Mars_Orbiter_Mission_-_India_-_ArtistsConcept

India’s Mars Orbiter Arrives Successfully.

When you think of space faring nations India probably isn’t one of the first to come to mind but they’re fast becoming one of the big players in terms of capability. Their space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), began back in 1975 and has primarily focused on developing both launch and satellite capabilities. They made headlines back in 2008 with Chandrayaan-1 which was their first satellite to visit another celestial body. Every year since then has seen India launch multiple satellites every year, with the vast majority of them blasting to orbit aboard their very own Satellite Launch Vehicle brand of rockets. Last week saw them tick off another incredible milestone: their first interplanetary mission arriving successfully at its destination.

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The Mars Orbiter Mission (or Mangalyaan) is a comparatively small craft, weighing in at just on 500 kgs with only 15kg of that being dedicated to the various payloads it’s carrying. It’s primarily a technology demonstration mission, designed to provide a shakedown for the various systems required to maintain an interplanetary mission. Thus the payload of the mission is relatively simple, consisting of some atmospheric and particle sensors along with your standard imaging affair, although it does have the rather interesting capability of being able to radically change its orbit over time. Just the fact that India has joined the rather exclusive club of nations that have sent craft to Mars (3 total, now) would be noteworthy in of itself but there’s one more thing that makes MOM noteworthy.

The cost.

A typical Mars mission usually costs on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, usually tickling the billion dollar mark when all things are considered. The Phoenix Lander, for instance, cost about $386 million and was considered to be quite cheap as it reused a lot of technology from other projects. MOM however was done for a total budget of $74 million including launch costs making it the cheapest interplanetary mission by any nation to date. A lot of this comes down to the simplicity of the mission however a big part of it is the fact that their launch vehicle costs around $19 million per launch, a cost that rivals even that of SpaceX’s Falcon launch system. If ISRO is able to keep their costs at this level there’s every chance that other nations will look to them to provide launch capabilities like this in the future.

Even though MOM is a simple craft it has the capability to provide extremely useful data like its predecessor Chandrayaan-1 did. The instruments might be few in number but the data they provide will function as a validation point for all the missions that have come before it, ensuring that the models we’ve developed for Mars are still valid. Having another set of eyes on Mars means that we’ll be able to catch many more of the geological phenomenon in action that we’ve seen in the past which will provide us even more insight into how its environment is changing, even today.

It always amazes me to see how rapidly space capability is being developed not only by private industry but also nation states. Exploring space is an incredibly expensive affair, one that seemingly doesn’t contribute to the nation’s economy directly, but the benefits always outstrip any cost that follows them. For India the ROI is going to be amazing as they’ve built a capability that took other nations decades and several billion dollars to achieve. I’m very excited to see what they accomplish next and whether or not they can continue the tradition of doing it far cheaper than anyone else.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Destiny: All Ends are Beginnings.

I never spent much time with the Halo series. It’s not that I had anything against it per se, just that by the time I had an Xbox the series was already well under way and I didn’t really feel inclined to go back and play through all of them. Still I was well aware of how much of a following Bungie had and so was somewhat intrigued by what their first post-Halo title would be like. To be honest though I was going to wait for it to come out on PC (controllers and FPS don’t mix) however an endless barrage of requests from a mate of mine saw me begrudgingly pick it up. Now that I’ve lost almost a full day’s worth of my life to this game I’m glad he berated me into buying it as Destiny stands out as an exceptional title.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Centuries ago mankind was beholden to an event unparalleled in its entire history. Out of no where it arrived, a white sphere larger than any city, and with it came a time of endless prosperity. Human life spans tripled and they reached out across their solar system, colonizing all the planets. However The Traveller, as the white sphere had became known, had a dark enemy that sought nothing more than its demise. This led to the collapse of human society as it was known, pushing humanity back to a single safe haven under the Traveller’s protection. The darkness still encroaches, slowly killing The Traveller and threatening to wipe out all of humanity for good, It is up to you, one of many empowered by The Traveller to wield it’s light, to save it and humanity from the darkness that threatens to consume everything.

As this was my first PlayStation4 title it was great to see Destiny making use of the extra grunt under the hood. The gritty styling that was common across previous generation titles has finally passed and has been replaced with a much more visually diverse environment. Indeed there were numerous times I had to stop and stare out at the vast environments Bungie created as the breadth of scale they gave the game was just phenomenal. This extends out to all the other elements in the game, like the system map and various UI pieces, which just have this level of polish to them that you don’t see often, even in other AA titles. It’s not exactly Crysis levels of eye candy however, but the fact that it can run smoothly (albeit at 30fps) at 1080p says a lot of the capabilities of the system and the titles developers can create for it.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper Shootin Stuff

Destiny is most readily compared to games like Borderlands, comprising the same key elements whilst including some MMORPG style mechanics to keep you glued to your controller. You have your choice of 3 different races (which have no impact apart from cosmetic) and 3 different classes, each of which have their own unique abilities and play styles. Whilst you’ll have a traditional levelling system the gear you find will also level up with you, providing an additional path for progressing your character. There’s also the bevy of skills you’ll unlock as you play through the game (which occurs independently of your main levels) and should you max all of that out you have another sub-class you can level up which will completely change you play the game again. This is not to mention the dungeons, raids and PVP that you can also engage in. Suffice to say there’s a ton to do in Destiny and even with the inordinate amount of time I’ve spent on it I still feel like I’m only part way through it.

The combat in Destiny is mostly your typical fast paced, run and gun style shooter however there are elements of strategy that you’ll need to understand should you want to complete certain objectives. You still have unlimited life in the form of of the tried and true “take cover and regenerate” mechanic, which does allow you to blast your way to victory in the early stages of the game, however it doesn’t regenerate to full immediately. So whilst you might get yourself out of trouble initially you might find yourself in trouble once again should you take a stray bullet before the second round of regeneration kicks in. Since the typical encounter is wave after wave of enemies this can sometimes lead to your untimely demise when enemies spawn behind you however the death and respawn mechanic is generous enough that you don’t feel overly punished for when that happens.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper In Orbit

If that was all Destiny was it would probably be in the same class as Call of Duty however the addition of class skills and abilities helps to make the combat  more fun and varied. I played as a Titan which roughly translates to your front line, heavy hitter style of class who also has several delightful augments to your melee attack. Whilst it’s not advisable to punch everything in sight I have to admit it’s a lot of fun to try. Combine this with your super ability (you charge up over time and eventually become “supercharged) which allows you to decimate large hordes of enemies in a single blow and you have a recipe for combat that’s fun, varied and ultimately thrilling when you pull off a large combo.

However the combat gets a little bit repetitive when it comes to the boss fights as they’re typically just larger versions of smaller enemies you’ve faced before and with a bucket load more health (and endless swarms of minions around them). You can usually figure out how to avoid most of the damage from them but you’ll usually be there for a good 10 to 15 minutes unloading clip after clip into them, hoping you’re chipping away at that ginormous bar of health they have. Sure I can understand why it’s in there however it can be down right frustrating when you’ve spent a good chunk of time whittling a boss down only to get unlucky with a bunch of spawns that wipes your party, forcing you to redo the whole thing again. It’s for this reason I usually couldn’t do more than a couple dungeons a night as they start to wear you down after a while.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper Murder Cave

The levelling system, both in terms of your character’s levels and unlocking upgrades for your gear, both seem to happen often enough that you never feel like you’ve gone ages without progressing something. This is most certainly what kept me coming back through the first few hours of the game as you rapidly go from being a complete and utter noob to someone who feels at least partly effective when doing things with your team. The progression does start to taper off as you approach level 20 and you’ll quickly find yourself lusting after an upgrade for a piece of armour or that weapon you’ve been hanging on to for far too long.

Indeed this is where Destiny most closely resembles MMORPGs as whilst you can find decent loot from drops you’ll need to engage in the good old dungeon and reputation grind in order to get the premium tier of gear. Even the beloved Murder Cave (which Bungie has now shut down) wouldn’t yield much in the way of upgrades over the course of hours of farming. No if you want to progress you’re going to have to pay your dues and grind out that faction rep. I can’t exactly fault Bungie for this, time invested in MMORPGs is what separates the hardcore from the filthy casuals, however if that’s not the kind of thing you like to do then I’d recommend enjoying the story and then pretending the rest of the game doesn’t exist.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper CHOOSE YOUR PLANET

The world that Bungie has created in Destiny is definitely one of grand scale and one I’m sure that they’ll be looking to expand upon in the future. Whilst I’m not complaining about the length of the storyline it definitely felt like a lot of the supporting elements weren’t given enough time to shine. The various races that you encounter are usually given a rough background as to where they’re from and why they’d want to kill you but apart from that you’ve got no idea what their greater motivations are. The Vex are probably the most fleshed out however they still feel like a faceless enemy. I’m sure this is something Bungie will look to expand upon in further instalments in this series but for now much of the world feels underdone.

The story itself is pretty enjoyable, not straying too far from the hero’s journey paradigm, however it’s marred by the surprisingly lacklustre performance by the main driver of the story: your ghost (voiced by Peter Dinklage). So many of the lines are delivered lacking emotion or an understanding of the context in which they’re said, making the character feel disconnected from pretty much everything that’s going on. This is in stark contrast to nearly every other big name actor that has a voice acting role (apart from the Crucible announcer) who do a fantastic job in portraying their characters. Since it’s his first major game voice over I’ll give him some slack but I hope he improves for future releases.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper All Ends are Beginnings

Destiny is an amazing title, combining elements from FPS, RPG and MMO genres into a single experience that is well above many of its peers. As an introduction to what the now current generation of consoles are now capable of producing Destiny is very impressive, showcasing just how capable they are. The combat is challenging and fulfilling, pushing you hard enough to make you feel like the ultimate soldier when you manage to dispatch massive hordes of enemies in a single swoop. The loot, levelling and dungeons are sure to keep you coming back long after the story has run its course. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Destiny and for fans of Bungie, or just good games in general, I’d be very surprised if you were disappointed with the experience it provides.

Rating: 9.25/10

Destiny is available on PlayStation3, PlayStation4, XboxOne and Xbox360 for $79, $79, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation4 with 22 hours of total play time, reaching level 22.

Medieval vs Modern: The Making of a Gargoyle.

One thing that always fascinates me is how much (or indeed how little) technology can change some processes. Technology almost always makes things better, faster and cheaper but you’d think there’s a few areas where technology simply couldn’t put a dent in good old fashioned human processes. I don’t know why but when I saw the following video I thought there would be no way that modern processes could be better suited to the task than simply giving it over to a stone mason. By the end of the video however I was stunned at just how fast, and accurate, we could mill out a giant block of sandstone.

Honestly I probably should have expected it as I’ve seen numerous demonstrations of similar technology producing wildly intricate show pieces using all sorts of material. However I figured something like this, a craft that many would have thought was now in the domain of only a handful of dedicated practitioners, would be better suited to human hands. I have to say though that I doubt anyone today could carve out something like that in the space of 10 hours, even if you counted in all the preparation time they did before hand. It’s surprisingly hard to find out just how long it took to carve your average stone gargoyle unfortunately so I’m not sure how this compares to times when stone carving a s a profession was more common.

Realistically though that’s all a flimsy premise for me to post yet another large engineering demonstration video. I can’t help it though, they tickle me in all the right ways :)

IBM_Watson

IBM’s Watson has an API, and It’s Answering Questions.

In a world where Siri can book you a restaurant and Google Now can tell you when you should head for the gate at the airport it can feel like the AI future that many sci-fi fantasies envisioned is already here. Indeed to some extent it is, many aspects of our lives are now farmed out to clouds of servers that make decisions for us, but those machines still lack a fundamental understanding of, well, anything. They’re what are called expert systems, algorithms trained on data to make decisions in a narrow problem space. The AI future that we’re heading towards is going to be far more than that, one where those systems actually understand data and can make far better decisions based on that. One of the first steps to this is IBM’s Watson and it’s creators have done something amazing with it.

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Whilst currently only open to partner developers IBM has created an API for Watson, allowing you to pose it a question and receive an answer. There’s not a lot of information around what data sets it currently understands (the example is in the form of a Jeopardy! question) but their solution documents reference a Watson Content Store which, presumably, has several pre-canned training sets to get companies started with developing solutions. Indeed some of the applications that IBM’s partner agencies have already developed suggest that Watson is quite capable of digesting large swaths of information and providing valuable insights in a relatively short timeframe.

I’m sure many of my IT savvy readers are seeing the parallels between Watson and a lot of the marketing material that surrounds anything with the buzzword “Big Data”. Indeed much of the concepts of operation are similar: take big chunks of data, throw them into a system and then hope that something comes out the other end. However Watson’s API suggests something that’s far more accessible, dealing in native human language and providing evidence to back up the answers it gives you. Compare this to Big Data tools, which often require you to either learn a certain type of language or create convoluted reports, and I think Watson has the ability to find widespread use while Big Data keeps its buzzword status.

For me the big applications for something like this come for places where curating domain specific knowledge is a long, time consuming task. Medicine and law both spring to mind as there’s reams of information available to power a Watson based system and those fields could most certainly benefit from having easier access to those vast treasure troves. It’s pretty easy to imagine a lawyer looking for all precedents set against a certain law or a doctor asking for all diseases with a list of symptoms, both queries answered with all the evidence to boot.

Of course it remains to be seen if Watson is up to the task as whilst it’s prowess on Jeopardy! was nothing short of amazing I’ve still yet to see any of its other applications in use. The partner applications do look very interesting, and should hopefully be the proving grounds that Watson needs, but until it starts seeing widespread use all we really have to go on is the result of a single API call. Still I think it has great potential and hopefully it won’t be too long before the wider public can get access to some of Watson’s computing genius.

First 3D Printer in Space

First Space Based 3D Printer Launched.

The boom that 3D printing has experienced over the past couple years has been nothing short of astonishing. The industry started off as predominately as a backyard engineering operation, designing machines that’s sole purpose was to be able to print another one of itself, but it quickly escalated into the market we know today. Indeed it seems even the most wildest predictions about how it would revolutionize certain industries have come true with leading engineering companies adopting 3D printers for both prototyping and full blown production developments. With that in mind it was only a matter of time before one of them was bound for the International Space Station and yesterday SpaceX launched the first 3D printer to be based in space.

First 3D Printer in Space

The printer, made by Made in Space, isn’t simply a stock standard model that’s been gussied up to work on the ISS. It’s been specifically designed to work in the microgravity environment in low earth orbit, undergoing thousands of simulated zero-g tests (presumably on one of NASA’s vomit comets). Whilst the specifications might not be exactly astounding when compared to some of the printers available down here on earth, it only has a print volume of 5cm x 10cm x 5cm with ABS plastic, it has the potential to be quite revolutionary for NASA, not to mention 3D printing at large.

One of the worst things about space travel is having to bring everything you need with you as there’s really no manufacturing capability to speak of in space. A 3D printer however provides the opportunity to ship up bulk supplies, in this case large reels of ABS plastic, which have a much greater density than the parts created with them will have. This drastically reduces the cost and complexity of shipping things up into space and provides a greater opportunity to create things in-orbit that might not be feasible to ship up otherwise. Of course whether or not 3D printing will be viable in space is another question, one which this device will attempt to answer.

There’s a lot of use for 3D printed plastic parts on the ISS, notably pretty much any small clip or connector on the interior of the craft, however I feel that the real usefulness of 3D printer will come when they can print with metal. Right now there’s no good solutions for doing that via the extruder (although there are a few out there using solder, which doesn’t have the greatest construction properties) as most use the powder bed sintering process. As you can probably guess having a bunch of powder in a microgravity environment isn’t going to work out too well so I’ll be interested to see how future space based 3D printers deal with metal and other materials.

It’s really quite exciting to see developments like this as there’s an incredible amount of opportunity for 3D printing to revolutionize several aspects of space travel. Indeed for long duration missions, one where component failure is a real risk, these kinds of in-orbit manufacturing capabilities are a necessity. Whilst we won’t be mass producing spacecraft parts in orbit any time soon these are the first few baby steps needed to developing that capability.

And wouldn’t you know it Planetary Resources already has partnerships in that direction. I should have guessed!

Working From Home

Telecommuting For All: The Research Shows Benefits.

For all of my working life I pined for the ability to do my work from wherever I choose. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to work in my trackies, only checking email whenever it suited, no more I wanted to avoid having to waste hours of my day travelling to and from the office when I could just as easily do the work remotely. Last year, when I permanently joined the company I had  been contracting to the year previous, I was given such an opportunity and have spent probably about half the working year since at home. For me it’s been a wonderfully positive experience and, to humblebrag for a bit, my managers have been thoroughly impressed with my quality of work. Whilst I’ve always believed this would be the case I never had much hard evidence to back it up but new research in this field backs up my conclusions.

Working From Home

Researchers at the University of Illinois created a framework to analyse telecommuting employee’s performance. They then used this to gain insight into data taken from 323 employees and their corresponding supervisors. The results showed a very small, positive effect for the telecommuting workers showing that their performance was the same or slightly better than those who were working in the office. Perhaps most intriguingly they found that the biggest benefit was shown when employees didn’t have the best relationship with their superiors, indicating that granting flexible working arrangements could be seen as something of an olive branch to smooth over employee relations. However the most important takeaway from this is that no negative relationship between telecommuting and work performance was found, showing that employees working remotely can be just as effective as their in office counterparts.

As someone who’s spent a great deal of time working from various different places (not just at home) with other people in a similar situation I have to say that my experience matches up with research pretty well. I tend to be available for much longer periods of time, simply because it’s easier to, and it’s much easier to focus on a particular task for an extended period of time when the distractions of the office aren’t present. Sure after a while you might start to wonder if you’ll be able to handle human contact again (especially after weeks of conference calls) but it’s definitely something I think every employer should offer, if they have the capability to.

It also flies in the face of Marissa Mayer’s decision to outright ban all telecommuting in Yahoo last year, citing performance concerns. Whilst I don’t disagree with the idea that telecommuting isn’t for everyone (I know a few people who’d likely end up like this) removing it as an option is incredibly short sighted. Sure, there’s value to be had in face time, however if their performance won’t suffer offering them flexible working arrangements like telecommuting can generate an awful lot of goodwill with your employees. I know that I’m far more likely to stick around with my current company thanks to their stance on this, even if I probably won’t be able to take advantage of it fully for the next couple years.

Hopefully studies like this keep getting published as telecommuting is fast becoming something that shouldn’t have to be done by exception. Right now it might be something of a novelty but the technology has been there for years and it’s high time that more companies started to make better use of it. They might just find it easier to hold on to more employees if they did and, potentially, even attract better talent because of it. I know it will take time though as we’re still wrestling with the 40 hour work week, a hangover over 150 years ago, even though we’ve long since past the time where everyone is working factories.

One day though, one day.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Commander Termintated

Planetary Annihilation: Unleash the Spam.

Total Annihilation was probably one of my favourite games when it was first released 17 years ago. It wasn’t the massive swarms of units, or the epic scale of the battles, no I loved building up the superpower units that could decimate an entire army in one fell swoop. I’d spend hours crafting the perfect base, one that no one could break through so I could sit there crafting my doomsday weapon. I even downloaded TAUIP to give me even more units and a better AI, sending me further down the TA rabbit hole. It’s spiritual successor, Supreme Commander, was also one of my favourites, even if the sequel fell short. You can then imagine my excitement when I saw the Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter which I couldn’t back fast enough. Here we are, 2 years later, and Planetary Annihilation has finally launched and I’ve spent the last week playing through it.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Humanity has long since left this universe. You are a relic of a war that has long since past, a machine built with a single purpose in mind: to annihilate everything that stands in your path. You will travel to the far reaches of space, seeking out new technology that you’ll incorporate into your unrelenting war. However your foes have the same goal and they will stop at nothing to ensure that you are wiped off the face of this universe permanently. Do you have the strength and skills to beat them before they get the better of you? Or will you fall to the same unrelenting fervour that you are a slave to?

Visually Planetary Annihilation is definitely a step up from its predecessor (for the sake of argument I’m going to say that’s Supreme Commander 2) although the art direction now tends towards the stylized/cartoony. Considering the purpose of Planetary Annihilation this isn’t much of a surprise as one of the long running problems with any of the Annihilation series was that performance often suffered the longer the game went on. Suffice to say that even with the slight improvements it still manages to remain quite smooth over the course of longer games. The interface is also much more streamlined, making it far easier to get acquainted with everything than it was in previous titles.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Commander Termintated

Like previous installations in the Annihilation series Planetary Annihilation puts you in charge of a single unit, the Commander, to start off with and then lets you loose upon a world to build an army to destroy your foes. However you’re now no longer constrained to just a single planet, escalating the potential warfare to planetary levels. This introduces a whole host of new mechanics like orbital units, teleporters and whole planets which can be used as weapons. Notably absent from the game however is the inclusion of a single player story campaign which has been replaced by a procedurally generated series of AI skirmishes called Galactic War. Finally there’s multiplayer to be had which is likely where most people will be spending their time, although it’s done in the older style of “find a lobby to join” rather than the newer style matchmaking.

Long time fans of the Annihilation series will be instantly familiar with the core gameplay of Planetary Annihilation as all the units are essentially the same with your standard air/vehicle/bot/naval choices immediately available from your commander. The tech trees have been reduced from 3 tiers to 2 which significantly reduces the number of units you’ll have at your disposal. However this is made up for by the inclusion of the new types of units and was probably done because you’ll likely be splitting your concentration across multiple planets with multiple warfronts. The same mechanics are at play, you’ll need metal and energy in order to be able build things, however they have also been streamlined with only 2 types of energy generators and metal extractors. So overall the gameplay is largely similar but streamlined with a few mechanics thrown in to elevate the combat to a planetary scale.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Work Work

However unlike previous Annihilation titles there’s no factions to speak of so all the units are exactly the same for every player. For me this was one of the defining features of the Annihilation series as it meant that each race had it’s own strengths and weaknesses and different strategies were needed to cope with each different race. In Planetary Annihilation that’s not the case however and all you really need to do is figure out what kind of units your opponent is building and make the counter to them. This, especially when competing against the AI, means that the game favours those who rush their opponents with swarms of a certain mix of units early, even more so when you’re on the same planet. Indeed there are very few opportunities to craft super units that can devastate armies, a trademark of the Annihilation series, thus eliminating much of the strategy that I came to love about these games.

In fact I think this is reflected in one key metric: the length of each game. Games in Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander could easily go on for hours as everyone tried various tactics against each other, all the while hoping to build that one unit or structure that would give them the upper hand. In Planetary Annihilation most games will go for 20 to 30 minutes before it’s obvious who’s going to win. Again this was something that I loved about the Annihilation series as it always felt more strategic rather than tactical and was the primary reason many disliked Supreme Commander 2. The planetary scope had a lot of potential to recapture that feeling that so many previous Annihilation titles had but it unfortunately fell way short of the mark.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Metal Planet

This is only exacerbated by the incredibly lackluster single player campaign. Whilst the idea behind Galactic War sounded good on paper in practice it’s not much more than one AI skirmish after another, ones that are either easily won within the first 10 minutes or others which are an uphill battle due to the fact that the AI is given a head start over you. It’s made worse by the fact that you can get shoehorned by the technology that you collect during the various missions, sometimes putting you in a spot that’s nigh on impossible to bypass. Like, for instance, if you’ve got all naval and air tech but the enemy starts on another planet you’re likely sweet out of luck as you won’t be able to use the teleporter to get them across. Instead you’ll have to rely on shooting nukes over there and hope that they haven’t got more anti-nuke facilities than you have missiles.

There’s also some niggling issues around the game itself. If you start an AI skirmish or Galactic War there’s no way to restart a battle if it isn’t going your way so you’ll have to quit and restart Planetary Annihilation in order to start over again. I can somewhat understand that not being in the Galactic War (if it’s meant to be a Roguelike experience, although I have no idea if that’s the case) but for AI skirmishes it seems like a really glaring omission. Things like that are supposed to be about testing builds or trying out units that you haven’t seen before and so restarting the battle quickly and easily is key to that. Having to boot the game over every time you want to do that is a right pain in the ass and not something I expected from veteran developers like Uber Entertainment.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Victory

Planetary Annihilation feels like a game that’s still in beta mode, lacking the polish of it’s spiritual predecessors and ultimately failing to deliver on the tried and true Annihilation franchise experience. The core aspects of the series are there, the massive units, larger than life scale, etc. but the game itself just doesn’t play like the titles of yore. This isn’t a case of the game not living up to the hype, after backing the game I ignored pretty much everything to do with it until I heard of the official release, more that too many things of what made the previous Annihilation titles good have been left out and what remains just isn’t enough. I really wanted to love Planetary Annihilation but it just feels like the official launch came way before it was ready for primetime with a lot more work to be done before I can say that it’s up to the calibre of its predecessors.

Rating: 6.5/10

Planetary Annihilation is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 6 hours. The writer backed this game on Kickstarter at the $250 pledge level.

The Speed of Light vs The Speed of Sound.

There’s a saying that goes “The speed of light is greater than the speed of sound, which is why some people appear bright before they open their mouths”. Whilst I’m sure that we can all remember someone who fits that description exactly not many people appreciate just how vast the difference is between the speed of light really is. Indeed in everyday life you can pretty much consider light to travel instantaneously since it could reach any point on earth in under a millisecond. That also means that visually observed phenomena can help us determine other things, like how far away the boat in the below video was from the volcano that erupted:

From the first point where you can see the eruption beginning to the time when the shockwave hits the camera approximately 13 seconds elapses. Taking into account that the speed of sound in air (roughly 341 m/s, although it could be slightly faster depending on the temperature) that gives us an approximate distance of 4.4 km from the eruption site. To put that in perspective the light that brought the picture traveled the same distance in about 0.01 milliseconds, an imperceptibly short amount of time. If you were so inclined you could also figure out all sorts of other kinds of information from this video (like the height of the plume, it’s velocity, etc.) but they’re an exercise I’ll leave up to the reader.

This video also showcases one of the coolest (in my opinion) visual phenomena related to massive explosions like this. You can see the shock wave propagating out from the epicenter very clearly, something which always happens but isn’t usually visible to the naked eye. Here you can see it travelling outwards thanks to it compressing the air in front of it which changes the refractive index of light. With explosions of this magnitude the amount of compression, and the resulting shock wave, are enough to produce a significant bend in the light passing through it.

I probably wouldn’t want to be that close to the explosion though!

NASA Commerical Crew Transportation Program

NASA’s Choice of Chariot: SpaceX and Boeing.

As of right now there’s only one way to get humans into space: on board a Russian Soyuz craft. It’s an incredibly reliable spacecraft, and probably one of the longest serving spacecraft ever, however it’s ability to only send up 3 astronauts at a time does limit it’s capabilities. Couple that with the fact that the going rate for a seat on one of them is about $70 million you can imagine why there’s an imperative on NASA to find another way to get themselves up there. Whilst there’s been a lot of internal work to develop the next generation of crew transportation NASA has realised that the private space industry will very soon have that capability. To that effect they created the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCTCap) award, a $6.8 billion dollar contract to provide crew transportation services.

Today they announced the winners: SpaceX and Boeing.

NASA Commerical Crew Transportation Program

The contract split gives $2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing. Considering NASA’s long relationship with Boeing it’s not surprising that they got a larger chunk of the pie (and the fact that they’ve already sunk about half a billion into the program already) however I’m sure SpaceX won’t be unhappy with that much business coming their way. Both companies are already well underway with their respective crew transports, Boeing with the CST-100 and SpaceX with the Dragon, which is likely why they were chosen in the first place. This program won’t replace the work that’s currently being done by NASA with the Orion capsule (under contract with Lockheed Martin) and will instead function as a supplement to that capability.

Being awarded work under CCTCap isn’t all roses however as NASA is looking to have at least one of the capsules up and running by 2017. That largely lines up with the timelines that SpaceX has for their Dragon capsule, with the first flights scheduled for late next year with crewed missions to follow shortly after. As to how that fits with the current CST-100 schedule is less clear as whilst there’s been some mockup tests done a couple years ago I haven’t seen much progress on it since. Boeing isn’t the same kind of company that SpaceX is though so there’s every possibility that the CST-100 is just as far along its development pipeline as the Dragon is. Still the CCTCap only calls for one of them to be ready by that time and if I was a betting man my money would be on SpaceX.

Both company’s solutions are of the reusable capsule variety which might seem a step backwards but it’s actually the smarter way to do space travel, especially if cost is a primary factor. The Space Shuttle, whilst iconic in its shape and unmatched in its capabilities, was a compromise between far too many objectives that were at odds with each other. If you’re goal is just getting people up and down then capsules are the way to go. It will be interesting to see if the economies of scale kick in with these craft as the Dragon is designed to be launched many times per year and the CST-100 can be reused up to 10 times before it needs a full teardown.

Needless to say this is an incredibly exciting announcement. I’ve long been of the mind that NASA should leave things like this to the private companies who can deliver the same service at a much better price without compromising on saftey. That then leaves them free to do the big picture stuff that will inspire the next generation, the kinds of things that we all remember the NASA name for. The CCTCap is the first step towards them rekindling that spirit and, as an avid space geek, that makes me so wonderfully happy.

PlayStation 4 See The Future

It’s Been Almost a Year, But My PS4 is Finally Getting Used.

Ever since I bought my PlayStation4 a year ago it’s sat there next to my TV, begging me to play it. The problem is that pretty much every game that I would play on it has also been available on PC and since that’s my platform of choice the PS4 unfortunately falls by the wayside. It also doesn’t help that the one launch title that I wanted to play, The Witness, has since been delayed to “when it’s done” status which means we’re not likely to see it for some time to come. However one of my mates convinced me to go and play Destiny with him and since it won’t be available on PC for sometime I figured this would be a good chance to give the PS4 a burl.

PlayStation 4 See The FutureFor starters it seems that the PS4 exhibits some rather strange behaviours when it’s not connected to the PSN, usually when it requires an update. I was trying to put the disc in to get everything going but, for some reason, it just wouldn’t grab it. I’m not sure if this is because Sony don’t want you installing games offline or something like that, but it was rather frustrating to see what I had assumed would be default functionality turned off when it couldn’t contact home. A quick Google shows that this particular issue has plagued others as well, although what leads to it happening seems to be somewhat random.

Another gripe I have is the game installation and update process. Whilst the initial installation seems to be relatively painless (it just does it in the background) the update process is rather cumbersome. You’ll automatically get any updates for the game added to your download queue however you don’t apply them from within the game. Instead you have to wait for the download to finish, find the download (a chore in of itself) and then tell it to apply. You can’t simply sit in the game, watch the download and then apply the update from there like you could with the PS3. Honestly it feels like a huge step backward in terms of usability and I’m not hopeful that it will ever get changed if it’s still like this almost a year down the track.

The gaming experience is pretty good, however. It didn’t take long for me to get into a party with my mate and to get voice chat going although the quality of the included mono headset is probably about as mediocre as you can get. I was somewhat sceptical about the new controller design, it looked a little goofy, however it does feel very comfortable in the hands. The stick buttons were a little hard to push down (a little annoying as that’s sprint in Destiny) but that might just be them needing a little breaking in before they become usable. I didn’t get a chance to check out the inbuilt sharing features unfortunately as that’s something I definitely want to see in action.

I’ll probably touch more on the PS4 experience in the greater Destiny review (coming in the next couple weeks) however my first impressions are good, if marred by some issues that really should have been sorted out by this point in time. Whilst I lament the fact that it’s sat there for the better part of a year unused I’m at least somewhat happy that it has managed to provide a good gaming experience once I did find a title for it. I’ll develop a more fully formed opinion of it whilst I bash my way through Destiny and will hopefully be finally able to tell you if it’s worth buying or not.

Better late than never, right?