Saturday, December 27, 2014

Problemist Supplement article index: Community Service

title: Cliffords Tower on top of a hill in York; source:; taken by Petr KratochvilChess as a confrontation between two players is just a small subset of a larger chessboard and chessmen universe. Chess problems are a delightful close cousin to the board game and are mostly awfully devilish too. Newcomers frequently need some sort of guidance to enjoy them and there are some good books on chess problem solving out there. However, one great resource that has been recently made available for free is the The Problemist Supplement. Over the years it has accumulated a trove of articles related to solving, composing and enjoyment. As a community service I've decided to index the articles from issue 1 to the time of this post for easy reference.  The supplements themselves can be found here: A complete index on the flagship publication can be found there as well. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Debriefing a sales call

title: young businessman holding a clipboard and pen; take by: Benjamin Miller; source:
We all want to get better at what we do. Well, most of us do; those who don't can skip this post.  One of the crucial parts of getting better is checking what we are doing right now as this is the basis for either tweaking or wholesale overhaul.

Sales calls & negotiations are just two more areas that can be practiced and improved. To do just that I drew up a debriefing script for my own use. I had noticed that if I didn't  go over or review my last meeting, I would go on repeating the same mistakes and unprofitable old habits. Since I didn't want that to continue, I decided to bring out to the open whatever routines I was using and, hopefully, use them as steping stones.

As there is no harm in sharing, here it goes.

  1. Step by step description of what happened (no judgements at this point)
  1. Frame them:mine
  1. Attitudes
  1. Postures, body language throughout
  1. What went right?
  2. What went wrong?
  3. What tecniques you used?
    1. What were their effects?
    1. What other ideas could have been used?
  1. What were their concerns?
Were they adequately addressed?
  1. Poise, delivery
  1. Goals achieved
  1. What were the tangible results?
  2. Tidbits obtained
  1. What can be practiced?
What can be fixed?
  1. Grade
  1. If you'd go for the first time again, what different?
  1. To do/further steps

Even though I came up with this, I myself do not find it easy to go over the points. Maybe the resistance is indicative of useful debriefing. Going over the points right away might be best for recall, but I find that I have a cooler head on the next next day.

If you find this useful, feel free to link back.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Duverger's thesis analyzed: Crónica de la Eternidad

(In 1521 Cortez and his band conquered the New Spain. The best eye-witness account is that of foot soldier Bernal Diaz del Castillo. What if the real author is not he, but Cortez himself? I am hosting what follows as is on behalf of certain someone who is too lazy to translate it)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Type 'zen' in the search bar of your favorite online bookstore and chances are that Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is near the top of the search results.  It is the first book I read on this area, but as you can see from my previous zen post, it is the book that I recommend last.

The contents are good and substantial, not that long, and helps one to know 'what is expected' of oneself from the practice which helps narrow the focus to the practice and let go of preformed misconceptions.  However it is written in that oblique, paradoxical  'zen style' of instruction that doesn't lend to immediate grasp.  That's why I would recommend it after at least some months practice and after the Dummies books or other Western oriented introductory manual. The Mind And the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz, which I'll mention again some time, has helped me disentangle some of the paradoxes as well, ("Oh, so that's what he means"), so I'll recommend that as well.

In similar fashion to Zen Mind, there's Zen Essence ed. by Thomas Cleary which is a collection of opinions by different masters on various practice aspects. The multiangle approach is beneficial because it triangulates to what all are trying to convey at each point.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Game From Mars

(I've been toying with this idea for the better part of the last five years and decided that it was ripe enough for this year's Halloween special. I think that it works on its own and could serve as the basis for further development)

The future did not turn out as was expected.  Sure, there had still been some progress technologywise but that had been even more tepid than the most conservative futurologists had predicted.   However, the most notable change had been the great strides in world peace and international cooperation and arbitration.  For the first time in centuries, if ever, several months could be threaded without international strife.  There still remained some internal disputes in some countries but those were of pretty no impact.  This climate of concord had been rightly hailed as mankind's greatest achievement and reasonably made up for the low technological change of the recent decades.    We still did not have jet packs or flying cars, and but at least we had a livable world.

This all changed with the successful completion of the Mars 3500 Mission.  The mission had been the result of very small incremental advances that had accumulated over time.  The space agencies had found early on that a manned round trip could be done without having to turn the mission into a suicidal one.  The catchphrase at the time had been: "Mars and back!" A few efficiencies in hull design, tiny advances in fuel chemistry, and material overhaul that had been cooking for some time was all it took for a safe Mars mission.

The landing site was chosen for no reason other than it "afforded a nice view of the Olympus Mons" as one official quipped.

Positive material proof of a shared universe was already old news by then. Notwithstanding, bringing some back in quantity wasn't. With the mission's completion and analysis the agencies published commemorative tome with the most important findings.

The story that would have the most impact was told in a sidebar in the same tome however.  It dealt with what was entitled "The Game From Mars".  Among the refuse and whatnot, an iron plaque was found etched with a few pictures.  The meaning of it was quickly deciphered as to be a game, mostly because of its eerie resemblance to Chinese checkers.  As best as it could be gathered, the object of the game was to advance your marble through a series of grooves from your side, colored red, to the far side of the board colored green.  Nothing quite out of the ordinary, but it offered a nice kicker to the whole mission.

Within a few days of the printing a few enterprising programmers wrote an app of the game for download.  It was a mild success due to the novelty and to the afterglow of the mission, but most of who downloaded it for $.99 gave it up after mastering it in couple of weeks in favor of something else.  In the charts it peaked at #6, just behind the Toyo Singing Calculator.

This situation would not last for long.  A small company made up of two brothers literally turned the game up on its head.  They programmed their own version of the game with the difference of starting backwards: getting the ball from the green camp to the red camp.  Thanks to the layout of the pits and grooves this made the game much, much more interesting than the original red counterpart.  The combinations and patterns that resulted from a well-played game were fascinating, and with each game, the players tried to find out new and more intricate patterns.  They called their game "Green Mars".

Green Mars

Green Mars took the world by storm.  Within a few days it topped the charts never to leave the spot ever again.  Ports to social sites were illegally made by third parties and condoned.  Users even demanded them.  Loudly.  No one was willing to wait for an official port.  Whole new communities emerged dedicated to Green Mars.  Servers crashed under the traffic load. Even printed magazines, of all things, were rushed for printing.  No one could get enough of it.  Merchandising went even beyond the usual suspects of cereal boxes and happy meals.  Magazine articles, special news reports and in-depth coverage, adoption by celebrities added fuel to the raging fire and brought attention to the game far and wide.  So the game's intrinsic appeal (considering the word 'appeal' as a far, far understatement), ease of access and wide publicity resulted in an unstoppable force.

A few psychologists interested in the phenomenon, to their credit sounded the alarm before the real trouble began.  Studying the impact of the game on behavior they quickly concluded that Green Mars' index of addiction was unlike anything seen before.  It just went over an over-optimistic scale that never assumed such a degree of hookup.  Mind you, the players didn't suffer from any physical impact from playing the game different from the already known effects of playing any game too much.  The thing was that the players couldn't help themselves playing on.  Food and hygiene still had some power over the players for a while but as soon as those were satisfied these faded into the background as well as anything else.  The study subjects even went aggressive towards the researchers when deprived of the game medium.  On average it only took four hours for withdrawal symptoms to surface and the threshold diminished daily.  The results didn't quite really get to see the light of day, since these didn't have the time to do so, but the few strenuous warnings that did come out went unheeded.

Things did change and for the worse 22 days after the release of Green Mars.  What at first had been interest, fancy and healthy dedication turned to wild fixation.  All of a sudden, as if falling from an unseen cliff, players found themselves unable to get away from the game.  It was still pleasurable, very much so, and that was the problem.  The first signals came with the skyrocketing of petty traffic accidents.  Then came the more serious ones with trains skipping the rails and passenger-filled planes  dropping from the sky.  The day that air traffic was canceled, the 24th, regulators expected this a temporary measure.  Then came the meltdown of two nuclear reactors the next day, and a dozen more during the week around the globe.  Goods delivery came to a standstill.  Doctors at hospitals became inefficient at best.  Uncaring, yet entertained, trauma victims were rolled to the ERs with their devices in tow.  Food and drink became a thing of the past with the present being all that mattered.  By the 30th the dead began to pile unburied and pestilence began to circulate at an accelerating pace.  States and governments became powerless, then silent.

This is how civilization ended.

(Check out last years Halloween special here and 2012's here )

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hoyle's Black Cloud

I'm not really into science fiction books (I'd rather watch movie adaptations), but last year my older brother gave me Fred Hoyle's Black Cloud as a must-read. I obliged and found it a bit contrived but good on the suspense and premise. The author focuses, however, on the decision-makers in their bunkers, leaving out a wide arena of possibility within his setting. Sure, its interest and the main purpose of the book to see how the higher-ups resolve the crisis at hand, but not that much is said of we, the regular people. As with a good disaster setting this is what I'd like to have read, in addition to the existing storyline, maybe by the hand of a different writer:

    Moon Halo, Moonlight through Clouds, Night; Source:; credit: Robert & Mihaela Vicol
  • A set of characters, independent of the scientists and politicians, carrying out their own lives, trying to solve their own particular affairs when events begin to unfurl.
  • How they begin to suspect something's amiss and how news begins to trickle in.
  • Transcriptions of the newscasts. Probably these hiding the truth.
  • The official crisis plan by the government
  • The ways the different new characters prepare themselves for the upcoming bad times, on their homes, work and family relations while still trying to achieve their preexisting goals.
  • The inevitable panic and looting
  • The reactions of religious groups
  • Life during the  hot and cold periods, especially during the dark days. The fear,the marauders, the screams from without the shelters
  • Reconstruction

There is ample room to still work within Hoyle's universe. I mention all this as a prelude for this year's Halloween special, in which I post a really modest sci-fi short story of my own, that kind of belongs to same vein to see if it goes anywhere. This, next time.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Three Pillars of Zen book review

If you ever take up Zen, there's a hidden benefit: you really don't have to learn much. Just sit, focus on your breathing or your koan if you have one, and not much else. This makes it easy to get into. Zen is notoriously refractory to philosophy so there's no accumulation of knowledge that has to be learned to practice. In fact, knowing more may be a hindrance and knowing less might be part of the key. (The only other field I've seen something parallel is futures trading: knowing more doesn't necessarily mean better results). That said, one might get some benefits by learning how others have made it, their, goals their experiences. Some of these are gathered in the Three Pillars of Zen. 
source:; liverleaf 3 taken by Magnus Rosendahl
As said this is not required reading. This is more like a guided tour through the mechanics of enlightenment and a showcase of experiences of others on their way to it. If the Zen Life shows Zen from without,  Three Pillars take a more intimate inside view. It could be divided into roughly three non-continuous parts. The first consists of a series of talks of by a Zen master of different practice aspects. These are followed by transcriptions of from the private interviews (dokusan) between the seeker and the master. The second is a small collection of letters from the monk to those who have sought him for guidance and from a girl who went through the higher stages in just a few days. The last part contain sample accounts of present day seekers who who have achieved enlightenment written in their own hand. Each section is prologued by the author with general context and concepts. There's a brief annex on practice troubleshooting, but I did not find it terribly useful (better Meditation for Dummies). A welcome addition is the glossary as sometimes terms sometimes get jumbled up.

My favorite part is the private interviews where the seekers try to make sense of their koans. This single part is the next best thing (I feel) to getting hold of a flesh and bone master who's willing to take you on. Feedback’s the name of the game. My other favorite section was the diary of the American businessman seeker in the third part; his account is so close at home that one can relate to him and so clear that I can picture a short film being made out of it.

Recommended, yes, for the inner look and for the clear view of the whole field.

(If you are a Catholic, some, perhaps all, meditation practices might be harmful to you spiritual life. Check out Women of Grace or read what Sue Brinkmann has to say by googling her)

(After a brief hiatus for this year's Halloween special, I'll come back to close this series on meditation with another review)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

First time group meditation

So I joined the gym of my local college campus. Pasted on the entrance one day I happened to catch a schedule for a previously unknown to me meditation hall annex to the sports center. I decided to check it out.

source:; White and Pink Flowers taken by Magnus RosendahlI've been meditating for myself over the previous year. Frankly I would have never started had not physical troubles pushed me to it. Meditation as alternative medicine was frequently mentioned in the books I consulted and decided to give it a try. If nothing else as a way to take over my own recovery. Well, I had been meditating with more or less success in a standing posture, but felt I could do even better with some guidance. My first impetus was posture itself. Though not prohibited by any means, standing straight is not mainstream. Maybe some regular time tested sitting might help.

The first couple visits to the meditation hall were unsuccessful as it was they were sessions already going on (yoga I think) and didn't want to distract the girls there. On the third go, I chanced on a general meditation workshop. Being a slow day, there was only the instructor and a student. As I entered the teacher was explaining the concept of koans to the student. The instructor invited me to join, but startled at the unexpected welcomeness, I decided to let them be and left. Undaunted, I tried yet once more, and finally caught the instructor by himself the following week.

He was sitting there by himself already on meditation with three more unoccupied cushions at his sides. He stopped and kindly asked me to come in. He turned up to be a soft spoken Westerner with 35 years of meditation experience.I explained that I was there to try the cushions out. He said that by all means and promptly proceeded to induct me. He asked me if I already meditated and which meditation school I practiced (makeshift zen). He gave me a crash course anyway: how, to sit,  where to feel the breathing (2 inches below the navel), keep the eyes open, focus on no point, think on nothing (he did say that) and to just return the awareness to it.

With that he told me we would go for 20 minutes. He laughed when I tried to negotiate it down to ten, my then maximum, set some meditation timer app and then we were at it. Before long two more persons came into the hall, one sitting on the line of cushions and the other behind us three.

Well, those twenty minutes were not so bad as I expected. Actually, far from feeling any pressure from the others I felt motivated by them. The practice felt more flowy, easier and at times, deeper. Nothing dramatic, but the momentum did build upon itself.The time for its part flew, but unlike my own practice I wondered from time to time how much we had left, not out of anxiety, but of curiosity. Despite trying to get into a proper posture (Burmese style) at the onset, I still felt my right knee was off the floor. A bit uncomfortable on the whole, but not painful.

So when the digital bowl rang from the phone, the instructor bowed forward, took a silent pause and took a look 'round. One of the latecomers I recognized as the koan guy from before; the other a female student. When I tried to stand up I found that my right leg had numbed over; the koan guy seeing that, good naturedly chuckled and said that it happens but over time it gets better. The girl, I saw, had pulled a meditation bench from somewhere and on the spot I decided to try that next.

The instructor proposed that we now switch to a five minute walking meditation. Same thing, just fist over the thumb on the right, left hand. We went single file behind him round the hall, although I had to stand there for the first few while sensation came back to my leg. On the whole I liked this change, although it was hard to focus on my breathing or on anything for that matter. Just the circuit again and again. Probably that's the point if there's a point at all. Maybe that's how the whirling dervishes, on another scale, get their kicks (Update: from the 3 Pillars of Zen I learn this is called kinhin and its for its own sake, to allow variety and to allow longer sitting periods) .

After another bowl ring, the instructor invited us to another 20 minute sit to close the allotted time. I politely begged off, having had my fill for the moment, but promised to come back next week.

And so I did on the weeks following. Same dynamics: sit around 20 to 25 minutes, walk five, sit another 20. Different persons came and went, but we averaged three or four consistently. The benefits I had noticed on my first try were still there with differing intensity. I tried the bench and found it even better and eventually bought one for myself on an auction site. The teacher gave a few pointers here and there ("your posture is good, but you must let yourself drop"). My own solitary practice has strengthened. If you ever have the chance to try to group meditate with a handful of people, I'd encourage you to to not let the opportunity pass.

(If you are a Catholic, some, perhaps all, meditation practices might be harmful to you spiritual life. Check out Women of Grace or read what Sue Brinkmann has to say by googling her)

More next time

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Meditation AND Mindfulness for Dummies review

Starting this week a small series on meditation

In order to solve some issues  I have, I decided to take up meditation. I had already read and enjoyed Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, but felt I needed more step by step instruction. To sift through the mounds of books on the subject, I established that the book I'd read had to:

  • Be Western oriented. I knew that the techniques had already been distilled for Western consumption. I did not want to learn any Eastern philosophy to practice, if I could help it. Thus, it also had to have:
  • No oblique language. Hand me clear, precise concepts and instructions. No mumbo jumbo. Straight forward lingo for me. Thank you very much.
  • Cover the basics and offer alternative approaches for me to try or adapt.
  • Address mindfulness. Felt that I needed this, so it had to be in there too.

source:; taken by Jon SullivanLooking around I almost settled for Mindfulness: an 8 week plan… by Williams et al. and the Mindfulness Solution by Siegel.  While considering these and others, Meditation for Dummies by Bodian made its way into the list. Whittling down the choices by comparing the contents, Bodian's finally beat all the other contenders despite being the most expensive of my choices. It delivered.

It is chockful of goodies and with it one is unlikely to need anything else for many many months. Starts with general aspects such as the different meditation traditions, the benefits of and research on meditation and so on. Meditation instruction doesn't start until chapter 6 but the author encourages the reader to jump around if she feels like it. Practical aspects, such as what to where and where to sit, are explored and troubleshooting section for more challenging problems. Chapter 14 is a godsend as it recaps the material and offers suggestions to build one's own practice.  In the Dummies tradition, it has a Further Steps section towards the end for even further exploration.

The book's meditation style leans towards Buddhism, but offers plenty of meditation alternatives from different traditions for one to try if one feels like it. Some Jewish and Christian meditation is in there as well.  An added bonus is that the author has a psychotherapy day job, sothats a bonus as I feel he writes with experience.

When I placed Meditation In the shopping cart, I was also recommended to also check out another Dummies book, Mindfulness for Dummies (2010 edition) by Alidina. Did so, and saw that it also covered my requirements and gave another look to about the same topics. Decided to  bite the bullet, get these two and draw from both. I was astounded  that it were Dummies books, two of them, who trounced the competition.

Mindfulness for also is is quite agnostic and doesn't try to get you adopt any spiritual beliefs. It even warns against joining cults and stuff (unless you want to). Both are good, but Bodian's has an edge over Alidina's. Now, there's nothing wrong with Alidina, only that it is more constrained in its scope. If Mindfulness is the only one you can get, that's fine as it's oriented to beginners as well and covers about the same material, but I kinda felt it as a second course. My original plan of reading them both concurrently didn't pan out as despite their similarity, in my experience they don't quite reinforce each other. Better stick with one at the time, and if possible, make that Meditation.

Both 4 stars
(Both print books include meditation Cds which I've skipped for now)
(Despite their apparent agnosticism, If you are a Catholic, some, perhaps all, meditation practices might be harmful to you spiritual life. Check out Women of Grace or read what Sue Brinkmann has to say by googling her)

More next time

Is Kyubey Mephistopheles?

Am I cute, or what?
I find that the character Kyubey from the anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica, not as interesting or important as others , nor do I find him (I assume he's male) the most important aspect about the series (by far!), but I thought that a point should be made about him.

What follows contains spoilers up to episode five, which is a respite from the events of previous episodes and because this is as far as I have watched. Spoiler avoidance is especially important in this series.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Comet B68 engine for endgame training

Tornado & Lightning by: Free Stock Photos Library; source: want today to give a shoutout to the Comet B68 chess engine. Might not be the best or perhaps not even among the top 100, but its peculiarities makes it an estimable companion for endgame training.

Nowadays top engines, will generally put an obstinate fight on endgame positions (no tablebases)  coming up with strong moves consistently. That's fine on one level, but that's also unhumanlike. Humans will try a variety of plausible moves and, if inspired, try to bamboozle or swindle.  The Comet engine , unlike the stronger engines that share too much DNA, will try approaches that may not be objectively the best, but that will still pose problems to the opponent, even more if he is mechanically playing. That is a plus for endgame training as it keeps the player on his toes. The most dangerous opponents are frequently those that are devious or who don't know better.

So far I've not been able to find another engine with similar characteristics, if you know of one,  please let us know.

According to Comet has an estimated rating of 2396 as of August 2014 and can be downloaded for free at

Saturday, August 9, 2014

HTML5 and CSS3 All-in-One For Dummies book review

By just being a markup language HTML is arguably easier to learn than formal scripting and programming languages. However, I had not had much of a traction with it over the years, other than few basic notions, just enough to conjure up the most basic of web pages. On my latest attempt at it the panorama has cleared thanks to Andy Harris' hot off the press HTML5 and CSS3 All-in-One For Dummies.

The book is just what I had been looking for: current with the newest standards, step by step, and uncontrived. At this point in time HTML and CSS have been polished enough to remove some of their worst warts leaving more logical cleaner languages which makes this a great time to learn. Harris' approach, in the Dummies tradition, builds from scratch both keeping the curve a level as possible and focusing on what one is likely to need to build solid, attractive webpages and move on to more advanced material if one wishes, and does not attempt to be exhaustive. His writing, code and extra material makes it easy to follow along.

My previous best attempt last year was with Tittel's HTML, XHTML and CSS For Dummies (6th) which I felt spiked the learning curve somewhere around  the CSS section and left me not learning much if anything and discouraged. This time around I also dabbled with HTML5 and CSS3 for Dummies  by Karlins and CSS3 for Dummies by Mueller but kept coming to Harris's as my guide. And things have changed since last year: with my newfound knowledge for the first time I now understand some of the aspects of my own blog and have quite quickly started editing here and there with confidence.

The 8 in 1 aspect consists in 8 'minibooks' under one cover. The 8 minibooks are:

  1. Creating the HTML foundation (98 pages)
  2. Styling with CSS (116 pages)
  3. Building layouts with CSS (90 pages)
  4. Client-side programming with Javascript (174 pages)
  5. Server side programming with PHP (126 pages)
  6. Managing data with MySQL (106 pages)
  7. Integrating the Client and Server with AJAX (150 pages)
  8. Moving from pages to sites (86 pages)

The only thing that might be a minus is it's the size of the printed book  which is over a thousand pages long. I borrow an e-version from my local library and read it with the Adobe Digital Editions reader, so you might want to consider that as well. Note too that it not exhaustive: you won't find everything, but you'll also not get overwhelmed by the material. To me that's a plus.

I'm not sure If I'd recommend it to someone who isn't comfortable with computers to begin with; for someone who has a reasonable motivation it will fit hand in glove.

4 stars

Saturday, July 26, 2014

How Do You Know?

Once I watched a video on which a dozen or so children from a religious group are taken to their local natural history museum. The teacher/pastor tells the children to be skeptical of the exhibits and explanations for he has discovered that more than an institution, the museum is a temple based on faith. So he asks the children to be on the look out for unjustified claims, and ask 'How do you know?'  each time any of these come up.
brontosaurus; source:; uploaded by dominiquechappardSure enough when the museum guide is explaining one of the exhibits the children chirp 'How do you know?', 'How do you know?' to his dismay. (Wish I could find the video once more to confirm facts)

This sets an interesting quandary. I'm sure the guide knew his stuff, but, caught of guard and with short allotted time, he couldn't come up with a proper response on the spot. What would that response be? Certainly not rebuild all the theory from the ground up. Took me some years  but I finally came up with something that could work.

"What we currently know is based on a body of knowledge that has been accumulated through decades, even centuries, of investigation by thousands of persons. The method by which we have accumulated this knowledge is called scientific, and relies broadly speaking in someone putting forward a possible explanation, called hypothesis, for the observations we have in our hands, and then having himself and others test it as rigorously as possible. This is the key part: we are not wedded to our hypotheses, in the sense that we are ready to let them go if these fail testing, which we call experimentation, or if a better one comes along that explains more or explains as much in a more simple manner.

"What we see here in the museum exhibits and in the words the museum staff and I give you are the best explanations we've got at the moment for natural history. Sometimes, we can't experiment directly to try to disprove our hypotheses, as in the case of what we think as long dead species. For these, we rely on evidence uncovered by digs. Very much as in detective stories, we build our case and, if it holds water, we accept the hypothesis as probably true. Once again, we are glad to revise our understanding if something turns up that contradicts what we already have.

"The beauty is that for each field of science, the knowledge, is internally consistent, meaning that it fits together, as a toy structure, and meshes well along with each of the other. Sometimes our hypotheses are so built, that they allow us to advance predictions. When these come true, by further observation, they add to our confidence. That is how we know."

He could even push for a bit more if he feels the audience as receptive. He could round of with:

"Oh, and science is Bible sanctioned. Remember Gideon from the Book of Judges? He wouldn't take things at face value, and tested, experimented, to be real sure about how things were."

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What Do I Believe by Kiera Lee

A few years ago the eMusic online store felt like a very good alternative to the iTunes store mainly because of the low price of the music tracks. Back then I got some very good promotions that kept me subscribed and I made good use of the credits. Probably the best discovery that I made during my eMusic experience was the Kiera Lee 2005 album What Do I Believe. I remember back then comparing the samples with Taylor Swift's first album just as she, Taylor, was about to take off and deciding that I liked Kiera's album much better. In this time I have not changed my opinion: just my liking.

Kiera Lee hails from Canada. As I reviewed in the eMusic site, the music in this album lies somewhere between pop and country. The music and lyrics are uplifting and really change your mood for the better. The first two tracks are the best while the rest do hold up.

I liked the music so much that I went to eBay and overpaid for a caseless physical CD (just checked and there's one offered at this very moment). The tracks on the CD are not the same as in the MP3 album. Some are even different recordings from the same songs, that, if anything, are even more touching, so one can say that there is no duplication in owning both formats. Maybe I got a sampler or something.

With the spread of competing online music stores, the music of this album can be easily found, so if you think you might like it, check it out.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Three Kingdoms Media I've Been Exposed to

When I was in junior high two separate friends quite coincidentally bought Destiny of the Emperor for the NES with just a few months apart and both invited me over to play. Not much later, one of them, Gabriel, bought me Romance of the Three Kingdoms II for the SNES at an open air market just by chance. I'd like to give a word to the media I've been exposed to since then. In chronological order.

Destiny of an Emperor for NES

What got us into this one in the first place is that it shared many of the standard RPG elements we could relate to: an overhead map, encounters, towns, items you could equip, a party, 'magic' and HP in the form of your troops. The most innovative  aspect, which I've not seen since, which is a shame, is the All-Out option during fights; toggling it, you let your troops to automatically slug it out with the enemies and may the best win. If things go begin to look sour, especially against strong tacticians, you can regain control. This saves lots of time and is at times more fun than selecting actions for every party member each round.

The game does a great job of introducing the characters at the intro with just a few lines and along the story. We never were at a loss about what we were expected to do, despite not knowing who these people were at first. The crucial part were the character portraits, which appear to be a mainstay for the media. With them we could distinguish between the generals despite the unfamiliar names. At a glance we could tell if the opponent was  an important character or not, because either his portrait was a generic variation of a handful of templates or an extra effort was put into it. Also the stats. We could judge the different characters from them;  Zhuge Liang the most clever, Lu Bu the strongest, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei close behind.

The most frustrating part was meeting Zhuge Liang  in the first place and the getting him to wake up (If I remember rightly you have to keep the B button pressed or something). Unless you had him, you couldn't enter 'the peaceful land of Shu'.  This one also turned up to be one of those games where you can hardly string more than half dozen steps without having someone attack you (Dragon Warrior II apparently is the worst in this area). Fortunately, the programmers  thought of the 'smoke pot' item to avoid being always harassed.

The music fits the mood and some of the fight tunes are exciting.

The story follows the events of the novel broadly and it goes from the Yellow Turban rebellion to the final encounters with Sun Quan, Cao Pi and Sima Yi. You play as Liu Bei and his generals Curiously enough, Cao Cao is an ally on some part, and never an opponent.

On the whole a well-balanced game and pretty entertaining.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms II for the SNES

This one is a strategy game. You have to develop your land, collect taxes, train your troops, carry on diplomacy, recruit more generals and deal with natural disasters. You can start in one of the many 'Acts' of the novel from Dong Zhuo's seizing of Luoyang to the consolidation of the three kingdoms, the map reflecting each one's territory at the moment. You can play as any of the principal leaders and pretty much as any of the obscurer ones or conjure up your own.

Encounters are tactical in nature and very solid. At the start you may challenge the other side or be challenged by a hero of them to a hand-to-hand combat, the result depending on the strength stats of the generals. Each province have different terrains and you move your troop units through them in order to capture your opponents castle and win the province. One of the best parts is that of joint attacks and cpu controlled reinforcements which can event switch sides if it suits them. Speaking of the AI in the game, the computer is no pushover, although you're destined to win in the end, the computer puts in a good fight.

The most difficult part always is vanquishing Liu Biao. He rarely expands and stacks up on generals making him densely packed for defense and always ready for your onslaught. Liu Bei has difficult starting points in the first stages.

As in Destiny each general has his own portrait and stats. The portraits are better than in Destiny, but Zhang Fei's  and Zhao Yun's and perhaps Ma Chao's were better in the older game. With the aid of the portraits the instruction manual does a great job of explaining the situation in each time period, and of the story as a whole, in just a few pages. Aww… this were I first learned about the fate the three brothers.

The music is just acceptable but can get repetitive real quick. The ending consists of famous scenes from the novel graphically very good considering the medium. You can restart a play again and again as this one has a very high replay value. I still have my copy.

Of course, there is a whole series of games under this title. Since I've only played this one I cannot talk of all the rest. However, ROTKII is so good that, I can only guess at the improvements the publisher has made over this long while, The latest must be… superb.

Three Kingdoms: The Novel (translated by Moss Roberts)

The main course and holy grail of all three kingdoms media. I do not remember how I learned there was in fact such a book, but I think it was one of my first orders at amazon. It is a large book consisting of 120 chapters, which, like The Lord of The Rings, you drink it whole with gusto.

Everything is here: the characters, the action and battles, the different plots and counterploys, the inner stories of some characters all these enhanced with  maps and loads of endnotes. This is all very exciting and so much so that every chapter ends with cliffhanger. I feel guilty at having liked it even better than The Iliad (going to reread that in the future though).

After having played the previous games I could dive right in. I now knew who everyone, more or less, was and could now contextualize their relationships. Some mysteries were now solved such as why some minor characters were highlighted in the games, such as Li Jue & Guo Si; the rival tigers and tiger-wolf strategies; Zhang Liao's route; and why some allies were prone to betray you, like Wei Yan.

There are many memorable scenes here. Not everything is just the Red Cliffs. To me the most striking, is the visit of Cheng Gong and Cao Cao to the latter's uncle; the sudden realization, and Cao Cao's final decision and rejoinder.

I'll have to check back on this one (or confirmation please!), but to me it appeared that Li Dian unintendedly played the role of the recurring enemy that comes back each week with different ploys only to be defeated again and again.

Jiang Wei ended up being my favorite character narrowly edging the more famous ones.

If the story or generals are already familiar to you and you're willing to read, the novel is a must; you will not get bored and simply put you won't regret it. Be sure to get the Moss Roberts translation which flows just right and gives the names in Pinyin, which is the system shared by most (it appears to me) of the current media. If you want to read it but still are unacquainted with the characters, not to worry. Check out were you can find the portraits to many of the games out there and give a face to the name. If you live in Boston, the Boston Public Library at Copley Square has the four volume set.

Marionette theater

A troupe of marionetters from the East came to my town and offered two or three performances with scenes from the Three Kingdoms. I got a ticket for a Sunday morning show. The medium-sized theatre was full with mostly families with children. The introduction to the story was carried out by a local actress which gave the proper pronunciation, as far as I can tell, of the character names. I, for my part, invariably refer to Cao Cao inside my head as "cow, cow". The marionettes were of the giant variety controlled by black clad puppeters on stage. The performance was solid, submerging the audience into the drama. One of the scenes included was the visit to Zhuge Liang's house.
(Video shows not exactly what I saw, but you get the idea).

Comic Books from China

The rest of the Three Kingdoms sites out there are more complete than mine, but I think I've got something they don't. A family member brought me a boxset of Chinese novels from a trip to China which includes the Three Kingdoms.

What one finds inside is a series of comic panels, over 600 of them in all, following the plot. Each panel is numbered and captioned. This one too goes from the brothers' pledge to what looks like the fall of Shu. Some of the scenes and characters are recognizable, but the majority remain opaque to me. Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu, Lu Bu and Zhang Fei are among the identifiable personages. The captions look too brief to explain much, so I guess one has to know the story to enjoy the medium.
The other novels are in the same style and format. One is clearly the adventures of the Monkey King; as if there was a chance of ever mistaken him. The other two are a mystery to me. Apparently these are the Dream of the Red Chamber and Water Margin. Dream has a Jewel of the Palace vibe, while Margin looks like a brother or at least first cousin to the Three Kingdoms with battles, generals and lords. There is also someone with a feather fan…  Since I cannot read any of them I just regard these as a collector's item.

Koihime Musou (anime)

A surprise that refreshes the Three Kingdoms universe. Though mostly plotless, as it focuses more on character interaction, it is quite good and lighthearted in its presentation. The battle scenes, though brief, are not unsatisfying. The best, without doubt, is Gan Ning vs Lu Meng in the third season. Most of the production budget is used in the voice acting of some fifty characters and in their outfits which are very detailed and, yes, beautiful. These last also allow a sizable amount of tasteful fanservice.

It consists of three seasons that can be watched legally for free at Crunchyroll, and three (forgettable) OVAs.

Koihime Musou (Visual Novel)

Basically a dating game on which the anime is based. I downloaded the demo from Mangagamer and played up to the intro sequence and an hour or so after that. I have problems with this one. First though the good part: the more I browse around the Visual Novel Database the more convinced I am that visual novels are an art form in it of itself. Notable is the care taken on character design, settings, story, routes and even music. That said, they look like an enormous time sink. They are long and (based on just this one experience) long drawn. Boy, these people do talk: they are not kidding when they refer to the media as 'novels'. After all has been said and done, after all the girls conquered and all the endings achieved, what is one left with other than the good memory? Also, there's a huge risk of liking the characters too much. Do resist the siren call.
To top it off, the game is also adult oriented which may be a good or a bad thing.

Majikaru Musou Tenshi Tsuki Irase!! Ryofuku-chan (manga)

A story centering on Lu Bu. Not much to see here.

Mastering the Art of War. Thomas Cleary Edition.

Mastering the Art of War
Penned by Zhuge Liang himself this is the only nonfiction of the group. It is a set of recommendations and advice in much the same vein as The Art Of War. I saved it for years on my bookshelf waiting for the perfect moment to read it. When I finally did, it left no impression on me.  I'll have to take a deep thoughtful look on this one sometime again.

Others I've not experienced:

The Three Kingdoms has spawned a veritable parade of adaptations,  probably too much for anyone to find let alone consume. Here are just a few notable others that have come to my attention, but not watched, played or read.

Ikkitousen/ Battle Vixens

The Three Kingdoms reduced to a high school setting. A concept similar to Koihime Musou but more violent and racy.

The Ravages of Time (manhua)

Great artwork.

Three Kingdoms (2010 TV series)

A huge live production by the looks of it. Also feels like the best alternative to actually reading the novel.

Dynasty Warriors

Many people nowadays seem have had their introduction to The Three Kingdoms through this series of games. Never played any, but they must have something into them. I cannot explain how some bunch of unknowns (at first) slugging it out has been so successful here in the West. On a side note, though quite capable, somehow I don't feel that Cao Cao would deign himself to fight hand on hand.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Virtual Box vs Virtual Pc 2007

Due to the well-known end of life for Win XP I decided to switch my virtual machine platform  to Virtual Box from VirtualPC 2007. To anyone else who's looking to do likewise here go the pros and cons I've seen of the newer over the older.


  • Easier virtual hardware configuration
  • Multiple cores
  • Video acceleration
  • Snapshots
  • Video capture
  • Client more frequently updated
  • Faster VM loading
  • USB support
  • Still free


  • Heavy files
  • Backup a hassle:
    • Resource intensive & slow
    • Guest Windows activation somehow doesn't survive the export/import cycle
  • No file drag and drop between guest and host with Windows as a guest
  • I've not been able to easily set up a shared folder
  • This one is creepy: My Andrea sound pod wakes up and blinks signaling that the microphone is active.  Haven't found the reason.
  • Ugly icon (yuk!)

Virtual Box
Virtual Box Win 7 on Win 7

Saturday, May 31, 2014

We Japanese book review

We Japanese: Being descriptions of many of the customs, manners, ceremonies, festivals, arts and crafts of the Japanese, besides numerous other subjects  is probably one of the best treasuries of old Japan out there and affordable as well. Prepared by the Fujiya hotel at Hakone it consists of a whole collection of one or two pages descriptions of customs, folk tales and more. These vignettes were originally prepared and printed on the menu cards by the hotel for the sake of both the local and foreign visitor. These became so popular that were gathered in three volumes.

By the looks of it, the flagship 1950 edition combines all three previous volumes. Most of the entries are illustrated with drawings, but some b&w photos are also included. The info is current to 1950, but some of it dates back to at least 1934 which makes the book a time capsule of sorts. As an object it is traditionally bound and enclosed in an unfolding case which shuts with a bone (faux?, real?) pin. There appear to be at least three different designs for the cover which is texturized. Each page is folded double.

The descriptions and stories are concise, insightful, frequently delighting. Since these only are a page or two, they allow reading at odd times. An index is included, but does not cover absolutely all, so some digging is still needed to find all there is to know about some particular topic.

We Japanese came on my radar it after reading Ryokan by Fahr Becker (also recommended) which borrows from it on a dozen or so occasions.

Despite its relative rarity, it surprises me how low it can be bought for. I got mine for around $20, but I've seen it as low as $12. I say one should grab a copy even if for a gift. This kind of value offers are not easy to come by.