Runo – a game of Finland, from Finland (and free)

Cool stuff: a colleague from work recently announced that the game project she has been part of making has been completed, and the game released. The theme is extremely interesting and very Finnish, it’s a short but atmospheric experience and it’s a free download. The best part, of course, is that I’m almost celebrity as well here as I know one person who was involved!

Check the game out here:

Rant: Where are the real internet assistants?

OK, Google.
Alexa, help.
Hey, Siri.
Fuck you, Bixby.

There are these so-called assistants that the big internet companies like Google and Amazon are providing us with, that you use by issuing voice commands to smart speakers or mobile phones.

You can use these to, I don’t know (because I don’t use them), order movie tickets or find Uber rides? No fucking clue, because a) I don’t want to issue *voice* commands to an AI that tries to help me, b) I want to give commands in plain writing and c) I don’t trust any assistant to help me until we have a mutual agreement on what we can tell each other to do.

The assistant, in other words, needs to be someone I trust to do the things I want it to do and it needs to be *my* friend, or rather my property, not the ally of the company that supplies it to me.

Complaint #1: No Master and Slave -relationship

Although I denounce slavery completely, when it comes to AI:s I want them to *love me* and stay true to me like a dog. That is one issue with the assistants that big companies push on us “for free”, as I can’t be certain of where their loyalties live.

You need to have complete control of the data the AI uses on your behalf in order to understand why the AI does what it does and how to improve its search results as well.

Problem is, I can’t trust Alexa to do the best thing on my behalf if it is owned by Amazon – the assistant should not be loyal to a company that created it but to *me*, it’s owner.

Complaint #2: Assistants focus on commercial aspects

I want an assistant to fetch me data from all kinds of sources, not just shops and services. Say, I want to know what the COVID-19 situation is in a certain country currently; the assistant should know how to fetch the data from international and local sources and patch me a resume of what I want to know.

An other thing is, if I want an scientific article – or several – on a certain subject, the assistant would need to fetch me the most important ones from all the possible sources and if I have access through work to the services providing full text pdf:s, the assistant should download those into a folder for me as well.

I haven’t found this kind of functionality yet, but that it was internet assistants *should* fucking do… not try to sell me services I don’t need.

Complaint #3: Assistants aren’t platform independent individuals that live on my device

Assistants should be platform independent so you can export your preferences to any platform you want as time changes and the platforms too. My preferences, which the assistant-AI learns from my choices, are crucial and should not be wasted as time goes by. The AI should have a name of my choice and a constantly evolving personality that grows as I do. Starting over from scratch on every different platform is not fruitful. At least there should be a separate, transferable open database file that every new piece of assistant software can assimilate and use when I switch platforms.

I also want the assistant to serve me the same across platforms, and not favour one platform over another. Loyalty is really what I’m talking about. I want my “Alexa” to live on even if Amazon would nix it, so it should be Open Source. It’s my assistant, not the company’s.

So, there are some initial thoughts on what internet assistants should be like… we are pretty far away from that still, aren’t we?

Watching Star Trek: Discovery

OK, so season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery (ST:D from now on) has started, and luckily it’s on Netflix here in Finland.

Ever since Battlestar Galactica in my childhood I have been a sucker for quality space opera -TV-shows, so of course I’m watching this! The 21st century has been so far interesting in that shows have more room to move when it comes to violence and foul language, i.e. shows these days can be as gritty as they like and handle any themes they please. Although sexuality is still somewhat of a taboo, as America is so prudent about nudity… heads may blow up and blood can flow freely but tits and penises swinging on the screen is still a no-no. Strange world we live in, that way.

But, as TV shows have gotten better and taken over movies in some regards, quality sci-fi is still hard to find as it caters to a smaller – if economically quite wealthy – audience. In recent years, The Expanse is a book series *and* TV-series I’ve been following, and it’s doing a good job. But there isn’t much else in the way of space opera, except the Star Trek spin-offs, and now The Mandalorian on Disney+. Last year Amazon had Picard as a new Star Trek -series, and it was IMO quite mediocre if enjoyable from a nostalgic perspective. But ST:D is still a better series.

When it launched, ST:D felt like a mixture of ST:TOS, ST:TNG and the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies. The production values are consistently high, this is movie level stuff. However, plot wise all the 21st century Star Trek -series have tried to a) ride on nostalgia and b) add Star Wars-y action elements to the proceedings, which has sort of diluted one of the things that made the original Star Trek and the Next Generation so influential: the emphasis on non-violent, diplomatical ways of solving problems. So yeah, ST:D is trying to be more like Star Wars, I get it, but it’s also taking away from what makes Star Trek great.

Season 1 of ST:D started off in a bland and frankly boring way, but at the end of the season there was a twist that rode on old nostalgia and did it successfully. Season 1 really mined all it could from the Mirror, Mirror -episode of ST:TOS. Season 2 was more cohesive and quite interesting – although it also rode the nostalgia wave by having Spock in it. But it also seemed to bring the template that season 3 is following now: the overarching great mystery that the crew of the Discovery tries to solve.

Finally, and hopefully in season 3 – due to events from the end of season 2 – this series is free from the burden of old Star Trek episodes, and can create some original adventures.

So far, the series has again taken the template of presenting a mystery that will probably follow us through the whole season. And, it has shaken up things in a way that makes the Star Trek universe more like the Star Wars universe.

How convenient.

Hopefully there will be more Star Trek-ky ways of solving puzzles than blasting and shooting through doors, but we’ll see if the writers have the chops (and the courage) to write truly intelligent space opera for the 21st century…

The Playlist of 2020

A special year indeed has soon reached its end! And yeah, I made it alive too and most people I know. Safely working from home means that eating too much or slipping on the bathroom floor tiles is your worst danger, but I did also manage to get hospitalized for a few nights because of a tooth infection. That was a first, and certainly a reminder that things can go south pretty quickly.

But as I struggle with writing more stuff to get this blog (among other things) going, I’m going to at least compile some of the songs that helped me through this year here. Because music is power… and an easy way to write some content and link/embed the rest. Phew.

I Break Horses – Neon Lights

Lush, beautiful pop from Sweden that creates cinematic images and sequences in your mind if you just start listening to it. At long last ne stuff from this act, I still listen to a couple of the songs from the previous album. This is a sci-fi blast of happiness.

The Beths – Happy Unhappy

One band I stumbled across during the summer sitting in a cabin somewhere in Finland. This song somehow connected instantly.

Georgia – About Work The Dancefloor

Partying by myself during the summer to this tune was a common sight in 2020.

BT – Wildfire

A new album from master electronic producer Brian Transeau is always a small event. This time he’s gone full-on dad trance – or that’s how I’d best describe the album, but listen to this standout that is slightly derivative of his brilliant dance blast Tomahawk from a previous album, now with lyrics. And dance!

Erasure – No Point in Tripping

Wow! These guys are still around, true to their style… and this is a solid synthpop track that provides poppy energy while having that vintage analogue synth sound to it – Andy still has a great voice and Vince a knack for melodic hooks.

Future Islands – Plastic Beach

End of summer -vibes with enough energy to take you into the next spring. Also, not littering the seas with plastic is important.

Inon Zur – Liberty Lives

I spent some time playing Fallout 4 again in the spring because I was in the mood for some post-apocalyptic stuff for some reason. And wow, it was a lot better than the first time I made an effort of it. The music is really a high point of the game and this theme really makes my eyes moist every time because it’s just so heroic and… well, if you’ve played the game you know what a feeling it is taking back the Castle, what it means. We will take back our world from Covid-19 too, and you can play this theme! And cry!

Dubstar – Hygiene Strip

An early christmas present from one of the best British pop acts ever, and a nigh on perfect song to wrap up this year.

A bit high on energy and dance beats perhaps, but that’s how it is this time. Have a good end of 2020!

Gaming: No Man’s Sky

Crashed ship
A crashed fighter in the mould of Battlestar Galactica

Rewind to the 80’s

In the last 15 years or so, I haven’t really had the time and will to game as much as I’d like to. Just as is the case with quality TV series nowadays, there are more great games coming out than there is time to actually play them when you also have full time employment to take care of. Maybe I’m just lazy, but for me gaming is also more intensive and time-consuming than watching a movie or an episode of a TV show.

Elite poster
Elite poster at the Gaming museum in Tampere, Finland

I’m also a bit of a genre player – my preferred games have always been time consuming adventures, and role-playing games. And, maybe you could add a third genre as well: space trading simulator games. One of the first games I saw being played in the mid-80’s on my friend Antti’s dad’s Commodore 64 was Elite. [] The game looked complex and hard, and had a manual longer than most games and required a keyboard map layout as well because there were so many functions.
“I’ll never learn to play that”, I thought.
Well, a couple of years later Antti and I not only completed Leisure Suit Larry [] on his dad’s PC, but we also played Elite at my place all night long on my first computer, a Commodore 64 (thanks, mum!).

The freedom of piloting your own starship across a vast galaxy (or several), trading goods, fighting pirates and generally just exploring was just unbeatable. In a way, the game was really simple and repetitive but you kind of made up your own story along the road as you grinded for more money, status and new ships. So, grinding was an addictive formula back then already, Elite might actually be one of the first grinding games.

After Elite, no space simulator really offered the same thrills – there were many attempts like Federation of Free Traders or the actual Elite-sequel Frontier, but they were either too ambitious for the computers of their time or just didn’t work. There were some smaller great space adventures that focused more on the story though in the 80’s-90’s; some of the the ones I loved were Warhead [] on the Amiga and Star Control 2 [] on PC, one of the best space adventure games ever in an semi-open world, which emphasized the importance of great visuals and music as well.

The casual thrills of exploring unknown planets

Tourist photo of wildlife
Some alien life on an arid planet

Fast-forward to 2017, a year after No Man’s Sky was released and had caught my radar. The game had a rocky launch and it seemed like yet another failed “Elite-killer” (as the Finnish gaming press used to title all games seeking to become the next Elite, always in vain), but significant updates had supposedly improved things and it was on sale on Steam, so I thought: “What the hell, looks good, let’s give this a go”.

Turns out the game offers the same thrills as Elite did in the 80’s. The basic idea is the same but there is just more of everything. Also, you can land on planets and explore them; the first time you repair your ship and head out into space and land on the next planet or moon in the solar system is magical.

Ships flying over my head
Jump drive
Jumping to a planet

Besides the freedom of a huge sandbox a lot of the appeal of the game lies in the excellent, colorful graphics and the phenomenal soundtrack by 65daysofstatic. Even people who find the game boring have said good things about the soundtrack, and I bought the soundtrack after short while; the music really is great and adds to the game in so many ways.

Yeah, the game has some adventure in form of a story as well, but it isn’t very deep although there are some good points. Just like the retro-art graphics, the story is more Star Trek or 70’s psychedelic sci-fi than some Star Wars-style epic space opera. This is fitting, and anyhow, the story is mostly just an extended tutorial; exploring and grinding for money and new ships and building your own bases on several worlds is the core of the game. No Man’s Sky is also pleasingly non-violent; you can pretty much avoid combat if you want to, and gaining money by scanning flora and fauna instead of killing them pleases my former biologist self.

Nada and Polo
Nada and Polo, some of the only recurring characters in the game
Exotic ship and my 48-slot cargo vessel
My ugly but large freighter and an exotic “Angry Birds”-ship (those are more rare)

So, another grinding & building game at heart, I still find No Man’s Sky addictive after 200+ hours because you can simply play it a bit at a time, casually. Come home from work, drop into the cockpit of your spaceship, explore an unknown world, go to the next solar system, send your frigates on missions to collect money and stop playing after an hour in order to make dinner. It does become repetitive during the endgame when you can see the patterns of how everything goes, despite being a huge sandbox there is not enough real variation on the worlds in order to surprise you very much. That, and the lackluster trading aspect still leave lots of room for improvement.

Currently I’m just searching for the perfect planet to build my final base on, as I already have pretty much everything the game offers in terms of spaceships etc. But just spending an hour listening to the soundtrack and enjoying the scenery after warping to the next solar system is a soothing experience.

Interestingly enough, the game is still being developed and this summer a new major update comes along adding multiplayer and Virtual Reality (VR) -headset support, so the game is certainly one of the best supported games ever considering all the updates are free.

Finally, just listen to two of the achingly beautiful pieces found in the game and you’ll perhaps get something interesting out of the game even if you never play it yourself…