10 Awesome Fantasy Series That Are Not Potter or LoTR

In my literature related internet journeys I’ve seen the same scenario time and time again. People have finished reading “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” or are simply just getting into fantasy and are looking for something interesting, asking for advice from the more experienced fantasy readers. Unfortunately the names they are given are always the same:

  • Jordan (“The Wheel of Time”)
  • Martin (“The Song of Ice and Fire”)
  • Goodkind (“The Sword of Truth”)

Don’t get me wrong those are all great authors and great series, but there are many other series and authors that get overlooked when august names such as those start getting thrown around. I love reading fantasy and science fiction I’ve read dozens of different series and hundreds (or possibly even thousands) of individual books. So, I thought I’d make a small list of series’ that never seem to make it into other top 10 lists despite being well written, entertaining, different and in some cases no less epic than “Lord of The Rings”, “Wheel of Time” and others. So, strap yourself in for my list of less well known and under appreciated fantasy series’. Some commentary is included to whet your appetite :).

10. “Farside” by John Dalmas

I had to put this in since it almost never gets mentioned by anyone and it certainly should. The story is mainly about Curtis Macurdy who we meet for the first time as a young boy in pre-depression US. We follow Curtis on his journey to another world where he fights a war and then back to ours where he eventually gets involved in WW2.

I don’t want to give away the plot, but here are a few teasers :). There is magic, but noone ever has god-like powers, all magic is believable and in many ways subtle and blends in well with our world and the other world that is involved in the story. The story has a very low entry barrier, the plot is fairly uncomplicated, the good guys and bad guys pretty well defined (although there are some surprises). The books draw you in almost from page 1 and make you comfortable with the storyline very quickly. I’ve read the series twice, once when I was only getting into fantasy and again very recently. I enjoyed it both times :).

[column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Lion of Farside
The Lion of Farside
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Bavarian Gate
The Bavarian Gate
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″ style=”0″] The Lion Returns
The Lion Returns
[/column]

9. “Stones of Power” by David Gemmell

David Gemmell is a brilliant author, in my opinion. Say what you will, but he always tells an excellent story, fun from the very first word and always with plenty of action. This series is like 2 series in one, all five books are tied together with a common theme (i.e. the stones of power), but the first 2 books and the last 3 stand alone as separate series.

The last three books are a real treat as far as I am concerned. They tell the story of Jon Shannow a.k.a. “The Jerusalem Man”. It is set in a post apocalyptic Earth and there are guns involved, but the books are nevertheless well and truly fantasy. I found Shannow to be an extremely likeable protagonist, someone you always find yourself rooting for. Once again the barrier of entry is extremely low and the books draw you in from the very first page, highly recommended for budding fantasy enthusiasts as well as veterans.

[column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Ghost King
Ghost King
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Last Sword of Power
Last Sword of Power
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Wolf in Shadow
Wolf in Shadow
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Last Guardian
Last Guardian
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Bloodstone
Bloodstone
[/column]

8. “Incarnations of Immortality” by Piers Anthony

These books are not your average fantasy series. The main idea is that there are certain concepts in the world that have guardians that are the human “incarnation” of that particular concept (i.e. Death, War, Nature etc.). Each of the books in the series deals with a particular person and how they become an incarnation of a particular concept. The first book for example is about a man and how he becomes the physical incarnation of Death by replacing the previous holder of the office. Book six is about a man becoming the incarnation of Evil (i.e. the devil).

The premise of the books is extremely clever. The world is not your typical fantasy world, but is a mirror of our world where things developed differently. As you go through the series you start to meet protagonists from previous books, already holding the offices that they obtained in their volume. Thoroughly enjoyable, but the barrier of entry is a little higher, the books don’t draw you in for a while so you have to give them a chance (i.e. don’t give up in the first few pages).

[column size=”1-4″ last=”0″ style=”0″] On A Pale Horse
On A Pale Horse
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Bearing An Hourglass
Bearing An Hourglass
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”0″ style=”0″] With a Tangled Skein
With a Tangled Skein
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Wielding a Red Sword
Wielding a Red Sword
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Being a Green Mother
Being a Green Mother
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”0″ style=”0″] For Love of Evil
For Love of Evil
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”0″ style=”0″] And Eternity
And Eternity
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Under a Velvet Cloak
Under a Velvet Cloak
[/column]

7. “Tales of Alvin Maker” by Orson Scott Card

An excellent series by the man who brought us ”Ender’s Game”. The setting is, once again, not what you would expect from a fantasy series, as the action takes place in pre-civil war US. The idea is that in this world, things we would consider superstition, such as hexes are real. Most people have “knacks” which give them almost supernatural ability with a particular aspect of day to day existence (e.g. some might have a knack for cooking or joining wood, dowsers really can find water etc.).

The story’s main character is Alvin, who was born the seventh son of a seventh son, which is extremely auspicious as you might imagine :). Alvin has extremely powerful knacks, and the books are about his journey to fulfill his destiny as a Maker. Along the way he meets many historical figures of that period (such as Abraham Lincoln). I found this series to be a real page-turner, it is worth reading simply to experience the authentic language used throughout the books. Be warned though, this series is still unfinished, and will leave you with a massive case of “wanting more” :).

[column size=”1-4″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Seventh Son
Seventh Son
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Red Prophet
Red Prophet
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Prentice Alvin
Prentice Alvin
[/column] [column size=”1-4″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Alvin Journeyman
Alvin Journeyman
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Heartfire
Heartfire
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Crystal City
The Crystal City
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Master Alvin
(Upcoming)
[/column]

6. “The Deed of Paksenarrion” by Elizabeth Moon

Another trilogy that I’ve never heard mentioned along side the greats and it certainly deserves a place. This is more along the vein of traditional fantasy (i.e. swords and sorcery). There is not a lot of “sorcery” in these books as most supernatural powers are divinely bestowed (the books have a highly developed pantheon of deities and saints).

The story follows the journey of Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter. We meet Paks as a country girl escaping an arranged marriage to join a mercenary company. We stay with her as she becomes a veteran soldier and continues on her way to becoming a paladin.

The books are page turners from the very first page and I found it extremely rewarding for some reason to see Paks develop from a virtual country bumpkin into an educated and confident warrior for good. In a refreshing twist to books where the protagonist is a girl, there is no handsome price that sweeps our hero off her feet at some point in the series. Two thumbs up.

[column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Sheepfarmer's Daughter
Sheepfarmer’s Daughter
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Divided Allegiance
Divided Allegiance
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Oath of Gold
Oath of Gold
[/column]

5. “Lion of Macedon” by David Gemmell

This is almost not a series as it is only two books, but I simply couldn’t resist including it even if it meant that David Gemmell makes a second appearance on the list. In usual Gemmell style, the action starts from the word go and doesn’t let up. These books are the story of Parmenion, a boy who grows up in Sparta and eventually becomes one of the most trusted generals to Alexander of Macedon.

As you might have gathered, this is a historically based series; it nevertheless falls firmly into the realms of fantasy. The interesting thing about this series is that the “Stones of Power” from the other Gemmell series that I mentioned on this list, also make an appearance a few times in these books. It is pretty awesome how two unrelated series can be tenuously tied together like this. A cool hero to root for, plenty of action plus all the other trappings of an excellent fantasy series, this is one you shouldn’t miss.

[column size=”1-2″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Lion of Macedon
Lion of Macedon
[/column] [column size=”1-2″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Dark Prince
Dark Prince
[/column]

4. “Soldier Son” by Robin Hobb

Unlike some of the other series in this list, this one has a much higher barrier of entry. It is not really one that draws you in from the first page, but then none of Robin Hobb’s books are. Having said that, if you do stick with it for a while, you will discover an author and a series that you will fall in love with. Hobb’s characterisation and narrative are second to none and this series is deep and engaging. It is different in that the “good guys” and “bad guys” are not really well defined. The main character is not “super-human” and in some situations is at the mercy of events (which is a lot more like real life).

The story is about Nevare, who is the second son of a “new” lord. In this world, the second son of a lord is destined to become a soldier and Nevare looks forward to this as he grows up. However events beyond his control conspire to keep him from this goal, but his journey is no less interesting for the lack of fighting.

If you want a series that makes you think, where the world is not black and white and where even main characters are fallible and all too human, this series is definitely for you.

[column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Shaman's Crossing
Shaman’s Crossing
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Forest Mage
Forest Mage
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Renegade's Magic
Renegade’s Magic
[/column]

3. “Codex Alera” by Jim Butcher

There was a point where I thought that I had surely tried every flavour of fantasy that could possibly exist and then I discovered this series :). In these books just about all people have some control over elemental powers that are called “furies”. The only person who seems to be weak and powerless in a world of mages is the hero, Tavi. We follow Tavi as he uses his ingenuity to get along in the world without any supernatural abilities, but will he be this powerless forever? I just can’t help but root for the underdog :).

This series drew me in straight away and I found myself reading continuously until I finished the first book (this doesn’t happen often to me any more). The world Butcher paints is vibrant and alive (even if it is based on Rome which is pretty standard fare for fantasy). As you can imagine the magic in these book is particularly well thought out and integrated into the fabric of the world.

The only disappointing this about this series is that it is unfinished with 2 more books still to be written. I for one can’t wait.

[column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Furies of Calderon
Furies of Calderon
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Academ's Fury
Academ’s Fury
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Cursor's Fury
Cursor’s Fury
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Captain's Fury
Captain’s Fury
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Princeps’ Fury
(Upcoming)
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″ style=”0″] (Upcoming)
[/column]

2. “Prince of Nothing” by R. Scott Bakker

I had to include this one because once again I don’t often hear it mentioned along with others that are considered great, and in this case I really don’t understand it, since it is easily as good if not better than most. Fair warning, this is not for those who are expecting an easy read. I started the first book of this series twice before I got into it as it doesn’t really draw you in until well into the story. But once it does, it is absolutely unbelievable.

This series is epic in every sense of the word. The world is truly enormous even if it doesn’t seem so at first and the scale of events that takes place is truly mind boggling. There are many characters who are central to the story but the main character would have to be Anasurimbor Kellhus, a Dunyain monk descended from a line of kings who is in search of his father. For centuries the Dunyain monks have been bred for intellect and trained to predict the effect of their actions and manipulate those around them in any way they wish. This makes Kellhus as near to superhuman as someone can be.

At the same time, a Holy War is called in the city of Momemn, the Consul – an ancient evil is once again stirring, the sorcerous schools and the church are manoeuvring to gain advantage. I have to stop :), there is too much going on to easily describe in a short paragraph. Suffice to say that this is fantasy not for the faint hearted. If you really appreciate events of epic scope, political intrigue and a profusion of character viewpoints, you will appreciate this series, I certainly did.

[column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Darkness That Comes Before
The Darkness That Comes Before
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Warrior Prophet
The Warrior Prophet
[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″ style=”0″] The Thousandfold Thought
The Thousandfold Thought
[/column]

1. “Saga of Recluse” by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

I had to put this series in first place for it truly is a saga. It currently stands at 15 books and there may be more forthcoming. Don’t be put off by the length however, this series is not chronological and doesn’t follow the same characters. Rather, this series is set at different stages in the history of the same world. What ties this series together is the set of natural laws that govern the world where it is set. This series is in fact multiple series as well as several stand-alone books that are all set in the same universe. However, the world is so rich and well represented in every book that it well and truly becomes another character and this is what makes all of these books a series and ties everything together so well.

The idea is that there exists a world where two natural forces are in constant opposition, Order and Chaos. Order very loosely represents “good” and Chaos “loosely” represents evil, order is black and chaos is white, which turns your thinking topsy-turvy for a bit until you realise that, there is no good and evil since order and chaos are just natural forces. Order and chaos acts in the world through mages that have control over the powers of their particular natural force, as well as through foci, who are extra powerful mages.

The books are not written in chronological order and jump back and forth in the timeline of the world to tell the story of significant events that have happened. The books can be read in chronological order as well, but the author recommends reading them in the order they were written and so do I.

This series is truly brilliant, with every book read you get more and more of an appreciation of how detailed and well thought out the world actually is. In addition the characters are all likeable and you can really identify with their story no matter what their affiliation, order or chaos (although you do lean towards favouring order :)). Modesitt has a very distinct writing style that I for one find extremely appealing. Not only do you get to look at the characters from their eyes, but also from the eyes of those around them as well as those far away who are affected by what the characters set in motion. I can’t recommend this series highly enough.

[column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Magic of Recluce
The Magic of Recluce
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Towers of the Sunset
The Towers of the Sunset
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Magic Engineer
The Magic Engineer
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Order War
The Order War
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”1″ style=”0″] The Death of Chaos
The Death of Chaos
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Fall of Angels
Fall of Angels
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The Chaos Balance
The Chaos Balance
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] The White Order
The White Order
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Colors of Chaos
Colors of Chaos
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Magi'i of Cyador
Magi’i of Cyador
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Scion of Cyador
Scion of Cyador
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Wellspring of Chaos
Wellspring of Chaos
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Ordermaster
Ordermaster
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″] Natural Ordermage
Natural Ordermage
[/column] [column size=”1-5″ last=”1″ style=”0″] Mage-Guard of Hamor
Mage-Guard of Hamor
[/column]

Well, I hope you pick up some of these great books and give them a go; I promise you won’t be disappointed. The only thing I feel bad about is all the authors and series’ that didn’t make it on this list (there were many), perhaps another list is in order simply to give them a fair go.

Do you know and a love a fantasy series that is perhaps not well known or under-appreciated by the rest of the world? Do leave a comment and tell me what it is and perhaps it may make it onto the next list, or even bump one of the entries off this list :).

You can now see my list of 10 MORE Awesome Fantasy Series That Are Not Potter or LoTR.

How To Retain Your IT Employees For Longer

The IT industry is notorious for its high turnover rate of employees. In fact it has gotten to the point that most companies don’t expect to keep IT personnel for a longer than around 18 months when they hire them. If you’ve ever worked in software or IT you would certainly be familiar with phrases such as “… none of us are gonna be here 2 years from now …” or something along those lines. I believe it has almost become a self-fulfilling prophesy, since no-one expects IT people to hang around for long, most of them don’t.

Of course the industry itself is partly to blame. It is still a very young industry and growing rapidly, which creates a lot of new opportunities and being by nature a fast-paced field it creates perfect conditions for people to “jump ship” whenever the fancy strikes them.

Despite all of this I believe there are many things you as an employer can do to keep your staff for longer and it is certainly in your best interest to do so. The hiring process is expensive and time consuming and you still don’t really know what you’re getting. Most importantly however, domain knowledge is not something you can easily replace. It takes years to acquire business and technical domain knowledge and it should certainly be high on your list of priorities to not loose the employees who already have this knowledge. Especially not to your competitors!

Fortunately the power is very much in your hands when it comes to creating the kind of environment where employees feel happy and never want to leave and I am going to tell you exactly what you can do to achieve this in 7 “easy” steps.

7. Provide opportunity to learn and improve yourself.

Many companies already do this since it is fairly easy to pay for a conference or a book here and there but, you can differentiate yourself even here. Do pay for the conferences and the books, also try organising a training course or two onsite (ask your staff what they would like, don’t just offer a random useless course). Another good idea is providing some company sponsored time on a periodic basis for personal projects/study (e.g. Google 20% time). Try and hire some people who are highly respected in their field, working with a guru is a learning opportunity in and of itself. Be creative.

6. Provide a career path.

It is amazing how many companies don’t pay any attention to this. How do you expect people to stay around if they don’t really know what steps they can take to advance their career if they stay with the company? If you do have a career path for people, then make sure you actually articulate it – that is to say – tell them what the career path is. If there is no career path for a person at your company, they you have some work to do. The more varied career paths you can provide for people the better. This is of course much easier in a big company, but smaller companies can be creative with this as well. Think of different a novel ways how someone can progress their career while staying at your company. Maybe it is time to open a new office somewhere or shake-up the board a little bit with some fresh blood or perhaps getting a new partner on board is not such a bad idea. There are plenty of ways, listen to what a person wants and find creative ways to meet those goals with them. Many will appreciate you and your company just for trying. The thought really does count!

5. Hire people who are better than you and make sure they do the same.

This one is crucial as it will directly affect number 4 as well. Never settle when you’re hiring, even if you have to reject hundreds to find the right person, you will not be sorry in the long run. Hire people that you would love to work with and if one of their responsibilities is to hire other people, make sure they are also doing the same thing. By doing this you will create a group of people that will naturally want to “gel”. Conflicts will be easier to resolve, and most conflicts won’t lead to enmity. You will also be not only maintaining but improving the skill levels in your company and since you’re hiring for retention you will ultimately be the winner as these great people advance up whatever hierarchy you have and themselves hire even more awesome people to work with. John C. Maxwell explains how this works in great detail in his book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says but his core logic is certainly sound.

4. Foster a friendly and open atmosphere.

If you have a handle on number 5 this one should be a cinch. However do keep an eye on it. You need to handle conflicts if they develop and do actively make sure that people are socialising outside of work. More bonding happens in 30 minutes at the pub than you could get from weeks if not months in a work environment. The socialising thing doesn’t just apply to your people, it applies to you as well, after all you’re part of the group. People love to work with their friends, make sure they have the opportunity and they will want to hang around as long as their buddies are hanging around too.

3. Be flexible.

It is not the 19th century any more. The world is a fast, connected and busy, lots of stuff is happening all the time. Your people might want to be involved in some of this stuff. Such as – oh I don’t know – spending time with their family, or going on an extended holiday or maybe running a burrito stand on Friday afternoons. Who knows what they might be into? If you can be flexible enough to accommodate these little quirks, not only will people be happy and grateful, but if yours is one of the few companies that can offer them the kind of flexibility they need, who do you think they’ll want to work for? The funny thing about IT work is that it is there 24/7, it doesn’t have to get done between 9-5 on any particular day; it can get done in all sorts of different ways. You just need to be open to them.

2. Provide interesting work.

I am well aware that you can’t always control what kind of work is in the pipeline. However, the work itself doesn’t have to be inherently interesting as long is the way you execute the work is interesting. You can be building the next great spreadsheet application or accounting package, but if you use interesting and new technologies, let people experiment and don’t hold the reigns too tightly, it can become the most fun and exciting project that people have ever worked on. Numbers 3, 4 and 5 can also contribute a lot to how the interesting the work is perceived to be by the people doing it. In short, being a control freak is bad, keeping up with the latest and greatest in IT is good, being open to using the latest and greatest in novel and interesting ways is best.

1. Pay your people what they are worth.

How many companies do you know who just won’t shut up about how they hire the best people (just about all companies I guess :))? Well, news flash, if your salaries are commensurate with the average market rates, your employees will most likely be commensurate with the market average as well, unless you get lucky. Good people demand good pay, more than that, good people deserve good pay. A really good developer for example can be 2, 3 even 5 times more productive than an average one (maybe even more, there are studies on this, use Google to find them). So you should certainly be able to afford those extra few thousand if the productivity increase you are gonna get will be in the orders of magnitude higher. Am I right? Regardless, if you want to retain good people you have to pay more than most other companies are willing to pay. Otherwise people will just go and work for those companies that do pay more; it’s the smart thing to do after all.

All of these are very much common sense, right? Well, you will find that most employers can’t provide all seven and most can’t even provide three (it is so hard to part with money, even when it is for the greater good). Of course the most important one is number 1 :). If you do nothing else make sure you have number 1 covered, be warned however, that by itself it will only get you so far, unless it is supported by at least some of the other points, 1 will have only a marginal effect on your level of IT staff retention.

Endeavour to provide all seven points and you will be extremely surprised at what it does to your retention rate. People might even want to – god forbid – have a career at your company. At the very least your IT staff will hang around for longer and you will find that as word spreads, you will slowly get the better people applying for positions at your company. I don’t need to spell out the benefits of any of this, they should be pretty self-evident.

One final note, sometimes the best thing for someone is to go try new things and find new challenges, for whatever reasons. Do support your staff as much as you can if that is the decision they make. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to change their mind, but if the decision is final, do your best to help and support them. This will leave your relationship with that person with a positive “emotional bank account” (I borrow that phrase from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey which is a great book by the way). This – of course – means that you will find it that much easier to hire that person again down the line should the opportunity present itself. It is only common sense.

Does Everybody Hate George Bush

I have met probably dozens of Americans over the last couple of years or so, and out of all of them I only remember about 2 of them admitting that they voted for Bush. This got me thinking, just how did Bush become president of the US in the first place and how was he able to remain for 2 terms.

Thinking back over the last few years, I simply can’t recall reading a news story that was praising George W. Bush for anything. I certainly can’t recall a conversation with anyone – American or not – where Bush was mentioned with respect and admiration. Surely those are how a leader should be perceived by his people and possibly even by the international community. Admittedly I am not American, so maybe I am missing some pieces of the puzzle, or something is lost in translation I don’t know, but I find the situation extremely curious.

One of the things that really gets to me is “bushisms”. Were they ever endearing? Since when were bad grammar and an inability to construct a meaningful sentence, the hallmarks of a visionary leader of men. I am just not prepared to make peace with the fact that in a country that gave us the auto-mobile, the atomic bomb, the internet even, that was the best leadership material they had. The saddest thing is that these “bushisms” occurred despite the speech writers and others of their ilk that were no doubt employed to keep just such things from occurring. These grammatical faux pas never made me like Bush more, but they surely must have done so for some people, or am I wrong?

What about his handling of the Iraq war. Let us not forget the fact that the “weapons of mass destruction” over which the war was started in the first place were never found. Let us also not forget that in the case of Iraq, democracy was foisted on the people living there (compelling a nation to adopt democracy through force of arms – was there ever a more ludicrous concept). Both of those things piss me off just a little, but what gets to me even more is the insistence that no-one put a foot wrong at any point with regards to the whole situation. Frankly I would have respected the current US administration a lot more had Bush come out at some point and said “Gee guys, we were wrong, but have to try and set things right now, doing the best we can”. And I am perfectly aware that I can’t blame Bush for the actions of the whole administration, he is not the only person involved. He is however the leader and as such has a responsibility – and a level accountability as well – whether things go right or not.

Bush is in no small part responsible for America having a frankly atrocious international reputation right this minute. America is seen as a bully and an aggressor by the rest of the world, despite many countries having to tow the line and follow Americas lead due to economic (and possibly other) pressures. This in turn reflects really badly on the American people. If I were American I certainly would not want to be judged by the action of one short-sighted and limited individual (who just happens to be the president :)) and the fact that I am being judged this way would annoy me no end.

Is all of this because Bush is just not a leader, but is in fact a sort of puppet for some group/s within the Republican Party? I mean, lets take the current Russia vs. Georgia conflict. Surely noone could lay hypocrisy on that thick without visibly cringing unless they are being controlled in some way and simply don’t have the capacity to understand what they are saying or doing. If it is the case then surely this is even more reason why Bush deserves our contempt for being bamboozled in this way by his “advisors”.

Given all that I said above I guess my question is, who actually voted for Bush and why? Even more so, why the second time? If you did vote for him, do you still retain some confidence in his abilities as a leader? Do you think he has done a good job in his 2 terms as president? I would be very curious to know what people have to say and if you’re not American I’d love to hear from anyone who admires Bush, or at least doesn’t dislike him, surely there must be someone.

3 Things They Should Have Taught In My Computer Science Degree

That’s right only 3 things. Oh, there are plenty of things that I wish I would have learned about at university, but I am well aware that no degree will give you an exhaustive education in your field. A degree is meant to teach you the basics and equip you with skills so that you can learn the rest yourself. However, as I get more experience as a software developer, I find that I am increasingly frustrated about not having been exposed to these three things before I entered the workforce.

I believe that any Computer Science degree can be made a lot more relevant simply by paying more attention to these three points. Had I had more exposure to these things before starting my working life, I believe it would have given me some real world skills that I could have applied straight away, rather than having to scramble to learn everything I needed to know on the job. It would have made me better able to deal with the requirements of my work and would also have made me a better citizen of the IT community.

1. Open Source Development

I found that open source was never really taught. Some students found out on their own and got into it, but the majority didn’t find out at all. At no other time in their lives will students have as much time on their hands to get involved as they do at university; it could truly be a mutually beneficial relationship. Instead, a great opportunity is lost here both for the students and for the open source movement.

I believe most CS subjects should encourage students to either start their own open source projects or preferably participate in existing ones. It should be part of the curriculum and part of the grading process. Open source projects could gain valuable contributions, while students not only gain skills in a real-world setting, but also the use of tools, processes and valuable interpersonal skills that a simulated university environment just can’t provide.

2. An Agile Process (e.g. XP, Scrum)

I’ll amend this; I wish they taught any process to such a degree that people can actually gain at least a passing familiarity with it, even waterfall. I found process was more or less glossed over during my university time. Sure there were a few lectures that mentioned it, but noone really explained the need for process and there was never any practical application of the knowledge. In this case without practical application it is almost impossible to take-in the concepts.

Of course it would have been even better had agile processes been taught since these are a lot more relevant to the industry today. Teaching agile processes to university students is probably one sure-fire way to start changing the software industry for the better. Students would come out with a decent understanding of how software should be built and would be a lot less likely to be brainwashed by companies with outmoded modi operandi (lets face there are still plenty around). Instead students enter the work force completely ignorant about how things should be done and another great opportunity is lost both for the students and for the IT industry in general.

3. Corporate Politics/Building Relationships

It may not seem so to most people, but I believe that this is by far the most important point where my CS degree let me down. So much emphasis is placed on technical subjects that you never get to find out how life really works in the corporate world. Of course this is the hardest to figure out on your own.

As a freshly minted CS grad, you think technology is the most important thing in the world. So, when you find your feet in the corporate world it is a bit of a rude shock how everything seems so dysfunctional and moves at such a glacial pace, until that is you figure out that technology is not the most important thing at all and that corporate politics rules the coop.

Even in high technology companies, politics is king and the cornerstone of politics is relationships. The right relationships can let you get things done, and make your life a lot less difficult. However the concepts around politics and relationships are not well defined, there are no hard and fast rules, everything is very relative and fluffy. Of course for technically minded people this is the most frustrating thing in the world.

It doesn’t have to be like this though, just like everything else, politics and relationship building have basic principles that can be taught, so I fail to see why they are not. Had they been maybe industry wouldn’t crying out anywhere near as much for technical people with great interpersonal skills. Because it is not the interpersonal skills that the grads are lacking (there are plenty of CS grads with great people skills), it is the ability to use these skills to effectively build relationships.

Well that’s, my take on it. It has been a few years since I was at university so maybe in the intervening years things have improved and what I mention above is part of the curriculum (somehow that strikes me as unlikely). Then again perhaps you disagree with me on one or all of the points I mentioned. Do you think there are any other vital subjects that your CS degree should cover? Let me know.

Why Web 2.0 Sucks

No Web 2.0

Ok, I have no problem with the concept, but does every man and his dog have to buy into using the acronym and especially the 2.0 suffix. Everything is 2.0 these days from the iPhone to grandmas corner cookie store (Cookies 2.0 – Dey Da Shznit).

Seriously the guy who invented the term should be roasted slowly over an open fire and just so it can be done properly, by experts, I condemn him to the deepest darkest pits of the 7th circle of hell. He’ll probably meet the guy who coined SOA there, I am sure they’ll have loads to talk about and become great friends.

What happened to the days when people coined grand and dignified terms for concepts they wanted to describe (like ‘cyberspace’ for example), the days you could look upon the acronym you’ve coined and know that it was good and would make you proud in the wild. No, now it’s all airy fairy concepts and trendy sounding punch lines, appealing to the youth market and all, makes me sick.

How about the guys bandying around the Web 3.0 slogan, gee, don’t we all think they are original, they can like, increment by one and junk. I mean the first time I heard that I was all like, OMFG these guyz are so kewl, they so 31337, I surely must hear what they gotta say, cause web 3.0 it’s gonna take off any minute now, yep any minute now… Sarcasm Flag <- (sarcasm flag)

Another thing that really bugs me about the whole web 2.0 movement, the web 2.0 domain names. Oh, I really have a special place in my heart for those puppies. New start-up companies are just lapping these up, who needs a compelling product or service we’ll just have a hip and “with-it” sounding web 2.0 domain name, the young digerati won’t be able to resist.

Forget solid business planning and marketing campaigns, all we need to do is have a domain name that makes us sound like we’re about to run off and start a garage band with our pot smoking, guitar hero wannabe buddies, and we’re on easy street. Surely the big corporations are gonna wake up and realize there is an untapped market for them out there, example (these are digital gold and I am giving it away for free, silly me):

  • bh.pbillet.on – case modding the hard way rockz, start with a ton of aluminium ore!
  • we.llsfar.go – we pwn the pork bellies futurez marketz!

Latest victim of the web 2.0 syndrome – cloud computing. It still retains some credibility, but is surely heading the way of the SOA. As soon as we can’t go to a conference without at least 2 cloud computing presentations, we’ll know that it has happened. Cloud computing will have become synonymous with “amorphous blob of goo and other things that do stuff”, and we’ll safely be able to send the cloud computing guy to meet up with the SOA guys and the Web 2.0 at that place where they’ll surely be hanging out (see above).

Oh and by the way, completely off topic, but I am on a roll. So, parents whose family name is Kerr (or derivative thereof) who name their baby son Wayne, I hope you get stampeded over by heard of rampaging wilder beast. I mean childhood is hard enough without saddling your son with that name combination. Off you go to join the SOA guy, the Web 2.0 guy and the ghost-of-christmas cloud computing guy!

There we go, all ranted out and it’s not even lunch time, have a good one from Rants Dude, that is to say ra.ntzdu.de! Yeah!

Fitness for Software Developers (and Other IT Professionals)

Exercises

A software developer these days is almost certain to engage in some kind of activity to maintain their fitness. Well, I may be stretching things a little :), but there are certainly more than a few developers who exercise pretty regularly; fitness is the “in” thing to do after all. I however found that many developers are either doing the “wrong” kind of exercise or focusing too much on some muscle groups to the neglect of others.

Every profession puts different kinds of stress on different parts of the body, this means that some exercise is very beneficial in some occupations while being almost harmful in others. Here, I will attempt to give some pointers on the types of exercises and muscle groups it would be best to focus on if you’re a software developer (or indeed any other IT professional).

Focus On The Core

For the uninitiated, by “core”, I mean your stomach, or more precisely, your stomach (abs), side (obliques) and lower back muscles. Your core muscles are arguably the most important muscles in the body. As software developers we sit at the computer all day, this puts a lot of strain on our lower back muscles, especially when we slouch (I know that I can slouch even on ergonomic chairs :)). This puts us at high risk of damaging our lower back in some way, so it certainly behoves us to strengthen our lower back muscles. However – with core muscles – balance is key. If you work your lower back, you need to pay equal attention to the abs and obliques. An imbalance in your core muscles puts you in very high risk of injury and since the core supports your whole body, it can make you a very unhappy developer. And by unhappy, I mean you’ll be in some possibly significant pain.

So, how do you work your core muscles? Well, despite what TV would have you believe, the machines of the AB* variety (e.g. ab roller, ab doer etc.) are not necessarily better than plain old crunches and leg raises. In fact I have found them to be worse in many situations. Not to mention the fact that you need the machine with you if you want to use it, where as for crunches and leg raises all you need is an even surface (floor, bench etc.). So I favour crunches and leg raises for your abs and obliques. For lower back, try doing some back extensions, they are surprisingly hard and also surprisingly effective. If you don’t know what back extensions are, then Google is your friend :). Oh, alright, it looks like this:

Back extension

No matter which exercise you do to strengthen your core muscles, make sure you do it regularly. As a developer who sits at the computer all day, the worst thing you can do for yourself is ignore these muscles. Do not ignore your core!

Engage Many Muscle Groups At Once

We are all busy people and only have so much time to devote to our exercise program. It is therefore surprising how much time people spend doing exercises that engage at most one muscle group (wrist curls anyone?), while ignoring exercises that can potentially work almost your whole body.

There are two exercises that should be part of just about every work-out you do, I am talking about chin-ups and push-ups. Yes, I know that these are very hard and you usually can’t instantly crank out ten reps like you can with a light dumbbell, which is precisely why most people ignore these great exercises. I would however recommend that you give these a good try and don’t give up. You will slowly find yourself doing better and better and the benefits are tremendous.

Push-ups focus on your chest but will also work your arms, back, abs and to a lesser extent your legs. Chin-ups not only give your whole body a good stretch, but will work your arms, shoulders, latissimus dorsi :), abs, and are also good for your spine. But wait – there is still more – these exercises are great for building lean, strong muscle mass (i.e. you’ll be much stronger without looking bulky).

Your time is valuable, there are games to be played, books to be read, code to be written (that is, complained about how badly it was written in the first place and then re-written to be better :)). So, do yourself a favour and use the exercises that give you the most bang for your buck.

Stretch Or Else

One of the most accurate definitions of old age that I’ve heard has to do with your muscles loosing flexibility and suppleness. I wholeheartedly buy into this theory. Work on your flexibility, if you have time to do only one exercise, make sure it is a stretch. This is not just advice for software developers; this is good advice for everyone.

Always stretch, your arms legs and torso before a work-out (and preferably after as well). And don’t just do those half-hearted stretches to “loosen up”. Push your muscles a little bit, but within reason, you can injure yourself even while stretching. Your aim should be to become a little bit more flexible every week, there is no such thing as too much flexibility. I am not going to go into the kind of stretches you should be doing, there is plenty of info around. My job is to remind you of the importance of stretching. If you can’t touch the ground with your fingertips while standing up, no matter how old you are, you’re not flexible enough (touching it with your palms would be even better).

If you subscribe to this theory you will find that as you get older you will be able to easily maintain your lifestyle no matter what you love doing and you will feel good while doing it. Ignore this advice and you will feel old by the time you’re 40 if not before!

The Good Cardio

Aerobic exercise is a tricky one. As developers we spend the vast majority of our time sitting down. Therefore all of us are aware that we should be doing some kind of cardio activity to balance this out, it is simply common sense. Many people join some sort of local sporting team which is great, have fun with your friends while getting a cardio work out. However, team sports can be prone to injury especially if everyone is very competitive (injury is not good for your body no matter how minor). The other problem is that you usually can’t maintain your heart rate at a consistent level when playing a team sport and this is the whole point of a cardio workout.

Running is therefore the perennial favourite to get a good quick aerobic workout. I agree that it is an exercise that makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something, but a word of warning. Running is terrible for your joints, it is very high impact and your bones and joints take the brunt of it. You probably won’t notice it while you’re young, but there is a very good chance that you will pay a high price for it when you get older.

Therefore I favour either walking or cycling as a cardio workout. Both of these are nowhere near as high impact as running, they can still burn some decent calories, especially cycling. They will still give your legs a nice workout (which is a good side benefit). There are other kinds of cardio exercises, but I do recommend doing one that uses primarily your legs, such as the ones I mentioned. This is so that your legs get a workout along with the aerobic exercises you are doing for your body.

“Executive” Summary

Most of the things I talked about above don’t need to be done at the gym (although they certainly can be). With a bit of ingenuity you can do most of these exercises anywhere (e.g. any likely tree branch is your chin-up bar). So, to recap, I am going to keep this short and sweet:

Stretch, Walk/Cycle, Chin-ups, Push-ups, Crunches, Leg raises, Stretch

Then rinse and repeat. It is in your hands from here on in. All your bases are belong to you!

If Software Development Was Like Medicine: Part 1

Software development often gets criticized for various reasons, overrunning budgets, failing to meet expectations, producing a buggy product, the list is pretty long. Inevitably when this kind of criticism is levelled at the software development profession, someone will try to compare building software to some other field, most often construction. You all know the analogy I am talking about, it often starts like this, “If we built houses the way we build software…”, and then goes on to describe in great detail how misshapen and barely functional the houses would be. Well, I’ve always had a bone to pick with that analogy, so I decided to come up with a new analogy, and I picked a completely different industry, Medicine.

Having become a lot better acquainted with the medical profession than I ever wanted to be, over the last few years, I feel that I am qualified to make this comparison :). I also decided to look at the whole thing from another perspective, rather than comparing medicine to software development, I decided to do it the other way around – here is the story I came up with.

A Customer Has A Problem

One day John McCustomer, noticed that something wasn’t quite right with his business, it seemed he had a bit of a business need that was bothering him. So, he called up the offices of his local vendor (Bill von Software Vendor) to make an appointment, surely all he needs is some software to make his business need go away.

Vendor Reception (VR): Hi, how can I help you
J. McCustomer (JMcC): I have an appointment to see the software vendor at 2 o’clock
VR: Have a seat the vendor will be with you shortly.
…1 hours later
JMcC: “… yes honey I’ll have to miss little Suzie’s dance recital, yeah still at the vendors…”
VR: Go right in, the vendor will see you now.
Software Vendor (SV): How can I help you today
JMcC: You see, I have this business need that been bothering me lately, I think I just need a bit of software and it will be right as rain
SV: Well, you could be right but I’ll need to do some PoCs (Proof of Concepts) before I can prescribe the right software for you
JMcC: If you think it best, I guess that’s fine
SV: Unfortunately, we don’t do PoCs here, luckily we just happen to partner with a company that specialises in PoCs I’ll refer you to them
JMcC: I’ll have to make a special trip, but that’s OK. Could you get them to e-mail the results of the PoCs to my company?
SV: I am sorry, that’s just not done, against regulations and whatnot, you’ll have to come here for the results, the closest appointment I have is 3 weeks from now
JMcC: Well I don’t have much of choice, so I’ll see you in 3 weeks then, but what do I do about my business need in the meantime?
SV: Well, I could give you this generic accounting package, that you can purchase at the nearest software retailer, you should also, try to stress less about your business needs, and have you thought of changing your diet and getting more sleep
JMcC: You think all of that will help me manage my business need in the meantime?
SV: Probably, who knows, it is all good advice. Oh and by the way that will be $10000 for this initial consultation.
JMcC: *silently to himself* …@#$% … rip-off … &*^%

3 Weeks Later

SV: Hi John, hows that business need, still bothering you
JMcC: Sure is, that accounting package didn’t help at all, I already had an accounting package at my company
SV: Well I have the results of those PoCs right here, lets have a look shall we. Hmmm, hmmm that’s very interesting, veeeeery interesting
JMcC: *nervously* Well, what is it! What’s so interesting, should I be worried?
SV: Oh, no the results appear to be … inconclusive.
JMcC: Inconclusive? What does that mean?
SV: Well, they don’t really indicate anything about your particular business need, but not to worry, we can run another round of PoCs, I’ll write you a referral.
JMcC: This is somewhat inconvenient, but I guess if it will help solve my business need….
SV: Oh yes, we are definitely zeroing in on the problem now. You’ll have to make another appointment, how does 3 weeks from now sound?
JMcC: Sounds like I am wasting my time a little bit, but I guess I don’t have a choice
SV: That’s correct. By the way that will be $9999 (you get a discount as a repeat customer)
JMcC: *silently to himself* … ^&*%$ … I’ll repeat your customer …

Another 3 Weeks Later

JMcC: Look this business need is really starting to bother me, the lack of solution is affecting my relationship with my customers and my employees are a little annoyed that nothing is being done
SV: I understand, it is only logical that you are concerned. The good news is that I have your PoC results right here…
JMcC: Ah excellent…
SV: The bad news is that the results were again inconclusive
JMcC: What! Look it’s been 6 weeks already; I’ve been more than patient
SV: I do understand your concerns, but I have you considered that you don’t really have a business need at all you only think you do. Maybe it is all in your head
JMcC: Are you suggesting I don’t know my own business? I take offence to that
SV: Look, it was just something to consider, if you like I can refer you to a consultant, who can have a chat to you and explain exactly why your business need is imaginary.
JMcC: I am pretty sure it is real. Some helpful advice would be nice for a change.
SV: Well, alright I can refer you to a specialist software vendor; they are an expert at the area where your business need lies
JMcC: I thought you didn’t know where my business need lay?
SV: I don’t but I suspect
JMcC: You suspect! Why didn’t you tell me … Oh forget it, just refer me to the specialist
SV: No worries, of course specialists are in short supply, the nearest appointment is 6 weeks from now, hope that’s fine
JMcC: Yeah, yeah whatever, sign me in
SV: Excellent well good luck with your business need and all, come back any time. Oh and that will be $9999 again
JMcC: *silently to himself* … why I aught to … *sigh*

6 Weeks Later

Specialist Software Vendor(SSV): Well, SV says you have some sort of business need
JMcC: That’s right it’s been bothering me for a while now, but while I was waiting for you I went to an alternative business software specialist and they hacked up this Perl script for me, it didn’t solve my business need fully but it has been helping a little, they said I need to use for a few months before my business need disappears completely
SSV: Well if you want my recommendation I suggest you stop using that Perl script, you see alternative software engineering just doesn’t work, it is all voodoo programming, you can really get your business in trouble
JMcC: But it has been helping…
SSV: No it hasn’t you only think it has, it is called the software placebo effect, I wrote an article about it a couple of years ago, I am considered an expert in the field I’ll have you know
JMcC: Well I guess you know best, I’ll stop running the script, so what do you think I wrong with me
SSV: Hmmm, it is hard to say without doing some PoCs
JMcC: But, I’ve already done 2 rounds of PoCs, they didn’t show anything
SSV: Oh no, those were just generic PoCs, they are not very good in an economic climate that your industry is currently in. I can perform some much more sophisticated PoCs
JMcC: Ahhh, I see that makes sense I suppose
SSV: Now these PoCs require some specialised equipment which I only have at my headquarters, you’ll have to go there. These PoCs require a day of preparation, so you’ll have to stop doing business 1 day before, and I don’t recommend you do anything too strenuous the day after
JMcC: This will really play havoc with my schedule, but if you think you’ll get a conclusive answer I am prepared to do it
SSV: Oh definitely, I presented at an international conference about how good my PoC methods are, I am considered quite an expert in that area also
JMcC: I just bet you are, so when can we do this.
SSV: Lets see, the best I can do is 4 weeks from now. Oh and by the way that will be $50000 for the initial consultation, I take cheques.
JMcC: … … … … … …

to be continued

Will We Keep Breaking Olympic Records Forever?

With the Olympics drawing to a close shortly, I couldn’t help noticing the tremendously high number of Olympic and world records that have been broken. According to the official site 36 world records and 74 Olympic records have been broken as of August 19th. It certainly makes for an entertaining Olympic games, but this started me wondering about the future of sport in general and the Olympics in particular. The question I ask myself is, just how close are we to the limit of human potential as far sporting endeavours go?

Where are we now…?

I would say that if we haven’t passed that limit already, then we are surely very close to what humans with no technological assistance are capable of. And this of course raises the point, just how much of a role is science and technology currently playing in sport?

It is clear that sport has become more professional over the last several decades. Just about all athletes now competing at the games do their sport professionally and certainly training techniques have improved tremendously as well (sport is big business now after all). However, no-one can say that technology isn’t playing a major role:

  • sophisticated monitoring equipment
  • specially formulated drinks and meals
  • statistical analysis supported by advanced data storage and retrieval techniques
  • etc.

All these now play a major role in the life and training of a professional athlete. And none of those things would be remotely possible without powerful software, hardware and advances in chemistry, biology and medicine. Let us also not forget the medical imaging and testing technologies that can help avoid injury and help athletes recover much faster and more fully in the event of injury. All of this goes on behind the scenes, the only things the public sees are chiselled muscles and jaw-dropping performances.

Of course, one can still argue that all this science and technology is only indirectly supporting athletes, but no-one can argue that equipment used by most sports has become, fully as sophisticated as the training methods. This equipment is in no small part responsible for how far performance in many sports has advanced. There has been a lot of controversy already about the shark-skin swim-suits that have become popular in recent years; with some experts saying that they give too much of a boost to what someone without the aid of a suit would be able to do. And let’s face it one of those things could make Buddha look like Apollo tight as they are, so I am inclined to believe it. But what about some other sports that have benefited directly:

  • tennis (graphite and carbon rackets, nylon strings)
  • pole vaulting (poles made of fibreglass composites rather than bamboo)
  • running (specially designed runners and spikes, skin hugging body suits etc.)
  • cycling (a decent racing bike costs almost as much as a decent car, I am not even going to go into the technologies involved)
  • rowing (they don’t make those boats out of wood any more :))
  • there are many others

Surely the results we are seeing now could never have been possible without the modern equipment that science and technology has produced. So, can we really say that all those world and Olympic records are purely the result of human effort? I don’t think so.

What about the future …?

Where does all this leave us in years to come? Well, modern equipment, training methods and fancy suits can only take us so far. The way we are going, given another couple of decades, we will surely hit a performance plateau. What will happen then, no highly entertaining sport competitions, Olympics where no records are broken? Possible but unlikely, like I said sport is big business; losing audience is simply not an option, so we are back to the original question, what next?

Surely none of us are naive enough to believe that all the athletes competing in the games are drug free. I would certainly bet good money that at least some of them are using some kind of performance enhancing juice. Therefore the next step might be to legalize such drugs. Given free reign, science can surely come up with some very interesting substances (with equally interesting side effects I am sure :)) that would push athletes beyond anything we ever dreamed possible. That possibility is somewhat horrible to contemplate, certainly interesting, but no less horrible for the fascination.

The other option, is for us to redefine what “purely human endeavour” actually means. We can allow the use of “assistive technologies” in sport, it would surely provide a lot of entertainment value (miniature jet packs anyone :)), but it will no longer be the sports we know, that is beyond doubt.

Looking even further into the future, will drug tests be replaced by genetic modification tests, or will genetic engineering technologies become an accepted way for athletes to “reach new height of excellence”? Well, I say, bring on the monkey-robot-clone-trooper synchronised diving team it certainly appeals to my sense of the macabre. I would however love to hear other opinions, do you think science and technology have pushed us beyond what humans are capable of, or do you think blood, sweat and tears are the cause of the impressive results that we have seen in the Olympics?

Top Indie Games You Wouldn’t Mind Paying For

A couple of years ago I found that I was completely sick of the bland and derivative games that were being released by the top publishers (Fifa 200X indeed :)). So, I went looking around the web for something better, games that could draw me in with innovative and immersive gameplay. This is how I became acquainted with the indie gaming scene. Since that time I’ve compiled a small list of indie games that have really stood out from the crowd for me, games that I felt were more than worth the price I payed for them.

I thought I would share these games with the world in one convenient list. None of the games here are what I would term ‘casual games’ (no puzzlers, tetris clones or tower defense types), also none of these are multiplayer. However, just about all of these are innovative games that will keep you busy for hours on end at a fraction of the price you would normally pay for commercial games (they have certainly kept me entertained for longer than most commercial titles).

Well, without further ado, here is the list, in no.

1. Mount and Blade

Mount and Blade is a truly innovative one-of-a-kind game. Have you ever dreamed of being a knight and commanding an army and fighting it out with bandits or lords, for possession of castles or for prisoners, or just for the hell of it. If you have than this game is for you, it simulates medieval combat to a level of realism not seen in any commercial game (not that there are many commercial games that simulate medieval combat). This game lets you control castles and villages, recruit men for you army, hunt down bandits, and rival lords, fight in the arena etc. There is individual combat and army combat, as well as plenty of RPG elements. An excellent game, with a great community, and it is also highly moddable, with new mods constantly being produced. This game has been on production for a couple of years and has recently been picked up by Paradox for publication, to be released in September. You can pick up the beta now for a bargain price which will let you get the full version for free when it comes out. Don’t miss it!

2. New Star Soccer 3

This game looks at soccer simulation from a different angle, why do you have to control or manage the whole team, you’re only one person, why not control and manage the career of only one player. That is exactly what you get to do in this game. It is a strategy/simulation/sports game, you get to create a player and sign him up for a club, then you work on his skills, to make him better, you get to be this player in games against other clubs (you only control yourself on the field). As you get better you can join bigger clubs and make more money, as you get rich you can buy your player better houses, cars and all sorts of other stuff, you can enter into sponsorship deals, so much to do. And controlling your player on the field is lots of fun as well! NSS4 is currently in the works, and should be out pretty soon hopefully, until then you have to play this game!

3. Smugglers 4

It was a while ago that I accidentally happened upon a game called Smugglers 3, I gave it a bit of a play and liked it, so it was a good day when I found out that Smugglers 4 has been released, I went and bought the game straight away and I wasn’t disappointed. The same formula that made Smugglers 3 great is still here, with improvements and additions all-round. You start as a low ranked pilot in a military of your choice, war is raging between the various factions in the galaxy, it is up to you to swing the balance of forces in the favour of your faction. As you go along you will rise in rank and get to control bigger ships, you can even be granted a planet of your own. This game reminds me a bit of Pirates!, and since Pirates! was awesome, i loved this game too.

4. Gamebiz 2

Have you ever thought that you can make games better than the current publishers and surely you could have made the SNES much more popular than it ever was, well in this game you get the chance to give it a go. You can create games as well as launch platforms and if you’re good you watch the money roll in to finance your next big project. If you’re any kind of gamer you will want to try this out. Go ahead make the N64 a worldwide sensation. Best of all this game is FREE!

5. ZSX3: Ninjastarmageddon

I am not even going to try to describe this, you have to check this out, anything with a title like that, you have to check out. Lets just say there are zombies and ninjas and pirates and funky cars that fly through space and wacky graphics and … and … c’mon – ninjastarmageddon – play it!

6. Geneforge 4

The indie scene makes a lot of good RPGs, but even there the Geneforge series stands out. Genforge 4 continues the Genforge saga. You take the role of a young shaper, someone with the ability to create life (creatures), how will you use your ability, will you help the rebels or will you support the empire. The world is massive, there are several classes to choose from that all require a different style of play, there are many endings. This game is good for much more than just one play-through.

7. Kudos

You have probably already heard of Kudos, it is one of the few indie games that has gained some mainstream limelight. Kudos is a life sim developed by Positech Games, you control a character and perform their day to day activities, the point is to achieve a balance in all areas of your life, social, professional, personal etc. It is a highly original game and the graphics are pretty awesome too. Give it a try.

8. Kudos Rock Legend

A game by the same people who made Kudos (title probably gives it away :)). In this game you get to control a rock band and take them to startdom. This time your objective is to keep all the band members happy and raise the popularity of the band. You get to play gigs and write songs, record CDs and sign with a record label, can you become a rock legend. Try this game and find out. The graphics are just as nice as Kudos.

9. Democracy 2

Another game by Positech Games, those guys do some good work (actually one guy Cliff Harris, Cliffsky). This time you get to try your hand at running a country, we all think we can do it better than the current government, c’mon admit it. So, this game gives you a chance to prove it. You can set the policies, raise or lower taxes, try to get your country out of debt and watch your wise decisions, lead your country to glory, or ruin whatever the case may be. This game has a cool interface, so many options yet so easy to access. Well worth the money.

10. Depths of Peril

This is possibly the best indie RPG currently out there in my opinion. You start a a barbarian leader of a new faction in the city of Jorvik. You must destroy various monster that threaten the city and complete quests given by the characters in town. At the same time you compete with other factions in Jorvik, you can either be warlike or diplomatic. Recruit other members to your faction to bolster your power and defenses. If you don’t complete the quests given to you fast enough, they become harder as monster hordes grow and split to form more monster leaders. The gameplay is innovative and fun, there is a slew of options, the character development options are well thought out, the graphic are great. This game has everything!

11. Magic Stones

I usually don’t like card-type games, but something about this one drew me in and kept me playing for quite a while. You play a druid and you have powers over the elements (air, fire, water etc.), you also control certain creatures, you must travel the world and fight groups of creatures to gain control of more creatures and more elemental powers, so that you can fight it out against other druids and win. There is also a quest mode that you can take part in which gives you special creatures to control. If you like card-style games, you will like this, if you don’t give it a go anyway, you might change your mind.

12. Bestseller

Have you ever though you could make it as a writer well in this simulation you get to put your prowess to the test. You control the life of an aspiring writer trying to get his work published, you make all the decisions. What kind of books will you write, will you get an education or will you be a self-study, how long do you spend on your book projects, negotiate with publishers for royalties. Can you write the next Harry Potter, try it and find out.

13. Empires and Dungeons

Another addictive little game by the same people who brought you the Smugglers series. This time we have a fantasy strategy RPG mix, with a twist. Build up your castle, hire men, go take over villages, avoid your destroy your rival, then go down into the dungeon to find treasure and all this on a tiny little map, you wouldn’t think such a simple looking game would have so much depth and yet, it is fun, give it a go.

14. Aveyond 2

Aveyond 2 looks like an old-school console RPG, and in essence that is what it is since it was made with RPG Maker. But if you’re going to dismiss it because of that, I suggest you think again. From the very first moments you start playing this game, the amount of thought and effort that was put into it, starts to shine through. And this impression is only reinforced as you continue playing. You can recruit companions to help you on your quest, you can shapeshift, you can join a guild and get karma for doing good things. If you loved games like Final Fantasy and miss the console RPGs of yore, give this game a try.

15. Eschalon: Book 1

Eschalon is an isometric RPG, so it also looks a little like the old console RPGs, but the impression is misleading. This game has won multiple awards, and has had numerous excellent reviews and high ratings from all over the web. Most of the game is very random, as everything is calculated through dice rolls. The game is extremely open ended and the world is very dynamic. This is not Oblivion by any stretch of the imagination, but if you like to see a great story unfold and are nostalgic for the ‘RPG that used to be’ then give this game a try. I won’t spoil it for you any more.

16. Evochron Renegades

This is an Elite-style game (if you don’t know what Elite is, you owe it to yourself to google it, it is a progenitor of a whole genre). Just like most games of this sort you start out in space with a ship and go from there. There is lots to do and the gameplay is very freeform. This game has very nice 3D graphics as well which is awesome for an indie game. The amount of options you have is staggering, you can explore, trade, race, fight, mine etc. etc. This game also has a lot of information about it on the website as well as an excellent community around it.

17. Flatspace 2

Flatspace 2 is also an Elite-style game.  You start out with a ship in space and you have to travel around and do missions, such as transporting passengers or hunting down enemies. The gameplay is very open ended, so it is up to you to discover what else you can do in the universe. You can upgrade your ship or get new ones. If you like space games, give this one a go.

18. Battles of Norghan

This is a very interesting game, it is a blend of strategy and RPG set in a fantasy universe. Essentially you have to manage a team of gladiators that you recruit, and have them fight it out against other teams, in order to rise through the ranks and the divisions of the gladiatorial combat arena. You train your mercenary gladiators, to improve their skills, you buy them spells and when you are ready, you fight it out against the computer in turn based combat. Fun!

19. Dwarf Fortress

This game is a real gem. Developed by Bay12 games and released absolutely free (that’s right, free), this game is so massive in scope it is hard to believe. This is essentially a rogue-like, if you don’t know what that is, it essentially means that the graphics are ASCII based,  but don’t let that turn you off, because this game is awesome. It is basically 2 games in one, the first is a like a standard rogue-like, the second is the fortress mode. In fortress mode, you start with a few dwarves and some supplies and set out to build a new outpost for your dwarven kingdom. You can control everything, where the dwarves mine, you make them build workshops and sleeping quarters, you create goods for trade, you fight off intruders. If you do well more dwarves come to join your outpost, if you like strategy, simulation and management games, this game is a dream come true. Don’t be put off by the graphics, take the time to learn the controls, you won’t be sorry!

Well that’s the list. I hope you can get as much enjoyment out of it as I did, most of these games have excellent demos, so you can certainly try them out. Games of this calibre deserve our support, so if you really like any one of these games then go and buy them. I hope that mainstream publishers take a note of these games not just for their innovative ideas and excellent execution, but for the value that they provide the gaming community.

I thought this was going to be a small post, but it ended up being massive :), hope you enjoy reading it and discover some cool new games.

Java and .Net Taking On Contenders And Winning

Ever since I joined the software industry I’ve been hearing, from my older and more experienced colleagues how fluid the software industry is, how quickly languages and frameworks come and go. Older developers would fondly (or, more often, not so fondly :)) remember the days when they were programming in C, then C++, then Smalltalk or Delphi or whatever, languages that have since been essentially superseded by Java and .Net (mostly C#, VB.NET), at least as far as enterprise software development is concerned. The lesson that we the ‘young guns’ were meant to take away from this was that in the software industry, languages are in the spotlight for only a short while and are then eclipsed by newer and arguably better languages that, everyone who is anyone, begins to use.

Well, I am going to put my futurist hat on and make a prediction. We are in uncharted territory with Java and .Net and the trend that I am talking about is not going to repeat itself at least not in the same way. Java and .Net are going to be with us for a long time to come and here is why.

Firstly this trend of languages being replaced by newer better languages may not be  trend after all in my opinion, or at the very least it is nowhere near as quick as many people will have you believe. I don’t really want to go back too far, but lets take COBOL for example. It should certainly be considered well and truly dead by everyone, certainly no new systems are being written in it and yet, i keep hearing about someone needing COBOL programmers to do something with their legacy systems. In fact since COBOL programmers are an endangered species these days they can command quite lucrative salaries. I won’t argue that COBOL is definitely on its last legs, but it is not yet dead, and how long has it been around? What about the newer languages such as C++ for example. It is certainly not the language of choice in the enterprise software world, but what about games development? It is well and truly alive in that corner of the industry, in fact various derivatives of BASIC have found niches where games development is concerned. So the trend is not quite as speedy as it might first appear.

Another question we must ask ourselves is this. Has there ever been a language that had the support and backing of such industry giants as Sun and Microsoft, before Java and .Net came along. I don’t know for sure but I would guess that the answer is no. Java and .Net undoubtedly make huge amounts of money for the companies that drive their development, and these companies would not sit idly by and watch these particular revenue streams run dry while some other upstart language/framework takes market share away from them. And even if such an upstart were to appear it would have to have the backing either of another industry giant on par with Sun or Microsoft, or of a vast chuck of the Open Source community as a whole.

This leads me nicely into my next point. The Open Source movement is now well and truly a massive entity and it has only become such over the past 10 years or so. Before this time it was basically inconsequential. Now most companies have some sort of open source strategy or if not they are at least aware of open source. There is an absolutely humongous amount of open source software written in java (i don’t have as much experience with the .net situation, but I would imagine there is quite a bit of open source software there as well). There is a framework, a library or a piece of code for just about everything you can imagine and probably multiple versions of each. I just don’t see the software development community abandoning all that in favour of another language/platform unless that platform/language can offer as much or more stuff or make everything so easy that all that code becomes unnecessary.

Even if we were to ignore everything i said above, we all must agree that money makes the world go round :). Companies who write software for their needs must pay for it and they certainly have paid for it over the last 10 years or so. There is literally billions invested in enterprise software written in Java or C# or VB.NET all over the world. All this software must be extended and maintained and all of it is slowly getting older. And there is an equally huge amount of money invested in infrastructure to support this software. The point is only a few forward thinking companies are willing to invest significant dollars in unproven technologies, that may or may not pay off. Most companies will stick with what they know, what works, and most importantly what can leverage existing infrastructure easily and cheaply. You guessed it Java and .Net.

What about Ruby? What about Rails? Well my answer is, what about it? Certainly Ruby on Rails did come along and a lot for us have used it and enjoyed it, but i have not seen it take over as the new king of the hill, far from it. Especially not in the enterprise space. More than that, the existence of projects such as JRuby and IronRuby, tell me that while Ruby is all great and all, it would be better if we could combine it with the JVM or the .Net runtime. That may or may not be true, but many people believe that it is true and that in itself is a testament to the longevity of Java and .Net.  And anyway, RoR was basically the only challenger to Java (or the .Net platform) in more than 10 years. Sure there are other languages that are interesting, some very interesting, such as Groovy and Scala for example (both of those run on the JVM by the way :)). But nothing that I have seen has the traction to take on and beat Java and .Net at their own game.

Don’t get me wrong I am not saying that Java and .Net are here forever. No matter how much of a futurist I fancy myself to be I can’t reliably predict what leaps we will make in subsequent years, maybe AI will come into its own or possibly MDA will begin to show more promise (fat chance :)). But these would be massive leaps and I am willing to take the chance on discounting them as probable. What I am saying is that just because Java and .Net are more mature platforms now, does not at all mean that they are dying. I am willing to bet that if you wanted to, you would be able to find a Java job fairly easily any time in the next 15 years and possibly much longer. Certainly we should always try and improve ourselves and learn new technologies and practices, the software industry is very fast paced and skills do become stale. But always learn at your own pace, make sure it is fun, don’t ever let anyone make you feel like there is a train somewhere that is leaving the station and you are missing the last carriage.