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  I am not really a King's gambit man, but a friend of mine loves to play it so I've started looking into it and stumbled upon this very interesting variation which I found very instructive. Basically White is gambitting not only a pawn, but also a piece, all for development and immediate attacking chances. Now, if you thought King's gambit is a romantic era chess opening that has been refuted (no, it has not been, but that's all what people remember from the title of an article written by Robert Fischer 50 years ago) then you will probably will think this continuation is lunacy.

  Luckily, LiChess makes chess study so simple that even I may sound smart talking about it, so here it is. The position begins from King's gambit accepted - which is the best line for Black according to computer engines, continues with the Rosentreter gambit - allowing Black to chase the important f3 knight away, then White completely abandons the important knight - the so called Testa variation! And then White sacrifices another piece! It's so much fun.

  Note that there is another similar opening as the gambit I am discussing, also arising from the Rosentreter variation of the King's gambit, where instead of coming up with Bc4, White plays Nc3 - the so called Sørensen Gambit. Similar or same positions may be reached from From's gambit, Vienna gambit, Steinitz gambit, Polerio gambit or Pierce gambit.

  Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Rosentreter was a German chess played who lived between 1844 and 1920. He seems to have been a gambit loving chess player, as there are at least two gambits named after him, the most famous being the Giuoco Piano one, which he used to completely destroy a Heinrich Hoefer in 1899, in just 13 moves. Funny enough, in the LiChess player database there are 10 games that end in an identical fashion. I don't know who Testa was, who is possibly the one who should be lauded for this version of the opening.

  Anyway, the post is about the gambit in the King's gambit. From my analysis, White can have a lot of fun with this opening. Also, none of the main lines (played the most in LiChess for various ratings) are actually any good, in the sense that the few people who employ the gambit don't know how to implement it best and their opponents usually blunder almost immediately. "Masters" don't use it or at least don't fall into the trap, so keep in mind this is something to use in your own games. So Magnus, don't read this then play it in the world championship or something!

  Also, even in the case of Black not falling into the trap, the opening still leaves White fully developed and Black with the burden of demonstrating an advantage. As you can see from the image, the only White piece undeveloped is a knight. Once that happens and the king castles, all pieces are out. Meanwhile, Black has moved only a knight, one that - spoilers alert - will be lost anyway.

  Note that I've used Stockfish to play the best moves (other than entering the gambit and accepting the poisoned pawn). For the main lines chapter I've went through the games in the LiChess database. Agreed, there are only a few hundred in total, but that proves how much of a weapon this can become. Hope you enjoy it and as always, I welcome comments.

  Without further ado, here is my study for the Rosentreter gambit Testa variation in the King's gambit accepted:

 

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  Monstress is a feudal fantasy manga set in a world of ancients, old gods, humans and half humans. After a period of peaceful coexistence, the humans and the half humans separated in two different countries, which now head towards war. The main character is a girl with mysterious powers, powerful but angry, who is the center of a storm that will either save or destroy the world.

  The color drawing is very beautiful, as are all the gods and creatures, very detailed and purposeful. Faces and bodies are expressive. I like the story a lot, clearly thought and love has been poured into it by both writer Marjorie Liu and illustrator Sana Takeda. It reminds me of Berserk, back when it was still good - the first 26 chapters, both the drawing style, with detailed filigree indicating godly power, and the story, which is at time cruel and unforgiving, meant to forge the hero into something spectacular.

  At this moment the manga is still going strong, with 41 chapters published. You can read it online here. I highly recommend it. It has earned many awards, including five Eisner Awards, four Hugo Awards, and the Harvey Awards Book of the Year in 2018.

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  I caught myself thinking again about the algorithms behind chess thinking, both human and computer. Why is it so hard for people to play chess well? Why is it so easy for computers to come up with winning solutions? Why are they playing so weird? What is the real difference between computer and human thinking? And I know the knee-jerk reaction is to say "well, computers are fast and calculate all possibilities, humans do not". But it's not that simple.

  You see, for a while, the only chess engine logic was min-max. A computer would have a function determining the value of the current board position, then using that function, determine what the best move would be by exploring the tree of possibilities, alternating between what a player would most likely do and what the reply would most likely be. Always trying to maximize their value and minimize the opponent's. The value function was determined from principles derived by human masters of the game, though, stuff like develop first, castle, control the center, relative piece value, etc. The move space also increases exponentially, so no matter how fast the computer is, it cannot go through all possibilities. This is where pruning comes in, a method of abandoning low value tree branches early. But how would the computer determine if a branch should be abandoned? Based on a mechanism that also takes into account the value function.

  Now humans, they are slow. They need to compress the move space to something manageable, so they only consider a bunch of moves. The "pruning" is most important for a human, but most of it happens unconsciously, after a long time playing the game and determining a heuristic method of dismissing options early. This is why computer engines do not play like humans at all. Having less pruning and more exploring, they come with solutions that imply advantage gains after 20+ moves, they don't fall into traps, because they can see almost every move ahead for three, four or more moves, they are frustrating because they limit the options of the human player to the slow, boring, grinding pathways.

  But now a new option is available, chess engines like Alpha Zero and Leela, which use advances in neural network technology to play chess without any input from the humans. They play with themselves millions of games until they understand what the best move is in a position. Unsurprisingly, as neural networks are what we have in our brain, these engines play "more human" but also come up with play strategies that amazed chess masters everywhere. Unencumbered by education that fixed piece value or limited by rigid principles like control the center, they revolutionized the way chess is being played. They also gave us a glimpse into the working of the human brain when playing chess.

  In conclusion, min-max chess engines are computer abstractions of rigid chess master thinking, while neural network chess engines are abstractions of creative human thinking. Yet the issue of compressing the move space remains a problem for all systems. In fact, what the neural network engines did was just reengineer the value functions for board evaluation and pruning. Once you take those and plug them into a min-max engine, it wins! That's why Stockfish is still the best engine right now, beaten by Alpha Zero only in very short move time play modes. The best of both worlds: creative thinking (exploration) leading to the best method of evaluating a chess position (exploitation).

  I've reached the moment when I can make the point that made me write this post. Because we have these two computer methods of analyzing the game of chess, now we can compare the two, see what they mean.

  A min-max will say "the value of a move is what I will win after playing the best possible moves of them all (excluding what I consider stupid) and my opponent will play their best possible moves". It leads to something apparently very objective, but it is not! It is the value of a specific path in the future, one that is strongly tied to the technology of the engine and the resources of the computer running it. In fact, that value has no meaning when the opponent is not a computer engine or it is a different one! It is the abstraction of rigid principles.

  A neural network will say "based on the millions of games that I played, the value of a move is what my statistical engine tells me, given the current position". This is, to me, a lot more objective. It is a statistical measure, constructed from games played by itself with itself, at various levels of competence. Instead of a specific path, it encompasses an average, a prescient but blurred future where many paths are collapsed into a value. It is the abstraction of keeping one's mind open to surprises, thus a much more objective view, yet less accurate.

  Of course, a modern computer chess engine combines the two methods, as they should. There is no way for a computer to learn while playing a game, training takes a lot of time and resources. There are also ways of directing the training, something that I find very exciting, but given the computational needs required, I guess I will not see it very often. Imagine a computer trained to play spectacular games, not just win! Or train specific algorithms on existing players - a thing that has become a reality, although not mainstream.

  The reason why I wrote this post is that I think there are still many opportunities to refine the view of a specific move. It would be interesting to see not a numerical value for a move, but a chart, indicating the various techniques used to determine value: winning chances, adherence to a specific plan, entertainment value, gambit chances, positional vs tactical, how the value changes based on various opponent strengths, etc. I would like to see that very much, to be able to choose not only the strength of a move from the candidate moves, but also the style.

  But what about humans? Humans have to do the same thing as chess engines: adapt! They have to extract principles from the new playing style of neural network engines and update the static, simplistic, rigid ones they learned in school. This is not simple. In fact, I would say this is the most complex issue in machine learning today: once the machine determined a course of action, how does one understand - in human terms - what the logic for it was.

  I can't wait to see what the future brings.

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  Don't want to be mean, especially since I've only read 42 chapters on the 1000+ that make up One Piece, but I found it boring. I did read Inuyasha, Naruto, One Punch Man and even Bleach religiously, but I was younger and had a lot of time on my hands. This one is just another "young male teen with no actual connections meeting friends and enemies and leveling up" story. And it's also very childish.

  I enjoy shōnen manga, but this is just too ridiculous for me. I understand it gets better later on, but I've skipped somewhere in the middle and it didn't seem to. Anyway, I guess I can category this as DNF and move on with my life.

  If you like it, you can read it free online here: One Piece

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  Junji Ito is a manga artist that creates horror, usually focused on personal obsession, body horror and disgust. He is like the Japanese Serge Brussolo, in a way. Uzumaki (translated as Spiral) is a 20 chapter story about a small town infested by spirals, which have more and more horrifying effects as the story unfolds (heh!). Yet perhaps the most horrible thing that transpires from the manga is the typical Japanese social and cultural pressure that keeps people in their place, in their role, denying that anything could be wrong.

  I mean, in the beginning, people were leaving the town and coming back, noticing as they did how strange it was compared with the place they were coming from. Later on, the main characters see horrible things happening and still won't leave, while anyone who heard them explain what had happened - even if obvious to anyone looking - refused to accept that it was anything but rampant imagination. And, of course, they stop telling people things, because of the ultimate horror: being stigmatized in their society. That is true horror to me, that people would choose to live their lives like that. The way the town folk end up at the end seems to me like a metaphorical criticism of Japanese culture, but I may be wrong. 

  Anyway, the drawings are good, imaginative, and the manga succeeds in instilling that pervasive feeling of dread. The story gradually getting weirder and weirder, but in small increments, also manages to hold the reader on the edge of disbelief. Short, too, so no need to invest a lifetime in reading it.

  If you want to read it, Uzumaki is freely available online, on the Junji Ito site, but also on a dedicated site that looks very similar, only with an extra bonus chapter, so I would go there. If you are a fan of horror, maybe Brussolo, maybe Lovecraft or even John Saul, I think you will enjoy this a lot.

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  Fungi is a short story collection, fantasy and sci-fi, mostly hinging towards horror, edited by Orrin Grey and Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I am fascinated by fungi and also a horror fan, so I expected to love the book. Well... it was OK. I enjoyed most of the stories, but to be fair, the fungal influence on most plots was either marginal, like some evil affliction evidenced by mycelium growth, or too obvious, like the pulsating life eating and/or controlling mushroom mass.

  It is possible that I bore a grudge from the very moment I started reading the book and expected it to be a novel, only to discover tales too short to get anywhere. It was great to listen to a short while walking the dog and not having to get invested too much, but other than that I was not that captivated. Stories were decent, most of them, but perhaps I was not really in the mood for a collection.

  So, bottom line is that I had expectations set way too high and thus was inevitably disappointed. Didn't learn anything more about fungi, because most of the plots were about infestations that required no understanding of the processes involved.

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  The Year of the Witching is not the kind of book I would normally read, but it was probably recommended by some web site or another, pushing for a masterfully written establishment shaking stunning feminist debut story of female empowerment. And me, like an idiot, bought it. I didn't like the book, but I said I would push against my prejudice and read it to the end. The end was worse than the rest. But don't listen to me: an overwhelming number of positive reviews is there, all from women and the occasional male who is excited on how the story touches on oppression against women and other minorities. So I may be wrong.

  Alexis Henderson's writing was decent, but the story was inconsistent and I almost stopped reading the book a few times. The lead character is a girl who has been raised by a very devout and poor family (who are treated as pariahs) in a closed village of very devout people who worship the Father (their god of light) and hate the Mother (goddess of witches, dark and nature), being in the habit of burning people on pyres as an alternative to a good bath. Our hero is also the daughter of a woman the entire village remembers as a terrible sinner and most likely a witch. So how in the hell does she grow up to be socially integrated, self possessed, intelligent, articulate, well read, capable of anything, from daily tending to flocks of sheep, having public romances with the son of the Prophet and also having the time to visit the woods and read in the library?

  Oh, did I mention that the most eligible bachelor in the village likes her because she is not like the other girls and she is also of mixed color? That's my main complaint regarding the story: the lead character is impossible. I felt she was way more modern than anyone in that silly little village had the right to be and did the work of several people at the same time.

  But I was starting to have high hopes for the end. Will it be a blood bath? Will she side with the oppressed witches or with the people she loves? Will her boyfriend, her grandmother or the witches trick her into doing something completely different from what she thinks she does? Will anyone realize that you need both a father and a mother, not just siding with one parent like an asshole child during a divorce? Will there be any kind of twist? And no. The answer is no. Everybody behaves exactly as their cardboard character allows them to, unless of course the plot needs to spare someone or go into a direction that is very hard to believe it could go.

  Every single character in the book has one role and they conveniently perform it and then they just leave the stage so our heroine might shine.

  And it wasn't even one of those books masquerading as a fantasy only to discuss real social issues like oppression, or using witches as a metaphor for status defying women. I mean, it probably attempted to be one, but it was a really self contained story in a self contained universe. It is just that the book was boring, the plot full of holes and the characters unsympathetic, bland, Mary Sues or all of the above. 

  Bottom line: I can see the author crafting better stories. She is a competent writer. But this book was just bad.

  Madeira is a beautiful island and, even if we went during the summer, I understand that it is even more beautiful during spring, when flowers bloom. Yet if you want to have fun, you must avoid the tourist traps with overinflated prices and know how the island is structured.

What is Madeira

  But first things first: Madeira is a Portuguese island, even when it is clearly closer to Africa than Europe (latitude a bit under Casablanca and above Marrakesh). Like the Azores, its archipelago is an autonomous region, which means it kind of has its own local government, complete with a president, even if still part of Portugal and the European Union. Tourism is by far its greatest source of income (more than 70%) even if at the beginning of its history it provided sugar for most of the world and was also a vibrant place of commerce via ships and funded much of the Portuguese exploration and expansion era.

  As a volcanic island, it's about 800 km2, but its highest elevation is 1861m. And while at a pretty southern latitude, it is surrounded by water, which gives it a distinct climate. Water evaporates around the island, then condenses on the slopes of its surface as a light mist. Rain is relatively rare, but the island has a lot of water through this system. Touristically, this has relevance as the locals have constructed kilometers of tiny cement canals to distribute the water falling down the slopes towards farmlands. Next to these there are paths that can be hiked at low slopes and under the forest shade.  Shade is important, because while the climate is mild, rarely going above 30°C, the sun is relentless, so don't forget your hats and your solar protection.

  The capital of the island is Funchal, home of a little more than a hundred thousand people. Considering the entire island population is a quarter of a million, you can see why most hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, clubs and beautiful buildings are there. This is also, I want to say, the least interesting part of the island. In about two or three days you can visit almost everything in the city proper, add one for things farther away like some gardens you can reach using cable cars and stuff like that, and you don't need more than four days. The rest of the island, though, has a lot of beautiful scenery, strange and different little villages, authentic housing, history and is generally more interesting. There is a caveat, though.

Take care

  The roads in Madeira, even if new, very well done and paid for by the European Union, with kilometers long tunnels and good asphalt, are convoluted and very steep. It would be a terrible mistake, in my opinion, to come to the island and rent a car. There are roads where you can't use the break or your car starts to tumble. They are also not very wide, meaning that you have to know the unwritten driving protocol on the island and sometimes have to stop and go in reverse in a curved road that is 45 degrees steep. Luckily, there are a lot of buses you can take, even if they have pretty short schedules (around 18:00 you must start considering taxis or Bolt). BTW, Uber doesn't work in Madeira, so you need to install Bolt, which has the usual "car sharing" service, but also integrates with local taxi cabs. Also, how could you properly enjoy the landscape if in constant fear for your life?

  Don't buy tickets for the Hop on/Hop off buses, as they come rarely (45 minutes to an hour) and their schedule ends at 18:00. The drivers also take lunch breaks, so the gap between getting off and getting back on again is two hours at that time. Local buses might look more daunting, but they are just as good and you can pay when you get in. Mind that they are also rare and you should pay attention to their arrival schedule, but there are a lot more lines.

  Also, while I have not taken the opportunity to see how it is, sea tours (like whale and dolphin watching) might not be as good as you think. Boats are not allowed to go closer than 50m from the animals and the best experience, I am told, is to get on the Zodiac boats with a lot of people for that. I don't know about you, but bobbing up and down at speed in an air filled plastic boat doesn't sound fun. Trips to the neighboring islands, which I hear are beautiful, are also three hours long, so prepare to either stay the night or spend six hours in total just going back and forth. But if you like the sea, all of these might be worth it.

  Last warning is about the tourist traps. Funchal is basically a big tourist trap, where all the prices are at least twice as expensive as for the rest of the island. But even if you go to neighboring towns, there are the visible places people go to and then there are the places where the locals go to. The problem is not so much the price as is the inauthentic experience. You don't want to spend the time and resources to go to Madeira just to get the same experience you would get in any other city in the world, including the one you left from.

The trip

  In order to get to the island, we took a charter plane as part of a touristic agency plan. There was no other direct plane from my city of Bucharest to Madeira and I suspect most travel there is being monopolized by deals between tour agencies and local hotels and airport. However, even if you don't have a lot of choice on where to stay, you don't have to follow the plan that the agency has for you when you get there, so we made our own plans.

  The hotel we were stationed at was Four View Baía (pronounced Bah-ee-ah), which was a decent building with 11 floors, an outdoor pool and a spa complete with an indoor heated pool and sauna, and a pretty good view, too, as you got to see most of Funchal and the ocean, but next to busy noisy streets as well. The most valuable quality of the hotel is that it's 16+, so no kids at meals or in the pool, no noise during the night, etc. However the service was stupidly bad, with a restaurant that offered buffet meals, but would have the cheapest food that didn't even seem local and the lowest paid workforce, if you take into consideration how unprofessional many of them were. They didn't seem local either, BTW. The air conditioner, for example, looked centrally controlled even if you could set up your desired temperature. The result of turning it on, though, was just cold air at 16°C that would never stop. So our feeling was that it was a good hotel with shitty management. Good overall quality spoiled by inattention to detail and no care for the customer experience.

  This could be explained by the Covid pandemic, though. When Covid struck, the entire island realized how dependent they were on tourism. I suppose the smaller businesses quickly collapsed, leaving just the big corporate chains with their unique mentality on cost reduction. But I may be wrong. Four Views hotels might just be bad in general.

  I had the expectation to go to Madeira and eat fish and sea food the entire duration. It was amazing to me that most places didn't serve sea food that much and if they did, it was expensive and the diversity of the offer was pretty low, even in places outside Funchal. We haven't been to many restaurants, though, so we might just have been unlucky. Also, most of the "traditional" food they have in Madeira is really bland, which is surprising considering how much spice the Portuguese were transporting through the island. My recommendation towards the food is to go to the market, buy some chili and keep it with you at all times. Mustard, too, if you can.

  We spent the first two days walking around, which has the level of difficulty of your choice depending on whether you walk around the ocean side, which is flat, or you go towards the center, which is really steep. We took the cable car to two large gardens, there were two of them, one the Botanical Garden and the other Monte Palace Tropical. We went to Monte Palace first, which was wonderful, with two small museums inside - African sculpture and Geological - and a beautiful and carefully cared for garden, tiles, Asian motifs and more. Only then we went to the botanical one, only to find that is was smaller and much less tended for. It was almost a disappointment, even if it had more types of plant life there. Personally, I thought Monte Palace Tropical garden was a lot more beautiful. Coming back we walked, which was funny as we took a 40 degree slope downwards on a street for an hour or so. Hint: cut your toenails before going to Madeira. Tried to find the street on Google Maps, but apparently not even they are adventurous enough to map it in Street View.

  Second day we took the Hop-on bus to a nearby fisherman town called Câmara de Lobos. I liked it there a lot, as it has a big street filled with bars and restaurants, where they do serve local food and the local cocktails. The Poncha (pronounced Ponsha) was originally a combination of rum agricol (traditionally made by steaming sugar cane, not like the industrial rum which is most common today outside Madeira), lemon juice and sugar rubbed lemon zest. It tastes a bit like a gimlet and you find it under the name Pescador Poncha. However, the modern variation of the cocktail (called Traditional Poncha for some reason) is a combination of orange juice, rum agricol and honey. I do believe this one is the better version, as the tastes of orange, rum and honey mix very well together without covering each other up. Anyway, any combination of sugar, citrus juice and rum is a poncha and you can find many variants on the island. Note that there are bars and then there are poncha bars. The cocktail needs to be made fresh, don't get the bottles for tourists. The English word "punch" has the same etymological roots.

  The next two days we had hired a local guide. I have to tell you that this was the best decision we made there (perhaps the second best, next to the one to not rent a car!). Not only did we skip the group tours organized by the tourist agency, but we also looked for a guide that would take only us around - there are others that do a similar thing, but with convoys of cars. We stumbled upon Go Local, run by Valdemar Andrade, who comes to your hotel in his trusty Nissan 4x4 and takes you to see Madeira in ways that only locals see it, then brings you back. I am talking various villages, some so isolated that they have rare contact with anybody, forest roads that no one knows about, restaurants and bars that give you the authentic Madeiran experience, volcanic black sand beaches, mountain top walks and so much more. Valdemar is also a very fun conversationalist, boasting immense pride in his island and knowledgeable about all aspects of Madeira, starting with history, politics, geography, flora and fauna, economy and ending with any small detail you can think of. It was great fun to visit the island from the open roof car, just the way I like it: long trips with a lot of nature, without any effort on my part :) If you decide to go, I warmly recommend him.

  The fifth day we went on a hike next to one of these artificial water gathering channels called levadas. Recommended by Val, I think it may have been the best of them all: Ribeiro Frio - Portela - Levada do Furado (PR10). We looked for another one next day and didn't find any that were as long, beautiful or conveniently placed as it - relative to our hotel, of course. Imagine an 11km hike on a more or less flat path that goes around an entire mountain, under the shade of trees, with the cool of the water in the channel making it as pleasant a temperature as possible, with almost no annoying insects and with mountain vistas that take the breath away. We got there by Bolt and we returned from the other end with a local bus.

  The last full day we went to the Blandy's wine tour, which is a Madeiran wine company tour on how the wine is made and bottled and which gives you the option to buy wine at a discount then grab it at the airport duty-free shop, which I found very convenient. The tour was nice, too, with a very pleasant guide explaining everything. Madeiran wine is a fortified wine, where strong alcohol is added to stop fermentation rather than wait until fermentation naturally reaches that level. It also has unique properties because of the preparation process, which emulates the effects of months long trips on the sea with wine barrels indirectly heated by the sun. It has a very interesting taste that I enjoyed, with intense flavors given by the wood in the barrels and reminding me a bit of Asian rice wines.

  Then we went to the old city, a place of small streets filled with restaurants, but really trappy. Then we walked the ocean side in Funchal and the nearby beach after going there by Hop-on bus - the island doesn't have a lot of beaches, which I believe is a good thing.

  There are a lot of details that I've left out, like the flight or the outdoor pool experience under the Madeiran sun and feeling the breeze, the Portuguese obsession with the sh sound (as in Poncha, Lobos, Seixal, etc.), the laws that prohibit logging or building above the 800m height, which I believe is amazing and should be perhaps implemented in some areas of my country as well or how the local (rather feudal) politics make access to the island by ferry difficult and so stealing on the island is almost non existent (where would you go with the stuff?), or the invasive species like the tobacco tree or eucalyptus which are in constant battle with the native flora and so on. Ask me if you want any specifics.

  What I loved most about Madeira was the landscape and flora. Beautiful trees and flowers, pristine mountain slopes and, in the constructed areas, a common building style that didn't grate the eye. I also had the feeling that this might change in the future. I hope Madeira stays like this, but I feel like private interests are slowly but surely eroding the local culture and legislation. While we were there, there was construction everywhere, four large cranes visible from our hotel room alone.

  More pictures

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  Oh, finally, a self contained story in a single book, glorious and fun adventure, witty references and dialogue and absolutely no politics. Kings of the Wyld feels part RPG, part rock concert, part buddy comedy. Nicholas Eames has an easy yet profound way of describing things and writing characters. Best of all, I don't think the next books in the series would continue the story, just be separate stories in the same universe with some common characters. As such, one can enjoy the book as standalone and I've thoroughly enjoyed it!

  At first daunted by the size - I know 500 pages is not particularly huge, but I was in a mood for something light - I started reading it and had trouble putting it down. In the end I just had to not sleep and finish it.

  The story is about the members of an old mercenary band who have to get back together to rescue the daughter of one of them. Their journey takes them through a world split between complacent nations, monsters and old immortals, filled with creatures and fantastic beasts of every kind and finally leads to an epic battle for the soul of adventure.

  The writing style was easy to read, filled with humor, but also profound in the way characters were portrayed. The only character that was kind of fumbled was the daeva, but it ended up OK. Some criticism was raised about the story kind of pushing along like a D&D campaign, with random encounters and solutions out of nothing and it is totally valid, yet the book, while not aiming to be a comedy, never took itself seriously and therefore it felt really entertaining.

  Bottom line: for a debut novel, it's pretty great. I don't know if I will continue to read the series, but I will keep an eye on Nicholas Eames. A must read for adventure fans.

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  I was watching a silly movie today about an evil queen bent on world domination. And for the entire film all she did was posture and be evil. Whenever she needed something, she told her people to do it. And I asked myself: why do whatever the queen demands and not kill her on the spot? I mean, she sprawls in her throne while you are an armored and heavily armed soldier sitting right next to her. And the answer I found was: stories. The warrior believes that the queen has the right and the power to command him, so she does. There is nothing intrinsically powerful in the woman herself, just the stories people believe about her.

  And this applies to you as well. Your boss, your wife, your country, your people, your family, your goals and how you choose to go for them are all stories that you tell yourself. It applies to the stock market as well, where stocks have no value unless someone believes in them. And just like there, the stories told to large audiences have large effects as even a small percentage of people get to believe them. Perhaps nothing has any value unless somebody believes it has.

  Generals have known this for a long long time and they apply it today. Just try to find any news source that isn't biased one way or another. The war "in Ukraine" has already become a world war, it's just not fought with conventional weapons. The censorship is there, applied over the entire western area of influence, just as it does in Russia and in China and everywhere to where we used to scoff with superior moral conviction and accuse them of not being free. Conviction is a funny word, as it implies unshakeable belief, the worst kind there is. Convict has the same etymology.

  I think I am lucky for being born when I was. I was raised in a Communist dystopia that was already crumbling at the time, with people telling me stories (that word again) about the wonderful world outside our borders, where people were rich, content and free. I was raised reading and watching science fiction that depicted a near future filled with technology and wonder, fantastical or new planetary worlds, but most importantly, hope. I remember calculating that in the year 2000 I would be 23, a rather wonderful age to be going to the Moon and exploring the Solar System.

  Well, now it's 2022 and everywhere I look I see directed stories, weaponized to nudge me in a direction or another. And like any instrument wielded by blunt people, these stories are always negative, lacking inspiration - both in their creation and their effect, attempting to make me feel scared, insecure, overwhelmed, outraged, offended, angry. Because when you have those feelings you accept authority and the orders you get, no matter how dumb, violent or deleterious. The attack on the Capitol was caused by that kind of storytelling, the war in Ukraine keeps going because of these type of stories, both on the Russian and the anti-Russian side. 

  We are doing it to ourselves, pushing these narratives that in the end hurt us just as much. Gone is the hopeful post-scarcity future of Star Trek, where people understand living to eat and eating to live is not the way to live. Gone are the rebel fighters of Star Wars and the noble principles they were guided by. Gone are the Russian teams exploring the cosmos and solving problems using science. Everything is now anger, hate, suffering, explosions, political scheming, social agendas, special effects. We are darkening our stories and dimming ourselves.

  And I do believe that hope is the antidote. Not because reasons to hope, but despite their absence. A hopeful story is inspiring, protective and kind. In the fourth season of Stranger Things people use a verse from the Bible: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Of course, those people then proceed to arm themselves and try to kill a bunch of kids for playing D&D, another example on how easily hope can be corrupted into fear and anger. The good stories are of people who better themselves and think of others, not of defeating evil. There is no hope in seeing the evil queen stabbed and thrown into the lava, the real story is how the heroes overcome the evil in themselves.

  I am an atheist. I believe (heh!) that we don't need gods to be decent and that thinking things over will always yield the best solution. But I understand religion, how it tries to inspire, to raise hope, even if in the end it is misused by shallow people to control and usurp. I don't have an answer for everyone, but I have hope, I must have it. The alternative is to remove myself from the world, or join it in its perceived evil. I am sure there are a lot of people like me, though. Even if we feel alone, trapped in an eternal WTF moment, we are many. The number shouldn't matter, though, except as a reason to not abandon the world, to still hold hope for it, for each of us can hold. Hold hope, hold ourselves or simply hold against.

  Star Trek and old Russian sci-fi will not happen while I live. The world will not wake. As a pessimist at heart, I don't expect good things to happen, especially this first half of a century. But I will continue to watch and hope for a good ending.

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  Andy Weir does it again, managing to make science and space engineering fun and engaging. In Hail Mary the stakes are a lot higher than in The Martian, because there is more stuff to save like... the world. There are some holes in the logic of the book, but it's a fun read where basically two guys spend the entire book fixing things, researching things and trying to stay alive. In short, if you loved The Martian you will like this book.

  I know these books are not really related and in no way does the author owe me anything, but I got a little disappointed with the now predictable evolution of space story: start with something close to reality, like a manned Mars mission or a Moon colony (hey! These have been realistic for 50 years! Classics!), then immediately find a gimmick that allows you to move among stars where everything is more exciting than in boring Sol system. Bigger, brighter and with more explosions. I understand that is the demand from the public, but what I personally enjoy about Weir's stories is the focus on the character's problem solving process, then using actual science to get by. I don't care about the size of the stakes. The less realistic and immediately possible the plot, the less I feel involved.

  Bottom line: a fun read, similar to The Martian, but bigger.

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  Matthew McConaughey is a well known actor that inspires different things for different people. He's attractive, but intense, easily switching from charming to violently wild. He was for a while the quintessential romantic comedy actor until he suddenly wasn't. He is active socially and spiritually, always coming with some emotional speech about some thing or another. So what would his autobiography be like?

  Well, it was good, but it felt a little too rehearsed even as it was constructed as a collection of unfiltered anecdotes from the author's life. The title, Greenlights, comes from the understanding that some things in life are opportunities for the future. They don't push you forward, but give you the green light to go, they are open doors. Each of the stories in the book represents a greenlight for McConaughey, regardless of how amazing, fantastical, horrible or dangerous they sound.

  In short, his crazy parents instilled in him the moral fortitude to choose and then stick with that choice. From a household in which all emotions were heightened - there is a story where his parents have a fight involving a broken nose and knife swinging, followed by wild sex, for example - Matthew learns to live and love wild but mind the consequences. And then, with a series of greenlight events, he gets into acting and fame.

  The way the author says it, his character was formed before he became famous. If you believe he does crazy stuff now, it's because he was always like this and he chose to do it. The wet dreams that also stand for premonitions on what he has to explore, the naked stoned bongo playing at night, the choice to not accept any rom-com scripts anymore, which led to him not working for two years until Hollywood finally managed to see him as an actor and give him other roles.

  Same thing with love. He had a lot of temporary relationships and sex until he met the woman he saw as "the one", wooed her, married her and they have been together ever since. When he won the Oscar, he lost 30% of his weight for the role. I know this doesn't a performance make, but it shows the way McConaughey makes a choice and sticks with it.

  A relevant quote: "What is success to me? Continue to ask yourself that question. How are you prosperous? What is your relevance? Your answer may change over time and that's fine but do yourself this favor – whatever your answer is, don't choose anything that would jeopardize your soul"

  Now, did I like the book? I feel conflicted about it, as it provided insights into how the man thinks and feels, but which also felt bland and processed. At no time did I feel I was really understanding the person or experience things together with him. As an autobiography it wasn't very effective, but then again the book was never meant to be that, more a statement of belief on how life gives you paths to choose from.

  Bottom line: good, inspiring work, but less personal that I would have liked.

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  Prions are a fascinating subject that we know almost nothing about. They are misfolded proteins that somehow proliferate inside our bodies and kill us with 100% efficiency. The diseases produced by prions are the deadliest there are, yet we know little about how prions multiply and even how they manage to kill us.

  Prions, a Challenge for Science, Medicine and Public Health System is a 2001 summary of works on prions. What does it say? That we don't know much. Then it gets terribly technical and, as I am not a biologist, I've decided to stop reading instead of pretending I understand anything. But I did scour the Internet for newer sources of knowledge and my finding is... that we still know shit about prions!

  So, what does misfolding mean? Prions are proteins, long chain molecules that are at the border of chemistry and mechanics in such a way that the way these molecules come to rest (fold) determines both their chemical and mechanical properties. Somehow (and no one actually knows how) a protein that is manufactured by our bodies (and that we don't really know what does) gets folded in the wrong way, leading to behavior that is detrimental to the body (in ways we don't really know). There is also a mechanism that turns proper proteins to this toxic form, much like a zombie invasion at nanoscale. And we don't know how it works.

  Why does it matter? Well, diseases such as scrapie in sheep, chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle (commonly known as "mad cow disease") and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD), its variant (vCJD), Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker syndrome (GSS), fatal familial insomnia (FFI), and kuru in humans are caused by prions. There is evidence that the same mechanism that destroys the nervous system in these diseases is also at fault with Alzheimer's. A biological weapon using prions, assuming it affects a large portion of a population, would kill 100% of the victims, decades after the weapon was used and without spreading the disease further.

  And why are prions so deadly? Because the immune system doesn't react to them. They are not viruses, they don't have nucleic acids, they are really tiny proteins that slowly but surely spread throughout the body and and up killing the brain of the victim (not unlike zombies, hmm).

  The leading expert in prions is Stanley B. Prusiner, the man who coined the term prion in 1982. The idea that a disease could be spread by just proteins was developed in the 1960 by people such as biophysicist John Stanley Griffith. Prusiner did a lot of work, but even so, there is little we understand about this, more than 70 years later.

  Bottom line: prions are fascinating and show us how much more we have to learn about biochemistry and disease vectors. Even if we hypothesized their existence in the '60s, we still don't know much on how they work. I welcome more research on the subject, as diseases caused by prions, even if rare, are deadly without exception.

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  Lightchaser is a story about complacency, one that faults not our silly human nature but an external alien influence. The "Domain" is the place where numerous human cultures live on thousands of planets and the Lightchaser is a starship pilot that moves from planet to planet giving and collecting "collars" which give the wearer extra status and record all of their life experiences. Further down the line, the company that builds the ships, controller exclusively by AIs, will buy the collars.

  I love Peter F. Hamilton stories because they go far, they allow the reader to dream of futures so vast and amazing that our own existence seems static and impossible to explain. Lightchaser is tiny, self contained, but it breathes the same concept. The book is not the best he wrote and in fact it is a short story with a singular idea, but I enjoyed it. Certainly a fan of Hamilton's, I am going to read everything he ever wrote at one time.

  Bottom line: good hard short sci-fi story. A light (heh!) read.

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  The Library of the Unwritten starts with a magical library which holds unwritten books, whether because their author has not written them yet or never got to before they died. And interesting premise, but one which made me afraid it was similar to Sorcery of Thorns. And I feel bad about it, but I did profile A. J. Hackwith before I started reading, which also filled me with apprehension (authors using their initials only make me suspicious). But the book was great! I am so glad to have been proven wrong.

  I don't want to spoil anything, but enough to say that characters like humans, muses, demons, angels, fallen angels, elder gods and literary characters who took shape in the real world are all characters in the book.

  While the story is a young adult fantasy, the writing is compelling, the characters complex and the plot quite refreshing and captivating. But I have to say I liked the characters the most: tortured souls (befitting a story which takes place in Hell most of the time) who have to resolve their issues in order to grow. All good characters are like that and inspire readers everywhere to do the same. The book also avoided getting mired in occult legislature (like defining a series of rules or a specific magic system) or pushing some gender agenda, instead focusing solely on story and characterization, which I applaud.

  Bottom line: not a masterpiece or anything, but one of the best books I've read recently and a very entertaining vacation read.