Badland is All Kinds of Awesome

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You seldom come across something so inspired to haunt you day in, day out. Badland is one of such things. An iOS game that manages to combine a great deal of gaming tropes into a package that is at the same time hauntingly familiar and completely original.

In Badland, you guide a bizarre afro hairdo (or an owl?) through a selection of weird landscapes loaded with circular saws, explosives, strange sticky goo and other dangers that you must steer your protagonist clear of. The gameplay is simple: by tapping the screen you can make your little ball of fur fly or roll through surfaces. That’s about it. The game is loaded with various hazards and power-ups, the favorite of mine being the squaring teleports that somehow remind me of a classic Carl Barks Donald Duck tale.

The game combines, by intention or not, elements from such awesome predecessors as Contre Jour, World of Goo and Portal, managing to create at least as enchanting a gaming experience, if not even better. You feel for your little afro hairdo just as you do for your little balls of goo. The design aesthetic is reminiscent not only of Portal, but also somehow of other Valve titles such as the first Half-Life. And the squishy poison bushes, as well as the black-and-whitish color scheme bring to mind the outstanding moodiness of Contre Jour.

But while influences can be singled out, the game plays out as something completely original. A cross between a platformer and an infinite runner, the gameplay is fluid and enticing, yet challenging enough to keep things interesting. Some of the puzzles are really troublesome at first, but then produce that delightful heureka insight once you figure out some new element in the environment to tap into. In fact, I think Badland is flow-wise the best balanced game I have played since Psychonauts.

Badland is a game that I would recommend to anybody keen on the titles referenced above; to anybody tapping into tablet gaming for the first time; to anybody looking for moody, deep and challenging casual gaming (almost a paradox, yes, but they nailed it here); I guess to anybody, period.

This is a truly inspired game that has the feel of being produced by a big studio, and yet is the work of a Finnish duo, augmented with an outstanding sound designer. The international media has been wondering what they feed the Finnish game-makers to produce such outstanding titles. I am starting to wonder too.

Check out the game here.

Second Star to the Right available now!

Second Star to the Right

The brand new Songsworth album Second Star to the Right is available now for download. You can find the album on iTunes and Amazon.

You can also download the album here: Second Star to the Right

New album in February: Second Star to the Right

Second Star to the Right

The new Songsworth album Second Star to the Right will be released in February 2013. The album contains 10 new Songsworth tracks.

The album will be available on iTunes, Amazon and other major digital distributors. It will also be available as a free creative commons download from this website.

Track listing:

1. Turquoise

2. Blue Door Orange Door

3. Saga

4. Spacing Guild

5. Gnorts, Mr. Alien!

6. Fire at Will, Mr. Sulu

7. Wing Commander

8. Kilrathi Battle Cruiser

9. R. Daneel Olivaw

10. The Clockmaker

Why It’s Great to Be a Nerd

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If you have spent any time with this blog, you can probably pick it up pretty quickly that I am a nerd. I love science fiction, comic books, mathematics, board games, computers, electronics and synthesizer music. But I did not always feel good about it.

In fact, when I was younger, I found it so difficult to enjoy what I truly loved due to the usual social constraints that I tried hard to learn to be less of a nerd. I hid my Jarre albums and stopped talking about Star Trek. Instead, I started working on listening to cool indie bands and watching sitcoms.

As a consequence, I spent a great while of my life with things that I did not truly love, but that I thought would earn me street credibility or the respect of my peers. In other words, I spent a tremendous amount of effort to be cool. I learned to talk cool. I learned to wear cool clothes. I taught myself to listen to cool music and to watch cool movies.

But cool, unless it’s Fonzie-cool, is not necessarily good for you. Cool can be numbing. It can be indifferent and disconnected. Sometimes cool is what people have to go back to because they don’t have a clue what they really want from their lives.

To this end it is so bizarre that those of us who have had the gift to know what we loved early on – the nerds – have so often such a hard time in the early years in our society. Just because we don’t always know the right jokes or watch the right TV shows.

But if you are a nerd, trust yourself: you are are truly privileged. It is still a tremendously rare thing to see a human being who truly loves what he does, and who truly knows who he is.

And nerds often do.

Because if you dare to love science fiction or computer code in a world packed full of Big Brother and tabloids, it can hurt to love. But sometimes hurt is good. It shows you what’s worth fighting for.

When I was fourteen, people would tell me that I thought too much; that listening to Jarre and Vangelis was just wrong; that Star Trek and Babylon 5 were ridiculous; that maths was not cool to like; that reading lots of books was scary.

But it’s not.

It may not be what the other guys are doing. But if you love what you do, keep at it. No matter what the others think.

The nerd can be the ultimate outsider, because being a nerd you have something new going for yourself. And being social is, after all, often not about new things. It’s about nodding at what the other guy says. It’s about laughing at jokes even if they are bad. It’s about going to a party because everybody else is going. And ultimately, it’s about doing whatever everybody else is doing because that’s what you are supposed to do.

But the nerd won’t do it.

If the other guy says something stupid, the nerd will argue back. If the joke is bad, the nerd will analyze it and point out where it could work better. If the party is not really interesting, the nerd will not go, but rather solders a circuit board. And if everybody else is doing something that is not interesting, the nerd will do something that is.

The problem is that if you live like this, you will also sometimes snort at jokes, you will make arguments in a language like Klingon that nobody else can understand (the question is: taH pagh taH be), you will miss chances to interact with people, and some of the things many people do might never make any sense to you.

But that’s okay.

Because as a nerd, you can change the world. You cannot change the world by getting in line. But you can do so by figuring out what you really love to do, and by throwing yourself all in. As a nerd, you have nothing to lose. And that is what makes you the most powerful creature on Earth.

Being a nerd is amazing because being a nerd you can really tap into what you love to do, whether it is fixing old radios, tending to horses, playing larp, reading comics, writing computer code or making music with synthesizers. (And yes, you can be a nerd by playing ice hockey or driving race cars too, but it’s even tougher because people think it’s cool.)

Being a nerd is amazing because you can really be somebody who loves what they do and make the world a better place by doing it.

It’s not necessarily easy. But it *is* great.

So here’s to all the nerds out there – all of you amazing people who have made this world a better place –, people like Steve Wozniak, Nikola Tesla, Evangelos Papathanassiou, Christopher Franke, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg. And Sheldon Cooper. They might have a funny laugh, or snort at jokes. But they make waves.

Being a nerd takes courage. But trust me, if you’ve got it, it’s worth it.

Be proud of what you really are.

It’s great to be a nerd.

Yamaha SY99

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I used to run a couple of music studios over a decade ago with lots of music hardware packed in. This was back in the day when music software was just making its way out. For a long time I had mixed feelings about software synths and mixing gear; Pro Tools was, of course, great, but much of the offering in the turn of the millennium just wasn’t that good. To that end, you had to rely on hardware. At my last studio, I had more than twenty hardware synthesizers, with racks full of mixing gear.

Now I work on a laptop, and I gradually phased out all of my hardware except for one synthesizer. The fact is that you can now load a basic laptop with software that sounds exactly as good as a high end studio, perhaps barring some of the more vintage analog gear. But for basic sound design, recording and mixing, a laptop will go a long way.

That being said, hardware still makes sense for some occasions. For me, the biggest reason is character.

The only hardware synth I have left is not a street-credible Moog or a cool Arp rig. It’s a digital synthesizer from the early 1990′s: the Yamaha SY99. For me, this one piece of gear is easily the most significant piece of musical hardware I have ever owned.

To begin with, its the first synth I ever did own. I was fourteen when I got it. This means that when I was a kid, the first songs I wrote at home I did on this workstation. (I used to work at a local studio before that.)

But it’s not just nostalgia. The SY99 is in many ways quite a unique piece of work. First of all, it combines two distinct types of synthesis: Yamaha’s sample-based AWM and – what made Yamaha famous in the synth-world – an FM synthesizer upgraded from the good old DX7. But what is more, the instrument actually combines the two. That is to say, you can also use a sample-driven oscillator as an FM operator in sound design.

In addition to the choice of FM waveforms, and with the possibility to import your own samples (this in a synth from 1990!), the possibilities for sound design are endless. After all, even the most sophisticated sampling workstations of that time would let you work at best with envelopes and filters. With FM routing, the sky is the limit.

But most importantly, this instrument is a labor of love; a unique piece of work that collaborates with you to generate the sounds that you hear – and the sounds that you want to hear even when you didn’t know you did. (Check out the cool way the gradually shifting FM modulation works in the song below.) To this end it is no wonder that for the first three years of working with the synth, I practically never touched the presets.

I used to love music hardware. But in addition to the validity of modern music software, I believe in simplicity now. To that end, I don’t have that many soft synths either; rather I focus on the few that I really love and really can work with.

That being said, there is this one piece of hardware that I am doubtful I will ever part ways with.

Top 10 Science Fiction Novels

I have found it really useful to skim through the various top ten and top hundred lists of best sci-fi novels in search for new reading so I thought I’d put up one of my own here. This list appears to me to be in constant flux, but at this moment, my best of the best looks something like this.

1. Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

I don’t know what it is about this Reynolds piece that really hit it off with me, but for some reason this is the book that has in the recent years stuck with me the most. Maybe it is the fact that it was in some sense something completely new for me, and yet without going to overt depths or difficulties with weird vocabulary or concepts.

The star struck love story of Campion and Purslane touched me to the extend that I wound up making a Lego stop motion animation about it.

2. Frank Herbert: Dune

Frank Herbert’s seminal novel tops the top charts all around the internet, and with good reason. The book is a treasure trove not only of possible futures, but also of deep and inspiring philosophical thought about identity, time, thinking and various other themes.

Being an intuition researcher in my day job, I especially connected with the division between the intuitive Bene Gesserits and the rational mentats – and the fusion of the two in the genius Paul Muad’Dib. As a side note, it is interesting that such fusion seems to have happened with practically all the great thinkers we usually call geniuses like Leonardo or Edison.

3. Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama

It was a tight call whether I would include Rama or Childhood’s End here, what with both being fantastic novels. But there is something that’s so real and gripping about Rendezvous with Rama that it won the draw.

The story about the handful of astronomers who explore the alien spacecraft that has entered our Solar System is a great look at both space travel, alien intelligence and political intrigue. And, like most of Clarke’s other works, it’s a really great read.

4. Dan Simmons: Hyperion

It is an outrageous idea: setting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in space. And yet the hyper-literate Simmons pulls it off. The story teems with literary references; Simmons certainly wants to let us know he’s read books. But none of this matters, since it all fits like a glove.

And it’s a damn good novel to boot. The backstory, which grew out to be a series of three more independent novels is enchanting and grasping. And the stories-within-stories express a great range of various scifi tropes. Normally when somebody shows off their talent this much, the result falls somehow flat. Not so with Hyperion, one of the best scifi books I’ve ever read (twice).

5. Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space

Revelation Space was the breakthrough book by Reynolds, and with good reason. The book opens up what grew to be a long series of novels and short stories set in Reynolds’ idiosyncratic gothic scifi universe.

In this book, the scope is already reflecting what later grew to be Reynolds’ trademark. And the ending of the book with its quantum paradoxes has my brain still doing somersaults, which is actually quite fun.

6. Orson Scott Card: The Worthing Chronicle

I thought first whether I should include something from the Ender Saga here (the first one, probably), but then again, while they’re all great books (even the Shadow ones), there is something that doesn’t quite strike that last chord.

Whereas the Worthing Chronicle does. I’ve read the book set in an Asimovian universe several times, and just now started thinking I should read it again. More similar in tone to, say, Vernor Vinge or Asimov than typical Card, this is a truly enticing fantasy-meets-scifi tale. It is also supplemented with a number of great short stories wrapped up together with the novel in the book The Worthing Saga.

7. Vernor Vinge: A Fire Upon the Deep

When I first read this book as a kid, I understood maybe one third of it, and was still completely blown away. When I re-read it a couple of years ago, it felt conceptually much easier to grasp, but was still a great read.

Vinge explores themes like AI and swarm intelligence in an intriguing universe where the maximum speed for information dispersal and travel depends on the “zone” you’re located in the universe. The closer we are to the center, the dumber we are, in other words.

8. David Zindell: The Broken God

The story of the Neanderthal-cum-ace-pilot Danlo and the ice city Neverness is one of the more original pieces of scifi I have read. Even though the basic backdrop is typical space opera with space battles and political intrigue, Zindell’s epic spans vast proportions in both dramatic and conceptual scope.

It is also a part of a great trilogy plus a prequel Neverness, all definitely worth reading through. And the space travel trope is somewhat unique, what with the pilots being actually ace mathematicians solving complex equations quickly to navigate through space.

9. Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist

I was thinking that I should include one of Banks’ Culture novels in the list, because at the time I read them I was really blown away with practically every one of them. But the problem is that once I started thinking back to their impact, I could not really remember much of anything that took place in the books! It is weird: I have this meta-knowledge that they were great but no idea why.

The Algebraist is one of Banks’ rare science fiction novels that does not take place in the Culture Universe, and I think one of his best too. The story involves weird gas-giant dwelling creatures and an intricate Banksian plot. It has stayed with me for a long time.

10. Isaac Asimov: Caves of Steel

Perhaps one of the most important of Asimov’s robot novels, this introduces two of his most compelling characters, the detectives Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. The latter is, of course, a robot, and Asimov succinctly explores the limits of what machine intelligence and robotics mean when the lines become blurred.

In the novel Asimov showed that you can use science fiction as the backdrop for another kind of genre novel, in this case the detective story.