Crying Unicorn

This unicorn candle cries rainbow tears if you light it, you monster.

And obviously we want dozens of them, because this is exactly the right mix of creepy and whimsical, and we love it.

[via Nerd Approved!]

An interesting read via / frontpage

With the shambolic FARC peace deal finally in place, the Colombian government is hoping to shift the country’s farmers from Colombia’s major cash crop: the coca leaves that are refined into the world’s cocaine supply. Perhaps with the guerrillas no longer defending the crops they relied on for operating capital, Colombia can put coca behind it. (more…)

An interesting read via Boing Boing

[Image: McDonald’s]

Oh dear. This is bad news! Very bad. Starting April 4, you cannot order a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Japan, because the country’s McDonald’s restaurants won’t be offering it.

This also applies to the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

According to McDonald’s Japan, some restaurants might run out of their Quarter Pounder stock before that, depending on how quickly they sell through whatever they have left.

The Quarter Pounder launched in the U.S. in 1972, but it wasn’t widely available in Japan until 2008.

J-Cast contacted McDonald’s Japan, and a spokesperson said the decision wasn’t because the burger has been selling poorly, but rather, to revamp their line up.

Some burger fans in Japan are shocked, sadden, and upset!

“The Quarter Pounder is finished… I’m shocked.”

“Sayonara Quarter Pounder”

“I’m sad…”

“Me when I heard they’re getting rid of the Quarter Pounder with Cheese.”

“I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this I’ll never forgive this”

Others are going to eat Quarter Pounders while they still can!

Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.

An interesting read via Kotaku

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when all you have is clip art of a hooded hacker figure…

An interesting read via Boing Boing

In Belgium, where I live, the federal parliament has 13 different parties. Not only is there the usual spectrum of parties from left to right, but there is an additional axis north-south, with Dutch-speaking parties from the north and French-speaking parties from the south. Under these conditions it isn’t a big surprise that Belgium holds the world record of 589 needed after one election to actually form a government.

A two-party system in comparison appears to be a lot simpler. There is always a majority. Or so you would think. But what if the people forming one party are in fact deeply divided and can’t agree on anything? This is what appears to be happening in the United States. The Republicans hold both houses of parliament, the presidency, and a majority of governorships. If they would agree on something, changing the country in their image would be relatively easy. But in reality the one party calling itself the Republicans consists of at least two, if not much more, sub-parties.

The Republicans are the party of the rich. They are the party of the rural poor. They are the party of religion. They are the party of freedom. They are the party of family values. They are the party of the industrial military complex. They are the party of free market capitalism. They are the party of trade barriers. There are so many direct contradictions in their positions that I would consider it to be actually impossible to hold all the values that the Republican party stands for in a single person.

So increasingly the Republican party is the party of "no". They are against pretty much everything. They either aren’t *for* anything, or at least can’t agree what that something is. They agree that they all are against Obamacare, but the best alternative they could come up with looks a lot like Obamacare with a new coat of paint, and then they couldn’t agree on the color of that paint either.

That not only is horribly inefficient, it also is somewhat dishonest towards the voters. Somebody casting a vote for a Republican doesn’t really know what he will get. Okay, he could inform himself in detail about the candidates position. But on election day he’ll have the choice only between a Republican who holds different values than he does, or a Democrat. Makes you wonder if the multi-party system isn’t better after all.

Tobold’s Blog

An interesting read via Tobold’s MMORPG Blog

Let’s see if I can get through this without using the W word. Afghanistan 11 is a w****** (history-steeped military strategy game with influential terrain and plausible, reality-derived unit relationships) but it would be a tragedy if w******* (habitual users of history-steeped military strategy games with influential terrain and plausible, reality-derived unit relationships) were the only people who ever stumbled into its quicksand. The W word, especially when used in close proximity to hexy screenshots, tends to imply threadbare themes and moribund mechanics. It doesn’t generally suggest a game with the irresistible momentum of Civ, or the colourful intricacy of Tropico. A game like the quietly brilliant Afghanistan 11.

Designer Johan Nagel begins by handing us all the biggest and best military toys. We get the drones, the F-16s, the A-10s, the Apaches, and the M777 howitzers while our AI opponents – the warlord militia and Taliban – must make do with technicals, AK-47s, RPGs, and homemade explosives. Johan then proceeds to explain, through a host of simple yet ingenious rules and play elements, why sophisticated tech and a ludicrous firepower advantage have never guaranteed victory in The Graveyard of Empires.

In a war zone where enemy cadres either emerge from impossible-to-find caves to plant IEDs and intimidate villagers (militia behaviour) or infiltrate from the eastern map edge – Pakistan – staging ambushes, sabotaging infrastructure, and harassing vulnerable bases, before slipping back whence they came (Taliban behaviour), marching around Napoleon-like at the head of an intimidating army is pointless. Completely eradicating the foe in open battle is impossible. The most you can hope to do is restrict their operations, and persuade their willing and unwilling sustainers, the villages dotting every map, to forsake them.

Hearts and Minds are won with a sage mix of vigilance, diligence, aid and violence. Regular village visits build loyalty. Nearby victories, infrastructure improvements, and IED clearing operations cement it. Eventually the locals are confident enough to start sharing information. Yesterday we saw a group of armed strangers digging a hole next to the bridge… My brother-in-law told me there’s a party of foreign fighters camped in the hills south of the main highway. In an environment where locating a maddeningly elusive enemy is half the battle, these tip-offs are gold dust.

But gold dust that will trickle through your fingers unless you possess the network of Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) necessary to mount swift, effective counter-insurgency actions. Where other logistically minded battle sims are happy to accept wiggles of controlled hexes between units and depots as functioning supply lines, A11 asks us to plot and oversee every ration, ammo and fuel delivery in person. It’s rare for a turn to pass without at least one supply-related jaunt commencing or concluding. Hmm, my mortar battery at FOB Alpha desperately needs bombs. I’d use my Chinook to courier them over but it’s currently porting fuel to that Buffalo engineering vehicle constructing a waterworks at Marjah, so it looks like I’ll have to risk a truck dash along the Malgir highway, or ‘Ambush Alley’ as I call it.

This constant shuttling of supplies, combined with modular FOB construction, and unit purchasing (units are bought with Political Points, a fluctuating form of income impacted by many of the same activities that effect the local and national Hearts and Minds score) often make Afghanistan 11 feel more like Anno or Industry Giant, than Panzer Corps or Battle Academy. It could be tiresome, but almost never is because of sly, unpredictable enemies that like nothing better than preying on fat fuel tankers or helos dangling vital sling loads. Some of the game’s tensest and most satisfying moments centre on logistics. Blunting a major Taliban attack with a judicious mix of airpower and artillery? Highly gratifying. Watching a battered long-distance convoy limp into a FOB that has been cut-off and fighting for its life for several turns? Priceless.

None of the above is likely to come as great surprise to owners of Vietnam 65, A11’s mechanically similar forerunner. What should startle and heartwarm however, is the way Johan has enmeshed entirely new components – components that increase flavour and enrich an already dense decision space – without miring pace or mortgaging approachability. I’m talking primarily about elections, handover and events cards.

Handover is a feature worthy of an Alex Wiltshire ‘The Mechanic’ article. Where in V65, Special Forces-trained local troops were merely an economical way to enlarge and deepen your military bootprint, in A11 – especially late-game – they are essential to success. On turn 50 of a standard 60-turn random-map skirmish game, the vast majority of US units on the map file into capacious C-17 transport aircraft and, breathing weary sighs of relief, head for home. The network of bases you’ve thoughtfully developed? Their tenants are now the Afghanistan National Army you’ve been recruiting and battle-hardening over the past four to six hours. With a wonderfully bold flourish of his designer’s wand, Nagel encapsulates complicated history and ensures the closing phases of games are turbulent and testing.

The tempo of play is also impacted by periodic elections. Whether the candidates you back end-up victorious in these is heavily dependent on your H&M performance during the five turns before ballots. While you scurry about buying votes with aid deliveries, road construction, and (if all goes to plan) combat successes, you can be certain that out of sight there are dusty wraiths with spades and AK-47s just as busy.

A weaker design would rely on event cards to inject excitement or fill thematic gaps. In A11 the cards, presented as newspaper headlines, merely nudge and remind. There are things happening in Washington and Kabul that you can’t hope to influence. Process the change, be it a shift in unit cost, PP income, H&M or whatever, and, bearing it in mind, get back to work. Helo-hampering sandstorm turns are foreseeable (they’re marked on the start-map screen along with a wealth of useful info about village allegiances and enemy activity) but invite the same sort of stoicism.

Vietnam 65 was campaignless, relying, justifiably I felt, on a powerful random-map skirmish mode for replayability. The sequel sports a similarly excellent skirmish mode but also boasts a sequence of 18  historically-based outings (configurable difficulty settings means no-one should get hopelessly stuck while moving through these). We get recognisable maps and cunningly customised victory conditions. Less positively we also get austerity briefings, ISAF lip-service, and the odd weak attempt at simulating small-scale Special Forces missions. Discovering that the British forces mentioned in one mission intro, wore the same uniforms, operated the same vehicles, and spoke in the same accents as US ones, was disappointing. Better no Brits, Canadians, Germans etc than token, characterless ones? I think so.

A free update with Jackals, Mastiffs, and Merlins is probably out of the question, but I am hopeful Every Single Soldier/RetroEpic Software will do something about minor irritants like the very limited save facilities, occasionally annoying aircraft animations, and absence of an undo button, in the weeks to come. There’s currently only two save slots (one for skirmish, one for campaign) no way to correct accidental moves, and leafing through units is a little more laborious needs to be because based helos insist on rising into the air before accepting commands.

And if a future patch added a ‘chance of civilian casualties’ tickbox to the difficulty settings I think I’d have the honesty to use it. A11’s representation of opium production is refreshingly mature and nuanced (destroying poppy fields damages the Taliban, boosts PP income, but erodes local H&M), something that arguably can’t be said for its representation of air strikes near settlements, none of which ever have negative H&M consequences.

Whatever happens to Afghanistan 11 in the future, it’s sure to be one of my most played w******* (history-steeped military strategy games with influential terrain and plausible, reality-derived unit relationships) this year. I love how it forces me to spin plates. I like the way it uses IEDs and RPGs to transform every vehicle move into an adventure. In a genre dominated by demolition and death, the emphasis it places on construction, and improving the lives of the local populace, is cheeringly discordant. The theme isn’t one I’m naturally drawn to, but the design is so strong, the history so ingeniously utilized, an ‘RPS Recommended’ rosette is inevitable.

Afghanistan 11 is available now priced around £21

An interesting read via Rock, Paper, Shotgun

Blizzard Entertainment today announced an HD version of the classic RTS StarCraft. Called StarCraft: Remastered, the game includes all the content from the base game and the Brood War expansion.

The graphics have been boosted to "4K ultra high definition," while the audio is upgraded as well. Additionally, new features such as matchmaking have been introduced.

"StarCraft is a pure distillation of Blizzard’s DNA–its story, its balance, and all the little details reflect our long-running commitment to epic entertainment, and it’s been a staple in competitive gaming and esports for almost 20 years," Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime said in a statement. "With StarCraft: Remastered, we’re modernizing the original game’s visuals, audio, and online support to ensure that players can enjoy StarCraft for another 20 years and beyond."

In terms of specifics, here is a rundown of what StarCraft: Remastered offers:

  • Widescreen UHD support for up to 4K
  • New illustrations to "enhance storytelling" in the campaign missions
  • "Advanced matchmaking"
  • "Full connectivity" to Blizzard’s online network
  • Cloud saves for campaign progress, custom-made maps, keybinds, and replays
  • Eight new languages in addition to the five that came with the original

"While these improvements will bring StarCraft to the modern era, gameplay and balance have been precisely preserved, for an experience that will feel identical to veteran players," Blizzard said.

StarCraft: Remastered is in the works for Windows PC and Mac and is slated to come out this summer. Pricing will be announced later.

You can learn more about StarCraft: Remastered here on its website.

An interesting read via GameSpot


These days, H.P. Lovecraft seems to appear in just as many works of fiction as Cthulhu. But I can’t imagine that Lovecraft, who held himself in such high regard, would be entirely happy with the new forms his literary immortality has taken. Paul La Farge’s new book The Night Ocean would appall its inspiration, and that’s one of the many reasons you should read it.

As Tobias Carroll wrote recently, it’s become very difficult to talk about the purveyor of the weird and master of the unnamable without bringing up the crank, the racist, and the misogynist who shared his body. Horror readers may remember the pompous “old-purple-prose” of Charles Stross’s novella Equoid; comics fans may have met the prissily vicious racist in Warren Ellis’s Planetary or the more sympathetic figure in Alan Moore’s Providence. Michel Houellebecq, best known in this country for being French and perennially controversial, wrote a biographical essay praising Lovecraft for the courage to be Against the World, Against Life.

Lovecraft’s protagonists have a tendency to disappear, though they tend to leave their manuscripts behind so that we, the readers, can find out what has happened to them. Usually “what has happened” involves some combination of nameless ritual, unutterable horror, degenerate cultists, and inhuman monster. The Night Ocean begins with a disappearance, but never once hints at the supernatural. Charlie Willett, writer, Lovecraft obsessive, and psychiatric patient, has fled a mental hospital, hitched a ride to a forest, and vanished into a lake. His wife, Marina, isn’t sure Charlie’s really dead, but she has no illusions of supernatural intervention. Cthulhu sleeps beneath the Pacific in R’yleh; he wouldn’t deign to rest beneath Agawam Lake in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

As Marina recounts the story from their first meeting to the plunge from grace that ended in icy New England waters, the clues to scandal, fraud, adultery, and betrayal that litter the first chapter gradually come into focus, though Marina and Charlie both learn that some questions are by their nature unanswerable.

Charlie’s downfall begins when he discovers the Erotonomicon, a privately printed book from the early nineteen-fifties that seems to be Lovecraft’s personal sex diary. The early passages of the Erotonomicon show Lovecraft buying sex from Providence dockworkers and pubescent boys. Despite the daytime author’s paranoia about inferior races, the nighttime Lovecraft of the Erotonomicon has no compunction about interracial sex. Just what Lovecraft is doing with his partners remains unclear, as he writes in a ludicrous Mythos-code: Just what does it mean to “perform a Yog-Sothothe,” to complete “the Ablo ritual”? The greatest portion of the diary concerns Lovecraft’s relationship with Robert Barlow, a sixteen-year-old fan that Lovecraft stayed with in Florida for two months.

Charlie, a talented writer currently in need of a subject, soon takes a research trip to Barlow’s home in Florida, where he finds compelling evidence for an incredible secret. I don’t want to go any further lest I spoil one of the many surprises this novel offers. The true nature Lovecraft and Barlow’s relationship remains unknown, but attempts to uncover it bring the book’s characters to some very strange places. Great revelations turn out to be false and are then found to be possible after all; there are lies embedded in lies and truths denied; we are tossed by the waves of The Night Ocean until we no longer know which way is up.

Though the Erotonomicon is, thankfully, a La Farge invention, Barlow, like most of The Night Ocean’s characters, really lived. After Lovecraft’s death, he moved to Mexico City, where he became one of the world’s authorities on Aztec culture. He killed himself in 1951 after being blackmailed for his homosexuality. It’s a shocking ending to a sad life, and La Farge examines and re-examines the circumstances surrounding and the motives for Barlow’s suicide.

At first, The Night Ocean may seem to be a novel about Lovecraft; then it seems to be about Barlow, but as Charlie’s investigations proceed and as Marina struggles through her loss, the book grows beyond either man. The horror writer and his young friend are only two of the many lonely and demanding men in the novel. They all lie to themselves, deceive others, and remain solitary no matter what attention or affection they receive. These men suffer, it’s true, but as Marina finally remarks, they’re also capable of quite astounding acts of evil. Nyarlathotep are Cthulhu monstrous for their grandiose indifference, while La Farge’s men become monstrous by their grubby self-obsession.

Enjoying The Night Ocean requires no prior knowledge of H.P. Lovecraft, but readers who know their sff and their fan history will find in Paul La Farge a kindred spirit. Very early in the book, we learn how a youthful Charlie demonstrated his enthusiasm for Lovecraft: “We sewed ourselves black robes, and walked up and down Broadway in the middle of the night, holding signs that read THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH—GIVE TO THE CULT OF CTULHU.” After reading this novel, with its vast knowledge of and evident love for “the weird,” I am not at all surprised to learn that Paul La Farge drew this incident from his own life. While it hasn’t been marketed as such, La Farge may have written the first great novel of fandom. There’s a memorable account of the first WorldCon; multiple appearances by Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim (founder of DAW Books), and William S. Burroughs; and cameo roles for Isaac Asimov, S.T. Joshi, Ursula Le Guin, Hannes Bok, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth. There’s also a snooty European nihilist modeled on Houellebecq; his lecture on “posthuman jellyfish” is one the book’s funniest moments.

While “fannish” readers will enjoy reading a novel by a fan and about fans, La Farge is too honest a writer to show only the genre’s best face. From the bitter disputes conducted by mimeographed fans and angry telegrams to contemporary Twitter fights and doxing campaigns, La Farge gives us eighty years of fans behaving badly. Fandom is a lifeline that is all too often twisted into a chain or a noose.

For a novel about H.P. Lovecraft, The Night Ocean is surprisingly moving; for a story about the recondite back alleys of science fiction, it is surprisingly accessible; for a historical fiction, it is surprisingly contemporary; and for a novel about the unknowable and the mysterious, it is remarkably satisfying. The Night Ocean deserves the highest praise.

The Night Ocean is available from Penguin Press.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

An interesting read via / frontpage

The “overflow” tent for the Halo 5 World Championship. Image credit: Frank.

Competitive Halo’s biggest event of the year is going on right now but some fans are arguing about the venue and how many people are in attendance. The tournament has a prize pool of $1,000,000, but pictures on the ground tell the story of a more deflated event.

Nothing screams esports quite like some deflated balloons blowing in the wind and a lone family homesteading on some abandoned bleachers inside a tent. One Twitter conversation about the images, approaching Beckettian levels of eloquent absurdity, went like this:

“This can’t be real”
“It could be worse. The mainstage could be shared with Just Dance.”
“That is not worse than this.”
“Even the balloons look like they don’t want to be there.”
“Begging for someone to snip them loose.”

The contrast was so stark it drew comparisons to the year prior when the Halo Championship was held in Raleigh Studios Hollywood with a prize pool of over $2,500,000.

This year, the festivities are being held at the ESL America Campus lot instead. There’s been some speculation that ESL, the esports company that organizes the event, was unable to secure its preferred venue, and the American Campus was something of a last resort. When ESL announced details for the time and place of the Championship, fans were less than enthusiastic. One responded, “EU qualifiers gets Wembley and you’re putting the actual Worlds event in a studio on the west coast.”

Tyler “Ninja” Blevins of Luminosity, a top Halo team and strong contender for the championship, tweeted his dismay earlier in the day that event staff were being fed before pro players as he waited in line for his lunch.

But this also provoked a defense from others in the Halo community who felt the snark was inaccurate and misplaced. Greenskull noted that the tent many were passing around pictures of was actually for overflow, and took to Twitter to post shots that were more affirming of the event.

This was what the tent apparently looked like during matches as opposed to in-between them during the down time.

He also shard a picture of the main stage area where the premium seats were, and while they complicate the narrative a bit, they certainly aren’t doing the work Greenskull seems to think they are. Here’s a map of the venue to help put everything in perspective.

Food truck alley is where most of the pictures have been taken. That red rectangle is where the tournament’s biggest matches are taking place. Up until recently, there was a second stage where loser’s bracket matches were being held, but Ninja stated that at some point ESL said that as long as the players involved agreed they would play all the remaining matches in the main lot.

The tournament feels much more “Halo Festival” than it does a sporting event which teams who have been working towards all season. Halo fans and players must often eek out a competitive existence in the shadow of top-tier first-person shooter esports like Call of Duty, and the pictures going viral from this World Championship certainly won’t help matters. After all, the 2016 grand finals for Call of Duty were held at The Forum arena, a venue spanning generations of NBA play and musical performances. It’s hosted Prince, Elvis, and the Lakers. The American Campus recently hosted the indie duo Buscabulla.

Their respective Google views tell a similar story.

The main stage is that first grey pod close to the center of the image above. Inside the fans, seated beneath strobe lights as if they were about to be sold a timeshare by a Daft Punk cover band, are into it.

But the room as a whole, some five rows deep with an army of photographers, event planners, and announcers to rival the spectators, can’t help but be a deflating sight for game with such a lineage that’s trying to buy its way through a mid-life crisis of sorts, surpassed by burgeoning scenes in other games despite the desire of Microsoft, ESL, and others to show fans of the game, the series, and shooters in general that there’s something special going on here.

That’s the scene at the Halo 2 National Championships in Las Vegas back in 2007, years before someone like Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal had ever even considered uttering the phrase “esports” on live radio. No matter how much some companies want to invest in the myth that if you create it, and award enough prize money for being the best at it, gamers will flock to you in droves, its hard to paper over a lack of grass roots fandom with headline-making prize pools.

An interesting read via Kotaku

It’s not easy to train a neural network. Even if they’re not difficult to implement, it can take hours to get them ready no matter how much computing power you can use. OpenAI researchers may have a better solution: forgetting many of the usual rules. They’ve developed an evolution strategy (no, it doesn’t relate much to biological evolution) that promises more powerful AI systems. Rather than use standard reinforcement training, they create a "black box" where they forget that the environment and neural networks are even involved. It’s all about optimizing a given function in isolation and sharing it as necessary.

The system starts with many random parameters, makes guesses, and then tweaks follow-up guesses to favor the more successful candidates, gradually whittling things down to the ideal answer. You may start with a million numbers, but you’ll end up with just one in the end.

It sounds a bit mysterious, but the benefits are easy to understand. The technique eliminates a lot of the traditional cruft in training neural networks, making the code both easier to implement and roughly two to three times faster. And when ‘workers’ in this scheme only need to share tiny bits of data with each other, the method scales elegantly the more processor cores you throw at a problem. In tests, a large supercomputer with 1,440 cores could train a humanoid to walk in 10 minutes versus 10 hours for a typical setup, and even a "lowly" 720-core system could do in 1 hour what a 32-core system would take a full day to accomplish.

There’s a long way to go before you see the black box approach used in real-world AI. However, the practical implications are clear: neural network operators could spend more time actually using their systems instead of training them. And as computers get ever faster, this increases the likelihood that this kind of learning can effectively happen in real time. You could eventually see robots that are very quick to adapt to new tasks and learn from mistakes.

Source: OpenAI

An interesting read via Engadget