The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Lake

The Witness: The World is But a Puzzle For You To Solve.

I’m not one to talk about my most anticipated games but long time readers will know that I’ve been hanging out for The Witness. Braid was one of the most amazing titles of its time, demonstrating that it was possible for an independent developer to make a game that would delight and enthral thousands of people the world over. So when I heard he was working on another title of his own making, his magnum opus that would consume his entire Braid fortune, I was sold instantly. The screenshots and tentative pieces of game play only drew me in further and made me excited for its release early on the PlayStation4. However that day came and went but here we are, 2 years later, and I’ve spent the last week playing through it. Whilst it may not evoke the same level of feelings in me that Braid did it’s hard not to respect the craftsmanship of The Witness, a true masterpiece from one of the leaders of the indie game developer community.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper Opening Screen

The Witness starts without a lick of dialogue or even a starting screen. Instead you’re placed in a long corridor, a bright light at one end beckoning you to come forward. What you find when you open that door is a bright and vibrant world, one that seems to be locked behind a series of line drawing puzzles. These puzzles strictly adhere to the idea of “show, don’t tell”, guiding you through their mechanics slowly so you can feel your way around them. What happens in this world is up to you however as you are given no direction, no purpose and, above all, no restrictions bar the puzzles in front of you.

Visually The Witness feels like a cross between the cartoonish stylings of games like Team Fortress 2 and the low-poly look that’s quite trendy among the indie scene currently. The resulting visual landscapes feel like something out of a dream, lovely and beautiful to look upon but strangely devoid of detail when you get up close. The wide and varied landscape of the island means that you won’t be wanting for lack of visual variety as there’s everything from a wide desert to a swap to a snow capped mountain top for you to explore. Of course this simplicity belies the breadth and depth of the game world, something which I feel will only be fully revealed to players who invest dozens of hours into this game.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Lake

Mechanically The Witness is easy to explain at a high level although as the mechanics pile on things start to get extremely complicated. Essentially the base puzzle is drawing a line from one end to another, simple right? Well how about having to solve a maze whilst going through certain points? Or possibly having to separate different coloured blocks into 2 sections that don’t overlap? Those are just some of the simpler mechanics and, as you progress, you’ll begin to find that the puzzles cross-pollinate with each other. So a solution you’ve learnt in one puzzle might be needed to figure out another or, and this is where it gets really tricky, you’ll need to figure out how both of those mechanics combine in order to solve it.

In the beginning this process of mechanic discovery is incredibly rewarding. Each of the puzzle sets has its own language, a way of expressing to you the player what you need to do in order to solve it. For all of the mechanics these are shown in a tutorial like puzzle which demonstrates it in the most simple way possible and then progressively introduces new variables which give you the bounds of how it works. I can clearly remember after stepping out of the first area finding what looked like a secret path that was blocked by a puzzle that, on first look, was completely impossible. However after finding a tutorial near by it became clear what I needed to do and I was able to unlock my first secret, something which I had literally no idea what to do with. Still knowing that I had uncovered something that would be used later was pretty cool and kept me playing for a while longer.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper Garden Maze

Probably the most inspired part about The Witness, and this is mildly spoilery (skip to the next one if that bugs you), is that the very world you live in is actually a puzzle. I was fooling around in the desert puzzle area when I noticed that, from a particular angle, parts of the scenery looked like one of the puzzles I could solve. Sure enough by clicking on it I was greeted with an actual, solvable puzzle, one that has the most satisfying noise when you first discover it. Knowing this is both a blessing and a curse however as from then on you will be forever questioning what is part of a puzzle and what isn’t. Of course that adds yet another layer of complexity onto an already complex game and this, unfortunately, is where the wheels started to fall off the experience for me.

After I spent a good hour or so on solving the desert puzzle I was keen to dig into a new challenge, one that would engage a different part of my brain. Sure enough I found it however after a while I started stumbling across a symbol I hadn’t seen before and couldn’t figure out how it worked. So, of course, I went searching for other puzzles but it would often come to a point where I’d find yet another mechanic which I wasn’t familiar with. Now I’m the kind of player that hates leaving things unfinished and having to trudge around the whole island to find the right mechanics didn’t really enthuse me. So I did what anyone would do in that situation, I looked the mechanic up on the Internet.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper Frozen in Contemplation

While I’m sure that’s tantamount to heresy for The Witness purists the fact of the matter was that, after spending 8 hours stumbling around solving puzzles I was still coming across new mechanics and, frankly, I was getting bored. Whilst the mechanics are novel and inspired the fact of the matter is that it always boils down to getting a line from one side to the other. So sure, there’s different things to think about, but you’ll be staring at the same grid again and again for hours on end. It was at this point I felt I just wanted to see the ending and hopefully dredge up some semblance of a story out of the game that had barely uttered more than a handful of paragraphs at me.

However if there’s  story in The Witness it’s buried so deep in all the secrets, recordings and imagery that you’re really going to have to enjoy exploration and puzzles to find it. After playing The Talos Principle I was incredibly excited for the prospect of a deep narrative in The Witness, one that would pull me along through the puzzles. What I found instead were quotes and snippets from famous scientists and, if the people I’ve been reading on Reddit are to be believed, a strung out metaphor about the development of The Witness game itself. Honestly this was my biggest disappointment with The Witness as Braid managed to do so much more with less. Perhaps someone will post a synopsis that changes my mind someday but after 10 hours of searching I’m still left wanting.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Final Door Opens

The Witness is an absolutely beautifully crafted game, both from an aesthetic point of view and the novel craftsmanship of its puzzles. It’s amazing to see how such a simple idea, drawing a line from one point to another, can be given such mechanical complexity. Taking that one step further and including the very world itself as part of the mechanics is an inspired achievement, one that blew me away when I finally figured it out. However the repetitive nature of the puzzles, coupled with the lack of narrative to drive you forward through those puzzles, makes it hard to keep coming back after a while. The Witness is most certainly a testament to Jonathan Blow’s dedication to perfection in all things he sets out to create however it falls short of acquiring the “must play” status that his seminal title did. Overall I believe The Witness is certainly worth playing, just maybe not to its ultimate conclusion.

Rating: 8.0/10

The Witness is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 10 hours of total play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.

Bouncing Ball Bearings Beautifully.

Some of my favourite demonstrations of scientific principles are ones that you expect to behave one way but, in reality, act completely different. To me this demonstrates the value of experimentation and observation as you can never be sure until you do something for yourself. It also usually means that there’s some kind of interesting physical phenomena at play that I’m not yet familiar with, something which usually means an enjoyable trip down a Wikipedia hole. The following video is one such demonstration, showcasing an interesting property of amorphous metals.

In this demonstration (the whole channel is worth watching by the way) we can see the difference between an amorphous metal surface and a traditional one when a ball bearing is dropped on it. The difference in bounce height is quite staggering, enough to make you think initially that there’s some form of spring hidden in the cylinder. The actual reason for the difference, which is briefly touched on in the video, is far more interesting than it being a simple trick.

The material that the atomic trampoline is made of has some rather unique properties. Regular metals are usually of a crystalline structure meaning that their component atoms are highly ordered. Amorphous metals on the other hand (sometimes referred to as metallic glass) have a highly disorganised structure, owing to the fact that they’re usually alloys (made up of several different metals) and their creation process stops the formation of a crystalline structure.

This disorganisation prevents the formation of defects called dislocations which appear in crystalline metals. When a ball bearing strikes the regular metal surface these dislocations glide through the other parts of the metal’s structure, dissipating a lot of the energy. In the amorphous metal however there are no such dislocations and so much less of the energy is lost with each bounce. Of course the lack of dislocations does not negate other losses due to sound and heat which is why the ball bearing doesn’t bounce infinitely.

What I’d love to see is the same experiment redone in a vacuum chamber with both the ball bearing and the surface made from amorphous metals. I’m sure we could get some really absurd bouncing times with that!

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The Burden of High Performance.

Early on in my career I stumbled upon what was, to me, an astonishing fact: there was little correlation between work performance and the rewards that came from it. I could bust my hump and be the top of the metrics (I was working in a call center at the time) or I could simply meet my KPIs without breaking too much of a sweat. The end result? Nearly identical in both cases so my work habits tended very quickly towards doing only what was required of me nothing more. This further evolved later in my career into only doing the work that would get noticed as doing anything else would prove of little benefit to me. Indeed I came to realise that being a stellar performer is often not worth it, even if you’re capable of doing it.

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Research into this area has shown that being a high performer is a thankless task. When presented with two potential employees to assign work to, one with low self control and the other with higher, people will more often than not assign more work to the person with higher self control. In the real world this means that a high performer will be assigned more work and the low performer less. However rarely does this correlate to how each of those workers is rewarded for their performance, meaning that high performers are essentially doing more work for the same reward. Thus there is an active disincentive for anyone to be perceived as a high performer, lest they unnecessarily burden themselves.

Indeed I found as much throughout my career. Being able to take care of your assigned tasks in less time than others often meant I’d be left looking for other tasks to occupy my time. Quite often this would result in being assigned busy work that didn’t need to be done and, even if it was done well, would go completely unnoticed. Thus I resigned myself to doing the work I needed to do and not seeking out anything beyond that, allowing me more time to dedicate to tasks that I felt warranted it. This then translated into me always having time to help out others when they needed me whilst not burdening me with pointless work that wouldn’t get noticed.

In my current employment however I have found that there is tangible benefit to demonstrating my skill. Instead of simply assigning me more work I’m instead presented with opportunities that might not be available to everyone else. Such challenges are often interesting and potentially career making, providing an incentive to work harder to show that I’m capable of completing them. It’s this kind of recognition which I feel is the best way to encourage your best performers to keep doing what they’re doing and to motivate others to do the same.

That Dragon Cancer Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

That Dragon, Cancer: A Memorial.

Games have been rapidly maturing as a medium, going from a distraction that was only for kids to the canvas upon which many artists now create their wares. As the medium has matured it has taken on the attributes of the others that preceded it, meaning games have been used for things beyond simple entertainment. More recently I’ve begun to see more games that are a kind of therapy, not for the user but for the game developer themselves. That Dragon, Cancer (the first title from Numinous Games) is a deeply personal journey for the developer, one that surely resonates for many, represented in a game that deals with many issues that come from battling this terrible disease.

That Dragon Cancer Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

That Dragon, Cancer follows the true story of Joel Green who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when he was only one year old. You’ll take on many forms throughout the journey although primarily you’ll be put in the shoes of Ryan Green, the father. Throughout the 2 hour journey you’ll walk alongside the Green family as they deal with the incredibly difficult and trying experience that is childhood cancer. What you make of the story will be as personal as the story itself as I’ve yet to read an impression that was identical to any other.

Visually That Dragon, Cancer is striking with its low poly art coupled with bright pastel colours and lighting. The minimal aesthetic is purposefully designed to have you focusing on the key elements that are on screen at any particular time (like the chemo bag in the screenshot below). Whilst it’s not exactly an unique style it is well executed, running flawlessly on even mediocre hardware. Things do seem to come unstuck a bit when the 2D and 3D elements are mixed together however I get the feeling that’s part of the developer’s intentions.

That Dragon Cancer Review Screenshot Wallpaper What Life Lies Beyond

Mechanically That Dragon, Cancer feels like an exploration with the game ebbing and weaving through various different styles of games over its short duration. Each of them has been crafted for a particular part of the narrative and for the most part they fit, however their implementation can be somewhat lacking in parts. Since this is a narrative first game however that doesn’t matter too much as they’re not designed to be blockers to progressing the story. Overall the mechanics were an ample backdrop to the main story of the game which is really the only reason you’d be playing this in the first place.

As to the story I’m in two minds. So often I was caught up in Joel’s tale, his stories echoing with my own experiences with my dad who’s currently battling cancer. However after a while the muddled progression of the story lost me, making me wonder just what exactly was going on. That coupled with the fact that I’m not exactly the religious type meant that the latter parts of the story, which are very faith heavy, meant that it began to grate on me heavily. However as a chronicle of Joel’s and the Green family’s life it is more than apt.

That Dragon Cancer Review Screenshot Wallpaper Reunited Again

That Dragon, Cancer is an extremely personal journey of one family’s battle against cancer and the challenges that it brings. As a game it is simple, favouring minimal looks and mechanics over anything else that might distract from the story. It most certainly achieves its vision of being a memorial to Joel’s life, capturing his personality and the effect he had the people he interacted with. The telling of that story though can be somewhat muddled and, if you’re not the praying type, may rub you the wrong way towards the end. Still if you or someone you know is facing the same challenges as this game describes then it’s definitely worth playing, if just to know that you’re not alone in your struggles

Rating: 7.0/10

That Dragon, Cancer is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours.

First They Came for Chess, Now They Come for Go.

Computers are better than humans at a lot of things but there are numerous problem spaces where they struggle. Anything with complex branching or large numbers of possibilities forces them into costly jumps, negating the benefits of their ability to think in microsecond increments. This is why it took computers so long from beating humans at something like tic-tac-toe, a computationally simple game, to beating humans at chess. However one game has proven elusive to even the most cutting edge AI developers, the seemingly simple game Go. This is because unlike chess or other games, which often rely on brute forcing out many possible moves and calculating the best one, Go has an incomprehensibly large number of possible moves making such an approach near impossible. However Google’s DeepMind AI, using their AlphaGo algorithms, has successfully defeated the top European player and will soon face its toughest challenge yet.

Unlike previous game playing AIs, which often relied on calculating board scores of potential moves, AlphaGo is a neural network that’s undergone whats called supervised learning. Essentially they’ve taken professional level Go games and fed their moves into a neural network. Then it’s told which outcomes lead to success and which ones don’t, allowing the neural network to develop it’s own pattern recognition for winning moves. This isn’t what let them beat a top Go player however as supervised learning is a well established principle in the development of neural networks. Their secret sauce appears to be a combination of an algorithm called Monte Carlo Tree Search (MCTS) and the fact that they pitted the AI against itself in order for it to get better.

MCTS is a very interesting idea, one that’s broadly applicable to games with a finite set of moves or those with set limits on play. Essentially what a MCTS will do is select moves at random and play them out until they’re finished. Then, when the outcome of that play out is determined, the moves made are then used to adjust the weightings of how successful those potential moves were. This, in essence, allows you to determine what set of moves are most optimal by refining down the problem space to what is the most ideal set. Of course the tradeoff here is between how long and deep you want the network to search and how long you have to decide to make a move.

This is where the millions of games that AlphaGo played against itself comes into play as it allowed the both the neural networks and the MCTS algorithm to be greatly refined. In their single machine tests it only lost to other Go programs once out of almost 500 games. In the match played against Fan Hui however he was matched against a veritable army of hardware, some 170 GPUs and 1200 CPUs. That should give you some indication of just how complex Go is and what it’s taken to get to this point.

AlphaGo’s biggest challenge is ahead of it though as it prepares to face down the current top Go player of the last decade, Lee Sedol. In terms of opponents Lee is an order of magnitude higher being a 9th Dan to Fan’s 2nd Dan. How they structure the matches and their infrastructure to support AlphaGo will be incredibly interesting but whether or not it will come out victorious is anyone’s guess.

Oxenfree Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Oxenfree: You Can’t Escape The Past.

I always have a slight feeling of cognitive dissonance when it comes to narratives that are player controlled. On the one hand I love that it allows me to imprint myself upon the character, crafting them into the person I want them to be in the game’s world. On the other hand however I sometimes feel like doing that runs contrary to what the true nature of the character might be, especially when I’m operating on imperfect information about said character. Oxenfree, the first title from Night School Studios (who count former Telltale Games and Disney staff among them), falls somewhere in the middle but still provides a great player driven narrative experience.

Oxenfree Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Oxenfree puts you in control of Alex, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who’s heading out to an end of year rager with a bunch of her friends. Among them are your best friend Ren, his current crush Nona, a girl who used to date your brother Clarissa and your newly minted step-brother Jonas. The night starts off normal enough with everyone engaging in a rousing game of “Truth or Slap” however things start to quickly come unraveled as Ren beguiles you into investigating some of the island’s more paranormal features. From then on the night changes from being one of drunken revelry into a fight against a paranormal force.

The visual style of Oxenfree harks back to a time of pre-rendered backgrounds with simple 3D visuals layered on top of them. The backgrounds have a kind of textured paper look about them, as if they’re part of an arts project. The character models are quite simplistic, obviously done in that way to blend in more seamlessly with the backgrounds. However unlike the games which this art style pays homage to Oxenfree makes heavy use of lighting and visual effects, both in terms of aesthetics as well as forming part of the plot mechanics. Overall, from a visual perspective, Oxenfree is very well crafted and is done in a way that amplifies the story rather than distracting from it.

Oxenfree Review Screenshot Wallpaper Dialogue Choices

In terms of gameplay Oxenfree is primarily focused on the narrative and the dialogue choices you make as a player. You’re usually given 3 different options when responding, each of which can direct the story in a certain way. The main puzzle mechanic comes in the form of a radio which you tune to different stations, either to listen in for clues or to resonate with objects which will cause something to happen. There’s also some other puzzles which range in the form of simple to nigh on impossible although thankfully the latter, even if failed completely, will not stop you from progressing the narrative.

Oxenfree gets credit for keeping the story linear in nature whilst giving you the freedom to explore should you choose to do so. Too often I’ve played similarly styled games which lock core story elements behind inordinate numbers of puzzles, detracting from the narrative. The puzzle mechanics might be simple but they’re enough to keep you engaged through the times when there’s less dialogue about. One criticism I will level at them however is the “improved” radio which just doubles the number of frequencies you have to cycle through. Honestly that just adds tedium as you have to scroll through far more things in order to find the right frequency.

Oxenfree Review Screenshot Wallpaper Its Over Right

Oxenfree’s narrative deals with a lot of heavy subjects and does so through the lens of a teenage coming of age story. The paranormal aspects, whilst being downright scary in their own way, are used more as a mechanic to explore these issues rather than just being a license to do whacky things. You, as Alex, have quite a lot of control over how the story develops and this can radically change how you feel about the characters and, most interestingly, how they feel about each other. I really can’t say much more without wading into spoiler territory but suffice to say that Oxenfree delivers a solid narrative that deals well with issues that the video game medium is still coming to grips with.

Oxenfree is a powerful narrative driven game, one that shows how simplicity in all things but story can still add up to a great experience. The visual style pays homage to simpler times where pre-rendered backgrounds were a tool to get around the limitations of thte day. The mechanics are simple and do their best to get out of the way of the story. The story is what makes Oxenfree worth playing, both from the core story aspect as well as the level of control that the player is given over shaping it. For those who love a good story, or just a decent thriller, then Oxenfree is definitely worth a play through.

Rating: 8.5/10

Oxenfree is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with around 3 hours of total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.

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Sorry Pluto, We Might Have a Real 9th Planet After All.

Our cosmic backyard is still a mostly undiscovered place. Sure we know of all the major planets that share the same orbital plane as us but discoveries like the dwarf planets in the asteroid and kuiper belts are still recent events. Indeed the more we look at the things that are right next door to us the more it leads us to question just how some of these things came to be. It was the strange orbits of a few kuiper belt objects that led to the most recent discovery: the potential existence of a 9th planet orbiting our sun.

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Why, I hear you ask, if we have a 9th planet have we not come across it before? Well, if confirmed, the reasons for us not seeing this planet before are simple: it’s just too damn far away. Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, is some 7.4 billion kilometers away from the sun at its closest approach whilst Planet 9 (as it is being called) is 5 times that distance at the same point in its orbit. Since planets don’t produce their own light we can only see them when they reflect light of their parent star and, that far out, our sun is a dim speck that barely illuminates anything. That, coupled with the fact that its orbit is perpendicular to ours, makes detection rather difficult and we’ve only found it now due to the effect it’s having on other kuiper belt objects.

The researchers who made the discovery, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown (previously credited with the discovery of a dwarf planet, Sedna), were first intrigued by a group of kuiper belt objects that all shared relatively similar orbital properties. Now due to the sheer number of objects that happen to be in the area it’s likely that this will occur by chance sometimes however they often result in unstable orbits. These objects seemed to be quite happy in their strange orbits however so there either had to be a large body, likely a planet, keeping them in line or some other force was at play. In order to verify this one way or the other a planetary model was developed and then simulated to see what other effects a planet might have.

Their simulations predicted that there should also be other kuiper belt objects with orbits that were perpendicular to Planet 9’s orbit. Looking at the data gathered on the numerous objects that exist within the kuiper belt the researchers found 5 objects that matched the simulation’s predictions, a good indicator that a planet is responsible for both them and the other peculiar orbits. This also helped to confirm some attributes of the planet like it’s potential mass (10 times that of earth) and its likely orbital period (10,000+ years). Interestingly enough this helps to fill in a gap in our solar system’s construction as current models predict the most common type of planet is one of Planet 9’s mass.

The researchers are now looking to directly image the planet in order to confirm that it exists. There’s potential for it to show up in data already collected however that will only work if it was currently close to the sun. If it was further out then time will be required on some of the larger ground based or potentially one of the space based telescopes in order to observe it. Either way direct confirmation is some way off but is surely forthcoming.

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An Explosion so Great that the Laws of Physics Can Barely Contain It.

We humans were born in stars. Our elements were forged in the crucible of exploding stars, ones that had come to the end of their life and then erupted in a single cataclysmic event. This process has been going on for billions of years which is why we find our universe full of many of the elements that make up the periodic table and not just a melange of hydrogen. Like stars supernovae come in a variety of shapes and sizes and a recently observed one, dubbed ASASSN-15lh, sets the record for the brightest one ever observed. In fact it was so bright that we’re just barely able to explain how it might have happened.

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ASASSN-15lh was first observed just over a year ago and initially showed up as a transient spot on observations conducted by the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae. Further observations, conducted by the du Pont Telescope in Chile and the South African Large Telescope, confirmed that it was a noteworthy event that required further investigations. The final observation was then conducted by the Swift Space Telescope which then resulted in Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams designating it SN 2015L. The observations confirmed that this was the most luminous supernova ever to occur, something which pushes the boundaries of our understanding about how big events like this can get.

Now most blips don’t warrant the level of scrutiny that ASASSN-15lh received however the spectrum of the supernova, provided by the du Pont Telescope, was incredibly unusual. The spectrum would match that of a previously seen superluminous supernova but only if the light had been significantly red-shifted (I.E. that it happened so far from Earth that the wavelengths of light had been stretched by the expansion of space to look more red). This is where the observation from the African Large Telescope comes into play as it confirmed that the light had undergone significant redshifting. This then meant that they were looking at an incredibly bright supernova, 3 times brighter than the previous record holder.

How supernova can get this bright is an incredibly interesting process. Essentially it relies on the star shedding its outer layers first and then forming whats called a Magnetar core. These neutron star variants are shrouded in a magnetic field so powerful that it’s lethal to life at distances even up to 1000km away from it. This magnetar would then have to spin incredibly fast, completing a full revolution every millisecond (the theoretical maximum for these kinds of stars). Then, as the star began to slow, giant magnetic winds would billow forth, slamming into the outer hydrogen layers and producing a shockwave of incredible luminance.

To put it in perspective just how bright ASASSN-15lh is if it were to have happened anywhere in our galaxy it would be visible by the naked eye during the day. If it happened in our cosmic backyard it would be as luminous as the moon. At its peak ASASSN-15lh shone 20 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined.

This explanation however relies on everything happening at a perfect maximum in order to produce something as bright as this. Whilst it’s quite possible that the magnetar explanation is sufficient it’s right on the edge of our understanding and so it’s very possible that there’s other mechanics at work here that influenced the final outcome. It’s taken a year of obsverations and research to get to this point so it’s likely that the data gathered on ASASSN-15lh has numerous more insights to give us on how such incredible events occur.

For me the incredible scale of things like this fill me with a sense of wonder and amazement. To think a single entity could dwarf an entire galaxy like that, even if for only a brief moment, gives you an incredible amount of perspective on all things. Indeed the fact that the atoms and molecules that constitute me were born in such places gives me a sense of connectedness to the universe and all the wonders that dwell within it.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Lands Successfully, Stands…Unsuccessfully.

If there’s one thing that SpaceX has shown us is that landing a rocket from space onto a barge in the middle of the ocean is, well, hard. Whilst they’ve successfully landed one of their Falcon-9 first stages on land not all of their launches will match that profile, hence the requirement for their drone barge. However that barge presents its own set of challenges although the last 2 failed attempts were due to a lack of hydraulic fluid and slower than expected throttle response. Their recent launch, which was delivering the Jason 3 earth observation satellite into orbit, managed to land successfully again however failed to stay upright at the last minute.

A video posted by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on


Elon stated that the failure was due to one of the lockout collets (basically a clamp) not locking properly on one of the legs. Looking at the video above you can see which one of those legs is the culprit as you can see it sliding forward and ultimately collapsing underneath. The current thinking is that the failure was due to icing caused by heavy fog at liftoff although a detailed analysis has not yet been conducted. Thankfully this time around the pieces they have to look at are a little bigger than last times rather catastrophic explosion.

Whilst it might seem like landing on a drone ship is always doomed to failure we have to remember that this is what the early stages of NASA and other space programmes looked like. Keeping a rocket like that upright under its own strength, on a moving barge no less, is a difficult endeavour and the fact that they’ve managed to successfully land twice (but fail to remain upright) shows that they’re most of the way there. I’m definitely looking forward to their next attempt as there’s a very high likelihood of that one finally succeeding.

The payload it launched is part of the Ocean Surface Topography from Space mission which aims to map the height of the earth’s oceans over time. It joins one of its predecessors (Jason-2) and combined they will be able to map approximately 95% of the ice-free oceans in the world every 10 days. This allows researchers to study climate effects, providing forecasting for cyclones and even tracking animals. Jason-3 will enable much more high resolution data to be captured and paves the way for a future, single mission that will be planned to replace both of the current Jason series satellites.

SpaceX is rapidly decreasing the access costs to space and once they perfect the first stage landing on both sea and land they’ll be able to push it down even further. Hopefully they’ll extend this technology to their larger family of boosters, once of which is scheduled to be test flown later this year. That particular rocket will reduce launch costs by a factor of 4, getting us dangerously close to the $1,000/KG limit that, when achieved, will be the start of a new era of space access for all.

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Bitcoin at a Crossroads.

Despite what others seem to think I’ve always liked the idea behind cryptocurrencies. A decentralized method of transferring wealth between parties, free from the influence of outside parties, has an enormous amount of value as a service. Bitcoin was the first incarnation of this idea to actually work, creating the ideas that power the proof-of-work system and the decentralized nature that was critical to its success. However the Bitcoin community and I soon parted ways as my writings on its use as a speculative investment vehicle rubbed numerous people the wrong way. It seems that the tenancy to run against the groupthink runs all the way to the top of the Bitcoin community and may ultimately spell its demise.

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Bitcoin, for those who haven’t been following it, has recently faced a dilemma. The payment network is currently limited by the size of each “block”, basically the size of the entry in the decentralized ledger, which puts an upper limit on the number of transactions that can be processed per second. The theoretical upper limit was approximately 7 per second however further development on the blockchain meant that the upper limit was less than half that. Whilst that still sounds like a lot of transactions (~600,000/day) it’s a far cry from what regular payment institutions do. This limitation needs to be addressed as the Bitcoin network already experiences severe delays in confirming transactions and it won’t get any better as time goes on.

Some of the core Bitcoin developers proposed an extension to the core Bitcoin framework called Bitcoin XT. The fork of the original client increased the block size to 8MB and proposed to double the size every 2 years up to 10 times, making the final block size somewhere around 8GB. This would’ve helped Bitcoin overcome some of the fundamental issues it is currently facing but it wasn’t met with universal approval. The developers decided to leave it up to the community to decide as the Bitcoin XT client was still compatible with the current network. The community would vote with its hashing power and the change could happen without much further interaction.

However the idea of a split between the core developers sent ripples through the community. This has since culminated in one of the lead developers leaving the project, declaring that it has failed.

His resignation sparked a quick downturn in the Bitcoin market, seeing the price shed about 20% of its price immediately. Whilst this isn’t the death knell of Bitcoin (since it soon regained some of the lost ground) it does show why the Bitcoin XT idea was so divisive. Bitcoin, whilst structured in a decentralised manner, has become anything but that with the development of large mining pools which control the lion’s share of the Bitcoin processing market. The resistance to change has largely come from them and those with a monetary interest in Bitcoin remaining the way it is: under their control. Whilst many will still uphold it as a currency of the people the unfortunate fact is that Bitcoin is far from that now, and is in need of change.

It is here where Bitcoin finds itself at a crossroads. There’s no doubt that it will soon run up hard against its own limitations and change will have to come eventually. The question is what kind of change and whether or not it will be to the benefit of all or just the few. The core tenants which first endeared me to cryptocurrencies still hold true within Bitcoin however its current implementation and those who control its ultimate destiny seem to be at odds with them. Suffice to say Bitcoin’s future is looking just as tumultuous as its past and that’s never been one of its admirable qualities.