because it has no concept of story pacing. For some pirated TV shows which have clear cues (like a few frames of black) it might work, but for a whole lot of programming it just ruins the experience. The responses I got were all in the line of “use an adblocker”. The Ostrich Solution. Pretend Youtube is not screwing things up by ignoring it. I agree that it is a good solution to annoying ads. It’s direct, it’s simple, it’s effective. It’s the kind of solution engineers thrive on. But it only solves the problem for one person. Everyone else, especially those who don’t have the technical knowledge of installing an adblocker, are completely thrown out in the cold. But the engineer no longer knows this, since he’s solved his own immediate problem, and does not even realize that someone else might have a problem. And that’s how you distance yourself from the general population. I mean, we engineers know that encryption is important. We run things like “HTTPS everywhere” to keep our communications private. But it wasn’t until Edward Snowden revealed that NSA had been attacking the infrastructure of major internet companies that they decided to turn on encryption for ‘’everyone’’, not just those who actually cared about it. Was it because of cost issues, or was it simply because the engineers figured they know how to turn on SSL from the options so “it was already secure for those who wanted it to be secure”? The designers even made it user-friendly by making the tick look big. We know that the internet’s freedom is at stake, so we build undeniably wonderful things like Tor and SSH ‘’for those who know how to use such things’’, and leave everyone else to be steamrolled by zealous nationstates. We design internet-enabled gadgets that make our house tweet, and glasses that let you record everything, but don’t really care about what might happen when everyone’s connected this way and someone cracks the OS or our government turns nasty. At least we’ll be rich and can protect ourselves. I know it’s a human thing. It’s not only that naturally we’re interested in our own wellbeing more than that of other people, but that often it’s just easier and faster to solve the immediate problem and leave the underlying problem field for others. We’re occupied by a billion trivial matters, of which ten are satisfying, and the pressures of the civilization to provide even more and cheaper and better. And we look at people who have made a gazillion dollars and are willing to work long, gruesome hours to get even a whiff of the same success. And this is a wonderful time to be an engineer. We’re good at details, and details is what the world gives us right now in plenty. Especially in IT, people want to be trailblazers. They want to be the next Twitter or Facebook. That means doing a lot of things that nobody has quite done before in the same way. That’s the nature of engineering in general: there are always exceptions, always problems to solve, no matter how many times you have do[...]

ShadowRun Returns: Dragonfall

Sun, 23 Mar 2014 01:18:23 GMT

OK, so I've been running a ShadowRun game since, well, pretty much late teens, that is, over 20 years now. I've been there pretty much from the first edition of the rules, and been through quite a lot of revisions and world expansions etc - but still, my favourite era in SR is the decade of circa 2050-2060, where everything was still fresh and new and the writing was great. So when the original desktop Shadowrun line developer joined forces with some smart people to make a computer game, I was somewhat excited, but a bit wary - would it truly live up to the expectations?

I may have gushed over the original SR Returns campaign (Dead Man's Switch), and the empty, gutwrenching feeling you have when you realize you have to peek inside an "Universal Brotherhood" -chapterhouse in one part of the game. Without spoiling too much, that place played a pivotal role in the desktop campaign, and as such the campaign for the computer game hit just the right spots, but it was more or less riding on the excellence of the world rather than the writing itself. So it was okay, and promised good things about the future.

However, I just finished the new campaign for SR Returns - Dragonfall. And boy, that's exactly the kind of game the evokes the same feelings as the best game you ever thought you ran as a teenager. That's really where it's at. It's exciting, well-written, and completely and utterly engaging. And it's, well, different from a lot of games. At some point I realized I wasn't playing to win the baddies. I was playing to protect the people - the characters in the game - who were depending on me. I started to take things personally, and at some point I did my darndest to avoid making certain decisions, because they would be bad for the people. And I started caring for those well-written side characters, and wished there was more dialogue written for them. My character "Sparrow" started out as a cynic, no-nonsense street samurai, but over the course of the game he found a soft spot and a home for himself. The character evolved through roleplaying. I would never, ever have thought that that would actually happen in a computer game.

And there were some aspects of some of the missions I just hated. Hated with burning passion. Not because they were bad, but because there were only bad and worse moral choices to be made. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It was wonderful.

Honestly, the last time a game evoked these kinds of feelings was the original Homeworld, where the story and the soundscape created something more than just a game - a feeling of being a part of a story. This is really gaming at it's best; something that lets you discover things about yourself too which you did not realize. I'm really glad to see yet another example of how powerful a game can be - truly justifying games as equal to books or to movies.

I am really looking forward to whatever Harebrained Schemes do next with this game. There are many, many wonderful stories still to tell - I have been telling some of my own for the past 20 years. The goodness of all this makes me giddy.

(You can download Shadowrun Returns on Steam. Well worth it. Both campaigns together took me about 35 hours over the course of a few weeks, an hour here and an hour there. And I just love the soundtrack.)