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Feature: Mass Murderer on Brutal Killing Spree
May 26th, 2015 under andre, Author, Fun, Stories. [ Comments: none ]

After the sudden end of a year-long crime wave, bodies begin to drop. At the end of December, death threats began spreading across London and Eastern England. Then, on the 1st of January, the first of many victims is hit; December, where less than 50 people were arrested in the whole East Anglia was naught but the calm before the storm. Since the first killing, exactly 90 days ago, 76 rather influential businessmen have fallen to this plague. The only connection between each kill? Two deep gashes, seeming to be knife wounds, or, ridiculously, sword wounds. No suspects have been confirmed as if yet.

The valiant police have hungrily followed every lead, but any evidence found so far has been destroyed. In the first week, fifty-three police officers have passed on, with another two hundred tallying up in March alone. The chief officer, in a press conference, admitted to being forced to close the case through blackmail; he was swiftly and remorselessly dispatched the following day – and his wife and three kids following him soon after. After this incident, the remaining officers have decided to stick with buddies, and a rule has passed in the police station that no one man can go somewhere without at least two other people. As such, seventeen policemen were found, all killed in one fell swoop. Amongst them were seven MI6 agents working covertly with the rest of the task force to catch this criminal – whose name, rumour has it, is Stormbringer.

Hundreds upon thousands are mourning, and many more besides joined the riot for an end to the deaths – until that is, the very criminal found his way through the crowds to another three victims before the parade was called off. Strangely enough, it seems as if he is not attacking citizens, for whenever he picks his targets outside of the police force, they always seems to be somewhat reserved and important; no connections have been determined so far.

Some would say that this man is devil incarnated, others may say he is simply crazy, but all agree that he must be locked away for longer than life, if not death; however, his true marvel is the speed and alacrity with which he, and he alone, has brought the greatest world superpower to its knees in three months.

In other news, morgue business income has skyrocketed.

Andre’s Writing Assesment: Newspaper Story.
18th May 2015

Second language curse
December 9th, 2013 under Fun, Life, rengolin. [ Comments: none ]

I count myself privileged of being proficient in a second language (English), which has helped me learn other languages and have a more elastic mind towards different concepts in life. But there is a curse that I just found out, and it turned out to be significant.

For a few years I realised that I was signing my emails with the wrong name: “reanto” instead of “renato“. And since I sign manually all my emails (and I send many emails a day), I could get a true sense of the problem. In the last year or so, the problem got a lot worse, and now I can’t sign my own emails any more without erasing “reanto” and re-writing “renato” almost every time.

Now, misspelling English words (even when you do know the correct spelling) is ok, since I haven’t started typing when we moved to England, far from it. Misspelling Portuguese words is also ok, because the contact with a new language will bring new sounds, and some uncertainty on how to spell a native word will arise after a few years without much contact with it. But misspelling your own name?! That’s a whole new class of fail.

Today it occurred to me that the reason for that might very well be the same as the rest, after all my name is just another word that I know how to spell. And, it turns out that, in the English language, “anis the 5th most common digraph, while “na” doesn’t even register!

So, the frequency which I write the digraphs (and trigraphs) in English are shaping my ability to write my own name. Much the same as the problems that my native language have when I write English, for instance, I have to delete the “e” at the end of many words like “frequent“, as it seems to come before I even think about it.

While writing this small post, the browser’s spell checker has fixed my misspellings (including the previous word) many times, and forcing me to not have the checker bug me, has also forced me to misspell my own name.

The brain is a weird thing…

Dad, what is war?
December 12th, 2011 under Fun, rengolin, Stories, World. [ Comments: 3 ]

There’s this little girl on the hotel’s lobby. She seems very smart, but at odds with one of the popular magazines she’s reading. It looks like one of those low-quality magazines that people publish for children, assuming they’re dumb and can’t take a bit of logic. This one seems to be about history, mostly relating facts to simple conclusions and trying to get started the child’s imagination on what would be like hundreds of years ago.

I’m only waiting for them to get my room ready, so anything to pass the time is game, and watching the puzzled face of that little girl looking at a picture of what looks like a war scene is, at least, entertaining. Her dad is busy with some details of his bill, so she refrains from interrupting him, but enough is enough, I can see that she must ask what that is. And so she does.

“Dad, what is war?”. A bit puzzled with the numbers still floating in his mind and having to cope with such an unexpected question, he stops for a moment. “I, uh… war is… er, like… why do you ask?”. The little girl flips the magazine without letting it go, so her dad can read, and look at him with those big reflecting eyes, demanding a fair answer.

After switching his mind quickly yo cope with the upside-down writings and the glare from the sun outside on the screen, her dad finally tries to answer. “Well, honey. War is when people get angry and fight.” That was really amazing, because you could clearly see how fast her mind was pattern-matching in all her reactions. The involuntary contraction of her neck, the slight tilt of her head and the eyes going back and forth looking at nothing in particular. About a second later, she concluded. “Oh, I see, like you and mum?”

At this time the father wasn’t listening any more, and just issued the standard “uh-huh”. It was clear as filtered air that, in the next seconds, lots of memories of her family would be unequivocally associated with war, and at a later stage (if she ever became a historian), she would have to deal with that. It seems silly for me to interfere, but learning is an emergent behaviour, and she could have other unpredictable side-effects that would ruin her life for a number of reasons.

I looked around and there was no sign of the hotel staff bringing me my key, so I put my reservation aside and dived in. “Hello, little girl. How is your magazine?”. She looked at me in a slight panic, but my smiling face is anything but threatening. She looked at her dad, than at me. Her dad didn’t seem particularly worried, so she relaxed and continued the conversation.

“This is a magazine about the dark ages. I’ve learned dark ages at school and that people used to fight a lot, but I’ve never seen pictures of a real war before.” I said, “Well, these pictures are very old and bi-dimensional, it’s hard to see anything in them. Besides, they were usually taken by one or the other side, so you never knew how bad things really were other than what people told in the news or left in the pictures.”

She still seemd a bit confused, and not because of the quality of the pictures, I have to say. “I imagine how angry these people had to be to come to this…”. There was my cue. “You see, this has nothing to do with being angry… Your mum and dad will never go to war for disagreeing, because war is not about anyone’s feelings, really”.

Nevertheless, she seemed very resolute in her fantasy of mum and dad waging wars. “When they got separated, my mum said she was going to kill dad if he ever showed up again…”. But I was not going to give up, “That doesn’t mean it’s war. She was just angry and I’m sure she won’t kill anyone.”

By that time, my keys had arrived and I was ready to leave, but the little girls’ eyes weren’t stable enough for me to leave. Not just yet. “I don’t get it. If people were not mad, why did they fight?”. I could not hold my urge to elaborate… so I did.

“You see, back in the 21st century, people used to be a lot less rational than today. They used to call the early days as ‘dark ages’, only that those days were a lot less dark than – what we call today – the dark ages. People had a very blurry view of what science is or can do, and religion was still a strong player in worlds business.”

“Not only that, but people also had a very limited point of view. They thought only about their own profit and even then, only their short term profit – think about a month or so, no more – so they were always taking rapid-firing short-sighted decisions. For instance, they would wage wars in the – then, called middle east – area to control the oil production, even decades after realising fossil fuels weren’t good at all. Even mother China would wage wars with our neighbours because of their political agenda…” “Not mother China! We’d never do that!” I was taken aback a bit for her reaction, but continued nevertheless… “Hundreds of years ago, dear, everyone did that, even mother China.”

She was puzzled. Maybe I was making it worse, which was another reason to continue…

“Let’s go back a bit. When science was still at its early stages, there were some fundamental questions that people couldn’t answer, like ‘where do we come from’ and ‘why are we here'” “But that’s non-sense!” “Yes, yes, calm down, we’re talking about back then, remember?” “Oh, yes, sorry.” “Those questions, however irrelevant to the universe, were fundamental to even the most prodigious scientists of that era. It was not all bad, since most of the discoveries of that time came from trying to find the ultimate truth.”

“Religion is that stuff about the universe being created, right?” “Exactly, there is a deity that is more powerful than us and have created us. Somewhat like man and ants, we could do whatever we wanted with them…” “but we didn’t create the ants!” “Yes, I was, uh, trying to come up with an analogy, sorry. You see, that’s one of the reasons why it failed over the time, people ran out of stupid analogies and science took care of the rest. With time, we stopped asking stupid questions as well, so the long sought answers about the universe died out and, well, came the age of enlightenment.”

“What does that have to do with war?” “Oh, yes, war. So, ever since the stone age, most wars were waged for religious reasons. It may not make a lot of sense now, but different people had different religions, and they could not accept that other people could believe in a different deity, or even in the same deity, with slightly different rules. That has led to a lot of controversy, and due to the lack of diplomacy, wars.”

“However, after a while, people realised that religion was not just a matter of belief, it was a powerful weapon. If you could make people believe in what you want – that you are in direct communication with such deity, for instance – you would recruit every single man that believes in that deity to your cause. With time, when money came into scene, that was the most powerful way to acquire money. Later on, when religion started to fail, people had to create different fears, such as their own safety. That’s when terrorism came to scene, but again, that had strong religious roots.”

“So, war was about money, then?” “Exactly! Money and power, which invariably leads to more money (or power).” “Oh, that’s stupid! Everyone knows you get more if you cooperate than if you fight over something…” She was warming up and I’d lose my meeting but I wouldn’t stop now!

“Have you ever heard of John Nash?” “Hey, John Nash, I know him! Game theory, right?” “Well done!” I was really impressed, they normally learn that stuff at 10, but she was barely 7 years old. “There were some people a bit ahead of their time, like John Nash and Stephen Hawking, but they were few. Most of the prodigious scientists were all looking for the ultimate answer. And funny enough, for more than a century after John Nash, people still waged wars for money…”

She was looking down, and a bit sad… “My mum always say that I don’t listen and I only learn through pain… I guess this was their problem, wasn’t it?” “I think so” said I, resolute. “I think there’s yet another explanation that fits into Nash’s predictions. There were so many factors into why waging wars actually makes less profit than not, that people could not see it straight away. Whoever said that was taken as an anarchist, or an idiot – which at the time, was almost the same thing…” “What’s an anarchist?” That truly took me out of balance… I wasn’t prepared to elaborate on that. So I didn’t.

“Back to war… Nash’s idea, and that we all take for granted today, is that collaboration is far more stable and profitable than competition. I personally think that, what was really difficult for them to realise, was that competition is what made men evolve, but that’s also what made men stop evolving for millennia. Learning to collaborate was the single most important change in the world over the last three hundred years, and also what made our fauna and flora to go back to its original intent, and thanks to that, we still have our planet to live in.”

“Of course we do! Where else? Ha!” She was laughing seriously loud now. I believe a man of that age would not understand why, but I did.

My watch went crazy on the alarm, reminding me I had a meeting in 15 minutes, and I even hadn’t had a shower. That was my cue to leave, so just made some silly moves like pointing at the watch and smirking, and she got it straight away. Clever girl.

The OFF button
September 26th, 2011 under Fun, rengolin, Stories. [ Comments: none ]

Geeks like to hack stuff, especially if they’re not meant to be hacked. But hacking computers or mobile phones is piece of cake, so some, more adventurous geeks hack cars. The Toyota Prius is a particularly interesting car to hack, since a lot of its functionality is based on control systems and they have interface ports that you can plug in debug systems and change (or add) behaviour to your car.

For instance, you can enable the SatNav screen to play video CDs or MP3s, since the system supports it, but there aren’t enough buttons on the panel and, well, you shouldn’t be watching videos while you drive, anyway.

Another less common hack, but doable is to change the voice commands. They’re normally hard-coded to respond when you press a button on the steering wheel and say something. For instance, on my Prius, if you say “fire photon torpedoes” it puts the air condition temperature down a bit. If you say “Khaaaaaaaan!” it turns off the radio, and so on.

Some controls are a bit less harmless, like activating the breaks or turning off the car, but normally you can’t access them from the control panel, anyway. That is, unless you by-pass the CAN network and connect the central control with the control panel.

Legend tells that a geek bypassed the system and, just for fun, added a voice command to turn off the car when he’d say “off“. That was his pride and joy, and (geek) friends would go jealous of his control over his car. Until the day the car was too old and he decided to buy a new one, with even more technology. Only he forgot to disable the “off” button.

A few months later, they say, the new owner was having a fight with his girlfriend on M11 at full speed and, well, as many would do in those circumstances, he was swearing a lot. Loudly. His unfortunate last minute of life began when he accidentally pressed the “talk” button and said something along the lines of “f*** off …”.

The car dutifully acknowledged the command and, since the previous owner forgot to add any security checks, turned itself off at once. Havoc and carnage followed, but that’s another story.

Now you know why Toyota voids your warranty when you open the panel…

FreeCell puzzles solver API
September 25th, 2011 under Algorithms, Devel, Fun, Games, rengolin. [ Comments: 2 ]

This is a little pet project I did a while ago. It’s a FreeCell puzzle‘s solver API.

The idea is to provide a basic validation engine and board management (pretty much like my old chess validation), so people can write FreeCell solvers on top of it. It has basic board setup (of multiple sizes), movement legalisation, and a basic Solver class, which you must derive to create your own solvers.

There’s even a BruteFroceSolver that can solve a few small boards, and that gives you an idea on how to create your own solvers. However, the API is not clear enough yet that children could start playing with it, and that’s the real goal of this project: to get kids interested in solving complex optimisation problems in an easy way.

Freecell is a perfect game for it. Most boards can be solved (only a handful of them were proven – by exhaustion – not solvable), some movements can be rolled back and you can freely re-use cards that have already been placed into the foundations (their final destination) back in the game again.

It’s out of the scope of this project to produce a full-featured graphic interface for kids, but making the API easy enough so they understand the concepts without dragging themselves into idiosyncrasies of C++ is important.

Compiler optimisations

The reason why I did this was to make some of the optimisations compiler engineers have to do more appealing to non-compiler engineers or children with a taste for complex problems. But what does this have to do with compilers? The analogy is a bit far-fetching and somewhat reverse, but it’s interesting nevertheless and it was worth the shot.

Programming languages are transformed into graphs inside the compiler, which should represent the intentions of the original programmer. This graphs are often optimised multiple times until you end up with a stream of instructions representing the source code in the machine language.

Ignore for now the optimisations on those graphs, and focus on the final part: selecting machine instructions that can represent that final graph in the machine language (assembly). This selection can pick any assembly instruction at will, but it has to put them into a very specific order to represent the same semantics (not just syntactic) of the original program. Since many instructions have side effects, pipeline interactions, special flags set or cleaned up, it’s not trivial to produce correct code if you don’t check and re-check all conditions every time. This is a known complex optimisation problem and can be responsible for changes in speed or code size in orders of magnitude.

What does it have to do with the Freecell puzzle? Well, in Freecell, you have a number of cards and you have to put them in a specific order, just like assembly instructions. But in this case, the analogy is reverse: the “sequence” is trivial, but the “instructions” are hard to get.

There are other similarities. For example, you have four free cells, and they can only hold one value at a time. They are similar to registers, and manipulating them, gives you a good taste of how hard it is to do register scheduling when building the assembly result. But in this case, it’s much harder to spill (move the data back to memory, or in this case, card back to cascades), since there are strict rules on how to move cards around.

Reusing cards from the foundations is similar to expanding single instructions into a sequence of them in order to circumvent pipeline stalls. In real compilers you could expand a multiply+add (very useful for digital signal processing) into two instructions: multiply and add, if that gives you some advantage on special cases on special chips. In Freecell, you can use a 9 on top of a 10, to move an 8 from another cascade and free up a card that you need to clean up your freecells (registers).

I’m sure you can find many more similarities, even if you have to skew the rules a bit (or completely reverse them), but that’s not the point. The point is to interest people into complex optimisation techniques without the hassle of learning a whole new section of computer science, especially if that section puts fear in most people in the first place.

Why no MMORPG is good enough?
March 8th, 2011 under Devel, Fun, Games, rengolin, Software, Web. [ Comments: none ]

Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) are not new. The first I remember playing is the Legend Of the Red Dragon (LORD), but before that, of course, I’ve played other (real-life) multiplayer RPG games as well, and they were never quite the same thing.

Of course, at that time the graphic cards couldn’t quite compete with our imagination (not to mention connection speeds), but a lot has improved in both fronts, and lots of very good looking games have arrived, but still, there’s something missing. For years I couldn’t put my finger on it, but recently I think I nailed the issue: user driven content.

The interface

Most of the MMORGP are war games. World of Warcraft, LOTR online, Vendetta, Star Trek Online, Regnum and so many others rely on war to be fun. Of course, all of them have the side issues, some trade or silly missions, but the real fun is going to the battlefield.

If you look from the technical side of things, this is not surprising at all. Aside from good graphics, one of the hardest things to do in a game is a good interface. Very few games are perfect like Tetris. I gave Tetris to both my sons when they were about 2 years old and after about a minute they were already playing. There is no need to instructions, tutorials or any training and still today I find it quite fun. This is why it’s probably the most successful game in history.

But it’s all about the interface. It’s easy to create a seamless interface for Tetris. Try to create an interface for a strategy game that doesn’t require some hours of training, or an interface for first-person games that actually allows you to know where you are, or an interface for adventure games that doesn’t make you click in half-dozen places to get anything. Many have tried, all have failed.

At the dawn of internet games, strategy and quake were dominant. That’s because the internet wasn’t so fast and both were quite good in saving bandwidth. Quake had a special fix to avoid sending one packet for every bullet and only one packet when you press the trigger and another when you release it, the rest was up to the client.

But in war games, the interface is pretty much established. World of Warcraft didn’t invent anything, they just mixed Warcraft with Lara Croft (rubbish interface, by the way). Space ship games got the interface from Wing Commander (Vendetta got it from W.C. Privateer), Lord of the Rings and Regnum mixed Second Life with old-style RPG (even with the same deficiencies) and Star Trek Online copied from everyone above.

Now, the interface for a good strategy or adventure game is somewhat complicated. For a first-person 3D RPG, even worse. It doesn’t have to be mind controlled to be easy, nor you have to use 3D glasses or any immersion technology to be fun. Simplifying the game is one way, but then it’s even harder to make it more interesting.

It’s the user, stupid!

I can see only one way to add value to a game that is simple but still fun: user driven content.

You can enrich the world in which you’re immersed into. For instance, Zynga is quickly gathering an impressive amount of users by adding a lot of content. I don’t play those games, but people around me do and I can see why it’s so addictive. There are so many things to do and the frequency of updates is so impressive that it’s almost impossible not to be driven to it.

You might think that the games are too simple, and the graphics are average, but the interface is extremely simple, the challenges are simple, yet still challenging, and the number of paths you can choose for your character are enormous. In this case, the user experience is driven by his own choices. The content is so rich that each and every place is completely different from every other, solely driven by user choices.

Not many game companies (certainly not the indie ones) have time or money to do that. So, why are indie games generally more interesting than commercial ones? They go back to square one, simplify the game and optimise the interface. EA would never release something like Angry Birds or World of Goo, and yet those are the two best games I played in a long time. But, world of Goo is over and Angry Birds require constant attention (seasonal versions) to keep selling or making money (from ads).

They are missing the user content. It might not be their style, nor objective, but that’s a difference between Deep Purple and a one-hit-band.

Back to MMORGP

So, from all MMORPGs, there are many good looking, some with good challenges and a lot of slaughtering fun, but I tire quite quickly from playing them. The last I played was Vendetta. Quite good graphically, it has some reasonably accurate physics simulation (what drove me to it) but not accurate enough to keep me playing. The content tires too quickly to be fun after a few hours and even though I had 8 hours of free play, I spent less than two and dropped it.

This was always a pain, since Final Fantasy and the like, building up the character, hitting slugs for XP, fight-heal-run until you level up. Though Final Fantasy was better, as it normally would throw you on level 10 or so, so you didn’t need too much of levelling up. But why? Who likes beating 253 slugs to get 1000 experience points, going to level 2 and being able to equip a copper sword that doesn’t even cut a snail’s shell?

One of the best MMORGP experiences I had recently was Regnum. This is a free game made in Argentina and has a lot of content, good interface and a healthy community. They do the normal quest levelling up technique and it works quite well until level 15 or so. After that, it’s hitting bears, golems and phantoms for half a year until you can go outside and beat other users.

I got outside prematurely (couldn’t bother to wait) and the experience was also not great. Huge lag on big crowds, people disappearing in mid-air and appearing a few meters away, etc. But the most annoying of all was the content. It was always the same fort that we had to protect, always the same keep we had to attack, always the same talk on how our race is superior to your race, etc.

I haven’t seen Lord of the Rings (which sucks on Linux) or Star Trek Online (which doesn’t even run), but I bet they can get a bit further. They’re there to compete with World of Warcraft, not Regnum, but the fate will be the same: boring.

So, after quite a big rant, how would I do it?

User content

First, a memory refresh: all free first-person shooter I know of are a re-make of Quake. They use the same engine, the same world builders, the same techniques. On Debian repositories you’ll find at least a dozen, all of them running on some version of Quake. Nexuiz, Tremulous, Open Arena, Urban Terror, etc.

Not only the Quake engine is open source, but it was built to be extensible and that, even before the source was opened by ID. I made some levels for Doom, there were good editors at the time (1994?), probably there are full development suites today.

The user has the power to extend, create, evolve and transform your game in ways that you never thought possible. To think that only the few people you hire are good enough to create game content is to be, to say the least, naive.

Now, all those games are segmented. Nexuiz levels don’t connect to Tremulous levels. That’s because the mods (as they’re called) are independent. To be able to play all those different games you need to download a whole lot of data (objects, music, game logic, physics settings, etc) and each game has it radically different. Sarge with a rocket launcher would be invincible in most of other quake variants.

But that is, in my opinion, the missing link between short spurs of fun and long lasting enjoyment. I want to be able t build my world (like Zynga), but in a world with free movement (like Quake) with quests (like MMORPGs) made by the users themselves (like no FP-game I know) in a connected world. It cannot penalise those that connect seldom, or those that connect through text terminals, Android phones or browser users in any way.

As some games have started to understand, people like different things in games. I like building stuff and optimizing structures, some like carnage, others like to level up or wait 45 minutes for a virtual beef pie to be ready. You cannot have all that in one game if you’re the only content generator.

Also, if the engine is not open, people won’t be able to enhance it for their particular worlds. It doesn’t have to be open source, but it has to have a good API and an efficient plugin system. Tools to create mods and content is also essential, but the real deal is to give the users freedom to create their versions of the game and be able to connect them all.

If every game is also a server, people can create their small worlds inside the bigger world, that is in the central server. A business strategy would be, then, to host those worlds for people that really cared about them. Either host for free in exchange of ads and content generation, or paid hosting for the more serious users. You can also easily sell content, but more importantly, you can create a whole marketplace of content driven by the users! Read Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash and you know what I mean.

I think Apple and Google have proven over and over that a market with apps generated by the users is very effective indeed! Intel is just following the same path with their new App store, so yes, this is a good business strategy. But, it’s still fun for a wider range of people, from game addicts to casual gamers, from heavy modders to passive Facebook users.

There are many ways of doing that, maybe not all of them will be successful, but at least from my point of view, until that day arrives, no game will be fun.

How many gears in a bicycle?
October 16th, 2010 under Fun, Life, rengolin. [ Comments: none ]

I’m cycling to work now and found that by being stored and unused for so long, my bicycle’s gear box (or whatever that’s called) was a bit damaged. Not a total loss, but I lost one front gear and one back gear, which makes it a 12-gear bicycle instead of a 21. It made me wonder about the gears in the bicycle, and how much I have really lost. Since there are obvious similar gear-ratios and impossible configurations in those supposed 21 gears, the 12 I still have could account for more than 12/21th.

I counted the number of dents in the gears, front and back, and came up with the following (approximated) table or ratios:

  14 16 18 20 22 34
28 2.00 1.75 1.53 1.40 1.27 0.82
38 2.71 2.34 2.11 1.90 1.73 1.12
48 3.43 3.00 2.67 2.40 2.18 1.41

If you count the rations in order, you’ll see that there is an average distance of 0.15 between most of them. Some have more (1.12-0.82=0.30), some less (1.75-1.74=0.02). So, if you group those with less than 0.07 as one ratio, you end up with 12 possible combinations!

Furthermore, I can only change gears one at a time. With good training, maybe I can change both at the same time, one up and the other down, to minimize the switch. So that, represented in the table above, would be a grid with vertical and horizontal changes and the eventual diagonal change, but the diagonal has to be 45-degree angled (one change on each side at one time).

Since my 28-dented gear went busted, as well as my 14, I can only use 38/48 in the front and 16-34 in the back. Removing the first row and column, we’re left with the following ratios table:

  16 18 20 22 34
38 2.34 2.11 1.90 1.73 1.12
48 3.00 2.67 2.40 2.18 1.41

which, when grouping close ratios, gives us 8 usable rations, instead of 12. That’s just a bit less reduction in the number of ratios. But also, that helped me understand my gears more easily (I’m not that well versed in bicycle matters, as you can see) and plan my changes with more accuracy.

Since two of the ratios in the two remaining rows are the same and in impossible changes (more than two columns apart), I don’t have to jump over a similar gear. The ratio change from increasing the rear gear is not constantly increasing (but reasonably similar), and the ratio gain from changing the front gear is reasonably close to 0.50 (aprox. 3x the change in the rear gear), so that gives me enough information to know which gear I have to change and when.

Of course, everyone learns that just by cycling, but I need to use my head while I cycle, and so I did this… ;)

English football? Health and Safety first!
June 24th, 2010 under Fun, Life, rengolin, World. [ Comments: none ]

Nothing to do with the topic of this blog, you are right, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the reality England faces regarding football.

All these years watching a mediocre football, even in the Premier League, where Cristiano Ronaldo is the top player and where Robinho can’t play football made me wondering what’s terribly wrong with the nation’s love for the sport. Not just passion, but the English people were the ones that invented the sport. Here in Cambridge its very first rules were written and the first match with those rules played in Parker’s Piece in 1848.

With more than 160 years of football history you would imagine that they’d have a bit more skills… Recently I have found a perfectly good reason why this happens.

Another English passion, maybe even more important that football, is lawn. Not cricket, not complaining, not political jokes: lawn. Mediocre football is all right, mediocre grass is a crime. But, grass and football are very much connected, probably the very reason why they loved to play it in the past, but as priorities are laid, lawn apparently comes first. In my recent visit to my son’s new school, with very impressive lawns, bigger than an official football pitch. The “football pitch”? It’s made of asphalt, which is also used as car park some times…

Baffled as I was, when I asked the children about football, they said they were allowed to play, but they had to bring their own balls. So far so good, but then it came reality: there is a recommendation to use foam or rubber balls, to avoid injury. Question is, what does more injury, proper footballs or asphalt?

In Brazil, children as young as 1 year old play football with anything. Coconuts, food cans, socks rolled into a ball, even stones. And they usually play barefoot, on dirt, or even asphalt. Health and Safety is important, but not to the point of removing completely the fun of being a child. If a child doesn’t get dirty, it won’t learn to clean itself, to avoid the situation in the future and, more importantly, to understand the pain of living and how good that feels.

European football? Never heard…

Humble Bundle
May 10th, 2010 under Digital Rights, Fun, Games, rengolin, Software, Unix/Linux. [ Comments: none ]

I’m not the one to normally do reviews or ads, but this is one well worth doing. Humble bundle is an initiative hosted by Wolfire studio, in which five other studios (2D Boy, Bit Blot, Cryptic Sea, Frictional Games and the recently joined Amanita Design) joined their award-winning indie games into a bundle with two charities (EFF and Child’s Play) that you can pay whatever you want, to be shared amongst them.

All games work on Linux and Mac (as well as Windows), are of excellent quality (I loved them) and separately would cost around 80 bucks. The average buy price for the bundle is around $8.50, but some people have paid $1000 already. Funny, though, that now they’re separating the average per platform, and Linux users pay, on average, $14 while Windows users pay $7, with Mac in between. A clear message to professional game studios out there, isn’t it?

About the games, they’re the type that are always fun to play and don’t try to be more than they should. There are no state-of-the-art 3D graphics, blood, bullets and zillions of details, but they’re solid, consistent and plain fun. I already had World of Goo (from 2D Boy) and loved it. All the rest I discovered with the bundle and I have to say that I was not expecting them to be that good. The only bad news is that you have only one more day to buy them, so hurry, get your bundle now while it’s still available.

The games

World of Goo: Maybe the most famous of all, it’s even available for Wii. It’s addictive and family friendly, has many tricks and very clever levels to play. It’s a very simple concept, balls stick to other balls and you have to reach the pipe to save them. But what they’ve done with that simple concept was a powerful and very clever combination of physical properties that give the game an extra challenge. What most impressed me was the way physics was embedded in the game. Things have weight and momentum, sticks break if the momentum is too great, some balls weight less than air and float, while others burn in contact with fire. A masterpiece.

Aquaria: I thought this would be the least interesting of all, but I was wrong. Very wrong. The graphics and music are very nice and the physics of the game is well built, but the way the game builds up is the best. It’s a mix of Ecco with Loom, where you’re a sea creature (mermaid?) and have to sing songs to get powers or to interact with the game. The more you play, the more you discover new things and the more powerful you become. Really clever and a bit more addictive than I was waiting for… ;)

Gish: You are a tar ball (not the Unix tar, though) and have to go through tunnels with dangers to find your tar girl (?). The story is stupid, but the game is fun. You can be slippery or sticky to interact with the maze and some elements that have simple physics, which add some fun. There are also some enemies to make it more difficult. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying, when it depends more on luck (if you get the timing of many things right in a row) than actually logic or skill. The save style is also not the best, I was on the fourth level and asked for a reset (to restart the fourth level again), but it reset the whole thing and sent me to the first level, which I’m not playing again. The music is great, though.

Lugaru HD: A 3D Lara Croft bloody kung-fu bunny style. The background story is more for necessity of having one than actually relevant. The idea is to go on skirmishing, cutting jugulars, sneaking and knocking down characters in the game as you go along. The 3D graphics are not particularly impressive and the camera is not innovative, but the game has some charm for those that like a fight for the sake of fights. Funny.

Penumbra: If you like being scared, this is your game. It’s rated 16+ and you can see very little while playing. But you can hear things growling, your own heart beating and the best part is when you see something that scares the hell out of you and you despair and give away your hide out. The graphics are good, simple but well cared for. The effects (blurs, fades, night vision, fear) are very well done and in sync with the game and story. The interface is pretty simple and impressively easy, making the game much more fun than the traditional FPS I’ve played so far. The best part is, you don’t fight, you hide and run. It remembers me Thief, where fighting is the last thing you want to do, but with the difference is that in Thief, you could, in this one, you’re a puss. If you fight, you’ll most likely die.

Samorost 2: It’s a flash game, that’s all I know. Flash is not particularly stable on any platform and Linux is especially unstable, so I couldn’t make it run in the first attempt. For me, and most gamers I know, a game has to work. This is why it’s so hard to play early open source games, because you’re looking for a few minutes of fun and not actually fiddling with your system. I have spent more time writing this paragraph than trying to play Samorost and I will only try it again if I upgrade my Linux (in hoping the Flash problem will go away by itself). Pity.

Well, that’s it. Go and get your humble bundle that it’s well worth, plus you help some other people in the process. Helping indie studios is very important for me. First, it levels the play-field and help them grow. Second, they tend to be much more platform independent, and decent games for Linux are scarce. Last, they tend to have the best ideas. Most game studios license one or two game engines and create dozens of similar games with that, in hope to get more value for their money. Also, they tend to stick with the current ideas that sell, instead of innovating.

By buying the bundle you are, at the very least, helping to have better games in the future.

The Wikipedia Game
January 26th, 2010 under Fun, rengolin, Web. [ Comments: none ]

There was a time when the gods were bored to death, but because they couldn’t actually die, they started writing down all their knowledge to pass the time. Virtually everything known to them was written on the ancient manuscripts and organized by topic, cross-linked with other topics, in a very simple yet complete language that described everything to the last detail.

Time passed, universes were created and in some of them, creatures developed critical thinking. With that, came science and with science, the logical conclusion that gods didn’t actually have to exist was inevitable. So inevitable that finally, without delay, the gods actually died. For the curious minds, that fact is based on the quantum principle that, if no one sees it, it doesn’t actually exist.

Yet, for the great benevolence of the Universe, the manuscripts were kept and for billions of (Earth) years (relativistically speaking, of course), they were forgotten. But everything that is lost is waiting to be found, and in a very small speck of dust, in a completely irrelevant galaxy on the (multi-dimensional) margins of one of the universes, a yet-to-be intelligent race found a way to the manuscripts. However, their intelligence was not enough to uncover the whole truth. They could only gather hints and pieces of what once was the complete knowledge of everything.

It was much more of a coincidence, really, that so many of those beings would channel the truth through their fingers and type them, guided by the manuscripts themselves, on a remote system that all the other beings would go and search for knowledge. Some would misguide them, of course, and others would fight over the truth, for no one really know how to interpret such manuscripts. Seeing such confusion and regress, the Universe decided to create a game, on which such frivolous beings could channel their good side instead, even if not consciously knowing so.

The Game

The game is very simple and is meant to beings with very limited mental and social capacity.

The younger member starts by clicking on the “Random Article” link on any Wikipedia page, or by choosing a subject from the main page. After that, the following rules must be repeated until the players are tired or bored to death:

  1. The current player must explain (out loud) what the article is about and think of a related subject. The relation can be of any kind.
  2. The other players would then decide if the relation is valid and the player should then go to the related page.
  3. If the relationship is valid and approved, the points are counted on the following manner:
    • 1 point if the article exists, +3 points if the player enhances it.
    • 3 points if the article doesn’t exist, +9 points if the player creates it with a stub.
  4. The player on the right goes next.

Of course, at least one access to Wikipedia is necessary, but many can be used simultaneously. It is considered foul play to tamper with the contents of the pages just to get extra points (remember, the gods won’t be pleased at all!).

In between games, there is a way to get extra points for the next round. If the player proves that he/she enhanced Wikipedia pages quoted from a previous game (change logs suffice), he/she gets +3 points at the start of the next game for every considerable change (10 or more words) in a single page. Multiple changes in the same page counts as one change and the points can only be counted if the change happened between the last game and current, so the same change cannot be considered twice. Creation of new pages related to the subjects mentioned also count as change.

The Winner

The winner of the game is obviously the one that gets most points, but the real winner is the society. Knowledge has no owner, no boundaries, no limits. The more you share, the more society benefits. Knowledge is power, and you can give it for free, as easy as writing an email… to the world.

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