Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in pictures

So, there goes another year, and this one was certainly full of important historical events. Here is a quick recap with pictures.

The Arab spring protests and riots rise on to full blown revolutions, aimed to depose the life-long dictatorships in many Arab countries.

An earthquake followed by a tsunami hits Japan and causes devastation, compromising vital infrastructure, most famously the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

President Barack Obama announces that the most wanted man in the world, Osama Bin Laden, fugitive since 2001, has been found and killed by a special forces team in Pakistan.

The world wide economic crisis worsens, but all attentions are turned to the situation in Europe, where countries like Greece, Portugal and then Spain and Italy seem to be struggling to balance their accounts.

The first ever synthetic organ transplant takes place in London when a cancer patient receives a new lab grown windpipe. The operation is a success.

Shuttle Atlantis lands at Cape Canaveral marking the end of the Space Shuttle program after 20 years of service.

Two bombs are set off in Norway along with an attack in the island of Ut√łya by a christian extremist, leaving 77 dead and many more wounded.

Another terrorist attack, this time in Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, leaving some 70 dead.

Rebels capture capital Tripoli as part of the Libyan civil war, ending Muammar Gaddafi's long control over the country. Later the dictator would be found and killed in his home city of Sirte.

Riots break out around the United Kingdom, mostly concentrated in London and the surrounding areas. Commerces are looted, buildings and cars burnt down, in response of the increasingly worrying economic situation spreading to the region.

The Curiosity rover is launched and headed for Mars. It is the most advanced probe sent so far to the red planet and will be landing there in late 2012.

The world's human population surpasses 7,000,000, people.

United States announces the end of their operations in occupied Iraq, leaving the country to run itself after almost 9 years of military presence and 5 thousand killed, times six wounded.

As you can see, it's mostly negative things. Here's to hoping I will be writing here in one year's time, with more good news than bad.

Happy 2012, everybody!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Solstice

If you're in the northern hemisphere, today is the winter solstice (well actually this year it's tomorrow but we can't be changing our calendars every year for astronomical reasons, can we?)

By any means, Winter starts. The sun will travel through it's lowest arch in the sky, it will be the shortest day and the longest night, all that. If it's snowing where you live, go and have fun!

If you live in the southern hemisphere, well, reverse all I've said and happy Summer!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

SOPA, and why it sucks

Let's talk about something shameful. Online censorship. 

One of the reasons why the internet grew at the rate it did was because people felt liberated and freed by it, the ability to say anything and read anything at any time. View content from across the world in a few seconds, created by someone like you. Soon, this shape of the internet might change drastically. Enter SOPA.

What is it? 

Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a bill that's proposed to become a U.S. Law, soon to be voted by congress. Basically, it's a censorship program, which would allow corporations, through intimidation of multi million dollar lawsuits, to close any website they deem are infringing their copyrights. If those websites refuse to close, they could go straight to the companies that host the domains and servers of said websites and sue them instead, giving the corporations such as RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) the power to basically squash any little bug that's smaller than them.

Why is this so bad?

Basically, anything that even slightly breaks the copyright laws is liable to get censored. Even more, websites that host user submitted content are liable for what those users are saying. So if anyone posts lyrics of a song in Facebook, for example, then the copyright holders could force Facebook to block that post unless they wanna face legal action. There go all those lovely song covers in YouTube, any tribute band hosted in MySpace, etc..

Let's make believe SOPA passed on the year 2000, which websites would probably have never existed (or would have been extremely less successful)?

and many, many more.

What is the drive behind SOPA?

Nothing else but greed. The reason why these corporations see this is necessary is because they are "losing over 100 billion dollars annually". What the mean is they are not earning those 100 billion (allegedly, this figure is probably fabricated and false) on top of their already multi billion dollar earnings. The musicians nowadays live a much wealthier lifestyle than those in the 50s or 60s when piracy was nowhere to be seen. The movies keep breaking income records year after year. Movie stars are paid millions of dollars for 3 months worth of work, more than any normal human being will make in their entire lives. Socialites out of stupid reality TV shows are paid thousands of dollars just to show up at an event.

Why is it ridiculous?

I think everyone can figure out their own reasons to find this bill extremely laughable but worrying at the same time. For me, it's a couple of reasons. First of all it's so against everything the United States of America is usually proud of, "freedom". It is sadly funny to see how America opposes countries like China, Iran or Syria censoring their internets for the sake of religion or government control, and now they're bound to pass a law for the sake of making fat corporations even fatter.

Secondly, it's a case of bullying. It's exactly like that fat, big, not so bright bully at school, getting what he wants by force. Instead of adapting to the changes of the times, these corporations are looking to stomp on change and innovation. They are crying because they didn't have such ideas first. With this attitude not only would they be crushing already existing content, but also hampering the growth of new ideas, companies, and ventures. A study shows that venture capitalists would be extremely fearful to invest in new start-up companies in fear of the legal consequences.

Lastly, some copyright infringement actually leads to earnings for these companies. I have, on many occasions accidentally, come across new bands I had no idea about in YouTube videos which used them as a background music.
For example, this famous video by MadV has a soundtrack by Mogwai, which led me to download (yes, illegally) some more of their music and ultimately to become a fan. Remember this post back from summer? Yes, I paid 75 euros to attend a festival with friends mainly to go see them play and I loved the experience, and will go see them again if they play here. I am sure many people have examples just like this where "illegal" content is actually doing something the record companies have failed doing these past 10 years, advertising and promotion.

I'm not American, why should I worry?

As we all know, the western world has a tendency to follow on the footsteps of the US, whether we like it or not. There are other initiatives in the U.S., such as the PROTECT IP, which could be implemented even if SOPA fails, and more worryingly, something international is being pushed called ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) which, quote, "the current draft of ACTA would profoundly restrict the fundamental rights and freedoms of European citizens, most notably the freedom of expression and communication privacy."

What are our weapons?

Luckily, there is a lot to be done by many people. Many huge internet ventures like Google (by extension, YouTube), Facebook, Mozilla, Wikipedia, to name a few. The president of the United States, Barack Obama, has said he would move to veto this bill, but the congress could still overrule him. Hopefully, even if it becomes law, the Supreme Court could deem it unconstitutional (which it is, see link below), and scrap it.
Visit this website to learn more about what can you do in your current position, be it as a webmaster, just a user, US citizen or not.

Other links:

Funny anti-censorship comics

SOPA is unconstitutional

A list of companies supporting SOPA

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A giant earth discovered: Kepler 22b

When people ask me whether I think there is life outside our planet, I say yes. When they ask me why... I don't feel like explaining.

But here's why:

The Milky Way (the galaxy in which our Solar system is located) has around 400,000,000,000 stars. If only a 0.5% of those have planets, then there are 2,000,000,000 Solar systems out there. If out of those solar systems only 0.1% have any planets within an inhabitable region, there are 2 million planets suitable for life out there. Even if one out of a thousand actually harbors life, then there are 2 thousand living planets floating around. And this is being really pessimistic with the numbers.

Then we look beyond our galaxy. The Hubble telescope was pointed a tiny piece of the sky for a month taking in all the light it could get. The result was this famous picture:

Each one of these dots is another galaxy, each one containing billions of other stars. So in my mind, it's very likely there are hundreds of civilizations out there. However, I don't think we will meet any of them.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic beta impressions & preview

So the Star Wars: The Old Republic testing phase (public beta) is now over and we are allowed to talk freely about the game. I participated in two testing weekends along with thousand other testers.

My first impressions of the game overall were quite good.

Starting from the top, character creation is straight forward. Choose your faction (Republic or Empire, of course), one of 4 races available. On to the physical customization one must choose a face, a body type, choose some scars if you want, hair, eye and skin color.
However, the customization options are not that broad. There are only 4 body types, for example: skinny and short, average height and weight, tall and muscular, and fat. It should be enough for people to look unique... but there could be more.

The gameplay is quite similar to what has been established as the 'standard' for MMORPGs by the current dominator, World of Warcraft; that came as no surprise, I wasn't expecting they would take big risks doing something completely original, but it's not a bad thing either.

Something that is quite different though is the story component of each class as they develop. Through quests, each of the classes has it's own adventure to live, whether it's from being a padawan learning to become a Jedi, or an imperial agent investigating the assassination of a Sith Lord, it equates into many new adventures every time you try a new class. There's great detail placed in the voice acting, with many of the quests having entirely acted out conversations (some you get from data pads or other text transmissions).

The dark side has you
As you progress, you gain experience and levels as in other online games, but there are also some other aspects of character development. Similar to the system in KOTOR, making choices can affect your alignment with the Force, be it light or dark. Mainly this restricts which items you can use and purchase, but it also changes how people react to you and how you look. Being a well mannered, good hearted Sith, and Imperial people will treat you with disdain. Being a heartless cruel person will bring you to the dark side, and you will notice your face slowly changing, first your eyes turn bright yellow and then some cracks start showing, representing the corruption of your body and soul.

At some point in time you get a ship with which you can travel from planet to planet or engage in space battles. These play more or less like a point and click game, since you don't have much control over your ship, it follows a pre determined path and your task is to make things go boom by clicking your mouse. It's fun, but disappointing in a way. It pretty much negates any kind of player versus player space fights, which I was hoping for.

The battlegrounds however are a lot of fun and offer new challenges, like a space football sort of sport where you can pass the ball to your team mates running towards a goal and scoring points, all the while being able to fight and defeat other players to save your own skin or protect the ball carrier.

I do have some grudges about it, but it being a beta, I will wait for the final product to really complain. Things like the graphics being a bit 2006ish and items only lasting a level or two before you find something better are areas I'm hoping for improvement.

I recommend you at least try this game, if you get the chance at a friend's house, or through some sort of trial. It will cater well to both fans of the Star Wars universe as well as those looking for a great MMORPG.