Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The War Machine

A coffee induced discussion on tabletop gaming brought to my attention this miniatures game I've never heard of before, called Warmachine. Which is interesting, because I called my high school project The War Machine. It earnt me a perfect grade at the time; I still take pride in that project of mine.
Written in Pascal, The War Machine (MY War Machine) was a computer turn based strategy game. Its first [independent] module was a map designer: users were able to design a rectangular map of any sensible size they can think of and populate it with different types of terrain. They were then able to place army units from two sides on that map.
The second module was the game itself: the single player picked a previously created map, chose a side, and then started issuing commands to their army unit (like move, attack, retreat or deploy). There was some complexity included into the engine, such as managing supplies and logistics. The main event, however, was the artificial intelligence that allowed the computer to assume the opponent's side and fight the player. Pretty effectively so, if I might add.

Looking back at The War Machine, I find it amazing how little research I had done for the project. Not for lack of trying; it's just that it was very hard to acquire information during those pre-internet times. Things we take for granted nowadays, like online searches or Wikipedia researches, simply weren't there. I can see the differences these make with my pre-teen son's school projects. Seriously, I do more research in order to decide what to have for dinner than I did for that school project of mine!
That research relied pretty much on three sources. The first was Dungeons & Dragons rules for determining the results of army to army fights. You may recall D&D is a game focusing on individual characters; those rules I'm referring to were there to answer the need for determining what would happen if armies collided during those individual characters' campaigns.
That D&D set of rules was called The War Machine. I politely borrowed the name for my project. It was those rules that pretty much governed the AI (Artificial Intelligence) of the computer side.
That AI was built around ideas borrowed from another book I purchased years earlier, called Artificial Intelligence and the Dragon Computer. [For those of you who don't know, probably most of you, the Dragon was a personal computer from that very first round of personal computers for the home.] Essentially, the computer player calculated The War Machine rules' scores of each option available to its army units and went with the choices that got it the maximum score (read: effectiveness).
My third source of inspiration was a strategy board game called Ogre that my uncle bought me* a few years earlier. It was a two player turn based game where one player controlled a single very powerful but slow tank, the Ogre, as it fought to cross the battlefield. Opposing that powerful Ogre was the second player, armed with numerous faster but not as capable army units. At the time, Ogre was analysed to the death in various forums; books were written about it, and I read some of those. Essentially, the experts concluded that the Ogre should almost always win (barring severe lack of luck with the dice) with one single exception: if the opponent deployed only hovercraft a to fight the Ogre and used them in a way that saw them attacking and then retreating away each round (so as to avoid the counterattack).
Ogre acted as a test case for my game. I designed a map that was, essentially, a copy of that board game's map, and deployed units across it as per the original game. I then played it out against the computer and exchanged roles between Ogre and opponent. Lo and behold, my simulation behaved exactly as that Ogre published analysis said it would!
I was a proud boy.


Image copyright © 1984 Keith and Steven Brain, used under the assumption of fair use

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Mind the Gap

One of the features of having a regular coffee joint to hang out at is that one develops some sort of a relationship with the crew hosting us there. There are the owners, but they are outnumbered by the younger folk that actually does the bulk of the work. And these, as coffee shops go, are very young people.
Through chatting we discovered (and cringed) at one being 25 years old and another 20. And last week, while discussing sports injuries (from which I'm immune) we discovered another one is 19 years old. 19! They even made a song about her back in the eighties.
This discovery brought the cringe factor to new peaks. I mean, what do these people think about me? It is the first time I hold an adult to adult conversation with a person who has a generational advantage on me; I'm used to it going the other way, but now I am The Old Guy.


Perhaps the best place to start is me looking at the way I used to regard older generations back when I was a child [I wanted to use the term bar*ly le*al, but that would attract the wrong audience to this post].
Well, I grew up in an environment filled with people who lived through World War 2, Holocaust survivors, and people who fought Israel's various existential wars - from its war to achieve independence (1947-1948) through the Six Day War (1967) and Yom Kippur / October War (1973). As one can imagine, each of those was a big deal, certainly bigger than anything I had experienced. Yes, even bigger than September 11. You can see what September 11 did to our world; imagine what those events did to their world and the impression it left on them. So yeah, it would be damn hard for me to relate to them and for them to relate to me.
And now I stand sipping coffee with people too young to have proper recollections of even September 11. Where does that leave us? Can a bridge be found that would allow us to connect?
I would argue that, while we can chat and all, we would never be able to relate to one another the way each of us can relate to people of their generation, growing up in the same culture, listening to the same music, et al. We have just been wired too differently.
One can see this on a regular basis. Take, on one hand, the grandparent that doesn't know a thing about technology, or the kid that complains they're bored the second their iPad battery dies on the other hand. Or note how racism is not even considered a thing to be ashamed of with the older generations.
One cannot escape the conclusion our world is changing too quickly for us to catch up. One day that currently 19 year old waitress will face a much younger adult who won't dig her, either.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Love Over Gold

To state the obvious, I am the person who I am today as a direct result of experiences I had during younger years. The less obvious insight is that I should be thankful for the circumstances I grew up in, as they obviously favoured me; I do wonder how many people receive as many opportunities as I have had.
Since I posted a lot recently on the way music had touched me, I will demonstrate the point through music yet again.

I clearly remember the way Love Over Gold, Dire Straits' fourth album (the one playing as I'm typing) entered my life.
My siblings were arguing who would be the one that buys the new album when it comes out. At stake was the question of in whose room will the album get stored when not in use. My sister won, by default, on account of my brother being away the day the album came out. I still remember that evening, when she arrived at my uncle's house (I was already there) carrying the new treasure and asked, ever so politely, if she could put it on.
We were all mesmerised by Telegraph Road. It is clearly a case of "they don't do them like that anymore", a mainstream song that's almost 15 minutes long, but there you go.
And it's not like the next track, Private Investigations, was a slouch either.


Going back to the subject of childhood benefits, I would like to discuss Industrial Disease (side B's first track, given those were the prime days of vinyl).
I actually heard the song a while before it was released on the album. Voice of Peace, the visionary pirate radio station playing off the shores of Tel Aviv, played it one evening when I was recording them on a cassette. In those days of contents deprivation (a stark contrast to today's contents saturation), that meant I had a treasure on my hands - a new Dire Straits song I could listen to again and again!
Nowadays we have fewer incentives to listen to one song repeatedly, given the ease with which we can always get the even newer song. There is, however, a positive to listening to a song again and again: for this native Hebrew speaker, the sophisticated language of Industrial Disease provided me with one of my best ever English lessons. Not to mention a very large window into the so very foreign British culture.
My point is simple. Through repeated listening to my favourite music, and later repeated viewings of my favourite films on VHS and later Laserdisc, my English skills have established a better foundation than school lessons could ever provide. Later on, these skills had me cruising through the English side of my university studies (I can't say I cruised through most of the other sides). Of course, nowadays I live in an English speaking country, reading and writing in English by default.
I think Love Over Gold sums this aspect of my life quite neatly.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Art of Noise

In my last post to deal with the gravely important subject of headphones, I argued that despite all their shortcomings Bluetooth headphones are the way to go. All their issues fade in comparison to the comfort and ease of use. Now I will, yet again, change my mind.
I gave Bluetooth headphones a fair go over numerous months, but as nice as they are they do have their own issues. First, there is that matter of poor sound quality. Then there is the cost: if you want better quality (but still not hi-fi quality), you will need to open your wallet wide to the tune of $500 or even more for the latest Parrot 3 or Sennheiser Momentum Series 2. That's very poor return on investment given they will be eclipsed in less than a year. And third, Bluetooth has its own issues, notably interferences often meaning it is not just a matter of switching them on and pressing play on the phone but rather, and all too often, having to go through a bit of a debugging ritual.
So for now, and at least until the iPhone deprives us of a headphone jack, I'm back with wired headphones. But not just any wired headphones.

Noise cancelling UI #parrot #zik2.0

My experiments with noise cancelling headphones have been quite revealing, to the point of revolutionising my perceptions on all headphone matters.
To sum it up in a nutshell, noise cancelling is an incredibly effective technology, at least by the standards applying to the Sony cans I am using. If you can afford the far more expensive Bose Quietcomfort 25s then you're in for an even better treat. [I verified that last point with an extensive A-B-A-B-A-B testing session, courtesy of Costco.]
I now see myself in need of two sets of headphones to satisfy two significantly different use cases.
The first set is a hi-fi grade one for use at home, in that controlled and quiet environment where bulk, usability and weight are not an issue. This is where I seek the ultimate headphone experience, and when done right it is a very rewarding experience.
However, it is the second use case that is far more important and where the bulk of my headphone music action lies. This is all to do with listening to music outside my home, through my phone (and definitely not through any sophisticated amps and DACs), in uncontrolled environments that are guaranteed to have background noise, often a lot of it: the train, the street and the office.
I can argue about the merits of hi-fi headphone listening as much as I'd like, and I do like to philosophise on such matters, but the reality is that at those environments there CANNOT be a hi-fi experience. It is physically impossible, period.
Which is where noise cancelling steps in. Sure, my noise cancelling headphones are a far cry from hi-fi standards, and at home when pitted against the hi-fi they feel like a badly tuned violin. But, and that is a very important but, on the street or on the train they allow me to completely switch off from the environment I'm in and focus on the music. They allow me to enjoy the music to unprecedented levels, and in the end that is all that matters. And they do so without making my ears bleed and even over extended sessions.
So yeah, one does need to be careful and switch off noise cancelling when crossing a road and such. But at the office they allow me to disconnect myself from the eternally ongoing chitchat that comes with an open office setting (and enable me to focus on work instead). And on the street they allow me to take part in the debate that podcast I'm listening to is offering or get to truly feel for the character in this audiobook I'm listening to.

It is a truly wonderful experience to be able to enjoy sound regardless of the environment one is at. I give noise cancelling technology full credit there.


Image by Lunasea., Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Sunday, 22 May 2016

We don't need no [private] education

We already know a lot about Australian private schools. For example, we know they often get more tax payer money funding for each of their students than state schools in the same area do (and that's aside of the money parents pay out of pocket). It's getting to the point one can argue one is saving tax payer money by sending their kids to private schools.
The number one question with regards to private schools remains the same, though: is it worth it? Can this huge parental investment of around $20K out of pocket per student per year (Catholic schools cost less) show a decent return on investment? After all, there is a whole galaxy of private tutoring one could purchase with that same amount of money.


We recently got some sort of an answer from Brighton Grammar, a prestigious private school in the Melbourne area. It published a guide on bullying which claimed, among others, that kids who get bullied have themselves to blame. I don't think there is a need for me to go on and explain just how bad a claim this is; suffice to say it reeks of the same victim blaming we tend to hear with rape cases, stuff along the lines of "she brought it on herself by wearing a short skirt".
The school itself, a boys only affair, only provided a half hearted non-apology following all the protests.
If Brighton Grammar hadn't already demonstrated where it is standing by virtue of it being a boys only school, this latest educational message clarifies affairs firmly: it is stuck some hundred years or so ago, providing an education system not unlike that depicted in Pink Floyd's The Wall. It does so in a very flashy manner, offering Olympic swimming pools and precision cut grass on the oval (it is truth universally acknowledged that the standard deviation of the grass' length requires NASA grade laser tools to measure). But it is still archaic.
This is what parents, as well as tax payers, are getting for their money. A status symbol that has little to do with 21st century education.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Fools on the Hill

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
-An ancient Chinese proverb that's probably not Abraham Lincoln's

Less than three years ago, the Australian people have voted for the Liberal & National coalition to build a government headed by Tony Abbott with which to run Australia. It took less than a year for disenchantment with that government to take over, as indicated by the overthrowing of single term Liberal state governments in Queensland a and Victoria. It took a year longer for the Liberals themselves to get the point and demote Abbott.
If we examine the state of mind that had Aussies choose this failure in the first place, we can find its roots in what turned out to be false claims regarding the state of the Australian economy. Essentially, the Liberals claimed the then minority Labor government is stagnating affairs and that they'd do things so much better that everyone would be better off. It was the definition of a negative campaign, with its Juliar slogan and everything that went with it.
Fast forward a year, and all the Liberals had achieved in their term of governing was the cancellation of Labor's Carbon Tax. An amazing achievement for a country that deems itself an advanced 21st century society, I am sure you'd [dis]agree. That, plus a budget that declared an emergency (two years later we are still searching for that emergency) and tried to kidnap our Medicare and plenty of other things that do make Australia an advanced 21st century society.


Another way of telling this story is to say that the Liberals fooled most of the people some of the time before the previous elections. Alas, I cannot avoid drawing a far more damning conclusion.
With polls suggesting this year's elections has the two sides tied at 50%-50%, I do wonder what this is implying with regards to the Australian people's ability to learn from the past. Perhaps it is not the case at all that the Liberals fooled people; maybe, instead, it is us Australians that are simply foolish.

Monday, 9 May 2016

There are many things that I would like to say to you but I don't know how


One of things I've been blamed with, recently, is my lack of transparency. The argument stipulates that since figuring out the things I say here are open for the whole world to read, I stopped discussing the things that would allow my friends [in particular] to know what's going on with my life.
There is much truth in that. I will also add that, on my side, there are a load of things I would like to tell the world about but wouldn't (and not necessarily because lately I don't have time for anything anymore).
At the core, things come down to this. Contrary to popular opinion, I actually do share a lot of private stuff online, and way more than your average person does on Facebook. It's just that, over time, I have learnt restraint. For example:
  • I try to avoid security compromises,
  • I try to avoid infringing the privacy of others (as opposed to mine),
  • I try to avoid inflicting damage on the future prospects of my professional career, and
  • Sometimes I even try to avoid hurting others' feelings.
On my side, the "problem" is really how to share the things that invalidate the above rules without the potential damage that can come as a result. Most of the time, that comes to how I can best ensure that only the people I want to discuss these matters with hear what I have to say. Since Google changing its privacy policy back in 2012 I became aware of commercial espionage on everything I do online; since Snowden came out in 2013 I became aware of governments sticking their noses into everything online as well as the not so online (e.g., phone calls, SMS).
Encryption comes to my rescue, but it can only go so far. There is that much praise that I can bestow upon the Signal application, but at the end of the day it is just an instant messaging app and not a nice medium with which to convey complicated messages; as unpopular as it is to state, there are many occasions when an email will outdo an instant message.
I dipped my toes into the realm of PGP, but frankly it is a pain and it is even worse when trying to inflict this pain on friends. Nowadays there are friendly alternatives, like Proton Mail or Tutanota, but the feedback I've been getting so far is that none of my friends can be bothered to open an account with those. Personally, I cannot see what's so hard about doing exactly that: with the aid of a password manager, we're talking about two minutes worth of an effort to set things up. But hey, that is a perfectly legitimate lifestyle choice on behalf of my friends, and who am I to wonder why.
Don't get me wrong, I truly mean no disrespect here. I'm the one who always complains there's not enough time in my life to do the things I really want to do, so who am I to tell the people I consider friends that they should stop what they're doing and do what I'm asking them to do instead? I hope I'm not that narcissistic asshole yet.
I am also the first to admit that whatever it is I feel the occasional urge to say is, in the grand scheme of this universe, trivial bullshit. Indeed, In some twisted way, that reluctance to cooperate with me actually solves my problems: Not only does it save my time, but rather, given no one seems interested in what I have to say, perhaps it is best for me to learn how to talk less.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Musical Foundations

I noticed most of my recent [and sadly, rare] posts on this blog deal with music. I can see why; music represents something nice to fall back on in times of stress. But I can also see another reason: music acts as a pillar on which my identity rests.
When I ponder this last point, I can conclude there are several distinct eras in my life, as far as music is concerned. These are firmly defined by available technology and the financial means at my disposal. In this post I want to focus on the second of these eras. That was the era when I was still too young to have my own music but old enough to be able to play the music available to me, through my older siblings, to my musical pleasure.
Given those were the true heydays days of vinyl (unlike the current pseudo retro resurrection with all the cool folk), I didn't have that much to play with. But my siblings did have a substantial collection, by the era's standards, and I did have much to listen to.
It is important for me to emphasise how important this collection and its substantial nature were to me and my personal development. Nowadays we are all spoiled by streaming, but up until a bit more than a decade ago people's musical tastes were dictated primarily by one single factor: scarcity.
Think and rethink that point, as we acknowledge that scarcity problem was solved by one single factor driving the industry to change: piracy. Blessed are the pirates!
OK, back to the main theme. Of all the albums in the collection available to me, there were three albums that stood apart, the albums I kept listening to again and again. I am here to name and praise them.

1. The Police: Reggatta de Blanc
Many things conspired to attract me to this album. The cover, for a start, or rather the back cover depicting the backs of the heads of the trio that was The Police. The ongoing discussions about the gibberish record titles The Police liked to pick. (Which, now we know, was not gibberish at all. Allegedly, Sting never liked rock music, and decided to come with with white people's reggae - Reggatta de Blanc - as an alternative). To this budding science fiction fan, the lure of Walking on the Moon was also a substantial factor.
But most of all, it was the music that stood out. I recall having arguments with my sister, who liked to complain I listen to this album way too much. I should, she argued, listen to proper reggae instead, "like UB40". To which I will say, with the benefit of hindsight: In your face!

2. Dire Straits: Making Movies
To give credit where credit is due, Dire Straits were probably my overall biggest music love at the time. I loved all their albums I had available at the time, Dire Straits, Communiqué and Making Movies; it's just that I deemed, and still deem, Making Movies to be the best of the lot (including the albums that came later).
I think it is obvious to say that it is Mark Knopfler's fault that I love the electric guitar as much as I do. No other instrument comes close.


3. Pink Floyd: Animals
I hear you asking why, of all the Pink Floyd albums, did I pick Animals in particular? The answer is simple: that's the best Pink Floyd album I had available on vinyl.
Many things attracted me to this album. Again, the cover played a factor, with that pig hovering over the big power station (when the time came and I visited London, I made sure I took all the photos I could of that rather ugly blight). There were the pig oink sounds that opened the song Pigs ("wow, is that music?"). And there were lines along the lines of "hey you White House, charade you are"; I mean, this was the first time I was exposed to such a blatant anti authoritarian call.
Over the years, Pink Floyd grew to be my favourite band, by far, and the makers of my favourite album, by far (an album that preceded Animals, but not for me). It was that last point, the political, that probably touched me the most. Given this piece is written under the assumption music is a pillar to my identity, the point is worth elaborating on.
What are our political opinions made of, anyway? Let us be honest, most of us shape our views from ideas we gather along the way. In other words, we are influenced by the political opinions of others to whom we are exposed. In the case of Pink Floyd, one can argue that the person I am today shares the bulk of his political views with Roger Waters, the band's main creator during its peak years and a guy often accused of owning up to scandalous views. I think I owe Waters a lot, particularly for The Wall in the worldview department and The Final Cut in the political department.
To the point of wondering whether I agree with Pink Floyd because of mere coincidence, a case of great minds think alike, or whether it was actually Pink Floyd that shaped me to be the person I am today. It's probably both.


Copyrights for the album cover images belong to their matching labels; reproduced here under the assumption of fair use