Chemistry major Stephan Kudlacek and professor Greg Weiss have developed a way of unboiling a hen egg.

Steve Zylius/UC Irvine Communications

Egg “Unboiling” Process Significantly Improves Cancer Drug Effectiveness.

Cancer drugs are, to be honest, a club being used where a scalpel is needed. Most modern chemotherapy treatments hinge on the principle that certain drugs will kill the cancer quicker than the patient as their indiscriminate nature makes no distinction between fast growing cancer cells and regular ones. Thus any form of treatment that can either reduce the amount of drugs used or get them to target cancer cells specifically is keenly researched as they can drastically improve the quality of life of the patient whilst increasing overall effectiveness. Such improvements are few and far between and rarely come hand in hand. A new development, coming off the back of the “unboiled” egg research announced earlier this year, however may improve both fronts for current cancer treatments.

Chemistry major Stephan Kudlacek and professor Greg Weiss have developed a way of unboiling a hen egg. Steve Zylius/UC Irvine Communications

Chemistry major Stephan Kudlacek and professor Greg Weiss have developed a way of unboiling a hen egg.
Steve Zylius/UC Irvine Communications

The initial research, which I refrained from writing on at the time, is pretty interesting even if the headlines don’t exactly match the reality. Essentially the researchers, based out of University of California (Irvine Campus) and chemists within Australia, have developed a process to take cooked egg protein and revert part of it back to its original form. The process they do this with is rather interesting and begins with them liquefying the egg using an urea based substance. This now liquid cooked egg, which at a protein level is still all tangled up, is then put into a machine called a vortex fluidic device (VFD) which applies an incredible amount of shear force to those proteins. This forces the proteins to untangle themselves and return to their original form. While this might sound like a whole lot of nothing it essentially allows for the mass manufacture of proteins that aren’t jumbled or misfolded which are invaluable to many areas of research.

More recent research however has employed the use of this device in conjunction with a widely used cancer drug, carboplatin. Carboplatin was introduced some 30 years ago and is favoured due to its reduced and more manageable side effects when compared to drugs that use a similar method of action. However that reduced effectiveness means that a higher dosage is required to achieve the same level of treatment, on the order of 4 times or so. Carboplatin is also a stable drug which doesn’t break down as rapidly as other drugs do, however this also means that it can readily pass through the body with up to 90% of the dosage being recoverable from a patient’s urine. Using the VFD however has the potential to change that dramatically.

The same researchers behind the original discovery have used the VFD to embed carboplatin in molecules that are called lipid mimics which are powerful antioxidants. This has done through previous methods however the use of the VFD has increased the rate at which the drug was embedded in the mimics, from 17% to 75%. This means that the drug will be about 4 times as effective in delivering its payload, allowing doctors to significantly reduce the amount used to achieve the same results. This will dramatically improve patient’s quality of life through better outcomes and significantly reduce side effects. Such a process could also be applied to other treatments as the lipid mimics are capable of storing water soluble active agents as well.

It might not be the most headline grabbing title however it has the potential to significantly increase the effectiveness of current cancer treatments whilst keeping the patient’s quality of life high. Like all improvements it’s likely going to be specific to certain treatments and types of cancer however it will likely lead onto further research that will hopefully improve all areas of cancer research.

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The Sorry State of Clickbait Research.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling an almost irrational hatred towards clickbait headlines. It’s not the headlines themselves, per se, more the fact that they exist solely to trick you into clicking through by attempting to trigger your desire for closure rather than a genuine interest in the content. Indeed after being blasted with these headlines for years now I’ve found myself being turned off by the headlines, sometimes even stopping me from reading things that I would have otherwise been interested in. This got me thinking: have we reached the point of diminishing returns for clickbait? As it turns out this might be true but there’s not exactly a lot to go on in terms of research in this field.

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You don’t have to go far to find numerous articles which deride and lament the use of clickbait but they have existed since it first began its rise to infamy all those years ago. Certainly there’s a subsection of society which doesn’t appreciate the lowest common denominator style writing which clickbait headlines imply but you get that with almost any new trend, so the question then becomes one of magnitude of the resistance. In order to answer the question of whether or not we’ve reached peak clickbait I did my usual search through various sources but found myself coming up blank, even when I narrowed my view to scholarly sources only. The best I could find was this subject line report from ReturnPath which, whilst it provides some interesting insights, doesn’t speak to the larger question of whether or not we’re starting to get fed up with clickbait as a thing.

Essentially the report states that, for email subject headlines, clickbait style headlines are far less effective than they are on other mediums. Certainly in my experience this is somewhat true, clickbait in my inbox is far less likely to prompt me to click, however it’s a single data point in an area that should be flooded with data. This could be because that data is being held by those who are profiting from it and, by that token, since the main offenders are still engaging in such behaviour you’d hazard a guess that it’s still working from them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s effectiveness isn’t waning but unless Buzzfeed or another clickbait site decides to open the doors to researchers we likely won’t have an answer for some time.

I must admit that this search was somewhat aspirational in nature; I wanted, nay hoped, that there’d be evidence that clickbait’s demise was just over the horizon. As it turns out while there are rumblings of discontent with the trend there’s very little evidence to suggest it will be going away anytime soon. Hopefully though more companies take a stance ala Facebook’s pushing these kinds of titles further down the chain in favour of more genuine headlines that rely on genuine interest rather than novelty or emotional responses. For now though we’ll just need to  keep applying our own filters to content of this nature.

Although I must admit whatever that one weird secret a stay at home mum has does sound rather intriguing… 😉

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Technobabylon: The Singularity We Deserve.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a good story first pixelart game come my way. It seems the indie scene has begun to move away from them as they seek out more profitable ground in zombies and survival simulators. That has left something of a void behind, leaving only those with a real passion for this particular style of games behind. So whilst I may not be spoilt for choice like I once was I can’t deny that the quality has definitely gone up a notch or two, especially from my favourite publisher in this genre. The latest title from Wadjet Eye Games, Technobabylon created by the developers at Technocrat Games, is no exception to this providing the kind of deep story and fanciful pixelart that has become a signature of all their published games.

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In the distant future of 2087 the world has changed dramatically with the wonders of science working their ways into our everyday lives. Genetic engineering is commonplace with children and adults shaped by gengineers, allowing them to sculpt their perfect human form. The story takes place in the City of Newton, the ultimate expression of a science based society that is controlled by a benevolent AI called Central who handles the daily machinations of the city. Many now choose to spend their days in the Trance, a fully simulated reality where ideas flow freely, consciousnesses meld and drift apart and, of course, anything goes. It seems like a picture perfect future but there are many actors that would upset the balance or turn it in their favour.

Technobabylon brings the standard pixelart affair making no use of modern graphics tricks to jazz up the visuals. It was interesting to see so many different rendering options available through the setup program however none of them seemed to make much of a difference to the graphics on screen. I’ll admit I only played with a few of them, mostly to see if I could get it out of the 4:3 aspect ratio it runs in (you can’t) so there’s potentially a setting in there that makes everything look amazing. Still Technobabylon has its moments where I was thoroughly impressed with what they managed to accomplish (the final 3D-ish scenes are a good example of this) with the pixelart medium, something I’ve come to expect from the games Wadjet Eye publishes.

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Technobabylon is your typical pixelart adventure game, taking it’s cues from the multitude of titles of yesteryear and those from the renaissance period that pixelart games have recently enjoyed. At it’s core Technobabylon is a puzzler, challenging you to find the right thing to combine with the other thing, which dialogue options to choose to get someone to say the right thing and figuring out what you need to click on to make something happen. Like most modern incarnations of this genre Technobabylon has an improved and simplified inventory system making it a lot less of a bother to try item combinations than it once was. Unlike some previous titles though there’s no combat to speak of and any situation that may result in your untimely demise will simply respawn you right where you left off. So overall no real surprises here in terms of mechanics as is pretty standard for many games in this genre.

The puzzles are pretty well done for the most part, ensuring that you soak up every skerrick of a clue to make sure you can progress to the next stage. Some of them require you to have a little bit of knowledge of how some kinds of systems would work (say for instance what security mechanisms a hand print scanner would employ) but for the most part you should be able to figure them out based on clues in the current room/level. I will admit that I got stuck about a half a dozen times, reaching for the walk through guide (which I honestly wish all review copies would come with) to get me past a section I just couldn’t seem to figure out. The puzzles I figured out on my own though were quite satisfying, especially when I felt I figured something out that the developer obviously thought would stump me for a while.

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I can’t remember what the engine was that Technobabylon mentioned it used at the end however it suffers from probably one of the most annoying bugs I have ever come across. Should you use SHIFT + TAB to open up the Steam chat window whilst playing the game all the dialogue boxes from then on flit past, as if you’re holding down the space bar or left mouse button. This issue will persist for as long as you remain in the game and can only be fixed by exiting out and coming back in again. I first noticed this with A Golden Wake (although it was triggered by ALT + TAB) which, I’m guessing, uses the same engine. It’s not so much a critique of the game per se, the developers fixed numerous issues that I saw during my playthrough before release date, more something that budding indie devs might want to be wary of.

As is trademark for nearly all Wadjet Eye games Technobabylon carries with it a fantastic story, one that’s steeped in futurism and radical ideas about what technology can bring us. All the main characters are given plenty of time to develop their back story which are expertly intertwined with each other. Most characters have oodles of non-critical dialogue options which serve to build out the story. Even better still is the fact that the vast majority of content within Technobabylon is voice acted so you’re not going to be stuck reading walls of text for hours on end. The only fault with Technobabylon’s story is that it lacks a really deep emotional hook to draw you in, something like the opening minutes of Ori and the Blind Forest, which would really seal the deal on this otherwise great story.

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Technobabylon is a great example of the modern pixelart adventure game, bringing along with it a great story that’s just oozing futuristic tones. It might not be the most revolutionary games, playing it safe by keeping the mechanics simple and the puzzles accessible, however the experience it provides is above many of its competitors. If, like me, you had been left wanting for a good adventure game for some time then you really can’t go past Technobabylon as it’s sure to provide you with many hours of enjoyment.

Rating: 8.5/10

Technobabylon is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total game time was approximately 7 hours. A copy of Technobabylon was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of review.

Chemical Evolution: Bridging the Gap Between Nothing and Life.

The question of where life came from on our Earth is one that has perplexed scientists and philosophers alike for centuries. Whilst we have really robust models for how life evolved to the point it’s at today how it first arose is still something of a mystery. Even if you adhere to the idea of panspermia, that the original building blocks of life were seeded on our planet from some other faraway place, that still raises the question of how that seed of life first came to be. The idea of life coming arising from the chemical soup that bathed the surface of the young earth is commonly referred to as abiogenesis but before that process took place something else had to occur and that’s where chemical evolution steps in.

We’ve know for quite a while that, given the right conditions, some of life’s most essential building blocks can arise out chemical reactions. The young earth was something of a massive chemical reactor and these such reactions were commonplace, flooding the surface with the building blocks that life would use to assemble itself. However the jump from pure chemical reactions to the development of other attributes critical to life, like cell walls, is not yet clear although the ever closing gap between chemical evolution and regular evolution suggests that there must be something. It’s likely that there’s no one thing responsible for triggering the explosion of life which is what makes the search for the secret all the more complicated.

However like all scientific endeavours it’s not something that I believe is beyond our capability to understand. There have been so many mysteries of the universe that were once thought impossible to understand that we have ended up mastering. Understanding the origins of life here on Earth will bolster our searches for it elsewhere in the universe and, maybe one day, lead us to find a civilization that’s not of our own making. To me that’s an incredibly exciting prospect and is one of the reasons why theories like this are so fascinating.

 

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3D Printing Our Off-World Colony.

Human spaceflight is, to be blunt, an unnecessarily complicated affair. Us humans require a whole host of things to make sure we can survive the trip through the harsh conditions of space, much more than our robotic companions require. Of course whilst robotic missions may be far more efficient at performing the missions we set them out on that doesn’t further our desire to become a multi-planetary species and thus the quest to find better ways to preserve our fragile bodies in the harsh realms of space continues. One of the biggest issues we face when travelling to other worlds is how we’ll build our homes there as traditional means will simply not work anywhere else that we currently know of. This is when novel techniques, such as 3D printing come into play.

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Much of the construction we engage in today relies on numerous supporting industries in order to function. Transplanting these to other worlds is simply not feasible and taking prefabricated buildings along requires a bigger (or numerous smaller) launch vehicles in order to get the required payload into orbit. If we were able to build habitats in situ however then we could cut out the need for re-establishing the supporting infrastructure or bringing prefabricated buildings along with us, something which would go a long way to making an off-world colony sustainable. To that end NASA has started the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge with $2.25 million in prizes to jump start innovation in this area.

The first stage of the competition is for architects and design students to design habitats that maximise the benefits that 3D printing can provide. These will then likely be used to fuel further designs of habitats that could be constructed off-world. The second part of the competition, broken into 2 stages, is centered on the technology that will be used to create those kinds of structures. The first focuses on technology required to use materials available at site as a feed material for 3D printing, something which is currently only achieved with very specific feedstock. The second, and ultimately the most exciting, challenge is to actually build a device capable of using onsite materials (as well as recyclables) to create a habitable structure with a cool $1.1 million to those who satisfy the challenge. Doing that would be no easy feat of course but the technology created along the way will prove invaluable to future manned missions in our solar system.

We’re still likely many years away from having robots on the moon that can print us endless 3D habitats but the fact that NASA wants to spur innovation in this area means that they’re serious about pursuing a sustainable human presence offworld. There’s likely numerous engineering challenges that we’ll need to overcome, especially between different planets, but it’s far easier to adapt a current technology than it is to build one from scratch. I’m very keen to see the entries to this competition as they could very well end up visiting other planets to build us homes there.

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Ceres’ Perplexing Bright Spots.

Whilst the mainstream media would have you believe that the bright spots on Ceres were a surprise to everyone they’ve actually been something we’ve known about for quite some time. However in the past they seemed to come and go making consistent observations of them rather difficult. With the Dawn craft now in a stable orbit around Ceres we are now in the position to observe them much more closely, bringing us ever closer to understanding what the heck it is. There’s still a lot more for us to understand but the first round of preliminary observations have provided some very good insight into the bright spot’s composition and its likely origin.

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The first revelation to come out of Dawn’s observations was that the bright spot was in fact not a singular entity and is made up of several spots. There’s 2 large primary bright spots that are accompanied by a bunch of smaller ones which indicates that, as we make better observations, that those larger spots are most likely made up of multiple smaller spots as well. As the above ground map indicates there are actually a bunch of other bright spots dotted over Ceres’ landscape however none of them were close enough together to be observable before Dawn began making closer approaches. The origins of these spots remain something of a mystery however there are several prevailing theories about how they could have been created.

Ceres has been observed as having a very tenuous atmosphere which could only have arisen from outgassing or sublimation from its core. In early 2014 observations of Ceres detected some localized cryovolcanoes which are dumping some 3KG of water out into space every second supporting the theory that there’s some form of water hidden within Ceres. This supports the theory that these bright spots are most likely water ice (which would have the required reflectivity) but at the same time water in a vacuum tends to sublimate very quickly which begs the question of how long these bright spots have been around and how long they’ll last.

It’s quite possible that the ice in the crater was revealed by a recent impact and thus we’re just lucky that the bright spot is there for us to observe it. Considering that Ceres sits within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter this is a very real possibility although that does then raise the question of why we’re not seeing more bright spots than we currently are. This is what then fuels other, more exotic, theories about what’s at the base of that crater such as a large metallic deposit. However evidence to support those theories isn’t yet forthcoming however once Dawn starts making closer approaches there is potential for some to come to light.

Needless to say the next few months of observations will prove extremely valuable in determining the bright spots’ elusive nature. Whilst the reality is likely to be far more dull and boring than any of the exotic theories make it out to be it’s still an exciting prospect, one that will give us insight into how solar systems like ours form.

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Labor’s Future Tech Policy Key to Australia’s Silicon Valley.

Starting a company in Australia, especially one that’s in the high tech industry, is much harder than it is in many other places in the world. This used to be due to a lack of supporting infrastructure, what with Australia’s remoteness precluding the required investment, however in more recent times that barrier has begun to melt away. The problem many startups face in Australia is that acquiring funding is extremely problematic as Australia’s risk averse investing style has meant that our large capital reserves aren’t used to invest in such ventures. Previous governments haven’t done much to change this, preferring to support already established businesses, however in his recent budget response Bill Shorten showed vision that few of his contemporaries have in the form of the Labor’s future technology policy.

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At the core of this policy is the Smart Investment Fund, a $500 million allocation that will be used in partnership with venture capital firms and banks to facilitate more investment in early stage startups. I have spoken previously about how something of this nature would be required  in order to kick start a Silicon Valley equivalent here in Australia and the policy that Bill Shorten has proposed lines up with that idea perfectly. Whilst startup investment can never be made risk free making them more attractive, through direct government investment and the partial loan guarantee with banks, will ensure that more of Australia’s capital makes its way into new businesses rather than the traditional investment vehicles.

Of course providing funding for such ideas is only one piece of the puzzle as we’ll need to encourage students to pursue careers in those industries. To this end Labor as put forward a policy to provide numerous scholarships to students who complete degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and then go on to become teachers in their fields. In addition to this Labor is proposing to forgive the HECS/HELP debts of almost 100,000 students studying in this field, something which could provide an incredible leg up for fresh graduates starting their career. Considering that 75% of the fastest growing new jobs are within these fields encouraging students to take up careers is an incredibly smart move and one that the current government should look at adopting.

You might be surprised to hear this but I’m on the fence about coding being added to the national curriculum, mostly because I’m not sure how it’d end up being implemented at the school level. Starting out in coding isn’t the most exciting of adventures and the rote learning approach which many schools use would, I feel, end up with them becoming bored and frustrated rather than energized and intrigued. Of course I’m not a teacher and I’m sure there are many who are more experienced in this field who could design programs that tackled this issue properly. In the end this is something that I’d have to see in action before I could form a solid opinion on it as whilst I’m all for kids being aware of how technology works I also know how quickly they can become bored with such things.

This is what the Australian public needs to see from a party in opposition: clear concise policies that show a valid course of action rather than mud slinging and point wining which have plagued Australian politics for the last 3 terms of government. Whilst these policies might not ever see the light of day it’s good to see that the Labor party is thinking along this direction and hopefully such policies will fuel their campaign come next election. I can only hope that the Liberals take note as whilst any incumbent would loathe to agree with their opposition it’s hard to deny just how solid some of these ideas are.

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Wolfenstein: The Old Blood: Sind Sie Ein Frankfurter, Blazkowicz?

The days of the expansion pack have long since left us, replaced by it’s bite sized cousin downloadable content. For many this is a better way of doing it as it allows players to revisit games on a semi-regular basis to enjoy the additional couple hours of game play. This gamer however pines for the good old days when expansion packs were usually good enough to be classed as new games on their own, providing a whole new experience in the same world. From time to time though some games still follow this old format and Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is one such title, detailing the story of William “B.J.” Blazkowicz before he set out on the events detailed in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

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The war against the Nazis is being lost with the allied forces being pushed back on nearly every front. Their rapid technological progress being driven by one of their top scientists, General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, is most likely the cause of this however his location has proven to be elusive. It is up to you then, playing as Blazkowicz, to infiltrate a Nazi stronghold and find a folder belonging to Helga Von Schabbs which has his location. However your infiltration quickly goes awry and you find yourself in the belly of the beast, armed with nothing more than a pipe and your sharp wit. Whether that will be enough for you to complete your objective, however, is up to you.

As you’d expect of a game that has come out barely a year after its predecessor The Old Blood retains the same level of graphical excellence which was only magnified by immense power that my new rig was able to throw at it. Strangely enough some of the performance issues I had experienced previously, like the significant drop in performance in the more open sections, were still present which leads me to think that the id Tech 5 engine potentially has some issues with larger scenes. Still it was eminently playable, especially in the indoor sections where split section reaction times and seat-of-the-pants gameplay were a common occurrence. The colour palette and scenery may give it the same feeling as many previous generation games but it’s anything but, especially when you take a few moments to look around.

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The core of what The New Order great remains in The Old Blood although the experience has been streamlined due to the game’s reduced length. At its heart The Old Blood is still a corridor shooter, one that incorporates the old traditions of hiding secret areas whilst blending in a few RPG elements to give you an edge over your enemies. The wide and varied arsenal makes a return, allowing you to select from a whole host of silly weapons to mow down any enemy that’s put in front of you. The modifications to these guns however is greatly reduced, usually amounting to one setting you can change rather than the The New Order’s rather bountiful mod system. The levelling system has also been slimmed down considerably with only a handful of options available to you although the completion mechanic remains. The stealth is back and, thankfully, feels a lot more fair than its predecessor’s did even if it still gets taken away from you every so often. Overall The Old Blood feels like a more streamlined version of the The New Order with all the benefits and pitfalls that come with it.

The combat retains the highly polished, fast paced nature that we’ve all come to expect from AAA corridor shooters like this. For those seeking a challenge though you’re likely to be disappointed as even on the second hardest difficulty most enemies are pretty easy to take on, with some of them even missing point blank shots. The increased difficulty seems to come from them doing a whole bunch more damage when they do eventually land a shot or get a melee hit off on you, something which can be rather irritating when later enemies get the ability to one hit kill you. These are all things that can be overcome with a little strategy (and of course levelling the various perks) however for a game that wants to emulate its FPS ancestors putting the training wheels on the difficulty seems somewhat counter-intuitive, even if it would make for a better game for the less experienced players out there.

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The stealth system feels largely the same with you being able to take the majority of enemies silently if you time everything correctly. There have definitely been some improvements in this regard as it’s quite possible to skip massive areas if you pull the stealth off correctly. Unfortunately the poorly implemented detection mechanism is still there meaning that if you trigger one guard you’ll trigger the lot of them, including the captains if any of them happen to be around. This can often lead to a panicked sprint to find the commanders before they can bring in wave after wave of additional enemies for you take out. Still the times when this happens are more than made up for with the sections that let you skip huge areas of combat if you’re patient and attentive which I feel is the key to making stealth sections rewarding.

The cut down talent system works well since there’s really not enough game time in The Old Blood to justify a talent system as deep as the one that was in The New Order. Some of the challenges either require you to die a few times over to complete (like the silent commander kill one) or you’ll need perfect execution to unlock them if you manage to do everything on a single life, which is quite doable in my opinion. However the majority of them are readily achievable with a little bit of planning and careful execution. The benefits you gain from them are mild at best and you could likely blast through the entire game without unlocking one and not feel like you’re struggling. I guess that’s somewhat the point, putting more of an emphasis on player skill, however I like upgrades to be impactful, turning a meek player into a god to be feared. That’s just this writer’s opinion, though.

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The year of patches and fixes for The New Order have trickled their way down to The Old Blood meaning that issues like texture pop-in are pretty much gone although the performance hit in outdoor areas is still noticeable. One thing I did notice is that in some indoor scenes, particularly during cutscenes, the game would actually remove objects that were deemed “out of sight” of the player, even if say a corner or edge was still mostly visible. This leads to a rather jarring pop-in of objects (not textures) in some scenes as characters move about the scene. It can highlight areas of interest although I believe that aspect of it is wholly unintended. Overall it seems that the id Tech 5 engine is starting to mature nicely after 4 years of use by id and hopefully many of these improvements find their way into the upcoming id Tech 6 engine.

The Old Blood retains similar stylings to its predecessor with the inner monologue of Blazkowicz driving much of it with the rest hidden in notes scattered everywhere. You won’t be seeing many familiar faces in this game so it’s not like this game is seeking to flesh out the back story of anyone but the main protagonist. Still most of the characters are given enough screen time to flesh their characters out to a basic level although rarely to they expand more upon that. I think this primarily stems from the fact that pretty much every character in The Old Blood doesn’t make an appearance in the The New Order and, given the game’s length, there’s really not much time to flesh out anyone in earnest. Still it’s above average when it comes to the corridor shooter genre, even if that really isn’t saying much.

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Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is a worthy successor to The New Order, taking the essence of what made that game great and streamlining it into a shorter experience. Whilst many will be pining for a much longer and deeper experience, this writer included, it’s hard to deny that the experience (while it lasts) is of the same calibre as its predecessor. This does mean a few of the less desirable quirks remain but this is counterbalanced by the ones that were fixed. Suffice to say if you were hungering for more of the new style of Wolfenstein games then you won’t go wrong with The Old Blood, even if you may be left wanting for more when the final credit screen rolls around.

Rating: 8.75/10

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation 4 right now for $39.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.

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Quantum Well Transistors Could Be Moore’s Saving Grace.

It seems that the semiconductor industry can’t go a year without someone raising the tired old flag that is the impending doom of Moore’s Law. Nearly every year there’s a group of people out to see it finally meet its end although to what purpose I could not tell you. However as an industry observer will tell you these predictions have, for the past 5 decades, proved to be incorrect as any insurmountable barrier is usually overcome when the requisite billions are thrown at the problem. However we are coming to a point where our reigning champion behind Moore’s Law, namely planar transistors built on silicon, is starting to reach the end of its life and thus we have been searching for its ultimate replacement. Whilst it seems inevitable that a new material will become the basis upon which we build our new computing empire the question of how that material will be shaped is still unanswered, but there are rumblings of what may come.

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For the vast majority of computing devices out there the transistors underneath the hood are created in a planar fashion, I.E. they essentially exist in a 2 dimensional space. In terms of manufacturing this has many advantages and the advances we’ve made in planar technology over the years have seen us break through many barriers that threatened to kill Moore’s Law in its tracks. Adding in that additional dimension however is no trivial task and whilst it’s not beyond our capability to do, indeed my computer is powered by a component that makes use of a 3D manufacturing process, but applying it to something as complicated as a CPU requires an incredible amount of effort. However the benefits of doing so are proving to be many and the transistor pictured above, called a Quantum Well Field Effect Transistor (QWFET), could be the ram with which we break through the next barrier to escalating Moore’s Law.

The main driver behind progress in the CPU market comes from making transistors ever-smaller, something which allows us to pack more of them in the same space whilst also giving us benefits like reduced power consumption. However as we get smaller issues that could be ignored, like gate leakage back when we were still at the 45nm stage, start to become fundamental blockers to progress. Right now, as we approach sizes below 10nm, that same problem is starting to rear its head again and we need to look at innovative solutions to tackle it. The QWFET is one such solution as it has the potential to eliminate the leakage problem whilst allowing us to continue our die shrinking ways.

QWFETs are essentially an extension of Intel’s current FinFET technology. In the current FinFETs electrons are bounded on 3 sides which is what helped Intel make their current die shrink workable (although it has taken them much longer than expected to get the yeilds right). In QWFETs the electrons are bounded on an additional side which forms a quantum well inside the transistor. This drastically reduces the leakage which would otherwise plague a transistor of a sub-10nm size and, as a benefit, significantly reduces power draw as the static power usage drops considerably.

This does sound good in principle and would be easy to write off as hot air had Intel not been working on it since at least 2010. Some of their latest research points to these kinds of transistors being the way forward all the way down to 5nm which would keep Moore’s Law trucking along for quite some time considering we’re just on the cusp of 14nm products hitting our shelves. Of course this is all speculative at this time however there’s a lot of writing on the wall that’s pointing to this as being the way forward. If this turns out to not be the case then I’d be very interested to see what Intel had up their sleeves as it’d have to be something even more revolutionary than this.

Either way it’l be great for us supporters of Moore’s Law and, of course, users of computers in general.

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MESSENGER’s Last Gift: Mercury’s Ancient Magnetic Field.

MESSENGER was a great example of how NASA’s reputation for solid engineering can extend the life of their spacecraft far beyond anyone’s expectations. Originally slated for a one year mission once it reached it’s destination (a 7 year long journey in itself) MESSENGER continued to operate around Mercury for another 3 years past its original mission date, providing all sorts of great data on the diminutive planet that hugs our sun. However after being in orbit for so long its fuel reserves ran empty leaving it unable to maintain its orbit. Then last week MESSENGER crash landed on Mercury’s surface putting an end to the 10 year long mission. However before that happened MESSENGER sent back some interesting data around Mercury’s past.

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As MESSENGER’s orbit deteriorated it creeped ever closer to the surface of Mercury allowing it to take measurements that it couldn’t do previously due to concerns about the spacecraft not being able to recover from such a close approach. During this time, when MESSENGER was orbiting at a mere 15KMs (just a hair above the max flight ceiling of a modern jetliner) it was able to use its magnetometer to detect the magnetic field emanating from the rocks on Mercury’s surface. These fields showed that the magnetic field that surrounds Mercury is incredibly ancient, dating back almost 4 billion years (right around the creation of our solar system). This is interesting for a variety of reasons but most of all because of how similar Mercury’s magnetic field is to ours.

Of all the planets in our solar system only Earth and Mars have a sustained magnetic field that comes from an internal dynamo of undulating molten metals. Whilst the gas giants also generate magnetic fields they come from a far more exotic form of matter (metallic hydrogen) and our other rocky planets, Venus and Mars, have cores that have long since solidified, killing any significant field that might have once been present. Mercury’s field is much weaker than Earth’s, on the order of only 1% or so, but it’s still enough to produce a magnetosphere that deflects the solar wind. Knowing how Mercury’s field evolved and changed over time will give us insights not only into our own magnetic field but of those planets in our solar system who have long since lost theirs.

There’s likely a bunch more revelations to come from the data that MESSENGER gathered over all those years it spent orbiting our tiny celestial sister but discoveries like this, ones that could only be made in the mission’s death throes, feel like they have a special kind of significance. Whilst it might not be the stuff that makes headlines around the world it’s the kind of incremental discovery that gives us insight into the inner workings of planets and their creation, something we will most definitely need to understand as we venture further into space.