Monday, July 29, 2013

Reflections on Second Reality's 20 years

It's easy to say that Second Reality is one of the best known demos ever - that is, creative computer art productions combining software-generated visual effects and electronic music, being the cornerstone of the international demoscene.


Assembly '93

In the evening of Saturday, July 31, 1993, I was in Kerava, Finland, attending Assembly '93 computer party with around 1,500 other male demosceners (and maybe 5 female ones). I had met many new friends, shared some music I'd composed with my Amiga 500 and discussed about what the future of PC demoscene might be - so far, most of the interesting stuff was released on Amiga 500 (and some still on Commodore 64, too). Even though Amiga 500 was already about six years old, new and fantastic demos were being released every month, and Spaceballs' State of the Art was only eight months old at that time.

The gymnastics hall of Nikkari School was packed full and it was difficult to get a good view of the picture which was projected on the wall. I missed most of the PC productions - running on a PC with i486 processor running at 33 MHz - and they looked like uninspired technology demos anyway, avoid of real awesomeness and flowing creativity Amiga demos had. After all, Amiga had been conceived as a multimedia machine with special processors for video and sound, making very impressive effects possible. Indeed, I got bored with Second Reality when it was shown and went to see if any DDG members were around.

I couldn't find my friends, so I went back to the main hall, where I saw the Future Crew logo turn up on the screen and heard the crowd going nuts with cheering and applauding. One of my new friends came to me and said "did you see that? that was an insane demo!". Well, I didn't, and while the Amiga demo competition was a disappointment, I was very impressed with Pygmy Projects' Extension (which won that competition).

Later, when I had already returned home I heard Future Crew won the PC demo competition with its demo Second Reality. Silents' Optic Nerve came second. At that point, I didn't care that much - more attention was brought to the status of Amiga scene, now that the Assembly '93 Amiga demo competition was not on par with the PC demo competition. Only later - actually, at Aggressive Party - I heard rumors that the demo had been something special, or there might actually even be cheating involved.

People told me that Second Reality, made by people who also organized the Assembly '93 event, had been disqualified and Silents won the competition instead. This was due to the fact that the demo contained a picture "Ice Kingdom" by Marvel that entered the PC graphics competition (and won it) and this was against rules. Some also thought it was unfair that the demo used Dolby Surround sound and others didn't, and blamed Future Crew to be some kind of "Microsoft of the demoscene", a bunch of arrogant spoiled kids. I was also told that the demo wasn't even good, because it required such a powerful machine to run. This made sense, because the scrolling scenery at the start looked uglier that it would have on Amiga 500. In any case, I liked Silents' demo better, because it was more traditional and "Amiga-like".

Here's a documentary video of Future Crew making some final touches to their almost complete demo:

Reputation grows

Remember, we (or most of us) didn't have Internet at the time, and information was exchanged on bulletin board systems. Many of them were underground, or "elite", so that they were not listed in public BBS lists, and centered about demoscene and/or warez (cracked games). Sometimes information was unreliable, usually it was just old, unless you knew the right people and had access to the right BBS's.

Sure, Silent's Optic Nerve was a fine demo, but... Second Reality just became more and more popular. The Assembly demoparty grew as well and while it was no longer officially organized by Future Crew (but "Assembly Organizing"), many of its core organizers (Gore and Abyss) were from FC, which helped Second Reality's visibility. At Assembly '94 it was shown on the big screen, and many visitors' own computers. And also at Assembly '95, '96 and '97...

The "vector city" end part which was considered quite a feat back then...
Future Crew itself seemed to implode after Second Reality. There were rumors (which later turned out to be true) tha they were indeed preparing a demo for Assembly '94, but as it wouldn't have been completed in time, it wasn't released. Instead, FC participated in the PC intro competition with their Soppa, an unremarkable production that became the last release from Future Crew, ever.

People kept talking about Second Reality while they also debated the sad state of Amiga. Commodore had declared bankrupcy in 1994 and while the new Amiga models with AGA chipset showed a renewed interest in the platform, it was still very much a hobbyist scene, whereas PC's became more and more powerful with standardized SuperVGA graphics and soon, 16-bit sound, and seemed to be the platform of the future, Windows or not. Second Reality became a showcase item - to be shown to new people interested in demoscene.

What makes Second Reality special

It was (and is?) easy to hate PC's. They were clumsy, expensive business machines. Maybe powerful, but not suitable for games or anything fun. Many early PC demos lacked design and synchronization with the soundtrack. Future Crew had already shown promise with its demos Unreal (which Second Reality was a sequel to) and Panic, but Second Reality was a seamless (yet a bit episodic) combination of sound and visuals. And unlike fancy but boring tech demos, Second Reality had a lot of novel new effects and fresh treatments of traditional effects, and of course stuff that couldn't be done on Amiga, such as the vector city in the end.

Everything (except for the scenery at the start) was smooth, flowing, seamless. The masterful soundtrack by Jonne "Purple Motion" Valtonen and Peter "Skaven" Hajba was a critical part of the demo, combining trendy electronic music and orchestral elements. It was composed using the group's own composer software, ScreamTracker 3 (which was not yet released to the public at that time). The soundtrack used high-quality samples, melodies and rhythms in a creative fashion, which distinguished it from usual "mod techno" soundtracks of many Amiga demos. For me, the credits part's orchestration is a textbook example of how to make other than typical electronic dance music with a tracker software.

Commodore 64 version


Second Reality was a benchmark in many ways. The Commodore 64 demoscene (which will probably never die) was looking for modern inspiration and in 1997, the Smash Designs released a Commodore 64 version of the demo at The Party '97. It won the Commodore 64 demo competition and has often been cited as one of the best demos on the platform, but has also drawn criticism to the fact that it is not a completely original production, but just a C64 version of an existing production.

The C64 version of the classic demo is both a tribute to the PC demo and also an outstanding attempt to replicate the effects on the ancient 8-bit platform. I saw this at the demo showing by Club for Digital Media DOT and was astonished. This "conversion" was so well done yet still stylish and the music was awesome.
Sure, you don't have all the CPU power of an 80486, but this demo makes the best of what it has.

At this point is was evident that Second Reality had left its mark in the computer culture and visual arts. Later, I heard the demo had spread outside the demoscene quite early, with U.S. business people wondering how this production was even possible.

In 1999, Slashdot voted Second Reality as one of the "Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks of All Time", among Mars Pathfinder, AK-47 and Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

Legacy

In 2013, Second Reality still matters, whether we like it or not. ;-) It is one of the best known demos ever and often mentioned in the company of Spaceballs' State of the Art, Complex's Mental Hangover and Mature Furk's Lapsuus.

Now that Second Reality's 20th anniversary is approaching, members of the defunct Future Crew are planning to release the source code for the demo. Like many other demosceners, members of Future Crew have ended up as designers, coders and musicians in the Finnish (or international) game industry, with companies like Remedy, Futuremark, Remedy, Bugbear and Recoil having been (co-)founded by them.

While Second Reality has been a good starting point or portal to the demoscene for many, now it may take some explaining to tell people (who might not have been born in 1993!) what makes this demo special, or why producing visual effects on the computers of the 1980's and 1990's was so difficult. Still, people who have no idea how they are made, can (often) still appreciate the "music video" aspect of demos, being fascinating audiovisual experiences even for the uninitiated.

The Amiga demo competition at Assembly '93 was a disappointment, but Amiga did strike back in 1994 and it still hasn't died. The Amiga group The Black Lotus, among others, have shown that production of quality demos on the Amiga did not end in 1993. Aside from being a milestone in PC demoscene, Second Reality is a milestone in creative approach to programming and computing in general, something which is way too much missing in the education, profession and hobby of computing 2013. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Qantas and the gender discrimination of passengers

Some airlines have a policy that states that adult men may not be seated next to minors travelling alone. The reason is that many men are pedophiles and child molesters and the airlines want to ensure the safety of the children.

That's right, Qantas is operating the new Airbus A380, which everybody should try at least once (photo by Hpeterswald)

Correspondence with Qantas

Some weeks ago, I contacted Qantas on Facebook. I left a public message on their page, asking whether their gender discrimination policies were still in place. As the page administrators were clearly busy answering other inquiries, mine did not get a reply from Qantas. A couple of weeks ago (June 18), I sent them a private message. They apologized and said they cannot find my post (even though I could easily find it).

After I reiterated my question, it took them some days to answer. They confirmed that the policy is still in place, though naturally they wouldn't call it discrimination.

Jay, one Qantas' Facebook admnistrators, wrote to me:
We can confirm that we have this policy in place and this is consistent with other airlines across the globe. This policy reflects parents’ concerns and is implemented with the aim to maximise the child's wellbeing. 
We understand you may find this disappointing however we remain absolutely comfortable with the enforcement of this policy.
I voiced my discontent with this policy and noted that it is not consistent with other airlines. He replied:
We understand you may find this disappointing however as per our previous message, we are absolutely comfortable with the enforcement of this policy. 
After this, I said: "If you claim you understand, then you'd better come up with an explanation for your make passengers instead of empty rhetorics." Sadly, Jay would only repeat the same thing:
As per our previous message, we remain absolutely comfortable in the continuation and enforcement of this policy. We're sorry that we couldn't assist you further. 
I will copy here  my complete answer to this (that Qantas didn't answer to any more):

I am sorry too, because I know that Qantas is otherwise one of the best airlines in the world. I think you should hire public relations professionals that can provide the rationale to your policies to the passengers and other public, because otherwise you are offending your paying customers, and that is bad for any corporation. Of course the policy itself is offending, but at least then you might be able to convey why it exists at all, and the same professionals could also check whether it is inline with other countries' airlines' policies (which it is not).

I am providing you this advice so that you can improve your service and public relations in the future.

Secrets after secrets

Qantas' gender discrimination policy used to be completely secret, just like British Airways' was before it. It was only revealed in 2005 after a seat reassignment made a Kiwi man take it to the public. Now, if this policy has indeed risen from "parents' concerns", why would it be secret? Don't they want to tell parents that their children are safe? Have they had secret meetings with parents to plan this policy?

The policy itself is discriminatory. Labeling men as "unsafe" and women as "safe" is insulting to everybody. This is the 2010's and we are talking about one of the best airlines in the world, coming from Australia, itself known for its democracy and freedom (though its past is plagued with human rights violations and discriminatory policies). Qantas is effectively suggesting that a major part (or most) of their passengers are potential pedophiles and child molesters and they cannot be trusted.

At the same time, they are not dividing passengers into "safe" and "unsafe" categories by profession. Why are Catholic priests still allowed onboard? What about people convicted of violent crimes? With Qantas' questionable logic, they should be extending this policy to much wider demographic groups. What about ethnic groups and different nationalities? I am sure that in some countries sexual crimes are more common than in others, so shouldn't they start racial profiling to protect children?

The secrecy around the discriminatory policy is also offending and illogical and also a public relations problem. Don't they have professional public relations team that could actually communicate the rationale of the policy to the public and especially to their passengers that they are insulting every day that the policy is in effect? Why couldn't Jay direct me to a statement about the policy and/or more information about the rationale?

He also claimed that the policy is compatible with other airlines around the world. Per the Wikipedia article, it is known that Air New Zealand, Virgin Austarlia and Britsh Airways have or have had a similar policy. In 2010, after a successful legal case, British Airways dropped its policy. Did Jay lie when he said Qantas' policy is in line with other policies? Is it just empty rhetorics or is there something that he is not telling us?

Jay also said Qantas is "absolutely comfortable" with the policy. I think it is clear that they are not. Even if they indeed feel the policy is necessary, it is still not a comfortable one. They will have to reseat male passengers - frequent fliers, seniors, fathers, businessmen, students - indirectly accusing them of being potential child molesters. That is bad for business and gives them bad publicity and accusations of unconstitutional discrimination. And one day, maybe soon, they will have to overturn the policy, just like BA did, exposing their hypocricy, maybe leading to a shameful public apology (yet leading to better policies, hopefully).

There have been vocal critics of Qantas' (and others') discriminatory policies, including New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties president Cameron Murphy and Boris Johnson (British politician and later Mayor of London).

Tough decisions

All policies should be communicated. This one should be communicated to the public and sensible rationale provided. Then, this policy should be overturned because it is discriminatory, hypocritical, counterproductive and generally bad business. And I very much doubt it helps any children. If it does, I'd like to see some numbers instead of rhetorics. I would also like to see policies being based on truths instead of lies. The claim about consistent policies with other airlines is a lie, as noted above.

As Qantas and British Airways have a very long relationship in providing services between United Kingdom and Australia, maybe BA should teach QF how to handle unaccompanied minors on its flights and how to treat its respected and valuable paying customers better.

I am myself a OneWorld (which Qantas is a member of) frequent flier. Thanks to my recent intercontinental travel between USA and Finland, I have enough "miles" to get some award flights. Should I choose to fly with Qantas, one of the best airlines in the world?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Questionable "help" from Gracenote, CDDB and other online music databases

I have ripped all my roughly three hundred (original) compact discs to listen them on my computer, mobile phone, wherever and whenever. A natural part of this collection is correct metadata - tracks have correct artists, song names and other related information. Now, I am not a professional of music archives and metadata, just someone who likes music and has some tens of gigabytes of legal music files.

At some point, using sophisticated rippers and players and online services like CDDB and later Gracenote (which iTunes uses), getting CD track lists automatically from the Internet became kind of easy and convenient. I noticed many people praising how easy ripping your CD's and maintaining your music collection had become. Friends of classical music had some problems, though: because music databases were designed for popular music (with a distinct "artist" and "song name"), it was difficult to encode the relevant information to the fields.

A problem relatively few seem to complain is the quality of this data. Much (if not all) of it is community-produced, and not all are interested in ensuring their information about the contents is correct, well formatted or clear of typos and other errors.

This is how my iTunes sees Higher State of Consciousness. (It is under the genre "House" simply because it seemed to fit the album in general.)
Let's take Josh Wink's 1995 club hit Higher State of Consciousness as an example. It was indeed a huge hit and it was and has since been released in many versions (or remixes). Josh Wink has elected to release his music under different pseudonyms (Josh Wink, Wink, Winc, Winx, Winks), often derived from his real name (Joshua Winkelman) - and this specific track was released under the pseudonym Wink. To add to this confusion, many releases have accidentally used the wrong pseudonym, or perhaps chosen to use Josh Wink, to conform to his usual artist name and to make it easier to associate this record with his other work.

The label for the original 12" maxi - with misspelled name for the track
Perhaps the most popular version of this song is what on the original 12" maxi was called "Version 3 - Tweekin Acid Funk". The name of the version (or mix/remix) is often omitted from CD sleeve information, even if it would be easily identifiable, or it might be mislabeled or erroneously reported as something different.

Forgetting that there are many different dashes and hyphens, there can still be a multitude of different ways of reporting the same track (here I assume that the character separating the artist and song is the colon):
  • Wink: Higher State of Consciousness (Tweekin Acid Funk Mix)
  • Wink: Higher State of Conciousness (Version 3 - Tweekin Acid Funk) (from original 12" maxi - yes, they got it wrong!)
  • Josh Wink: Higher State of Consciousness (Tweekin' Acid Funk Mix)
  • DJ Josh Wink: Wink - Higher State Of Consciousness
  • Wink: Higher State of Consciousness (John Wink's Tweakin Acid Funk Remix)
  • josh wink: higher stae of conciousness
  • Wink: Higher State of Consciousness [Tweekin Acid Funk RMX]
  • VARIOUS ARTISTS: This Is Strictly Rhythm Volume Five [1995] - Josh Wink - Higher State Of Consciousness
  • V/A: Higher State of Consciousness
  • PLASTIKMAN: highter states of conciousnes
All these are based on actual examples I have seen.

I'm listing these mostly because it's annoying that instead of the music database information helping you, it contains misspelled and incorrect information. I think that I have only encountered a couple of CD's for which the information you get from Gracenote (iTunes) is completely correct and also correctly spelled.

Of course, another problem is whether other information such as genre or year of release are correct. In electronic dance music, the genre is usually "Electronica", and I have no idea what that is. For me, this song like most of Josh Wink's music, would fall under the genre "Techno" or "Acid house", so I will have to change this information for most CD's I rip anyway.

Some of the above examples imply that the submitter has his or her own classification system, like putting the artist of the CD ("Various Artist") as part of the artist name of the track, in contrary to the idea of the database. With different kinds of parenthesis you might also mention featuring artists or other things, but once again, that is part of a personal naming convention, not a general one that a database should have.

With Discogs you can sometimes find records with incorrect track information or, for example, remix names that were omitted. Should you submit them to CDDB, too, or let them have whatever was written in the sleeve notes?

There are general metadata and archiving problem here, but largely community-supported music databases do not have professional standards or professional administrators who would certify their quality. Conventions are also dynamic, thus people may start to punctuate their submissions consistently in different ways. Nowdays it is common to separate the artist and the song name using a dash, not a colon! What a terrible sin, but since these are in different fields, it is up to the application to display these in some specific format.

This could be seen as an example of a personal informatics problem, maybe? You can approach it from the perspective of archiving and music libraries, but then again, it is your music collection, you just want to maintain it with reasonable effort, and if the "help" from CDDB and Gracenote makes it more difficult, you get annoyed or frustrated. Maybe you think you know better and introduce some other - just as incorrect - style, convention or misconception to the database.

My solution: write a rant about this to the blog and then keep on doing what you were doing all along, which is making sure that all song information is correct anyway. And keep ranting about it until the problem magically disappears.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

[FI] Päivi Räsänen, Jumalan lahja Suomelle

[This post is exceptionally in Finnish, to discuss a matter relevant to Finns.]

Sisäministeri, kansanedustaja, Kristillisdemokraattisen puolueen puheenjohtaja ja viidesläinen kristitty Päivi Räsänen on Jumalan lahja Suomelle. Olettaen että Jumala on olemassa ja on olemukseltaan hyvä ja armollinen, tämä on luonnollisin johtopäätös.

Ehtoollisviininpunaiset silmälasit

Viime päivinä on kohistu siitä, että sisäministeri Päivi Räsänen kertoi mielipiteenään, että on olemassa Suomen lakiakin korkeampia moraalisia tai eettisiä sääntöjä ja vakaumuksia ja että joskus niitä täytyy seurata, vaikka laki olisi eri mieltä omantunnon kanssa. Olen hänen kanssaan täysin samaa mieltä! Olen myös samaa mieltä siinä, että kristityille Raamattu on luonnollinen osa tuota oikeudentajua.

Jo ennen kuin Räsäsen kommenteista tiedettiin yksityiskohtia, seurasi Facebookissa totuttu läjä tuomitsevia kommentteja. Räsäsen rohkeat kommentit tulkittiin rikollisuuteen kehottamiseksi, ja koska poliisilaitos kuuluu Sisäministeriön alaisuuteen, olivat Räsäsen sanat erityisen tuomittavia. Sain käsityksen, ettei juuri kukaan ollut lukenut Savon Sanomien juttua otsikkoa pidemmälle tai miettinyt mitä kyseiset kommentit mahtaisivat tarkoittaa. Aikaisemminhan on maahanmuutosta ja maahanmuuttajista keskustellessa mainittu, että muslimit pitävät Koraania maallista lakia ylempänä ohjenuorana. Niin, minullekin minun omatuntoni ja moraalini on Suomen lain (ja Yhdysvaltojen, asunhan USA:ssa) yläpuolella. Eipä ole vielä kukaan tullut sanomaan minulle, että se on väärin.

Tuo oli Räsäsen puheista se jokseenkin ongelmaton osuus, mutta se osoitti myös, että mitä tahansa Räsänen ikinä tekeekään ja sanookaan, se tulkitaan tahallaan väärin, koska Räsäsestä ei pidetä. Räsäsestä ei pidetä, koska hän sanoo joskus tyhmiä asioita, tai ainakin ihmiset muistelevat hänen joskus sanoneen. Häntä pidetään amerikkalaistyylisenä fundamentalistina, joka haluaa yhdistää uskonnon ja politiikan. Siitä huolimatta tai ehkä juuri sen takia ketään ei tunnu kiinnostavan mitä hän tekee työkseen. Olen huomannut vastaavan ilmiön esimerkiksi Tanja Karpelan/Saarelan ja Astrid Thorsin kohdalla ja jossain määrin myös kaikkien Keskustan poliitikkojen kohdalla.

Suomen kansalle kuitenkin ojennettiin ylitsevuotava malja sitä mitä he eniten janosivat: lisää tyhmiä kommentteja Räsäseltä. Tällä kertaa hän todellakin meni pidemmälle ja sanoi jotain oikeasti tyhmää, ja vieläpä totutuista aiheista - abortista ja homoista.

Eroakirkosta.fi-sivusto kertoi jälleen, että kun Räsänen laukoo sammakoita, ihmiset eroavat kirkosta. Minusta tämä reaktio on jokseenkin absurdi mutta ymmärrettävä. Vaikka Räsänen onkin vain kirkon rivijäsen (kyllä, hän on viidesläinen ja valtionkirkon jäsen, ei helluntailainen), hän on erittäin näkyvä sellainen ja hän johtaa puoluetta, jonka nimi alkaa "kristillis-". Hän ei voi välttyä siltä, että kaikkea mitä hän sanoo katsotaan ehtoollisviininpunaisten silmälasien läpi. Hän ei ilmeisesti pitänyt tarpeellisena - tälläkään kertaa - mainita missä roolissa hän lausuntoja antaa, vaikka kokeneena poliitikkona ja hallituksen jäsenenä hänen pitäisi tietää paremmin.

Absurdiuden aura

Päivi Räsäsen ympärillä hohkaa absurdiuden aura. Hän ei ehkä ole amerikkalainen uuskonservatiivi eikä City-lehden maalailema puritaanienkeli, mutta ihmiset pitävät hänen vihaamisestaan. Kirkosta eroamista harkitseville kaikki Räsäsen tyhmyydet ovat hyviä tekosyitä erota, ja ehkä se on ihan oikein!

Jos joku kokee kirkon jäsenyyden riippakiveksi ja vääryydeksi niin ehkä kirkko - siis tämä evankelis-luterilainen kansankirkko - on hänelle aivan väärä paikka, riippumatta siitä että onko ministeri Räsänen tämän kirkon jäsen vai ei. Todennäköisesti päätös erota kirkosta on tällöin hyvä asia niin tälle ihmiselle kuin kirkollekin, ja tällöin on Räsänen tehnyt suuren palveluksen.

Kirkon suuri jäsenmäärä tarkoittaa sille verotuloja. Ei ole kuitenkaan selvää, että tämä olisi hyvä asia. Kirkko on vuosisadat nauttinut erityisasemaa, joka sillä edelleen on, vaikka kirkkoon kuuluminen ei olekaan enää pakollista. Samaan aikaan monia vähemmistöryhmiä on eri aikakausina sorrettu ja alistettu ja papit ovat saarnastuolista kertoneet seurakuntalaisten (joita toki oli 100 % väestöstä) joutuvan Helvettiin.

Kirkko on haasteiden edessä ja hyvä niin. Jos nyt esitän huonon ruokavertauksen (jolle ette voi mitään), niin on aika huono keitto jos ei kestä sekoittamista. Jos koko kirkko, tuo ihmisten rakentama instituutio, tuhoutuu, ehkä se on oletetun kristinuskon Jumalan tahto - en pitäisi sitä lainkaan mahdottomana, varsinkaan kun suuri osa niin Suomalaisen ev.-lut. kirkon kuin maailmanlaajuisen Katolisen kirkon ja muidenkin toiminnasta merkittävä osa vaikuttaa olleen Raamatun ja Jeesuksen opetusten kanssa merkittävässä ristiriidassa. Sen sijaan, jos Jeesus todella on vapahtaja ja Messias, silloinhan hänen kirkkonsa on jo kaikkialla eikä uskon kannalta ihmisten instituutioita tarvita?

Liian mukava nojatuoli

Muistelen, että koulun uskonnontunneilla sain selvän käsityksen, että tämänhetkiset instituutiokirkot eivät vastaa Raamatun Jeesuksen eivätkä myöskään Martti Lutherin näkemystä (siten kuin heidän opetuksensa yleensä ymmärretään). Rippikoulu ei muuttanut tätä käsitystäni, eivät myöskään myöhemmät keskustelut teologian tohtorien ja pappien kanssa - päinvastoin. Olen saanut käsityksen, että protestanttiset kirkot ovat teologisessa mielessä vain Jeesuksen faniklubin työnjakoa, jossa jotkut puuhaavat kirkollisten toimitusten parissa, vaikka tavikset ovat aivan yhtä "papillisia" kuin hekin. Eri asia on sitten valtioiden kanssa epäpyhässä liitossa tehdyt jutut kuten väestönlasku, verotus ja - voi ei - avioliittoon vihkiminen, joiden oikeutuksesta ja todellisesta olemuksesta ei ole juuri käyty keskustelua kirkon jäsenten keskuudessa.

Valtionkirkkomme istuu aivan liian mukavassa nojatuolissa. Pieni keittiöjakkarakin voisi olla liian mukava, mutta ainakin se mahtuisi ovesta sisään.

Minusta Päivi Räsäsen pitäisi varmaankin erota, mutta ei sisäministerin paikalta vaan Kristillisdemokraattien puheenjohtajan paikalta, ja sanon näin vaikka en edes kuulu kyseiseen puolueeseen. Syy on yksinkertaisesti se, että hänen ansiostaan tai takiaan hänen puolueensa on jatkuvasti kohujen ja väärinkäsitysten keskellä. Varmasti Räsänen ja koko puolueensa tekee ahkerasti töitä ja enimmäkseen hyvin, mutta ei sitä juuri kukaan tiedä ja harvoja jaksaa kiinnostaa.

Koska kuitenkin Päivi Räsäsen ansiosta kirkonmiesten ja -naisten on pikkuhiljaa pakko tehdä suuria valintoja, olen toiveikas. Pidän peukkuja, että kirkko selviää, mutta jos ei, niin ehkä se ei ansaitse selvitä, niin ikävä kuin se vaihtoehto onkin, mutta mitäpä kuolevainen Jumalan tahdolle voisi. Se, että ansaitseeko Päivi Räsänen kaiken saamansa huomion, on kokonaan toinen asia, mutta ansaitsemisella tuntuu tässä maailmassa ja varsinkin politiikassa tuntuu olevan aika vähän merkitystä. Itse kansalainen ja kristitty Päivi Räsäsestä en ole huolissani; hän pitää päänsä ja porskuttaa kuten ennenkin, vaikka toivonkin hänen välillä pysähtyvän miettimään asioita ja tekemään omat johtopäätöksensä.

Sen sijaan Suomi ansaitsee Päivi Räsäsen.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

We need to go back to the future where everything was possible (with Amiga)

Future is the promised land, and I already experienced it in the 1990's. Can we go back?

Commodore Amiga made it possible

I bought my Commodore Amiga 500 (with Kickstart 1.3) used in 1991 - four years after its entry to the market in Finland. It wasn't exactly obsolete yet, but the next (and last) important home version of the Amiga computer was still two years away. In many ways, the Amiga 500 was a miracle machine of the future.

It was clearly a home computer - one unit containing the keyboard and all other parts of the computer, connected to a TV or a video monitor. Its rather large case contained the popular 32/16-bit Motorola MC68000 processor running at 7.09 MHz and with the memory extension it had 1 MB or RAM. A special part of the system was that it contained several co-CPUs which gave it unprecented multimedia capabilities that could be employed without overtaxing the main CPU. This made the Amiga a great gaming machine, but it also had an advanced multitasking operating system, which let the user do things never before seen in home computers.

My Workbench desktop in 2001
Later, when I attended Orimattilan lukio (upper secondary school or gymnasium of my home town) and had to use Windows 3.0 running on Hyundai PCs (with i386SX/16 processors), I did note several curious differences between my trustworthy Amiga and the expensive, bulky workstations at my school. Of course, they were expensive, (mostly) well maintained, had some nice software (Arts & Letters was my favorite) and there was even a scanner and an inkjet printer in the computer classroom.

But the computers were slow. And more than that, they were useful - as opposed to fun. You could do word processing (which we did a lot!), image processing, programming and, in theory, even play some ugly games. And Doom, but it was slow, too.

With my Amiga, with some hard drives, external power source and other stuff, at 2 Alternative Party in 2000 (photo: Timo Toivonen)
Amiga was fun. It was also colorful, had great music programs, an active user community, very impressive capabilities and it encouraged to think further than just the software you could buy or download. Only Amiga made it all possible.

Fast forward 20 years. A surprisingly common occurrence in Windows applications is that an open dialog may block access to other windows of one software, which means the dialog may need to be closed in order to check on some other window's contents. Some applications also still use Windows 3 style scrollbars which do no adapt to the size of the actual content. Some Windows administration applications even use 8+3 character filenames! As an Amiga user, all this feels so quaint. Why can't we have real multitasking? Why can't we have long filenames? Oh, there is finally Windows PowerShell which is an integral part of Windows 7. It only took Windows 24 years to match what Amiga had in 1986!

Spaceballs: State of the Art (1992), a demo that blew my mind, 
and a couple of other minds as well

Indeed, Amiga felt like a home computer system of the future. Demosceners broke barriers with the machine all the time. Whatever the hardware of the future would be, I was sure it was going to be even more awesome.

I switched (didn't "upgrade") to a new, bulky, powerful and boring PC in August, 1996. It ran Windows 95, which was kind of usable, but it was... a PC. It was not from the future. You didn't make miracles, you didn't expect miracles.

Accessing the Internet

After spending a couple of years in the BBS world, I started using the Internet in January, 1994. I had accessed some Star Trek related UUCP discussions at Recdeck BBS and I knew Internet existed, but only in 1994, when I opened an account at the Finnish Ministry of Education funded Freenet system (through the expensive Infotel or TeleSampo modem portals), I was able to access any realtime services. Freenet was very restricted and was intended for schools and ordinary citizens, so I soon became a customer of the pioneering Finnish ISP SciFi (with the fancy domain name sci.fi!), got a real account on a UNIX server running SunOS and access to usual Internet services and applications like IRC, email, WWW, Screen and, uh, Gopher.

What was remarkable that the network seemed to be largely in harmony. It was at times very slow and unreliable, but it also used open standards and at places this thing called free software. Some freaks were even running this Finnish free UNIX clone called Linux - also on their Amiga computers! I was very impressed. This was the future, finally. 

I had heard rumors of a global, free and realtime discussion system that you could use online. The Helsinki University of Technology had recently been connected to the Internet and had good international connections, offering its students access to servers and the network. There were stories of HUT freshmen who spent all their time chatting with Australian, Russian and American people, completely forgetting their studies. This was fascinating, because social interaction was such an important (yet a bit awkward) part of bulletin board systems, and I knew the people online were "real", not just pranksters or nerds with assumed fake identities.

Having quality time on IRC on January 1, 2000
IRC (Internet Relay Chat), originally conceived by Jarkko Oikarinen in Oulu, Finland, in 1988, was and still is a free and global realtime chat system, based on an open standard, the IETF regulated IRC protocol. It used only little actual resources of a system and being text-based, you did not need even a graphical operating system, or any extra applications on your home computer. So, I had no problems accessing IRC with my Amiga 500 running the Terminus terminal software.

Did I mention it was the future? It was. Communication over distances and cultures was liberated. Getting new friends from all over the world was trivial, as was meeting Finnish people interested in the same geeky hobbies you had. IRC was never asleep. 

You could also easily access other computer systems with Telnet and later SSH clients. This was eerie, because you could even use somebody else's computer and execute commands and your own scripts that could do some havoc if you knew what to do. I wasn't interested in cracking into systems, but it was impressive how you were no longer just using one computer, you could use many. Also, because your online identity was running on a server that was always on, and you could store your session with the Screen application, you were always online. You just came back to see what was happening, but you were never gone. And, of course, I'm still here. 

X Window System

In 1997, I started my studies at Helsinki University of Technology (since 2011 part of the new Aalto University). The nickname "the MIT of Finland" wasn't far from the truth. All the best people and best computers were there, and it was the birthplace and home of the Finnish Internet.

I was able to use graphical user interfaces of UNIX workstations and servers - namely the X Window System, which resembled Windows, Workbench and others, but was not an operating system per itself. Sure, you could open a tcsh window to use IRC and SSH like before or start Netcape 3.0 to try some World Wide Web pages, but you could also run applications from your own computer, even if it wasn't runnign the same operating system. Mind. Blown.

An example of the X Window System in action, with many local and remote clients
Now this was the future! Netscape Communictor was released just when the school started, so it was not yet installed at the HP-UX workstations of the university or the SGI IRIX workstations at the CS lab. Communicator had support for CSS and other fancy stuff, so one of my freshman friends ran it from his home computer (that happened to be located at the campus), and then he used it like any other graphical program in the system. 

The university, of course, used the same technology to let students run applications from a central application server - or maybe on the local computer, because it was just a matter of implementation. Compared to the stiff and static Windows, this seemed novel and also the way of the future. We were already playing with it, and the possibilities were naturally unlimited, so what could possibly go wrong? X-Forwarding could even be used with the new SSH connections, so these graphical applications could be used securely.

Journey to the past

At the end of the 1990's, we already had the components to build a brave new world (heh) with liberated communication, flexible systems supporting and encouraging creativity and uncoventional approaches, with open standards, free software and interoperability over operating systems and, of course, free and practical global chat system, that made online collaboration and free exchange of ideas possible. Oh, and there were the venerable newsgroups as well. 

This future failed me, and I think it failed us all. Microsoft, that old beast, came everywhere with its proprietary software, licences and protocols and even in Finland people started to switch from IRC to Microsoft's one-on-one chat product and others (ICQ, AIM, Yahoo, Skype etc.). Youth of United States don't even know what IRC is (I have asked), though Finns still use it, for obvious reasons. Facebook and Google are everywhere too, and while they support (some) open standards, they are still big guys bringing their own men with them. 

What about those remote connections? Well, you can technically do something like that with Windows, but then you take control of the whole desktop of another computer, which is a very different thing from using a single application. Very handy for administration, but not a common technology you could use everywhere and all the time... There is Citrix with its proprietary XenApp desktop virtualization product that actually does do what we already had in the 1990's, but it is expensive, proprietary and it has very specific areas where it is used.

Newsgroups and email lists (based on open standards with multitude of client applications) have largely changed to web forums with non-standard interfaces, messy user experiences and whatnot. People can't even write and properly quote emails any more! And the spam problem is still there, and it is much worse than in the 1990's.

Made in 1994, this was the first ever Finnish music video using extensive computer graphics - produced with Amiga, of course

In this future, you can do useful things. Nice companies have produced hardware and software that make game distribution easier and more convenient. You can do a lot of fancy stuff with Microsoft Visual Studio - assuming you are running Windows and you are willing to buy the development suite. You could also try their free version, which is proprietary, doesn't support all functionality of the paid version, and is not as fun as learning to code was in the 1980's. You can also do other things, but with Amiga you could do anything.

I don't mind about not having a jetpack - we already kind of had that in the 1980's. But this is not the future I ordered, and not the future I already had. Instead of my communication being liberated, it is spied upon and sold for marketing purposes. My private messages go through Google's omnipotent servers in United States (and, coincidentally, also NSA's) and Microsoft even infiltrated HUT, the Finnish Fortress of Righteous Computing.

Interestingly, in 2013, I cannot get email service from my ISP, AT&T. They demand to have someone call you, However, in my case, the cellular coverage here is so bad that they can't. Oh, and Facebook dictates what kind of social interactions are possible between people, in their proprietary social network, but the company itself cannot be reached for any purpose (believe me, I have tried). 

Waitress, I have a Kafka in my soup, can I have a new one? And preferably without Orwell or Bradbury, too.

We really need to go back to the future. Where's my Amiga?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Codename ATTACKSUB: A modest proposal to Subway

In the U.S.-led Western culture, it seems that the illusion of choice (or just choice, as it is often indistinguishable) is paramount to a good customer experience - and perhaps to the content mindset of any citizen. The successful coffee shop chain Starbucks is a good example with all its, uh, choices pertaining to coffee, its main product. Another business based on (the illusion of) choice is Subway.

The ocean of choices

Subway franchise restaurants are located all over the world and they offer relatively healthy choices for lunch for an affordable prize. Their main product is "submarine sandwich", which is a 12-inch sandwich that looks like a - surprise! - submarine. This is where Subway gets its name from. There are plenty of different sandwiches to choose from - 26 in the United States menu - and even if you haven't dined there before, you are sure to find something you like. For example, if you are friend of Italian cuisine, there are multiple choices that you'd probably fancy.

But choosing the sandwich is the easiest part. Let's forget that you can also order a smaller, 6-inch version, and there are also other items on the menu. After this choice, you are totally expected to play your part in a peculiar play, where you are forced to make culinary decisions about items and ingredients that you don't even know. This is the part that I pay for restaurant professionals to do, but at Subway, you are the chef.

Now, people like choice. They do, and I don't blame them. Subway is more than happy to make you a sandwich without salami or black pepper - actually, they don't even put them in it unless you tell them to. You get to decide, unlike at some other places. But what if you are in for a quick lunch or a no-hassle meal with no drama, such as this play where you get to pretend you know the difference between all their breads, sauces and other items you haven't even heard of?

I like choice, but I also like the choice of not being forced to choose over trivial matters. At a restaurant or a sandwich shop I pay not to care. At Subway this is problematic, because offering this choice is a central part of their business idea, and per my experiences, the friendly Subway associates have surprising difficulties making a sandwich without explicit and direct instructions for every part of the sandwich-making process.

Should I try to politely say that I actually couldn't care less what the sandwich contains and what bread it has, as long as it is a 12-inch Meatball Marinara? I would probably have to repeat this many times, as the associate would keep asking again for all items, not believing me the first time. I could also take my money elsewhere, to a potentially inferior place, but one that also sells expertise in sandwich-making, which I don't have.

Enter ATTACKSUB

To resolve this apparent problem, I have a proposal to Subway: the immediate implementation of a secret protocol with codename ATTACKSUB.

Let's say you want to have a Meatball Marinara sandwich (it's the cheapest, that's why I'm using it as an example). In my proposal, there would be a secret protocol in effect and it could be activated by any customer issuing the codename. In this case, you just utter "Meatball Marinara ATTACKSUB", which automatically sets into a motion a strictly regulated and completely autonomous operation, which results in the production of a single 12-inch Meatball Marinara sandwich with all ingredients and items included as defined in Subway's Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP), with no questions asked. The customer will get the sub and pay for it and both the associate and the customer will save a lot of time (with the customer still paying the same price).

This still leaves out a very important aspect: toasting. Even if you would agree with everything else about the sandwich, it is still totally reasonable to desire a toasted sandwich, or to have it untoasted. It means that there must be an additional parameter to codename ATTACKSUB - the choice of WARHEAD:
  1. To specify the toasting option, you say "Meatball Marinara ATTACKSUB WITH NUKES".
  2. To specify the non-toast option, you say "Meatball Marinara ATTACKSUB WITHOUT NUKES", as a reference to many actual attack submarines having missiles with warheads of conventional explosives instead of nuclear ones.
Without issuing one of these optional parameters, the sandwich will be assembled and toasted or not toasted per the nominal parameters in the global Subway SIOP.

Enter SILENTSERVICE

If you happen to be a stock dealer, a grad student or you just don't care enough to care, and ATTACKSUB is just too slow, you might want to consider the SILENTSERVICE option.

With this codeword, an even more secretive operation would start. Because of the covert nature of this operation, the codeword could be issued with a whisper or even on a piece of paper. A complete radio silence would be part of the protocol and all choices pertaining to the sandwich selection would be done independenty by the associate. Only the assembled sandwich, whatever its final configuration, would be exposed to the customer, who would purchase it for consumption.

Implementation and verification

Now, Subway, I'd like to try these out the next time I visit the local Subway in Champaign, IL. I don't want to look stupid while whispering secret codewords, so can you make sure the associates have been trained and SIOP is updated before then? If I receive no answer from you before 2013-07-08T00:00:00Z, I will assume these protocols have been fully implemented and I can reassume my patronage at any time hence. Thanks!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Some Americans think USA just turned 2013 years old

It's a matter of guess whether these people are being serious, but it seems that at least some people think United States just turned 2013 years ago. Boy is this wrong on so many levels.

What could possibly explain this kind of misconception? Let's dive in and think what is really wrong here.

  • The years we have are actually sequential numbers, so if people claim United States was, indeed, founded on 4th of July, 1 AD, then it would only be 2012 years old, not 2013. This is my main point.
  • In addition, because there was no year zero, if the United States actually turned 2013 years old, then it would have had to be founded on 4th of July, 1 BC, which is even more awkward. Of all the possible years, why would this happen in 1 BC?
  • In 1 BC - or even in 1 AD - people of America did not know of this year number thing. They are based on an old theory about the birth year of Jesus. American Indians didn't even know who he was (though Mormons have some interesting ideas about what happened soon thereafter).
  • Even the Julian calendar didn't use these years until long after the events involving Jesus, instead referring to the year of an emperor's reign and other temporal anchors points.
  • The differences between Julian and Gregorian calendars mean that the real original date would have been other than 4th of July, so Americans may have been celebrating on the wrong date all along! Maybe it was actually 22nd of July.

2013 - 1 = 2012. Not 2013. Get it?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Is there an outage or not? AT&T should know which services it provides to its customers

I have had some trouble sending email and as an AT&T customer, I use their smtp server outboud.att.net. It seemed like the server might be down. I reported this to AT&T customer service on Twitter and asked if they have information on whether there is an outage. To my great surprise, they basically refused to tell me whether the server was down or not, instead wanted my phone number so somebody could call me and discuss the situation.

The exact error message from Thunderbird

Of course, AT&T does not have almost any mobile phone coverage in southern Champaign, so I gave them my email address instead, but as AT&T does not have email support yet - only phone, Twitter, store and web chat - they still kept asking for a phone number and my AT&T account number (which I didn't have with me).

Now, I wouldn't want to be telling the people at the largest ISP in the United States - and almost pioneer and inventor of many technologies and - what services they have and how they work. Their basic services are super expensive, but I think it is apparent that they do not even know that they provide SMTP services in their network - and not even just in their network but also from outside if you happen to have an AT&T email account for any reason, and as far as I know, the free Yahoo! email services use the exact same server.

Nevertheless, they wanted to know whether I was a U-Verse or a DSL customer. (Let's forget for a while the fact that DSL is a technology whereas U-Verse is a brand name for a cable model based broadband service.) It should not matter, because the use of outbound.att.net is not restricted to any specific service or product. Actually, I'm using it with my phone - and my phone's network connection is much faster than my AT&T U-Verse broadband. Anyway, even though I told them this is important and urgent, they have not been in contact with me since - this is probably due to the fact that today is a national holiday, and this is also why I wanted to know possible problems right away, instead of entering some lengthy helpdesk process that goes into idle mode over holidays.

Now, AT&T has been restructuring its services and corporate structure lately. The question of whether some services are in operation or not is very relevant to many (consumers and enterprises) who depend on them. I don't use AT&T's email service to receive emails (even though I could), but because I mostly connect to Internet using AT&T's services, the use of outbound.att.net as the SMTP server is a natural and the recommended choice.

I think the AT&T customer service does not know what the difference getween webmail and SMTP is. Or, more importantly, they seem not to be aware they are not the same thing. They are also not aware that even though your email settings are correct, there can still be something wrong on the server side, and knowing if this is the case is a great start for the debugging process.

Now, if you have time and a workstation to work on, you may browse the AT&T website to try to find outage information and similar announcements. But they may not be up to date or assess this specific problem at all - for example, AT&T's website still doesn't acknowledge the reception problems in southern Champaign even though it has been reported to them at least one year ago.

I think an efficient and reasonable exchange (on Twitter, for example) would go something like this:
Customer: Hi, I'm having trouble sending email with outbound.att.net. Can you check if there's an outage or something?
AT&T Support: Hi, we are sorry to hear you are having problems, but we have no information of any outages related to outbound.att.net.
Customer: Ok, thanks! I'll check if there's something I can do about it here.
Then, if there indeed are no problems AT&T is aware of, the customer can check many connection-related parameters and other stuff. On mobile connections, the said problems happen quite often, but in my case it was a problem with a desktop computer at home. After knowing that it is not a general server outage, the next contact  would be through technical channels and be about more advanced settings and other technical matters.

As AT&T ought to know, they serve the whole United States and its very diverse population. They serve students, IT professionals, single moms, nuclear fusion research facilities, NASA, politicians, people whose mother tongue is other than English, the blind and the deaf, pizza parlors, dentist's offices, the government. This is quite a challenge. But for most of these, the recommended (and the only) choice when they send email with some other technology than webmail (even though webmail uses te same server still), is through the SMTP server outbound.att.net, and knowledge of whether this server works is relevant if not crucial to their businesses, hobbies, research activities, benefit applications and so on. It should be treated as such.