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Caoimhín Ó Gormáin
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On Media (with apologies to Dorothy Parker)

Vinyl's too hefty,
Tapes need to be wound,
CD cases break
and rattle around.

MP3s blurble,
FLAs are too big.
AAC's proprietary -
Just go to the gig

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It's funny how much the mail-merged PDF I just got from these guys is cheering me up - I got a 93%! Go me!

I just wish I'd had more time, so that I could have done the elective PIG part. Nothing to stop me doing it now, I suppose.

I signed up for Playstation Plus recently and grabbed "XCOM - Enemy Unknown" from their free games list. I've been having a lot of fun with it. There aren't enough turn-based strategy games on PS3 - the last one that I enjoyed was Valkyria Chronicles, and that came out years ago.

They're very similar games, and not just because of the turn-based combat. In both games, you have a couple of different things to manage that are persistent across combat rounds - your squad, and your base (which happens to be a tank in VC).

XCOM is a bit richer in this respect, in that you have a lot more research and development options, and you have to keep an eye on the world's panic levels and handle random encounters on top of everything else. But VC has a small, well-fleshed-out squad that raises the stakes by taking its base into combat while in XCOM the closest you feel to empathy with your grunts is annoyance at losing a high-ranked character.

Even without that though, it's still a great experience. Case in point: I was ploughing through the game on Normal difficulty without too much trouble, until I hit a Terrorist Attack event (I feel like I should say "Hi NSA!" at this point). This is basically a round where the aliens cause mayhem while you try to rescue ciilians.  My squad was annihilated by a vastly superior force of the nasty alien melee Xenomorph-a-like Chryssalids, whose numbers were only increased by their ability to turn civilians into zombies, who then incubate more Chryssalids.

 I reloaded and tried again. Same result, tried again, no joy. I just couldn't get past it. If I just aborted the mission I was going to lose a country to the aliens for the first time, so it felt very frustrating. I rage-quit and went to bed (rather too late as it happens), wondering if this was a deliberate Kobayashi Maru-style event on the part of the game designers.

I thought about it a bit in work and decided to try a different, more tactical approach that evening - high-ground sniper/spotter pairs. Came home, ate dinner, put the kid to bed, and finally sat down to try that out. It worked beyond my greatest expectations. Keeping an Assault or Heavy on watch beside each sniper, and deploying everybody to the rooftops in the first couple of turns, I was able to save over half the civilian population and clear the level with no squad deaths and only one injury. F to the T to the W.

So of course, after all the fist pumping, I went into the next low-difficulty encounter all fired up with notions of my own invincibility and promptly lost my best sniper by leaving him exposed on top of a shipping container for two turns. I'm sure there's a lesson there somewhere.

Just as it started raining, the Interwebs presented me with a rainy day toy:

And after flashing my new toy, it now tells me how much longer I can reasonably expect to live. Cheerful!

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Feeling smug. I just built the +Adafruit Industries Monochron kit - and it works! Vine proof:

Most soldering I've done in one go since I left college. Took a while to get the hang of it though:


I was all fired up to write a post about the whole NSA leak and the Obama administration's reaction to it, and then I read about the President of Bolivia's plane being forced to land in Austria on the off-chance that Edward Snowden was on it (really, this just happened), and now I don't know what to think. It seems almost comical, but it may really represent a much more sinister escalation of said reaction.

The behind-the-scenes narrative of Obama's re-election was all about the power of Big Data and better code. The systems built for the campaign managed to target potential voters and change their behaviour at a scale and with a level of precision that had been done before only in private industry. The Romney campaign's equivalent toolkit failed miserably, and they lost. (It's possible they might have lost anyway, but it certainly didn't help that their code sucked.)

Knowing that your victory, and future Democratic victories, hinged on being able to build better predictive models of individuals' behaviour and influence those individuals directly, and finding out the scale of the NSA's systems dedicated at least to the first half of the equation - would you turn it off or use it? And if you were going to use it, what would be the most effective way to do so?

China's internal censorship is probably the best answer to the second question. Research undertaken by MIT hints that its goal is not to suppress all criticism of the government, which would be practically impossible without a massive backlash. Instead, it lets some content through as a safety valve, but mainly acts to prevent the formation of spontaneously or formally organized groups, simplifying society's structure to two types of entity, the individual, and the State. (This currently relies on a lot of manual intervention and crude keyword matching, which has ended up in an intellectual arms race between the censored and the censors.)

This approach, unmodified, would probably never work in the US. The country is a crazily complex mosaic of religious and sociopolitical groups, held together by an admirable Constitution and an overwhelming sense of exceptionalism. But with a near-realtime model of your interactions, and some level of media control - as little as a targeted email from your local representative, say, mentioning how seriously they're taking an issue you were only just thinking of getting involved with - it could be possible to achieve the same effect. It could be spun as something benevolent. They could say they were using publicly available data from social networks to be more responsive to the needs of constituents. The data could even be anonymised to short-circuit privacy concerns, with voters being targetted by segment. But the net effect would be the same as in China. Independent political voices would be neutralised.

It's possible that programs like this don't exist, though I doubt it. I wouldn't give up that advantage, especially if I could come up with legal arguments to justify them. It's also possible that the systems behind it are totally separate to the NSA's information collection and analysis apparatus. But here's the thing. The reaction to the Snowden leaks has been so extreme, and so unanimous, that it's starting to look like all levels of the US government have something to fear from broader knowledge of the NSA's capabilities and programmes. It's telling that the fact that James Clapper lied to the Senate about said programmes doesn't even register, and there has been practically no dissent. My guess is that there has been at least some blurring of the lines, and that the administration is scared of the reaction if that comes out.
We're entering an age where elections will go not to politicians who tell you what they think you want to hear, but to those who know what you want to hear to a 95%+ level of confidence. And up until now we were getting there without anyone being (obviously) evil. But now that there's some light being shone on how it works, appearing a little bit evil may be something that the US government is more comfortable with - at least until they secure the leaks and the whole thing blows over. All I know is, if I were Ed Snowden, I'd keep watching the skies.

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Downtown Singapore always looks futuristic - but last week, in the smoke of burning jungles, it looked downright post-apocalyptic!

See that thing like a ship on top of 3 skyscrapers?  That's the Marina Bay Sands hotel and gambling casino.  It cost $8 billion to build and it has an 'infinity pool' on top, a swimming pool with no edge that looks like you can just swim off the edge and fall off... it scares me.  And see those things like weird 16-storey-tall artificial supertrees?  Those are weird 16-storey-tall artificial Supertrees.  They don't do much besides look cool and provide a little shade.  But at night, they glow in strange colors. 

This photo was taken by Wong Maye-E.  

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+Massimo Mollica Christmas came early for you:

Posting this on G+ for double irony points, but I wonder if the #PRISM and #NSA  revelations have given pause to any non-US organizations implementing or considering Google Apps? And if not, why not?
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