Monthly Archives: November 2009

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, The Hero In You.

I can’t say that I’ve been much of a fan of the war series of games. I’m not sure what it was about them but I guess the glut of Axis vs Allies games we had about 5 years ago left a sour taste in my mouth as they were always your typical “Go over there and kill the Nazis for the greater good” which got extremely tiresome after a long while. I’d always felt that we were just rubbing the German’s collective faces in the fact that they did something wrong and good ultimately triumphed (this could also be in part to my German heritage and hence I felt my pride take a small bruising because of this). So while I may have written off the Call of Duty series off initially they did draw me back in with the first of the Modern Warfare line which boasted an intriguing single player campaign and an extremely dedicated online community. Whilst I haven’t had the time to try my hand online of their latest offering of Modern Warfare 2 as of yet I did get a chance to play through the campaign last week and I must say, Infinity Ward has outdone themselves when it comes to giving you that Hollywood-esque feeling of the man out to save the world whilst still capturing some of the true horrors of war.

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The first thing that you’ll notice about MW2 is absolute beauty of the world that they throw you into. This is not just because of the gorgeous scenery that makes up every single level it’s also the stunning level of detail that has been achieved. Everything you’d expect to see is there from recruits playing basketball in the first level to wine cellars in an upper class neighbourhood under siege. Whilst its easy to race past all of this there are times when you’re forced to slow down and take in your surroundings, which is usually because you’re being held down by suppressing fire. There’s also one scene you can’t run through no matter what, and that’s the controversial “No Russian” mission.

(Spoilers follow)

Now I’ll have to be honest, the controversy and hype about this mission made the whole experience for me rather disconnected and emotionless. Whilst I can understand the emotion that was meant to be invoked by such a scene (and truthfully part of me was just too shocked to react properly) having heard about it endlessly on gaming websites I knew what I was in for and the impact of the scene was lost. However there were a few things that stuck with me about it. The first was a single line on the video before it spoken by Shepard:

It will cost you a part of yourself, which is nothing in comparison to everything you will save.

Indeed reflecting on that mission more I can feel that kind of loss, trying to justify the slaughter constantly in my head with the thousands upon thousands of lives I will save by bringing Makarov to justice. The final betrayal by Makarov then unravels any justification I could have made in my head to overcome the senseless violence my character had just committed, making him just a pawn in his bloody game. So whilst the initial shock of the scene may have been ruined for me the scene still sticks in my mind long after it has been played out.

(Spoilers over)

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There were also a couple ideas or themes that I felt played out constantly through MW2. The first, and probably most obvious, was the very real depiction of what a soldier’s view of front line warfare is. There were countless times when I found myself right in the middle of conflict, gunfire soaring over my head and orders being shouted in my ear that left me in a daze scrambling for direction. Of course the game’s HUD does a good job of keeping you on the right direction (although I do credit Infinity Ward for making the majority of it fade away after a short period in time) but you still get the feeling that sometimes you’re just a small cog in a much larger machine. There are also times when you’re the hero, a single man against a much larger foe. These are carefully balanced and it makes both experiences equally as powerful, something which many games struggle to achieve.

Secondly the entire game is a giant advertising campaign for the United States Army. Now I’m sure this isn’t completely intentional but the times when your character in MW2 becomes the hero many of the horrific aspects of war become glorified. One such mission has you taking out troops using a Predator drone’s Hellfire missiles and you get varying levels of commendation from your team depending on how many you kill in one shot. I can’t really fault them for this because if the game just trashed the American war effort constantly the game would be no fun to play at all and the game would obviously be labelled as such. The careful line drawn between showing the glory and horror of war works extremely well but I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that a few considering a career in the army were tipped over the edge by playing MW2.

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Just because you all knew it was coming (and if you didn’t I’d have to point you towards this page) I’ll have to throw my weight in on the space scene. It was a nice addition and definitely something I wasn’t expecting to see in a game like MW2. However there were a couple nits I need to pick out of their depiction of space, the ISS and indeed their understanding of physics at large.

First off their configuration of the ISS is old and completely off. Whilst I can understand that creating a model takes time (although their configuration is from 2005) and as such might not match the most recent configuration of that space craft the bits that have been added (most notably another set of solar panels) could have been copied from the ones shown in the picture. Secondly the camera’s on the astronauts helmets would be woefully inefficient for the purpose of watching an ICBM from long range. They’re not particularly high resolution and the ISS has many other cameras on board that would be far better suited to this purpose. Additionally the astronaut in question is a fair way away from the station which is never done because there’s just no need for it. I would’ve let them off with a warning if they used the shuttle instead, but then I would probably have a whole other swath of objections to make ;)

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Overall I was very satisfied with my time spent with MW2. It’s a short game with only about 6~8 hours of solid game play in it but I’d struggle to find a moment when your heart wasn’t racing and you weren’t glued to your seat with your eyes solidly fixed to the screen. In fact many who I’ve spoke to about the single player experience in MW2 have done the entire game in one sitting, a testament to how gripping this game really is. I’ve deliberately refrained from commenting on the multiplayer experience as I prefer my FPS games to be played on the PC, and with them being in a minority for this release I thought it would be unfair. However if my brother’s experience is anything to go by (he’s an avid Xbox360 player of Mw2 on Live) its just as captivating as the single player.

Rating: 9.0/10

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is available for PS3, Xbox360 and PC right now for $AU118, $118 and $98 respectively. Game was played on PC on normal difficulty with about 8 hours of game time total.

Why We Aren’t Upgrading.

As a gamer, specifically one that indulges in both console and PC, I had become used to the upgrade cycles that came pretty regularly for all my hardware. Ever since I got my hands on the first Nintendo Entertainment System I had pretty much every console in my house quickly after their release in Australia. Once I got into the wonderful world of PC gaming this then lead into me spending far too much time at the local computer fairs (which you can still see me at today) gawking at the latest and greatest components, dreaming of the perfect system to build. Nothing has really changed in the world of gaming hardware with yearly product releases still the norm. But there has been a shift that has, until very recently, gone seemingly unnoticed.

In the middle of last year I bought myself a new system consisting of everything but a graphics card since I had 2 8800GTs which seemed to be holding up quite well on my old system. By all accounts it was a beast of a machine at the time although it was quickly trounced by the release of the Core i7 line that was released only a few short months later. I had deliberately bought an expensive DDR3 motherboard in the hopes that I’d be able to squeeze 2 years out of the board by upgrading the processor a year or so later, but that didn’t seem like it would ever happen. Although one thing struck me whilst playing through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (review coming!): I had everything turned to absolute maximum and my 1.5 year old system was chugging along without a hitch.

In fact all of the games I had purchased recently had no trouble whatsoever with being turned up to the max. I even unlocked a whole bunch of hidden options in Borderlands which made the game almost tear inducingly gorgeous which in the past would’ve had watching a slide show. I admit I hadn’t really thought about this at all and just loved the fact that what used to be considered an “ancient” system was still kicking so much ass. But then it hit me, almost every game in the past year has had a simultaneous release on a console. This is what was extending the life of my pc rig far beyond what it would have been originally.

It really should have come as no surprise since excluding the console market from your game is removing a large potential revenue source before you’ve even released the game. With the Playstation 3 selling 27 million units and the Xbox360 selling 31 million the potential audience you can target increases by a whopping 58 million should you decide to do a console release. In fact if you take the absolutely massive blockbuster title of COD:MW2 you’ll see that a mere 12% of sales were on the PC with the reigning champion being the Xbox360 (which is not surprising considering that the online component of the Xbox360 for MW1 was the superior of the 2). So really you’d be a fool not to target these platforms but that also means that you can’t make the game that strenuous because the hardware in those consoles really isn’t top notch.

Just taking the graphics cards as a talking point (I’m not going to try to compare the CPUs in these since Cell is just too hard to do comparisons on without getting unnecessarily technical) the PS3 has want amounts to a NVIDIA 7800GTX with a higher theoretical performance and the Xbox360 an ATI X1950XT. Theoretically they’re pretty similar in terms of performance but the differences usually show up in implementation (I have it on good word from a developer friend at 2K Games that the PS3 is a coding nightmare). Still any decent geek will look at those models and tell you straight away that they’re 4 years old and 3~4 revisions behind the current generation. So when your largest audience looks like its going to be playing from a console you’ll design the game from the ground up to run well on such hardware. With a console however you have the benefit of doing platform specific optimizations to really get the most out of the hardware, so your game won’t look seriously out dated. A liberty you don’t have when programming for the PC.

So even though my 18 month old machine would have been struggling in the gaming era of years gone by thanks to the ever growing console market us PC gamers are enjoying the benefits of their slower refresh cycle. This has the added benefit of making almost all PCs capable of running modern games with only certain market segments like netbooks struggling to keep up. In the end it all comes down to a giant windfall for the average consumer as their purchases are now more capable than ever before.

There is a darker side to this however. You see when your largest market is going to be on a console there’s the glaring difference between them and their PC brethren: the control scheme. Typically consoles come with some form of proprietary controller that share a similar baseline (a directional pad, dual joysticks, 4 normal and 2 trigger buttons seem to be the norm)  whereas the weapon of choice for all PC gamers is the good old fashioned mouse and keyboard. Needless to say the range of input options for a PC game is vastly great than that of a console and this means that the difference in interfaces is quite vast. Whilst the differences should be transparent to the user it is far more typical that the game is built around the target platform and then ported across. I lamented this fact in my Borderlands review where the game was very obviously built for console and then modified to suit the PC. This usually ends up in a screaming mess for the scorned platform which typically ends up being the PC, sporting what many call a “dumbed down” console interface.

Another rare downside to the rise of consoles is that sometimes the game play itself can suffer due to development focused on a particular platform which is later ported. The most typical example of this is platform specific bugs which are usually not game breaking but are enough to detract from the experience. There are some rare occurrences of game play mechanics being changed to suit the platform such as COD:MW2 having an auto-aim on the console when you zoomed in the sights which the PC lacked. I’ve yet to see the core story be modified but there are issues like platform specific content which leaves a few feeling a bit miffed but is probably the rarest of the lot.

In the end it really comes out as a boon for all us gamers. Sure there are some downsides to having such a huge console market but overall it has made games far more accessible driving the need for bigger and better titles. Even though this year was plagued with delayed releases we’ve still managed to see many great titles come out which just makes me all the more excited for what’s in store next year. Would we have had this despite the console market success? It’s possible but I’d find it hard to translate those 50+ million console gamers into PC gamers. Nintendo knew it all along, the biggest market is the one you haven’t tapped yet.

My Artistic Twin.

I always feel like there’s a creative side to me that’s always struggling against my logical brain. I love creating things but when it comes to anything artistic or something that doesn’t follow a strict set of rules it seems that my internal wiring gets all crossed up and I write the whole experience off as illogical. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate good creative works, far from it. People who have the ability to create fascinate me in a way that I can’t push aside. One of the great examples I was shown recently was the YouTube celebrity Ronald Jenkees and here’s my favourite of his videos:

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His story is quite amazing having only ever taken music lessons for 3 months (which didn’t work out) and prefers to just jam out on his keyboard with FL Studio providing the beat. I spent almost a whole afternoon just checking out his work and subsequently spent a couple frustrating hours on FL Studio trying to create my own tracks. I think I’m suffering from what I’ll call the IllDoc caramel problem whereby everything I do doesn’t appear to be any good since I’m listening to it for hours on end. That doesn’t stop me from thinking that I can buy my way out of the problem with more gear (I just know I’ll get good when I buy that keyboard!), but I know I’m just ogling gorgeous tech.

You may be asking yourself what the point of this post is since I’m just randomly linking to stuff I like and whining about how hard it is to be creative. Well the thing is I meant to write this post a long time ago, in fact almost 2 months ago when I got back from Turtle Island. You see whilst on the island I had revisited one of my old creative passions, photography. I initially got into this because I wanted a good camera to take with me on a trip to New Zealand with my now wife and became obsessed with DSLR technology. I set myself a budget of about $1000 and ended up with a Canon 400D and a standard lens. The next 6 months were filled with me  annoying my friends and family with my new toy as well as taking a couple opportunities to try my hand at a couple artistic shoots.

So here I am pimping out some of my work again after buttering you up with some other creative people. Have a look, let me know what you think and feel free to give me any criticisms or ask questions about them. Most of these were done in the moment and are my favourites out of the bunch. If you’re crazy and want the high res versions they will be available soon in my gallery page, which I’m still working out how to set up properly (that was another reason for the long delay).

Enjoy!

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LHC Powers Up, Earth Still Here.

Yesterday marked a huge achievement for CERN and the team working on the Large Hadron Collider. After almost a year of delays after a catastrophic incident that damaged 2 sectors and caused 6 tons of helium to be lost they have successfully circulated 2 beams around the LHC. This of course let them test the entire reason they built the thing in the first place, smashing things together:

Geneva, 23 November 2009. Today the LHC circulated two beams simultaneously for the first time, allowing the operators to test the synchronization of the beams and giving the experiments their first chance to look for proton-proton collisions. With just one bunch of particles circulating in each direction, the beams can be made to cross in up to two places in the ring. From early in the afternoon, the beams were made to cross at points 1 and 5, home to the ATLAS and CMS detectors, both of which were on the look out for collisions. Later, beams crossed at points 2 and 8, ALICE and LHCb.

“It’s a great achievement to have come this far in so short a time,” said CERN1Director General Rolf Heuer. “But we need to keep a sense of perspective – there’s still much to do before we can start the LHC physics programme.”

Now we all know the hype around the LHC and how it has the “potential” to create a black hole that will destroy the earth. Whilst its been debunked many times over I’d just like to re-iterate it here, we’re not in any danger from the LHC or the particles it may create. Even though the energy in these collisions seems huge it is in fact quite small, about that of clapping your hands or a flying mosquito, concentrated into a very tiny space. Even if a black hole were to be created it would either evaporate almost instantly due to hawking radition or blaze through the earth where it would then take about 10 octillion (that’s a 1 followed by 28 zeros) to consume the entire earth. I’d be worried about the universe spontaneously collapsing in on itself than a small black hole created by the LHC consuming the earth.

So many people know what the LHC is but not what it was designed for. It does have several goals listed although there’s really only one that gets me all giddy:

  • Is the Higgs mechanism for generating elementary particle masses via electroweak symmetry breaking indeed realised in nature? It is anticipated that the collider will either demonstrate or rule out the existence of the elusive Higgs boson(s), completing the Standard Model.
  • Is supersymmetry, an extension of the Standard Model and Poincaré symmetry, realised in nature, implying that all known particles have supersymmetric partners? These may clear up the mystery of dark matter.
  • Are there extra dimensions, as predicted by various models inspired by string theory, and can we detect them?

The Higgs-Boson is an elusive beast as its the only particle in the standard model that has only been inferred theoretically, it has never been observed. Its discovery would round out the model and serve as a solid basis for the holy grail of physics, a theory for everything. Although this would be all well and good (and really, it is to be expected that we will see a Higgs-Boson) it would probably be more significant if the exact opposite happened. The greatest moments in science have stemmed from carefully prepared experiments behaving in ways that no one predicted, challenging our current thinking and forcing us to look back at our previous work. Whilst I will sing the LHCs praises from the rooftops should they find the Higgs-Boson you can be sure that I’ll be cackling with a mad sense of glee if they prove it does not exist.

While we’re still a ways off from doing real hard science with the LHC it’s great to see them hitting such a significant milestone. It’s hard to believe that the project, which has been going for over 15 years, is on the cusp of performing some of the most radical science to date. Really its a testament to what humanity is capable of and how far we’re willing to go just to satisfy our curiosity.

NEO, The Moon and Mars.

NASA’s in a real pickle at the moment. After having their budget repeatedly slashed year after year by various governments looking to save a few dollars and the scope of their works ever increasing they’re now faced with the challenge of choosing their future direction. A white house panel recently convened on the subject and had several proposals put forth, half of them requiring a cash injection to the beleaguered agency to the tune of $3 billion a year. It would seem the idea of visiting a Near Earth Object (NEO) has gained some traction recently:

BOULDER, Colo. – Call it Operation: Plymouth Rock. A plan to send a crew of astronauts to an asteroid is gaining momentum, both within NASA and industry circles.

Not only would the deep space sojourn shake out hardware, it would also build confidence in long-duration stints at the moon and Mars. At the same time, the trek would sharpen skills to deal with a future space rock found on a collision course with Earth.

In Lockheed Martin briefing charts, the mission has been dubbed “Plymouth Rock – An Early Human Asteroid Mission Using Orion.” Lockheed is the builder of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the capsule-based replacement for the space shuttle.

If they are to follow such a plan (assuming it came from the white house panel’s proposals) it does have some interesting consequences for NASA. First of all it’s one of the more expensive options, meaning that their budget would need to be increased to cope with it. Secondly it would see the shuttle program extended for another year delaying its retirement until 2011. It would also see NASA divert their focus from the shuttle replacement Ares-I in favour of using commercial options like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, only relying on their launch capabilities as a backup. The last, and probably most important aspect, would be that America would no longer cease its involvement in the International Space Station in 2015, instead continuing until 2020. All of these points show a shift from traditional NASA thinking and it has me wondering where the push is coming from.

In all honesty visiting a NEO would make for an interesting mission. It would be a long duration flight of around 6 months with a maximum of a couple weeks spent actually in and around the object in question. The real benefit of such a mission isn’t so much in the science we can do at the asteroid (we’ve already done that) but in the verification that the new hardware is capable of such long duration flights. It’s definitely a step forward in terms of capability, but will it really serve as the stepping stone for manned missions to Mars and beyond?

Buzz Aldrin thinks not, and he’s been an advocate for NASA to focus on going directly to Mars for quite some time. His plan does seem incredibly sensible to me as collaborating with other space faring nations whilst pushing the envelope in terms of deep space exploration means that NASA can get the best of both worlds. I’m sure that Roscosmos and the ESA would jump at the opportunity to establish a presence on the moon as they did with the ISS. The main issue that Buzz hits on quite succinctly is that NASA should be actively seeking collaboration from international partners for projects such as a moon base as these have significant scientific benefits. It would be hard to justify it as a stepping stone to Mars and beyond, but as an international effort it almost looks like a no-brain-er.

It’s a troubling time for NASA as they’ve been presented with a whole swath of options and are faced with the hard choice of cutting back on their core programs or attempting the next-to-impossible by squeezing more cash out of congress. The next year will see many changes happen with the impending retirement of the shuttle and the realization of fully private launch capabilities so we can rest assured that NASA’s future won’t be in question for much longer.

I just wish they’d make up their minds about the shuttle so I can plan my trip over there to see the last shuttle launch ;)

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Dragon Age: Origins, Infuriatingly Captivating.

Maybe it’s the engineer in me (or more likely the perfectionist) but I find it almost impossible to go to bed when I feel there’s something left to be done. This is probably why I lost many long hours on World of Warcraft since there’s always something that needed to be done. It is fitting then that Dragon Age: Origins gave me the same feeling for a solid 2 weeks and every moment spent away from the game had me thinking about it. After what the game tells me was 31 hours (although I know it was more than that, my quick save/load buttons will tell you) I’ve taken some time to reflect on the world that Bioware created and their prowess when it comes to the genre of deep RPGs.

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The first point of note with Dragon Age, as it is with any RPG that comes from Bioware, is the incredible depth of character that all actors have in this world. All the characters have a depth to them that you don’t often see outside a Bioware RPG. I found myself choosing the same party members over and over again because I wanted to know more about them, anxiously awaiting the next dialogue option in order to explore their past in this world. The unfortunate downside to conveying such depth in this medium means that the game suffers from what I like to call the Mass Dialogue Effect (take a guess where that name came from ;)) whereby almost any character with a whiff of involvement in the story will happily regale you with their life story.Whilst it does demonstrate Bioware’s dedication to developing every character in depth it can be laborious when your replaying a section you failed to complete.

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Now I’ll have to be brutally honest here: I’m not what you’d call a veteran of this genre despite my hundreds of days experience with its MMO counterpart. I missed the Baldur’s Gate series of games when they were released, I haven’t played any of the Knights of the Old Republic games and I couldn’t get into Never Winter Nights. So whilst I’m familiar with the concept of min-maxing your party to make you effective i n combat I still got the same feeling that I did when I was playing NWN, the game didn’t really favour those of us who chose a certain path. Musing over the game with friends showed that a few had chosen the mage class, whereas I the warrior. It became pretty clear early on that the game designers made some fights impossible to hack and slash your way through, wanting you instead to take time to use your abilities carefully and make heavy use of the pause function. This is all well and good, however this was usually accomplished by mearly overwhelming you with enemies which the warriors and rogues have a hard time dealing with. Mages on the other hand can quite easily dispatch a large group of enemies with 2 spells thus rendering the challenge useless. Whilst class balance is a small issue in a single player game I couldn’t help feel a little cheated, although there is the potential to play through again. This leads into my next point, the combat.

Bioware has done a particularly good job of making the combat you’re involved in feel larger than life. The combination of the music, your characters screaming their various lines and abilities that do everything from shaking the camera when you land a critical hit to summoning a massive blizzard almost makes you feel like you’re playing through an epic fantasy movie. The experience is not without its faults however. Positioning my warrior for combat would sometimes get him stuck on the hitboxes of the other characters, making him vibrate violently between 2 spots and not attack. This was only made worse that often some abilities would just inexplicably not connect. This is not to be confused with missing which gives a noticeable “Miss!” text above the enemy, they would just fail to render any reaction. Such behaviour became painfully apparent with the 2 handed sweep maneuver which would hit some enemies but not others. Overall the combat system was engaging but plagued with some difficulties that should have been caught before release.

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Relationships were definitely an interesting mini game in Dragon Age. You can take them in almost any direction you want and the consequences are obvious and long lasting. After unsuccessfully trying to court Leliana (apparently lavishing gifts of a rabbit-mouse, who she called Schmooples, and flowers is the wrong way to go about it) I set my targets on Morrigan. It would be kind to say she was an easy conquer because it only took a couple nights at camp and one quest before the screenshot above happened. As I mentioned previously I knew there was the potential for some horizontal mambo and I was hoping for some long last consequences, story wise, because of it. I was unfortunately disappointed, with the dialogue between Morrigan and I only having a couple options here or there available afterwards. I have read of others having a deeper relationship although they did not appear to be available to me no matter what I tried. I did enjoy the idle chatter between Alistair and the rest of my companions about my various exploits in Morrigan’s tent though.

What intrigued me the most about this game is how unique your experience can be depending on how you interact with people. Bioware thankfully steered clear of what they did in Mass Effect (E.G if you were going for Paragon they were always on the top right, Renegade was bottom right) which made choosing what to say all that more meaningful. Suprisingly even attempting the same path can result in different outcomes should a battle swing one way or another. This is what made Dragon Age such a talking point for the gaming community as everyone discussing it will have a distinctly different experience.

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Despite all its shortcomings I was thoroughly captivated the entire time I was playing. I would curse the game for wiping my party out with a surprise swarm of enemies but the victory that would follow several attempts later tasted all the sweeter. I would feel actual remorse for playing my character a certain way and making decision that I felt were right, but caused me some loss in one way or another. I fell in love with Leliana who would never have me despite all the attention I gave her which drove me into the arms of another. Truly this game is as realistic as it is fantastical and that brings with it reveals some true insights into the human condition whilst fostering the escapism we’ve all come to expect from the RPG giant of Bioware.

Rating: 8.5/10

Dragon Age: Origins is available for PS3, Xbox360 and PC right now for $AU108, $108 and $54 respectively. Game was played on PC on normal difficulty (except for the last fight, I lost 2 hours there you bastards!) with around 35 hours of playtime reported.

Do a Barrel Roll!

Ever since the tradegy of the Columbia disaster many additional safety precautions were put in place to ensure that in the event that the shuttle could not be guaranteed to make it back to earth there would at least be somewhere for it to hang out while the rescue crew was sent up. Right now that takes the form of the International Space Station which is well equipped to accomodate the additional crew. I’ve previously blogged about NASA’s last planned rescue mission for the hubble but up until now I’d never mentioned how they actually go about the process of determining if the shuttle is damaged or not. Typically it is done with what’s being referred to now as a “belly flop” when it’s actually closer to the inside loop manuever (although that’s moot as well since the shuttle is rotating around its center axis, there’s no real equivalent):

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During this time the ISS crew takes several hundred photographs of the exterior heat shield on the shuttle and then sends them back down to mission control for inspection. This gives us a good idea if any damage was caused during launch and what the chances are of the shuttle making it back to earth. This isn’t the only time they perform such a task either, as just before they take off the ISS crew will perform a similar check to make sure that no micro-meteroites or space debris caused any major damage. When the shuttle Atlantis went up to the Hubble they used a similar procedure using the payload bay arm to get to the underside of the shuttle.

The video is pretty darn awesome in its own regard since it really demonstrates what space flight is really like. Such a manuever can not be performed by any aircraft and to see such a huge structure slowly rotating itself around is just beautiful. I can see it making a few people a bit motion sick though with the backdrop of the earth below it whipping along at 25,000KM+ per hour. Which brings me to another point, NASA completely fails at geography.

Friends on Facebook and my beloved followers on Twitter (go on, follow me ;)) will have already picked up on me retweeting this slight fail from NASA:

Shuttle Atlantis docked with the station at 11:51a ET while flying 220 miles up between Australia and Tasmania.

Now while I like to make fun of Tasmania as much as the next mainlander the fact still stands that yes our little apple isle is a part of this wonderful country. To say that the ISS passed above the area between “Australia” and “Tasmania” may give some the wrong impression that Tasmania is its own country. If they said mainland Australia or the Bass Strait we’d be all peachy but whoever is behind NASA’s twitter feed needs a boot up the bum. Universe Today also gets a mention of shame for regurgitating that nonsense, since they’re supposed to be a respectable source of space news.

I had planned to write off this entire weekend on gaming (Nearing the end of Dragon Age: Origins and picked up Assassin’s Creed 2 yesterday) but it looks like I’ll be spoilt with a constant background of live feeds from STS-129. It will definitely make for good watching whilst I’m getting my home vSphere deployment up, but more on that next week ;)

Financial Ruin, It’s Your Fault.

I don’t consider myself a genius when it comes to financial situations, more of a technician. You see the great thing about financial matters is that nearly all of them are neatly modelled by equations which fall under the typical engineer’s umbrella of expertise. For the most part however grasping the simple rules that govern your finances seems to elude most people and as such they get themselves into all manner of crazy financial situations. In the last few weeks I’ve come across two articles based around people I’d expect to have some financial sense about them but for one reason or another they’ve managed to push themselves to the brink of ruin:

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Paul Joegriner hasn’t worked since March 2008, when he was laid off from his $200,000-a-year job as chief executive officer of a small bank. But you wouldn’t know it by appearances.

His wife, Marzena, shuttles their two young children to private school every morning. The family recently vacationed in Virginia Beach, Va., and likes to dine on Porterhouse steaks. Since losing his job, Mr. Joegriner, 44 years old, has had several offers. He’s turned each down in hopes of landing a position comparable to what he held before.
When Severance Falls Short

The family’s lifestyle over the past year and a half has been propped up by a $200,000 severance package and another $100,000 in savings — funds the family has burned through rapidly. By Mr. Joegriner’s own calculations, the family will be out of money in six months if he doesn’t find work.

Or more infuriatingly, actively deluding themselves:

If there was anybody who should have avoided the mortgage catastrophe, it was I. As an economics reporter for The New York Times, I have been the paper’s chief eyes and ears on the Federal Reserve for the past six years. I watched Alan Greenspan and his successor, Ben S. Bernanke, at close range. I wrote several early-warning articles in 2004 about the spike in go-go mortgages. Before that, I had a hand in covering the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the Russia meltdown in 1998 and the dot-com collapse in 2000. I know a lot about the curveballs that the economy can throw at us.

But in 2004, I joined millions of otherwise-sane Americans in what we now know was a catastrophic binge on overpriced real estate and reckless mortgages. Nobody duped or hypnotized me. Like so many others — borrowers, lenders and the Wall Street dealmakers behind them — I just thought I could beat the odds. We all had our reasons. The brokers and dealmakers were scoring huge commissions. Ordinary homebuyers were stretching to get into first houses, or bigger houses, or better neighborhoods. Some were greedy, some were desperate and some were deceived.

It’s unfortunate that I see this exact same behaviour in so many people who then pine about how they can’t afford something or how life would be better if they were earning a lot more money. Truth is that unless you change your outlook on your expenditures as your income increases so will your spending and you’ll end up right back where you started. So while I can appreciate that some people’s financial situation may have been made harder by the global financial crisis I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the majority of them could have avoided any hardship had they taken a more keen interest in their finances.

Now probably the most important lessons I learnt about finances was from my parents. We weren’t poor by any stretch of the imagination, but we weren’t that well off either. Once I was older and my interests shifted to the more expensive world of computer hardware my parents decided that they couldn’t fuel my addiction any longer. I can still remember the words clearly: “We’re not letting you spend any more of our money”. So I asked, how can I get the things I want? 2 months later I was employed at Dick Smith Electronics and everything I wanted had to come out of my own pocket.

The problem with us Gen-Y folk is that we’re not used to waiting for the things we want. Subsequently the majority of us have racked up extremely expensive debt on depreciating lifestyle items. This then violates one of the rules of avoiding financial ruin: don’t spend more than you earn. Even with the GFC still working some of its magic on the credit market financial institutions are more than happy to extend you ludicrous amounts of credit on a whim. You may think this is just hyperbole but when I can apply for a credit card online and get instantly approved for a $15,000 limit (there was no verification of my income after the fact either) I know that there are still people out there who are taking the first steps to financial ruin. The easiest way to think of it is if you can’t afford it without having credit, you probably can’t afford it at all.

The other all too common trap people fall into is the one of keeping up appearances or keeping up with the Joneses. I used to lament the fact that I hadn’t travelled overseas as much as some of my friends or that I was still driving a 20 year old car but had I attempted to emulate their behaviour I’d be in serious financial trouble. It’s even harder for us Gen-Ys to resist the temptation to keep up with the latest trends as that’s what we’ve become accustomed to. This is then exaserbated by the fact that many of us would not have had a proper job until our early 20s instead relying on our parent’s income. Once that link is severed many will find it hard to keep up their lifestyle and turn to easy credit to bridge the gap.

I know every piece on financial planning ends up in the same conclusion and you’ll forgive me for driving this point home: do a budget. If you lay out all your income and expenses in front of you it becomes really clear how much is going where. If that’s too hard (I.E. you can’t figure out where all the cash is going) get a expenditure diary and whenever you buy something or pay a bill write it down in there. You’ll soon see all those little things that add up and can easily identify where some sacrifices can be made. Every little bit will help, and the sooner you do it the more likely you are to avoid running yourself into the grave financially.

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Prohibition: Illogical.

The Libertarian in me always gets riled up when it comes to the topic of prohibition. It is my firmly held belief that the state has no right in dictating what I or anyone else does to themselves, as long as it will bring no harm to others. Here in Australia we’re tolerant of small scale recreational usage (for the most part) but it’s still illegal with much of the power left in the judgement of the police. The legality is but a small part of it for me however as the capitalist in me also sees a strong opportunity for a new government regulated industry that would take away power from underground drug traffickers and significantly line the coffers of the government.

It seems I’m not the only one who holds such a viewpoint either. Here’s a great info-graphic that shows the costs of enforcing prohibition vs the revenue that could be raised by treating marijuana as any other agricultural product:

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Whilst another $778 million might be a drop in the bucket for an economy as large as the USA the money spent in enforcing the prohibition of all illegal substances, some $14 billion, would be far better spent on education and health programs. History has shown us that prohibition does nothing to stop people from indulging in these activities so why try so hard to stop them? It’s right up there with abstinence only education which has been proven time and time again to be ineffective. But here I am just ranting on a subject, there’s no proof that legalising all these recreational drugs would work right?

As it turns out there’s quite a substantial body of evidence that legalising any and all recreational substances has an enormous positive effect for both the country and the people:

“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

This isn’t a new experiment by Portugal either, they’ve been at this for almost a decade now. The numbers are quite telling as initial fears mirrored those of any country; legalising drug use would increase usage, bring in the dreaded drug tourists and damage their international reputation. Drug usage overall saw a decrease (although there was a slight increase in marijuana usage), 95% of those arrested for drug misdemeanours were Portuguese (I.E. they were not drug tourists) and internationally Portugal has not been seen any differently due to its liberal stance on these issues (I found it hard to find direct evidence of this but since the majority of the world doesn’t know Portugal has such laws I’d say their reputation is in tact). Probably one of the best outcomes this program had was the doubling of people seeking treatment for drug addiction, something which many will not seek out of fear for what might happen to them. Truly Portugal has shown the world that the decriminalization aspect of recreational usage is viable and effective.

There’s still a lack of hard data on what a government regulated and taxed drug industry would look like. The Netherlands is as close as they come to an actual regulated industry however it’s still extremely ambiguous due to the laws saying one thing, but the enforcement being another. Thus we end up in the situation where it’s not illegal to grow (although you have to hand the plants over if they’re found), coffee shops are allowed to sell it but not buy it (so how do they get it?) and separate registers need to be kept for the sales. Still the government rakes in around $600 million a year from this confusingly regulated industry and the case can be made that such revenue could be used in a similar vein to that derived from the tobacco industry. Seems a lot better than spending an order of magnitude more on trying to make everyone stop.

All this being said I’m in support of a careful, measured approach to implementing such an idea. Whilst I applaud Portugal’s progressive stance on decriminalising all recreational use the implementation of a new industry is something that is not to be taken lightly. A good old fashioned iterative approach starting in well known territory and then expanding (I.E. start with marijuana and move onto others afterwards) would ensure that this fledgling industry was properly regulated and taxed just like its sister industries of tobacco and alcohol.

I haven’t even mentioned the affect that this would have on crime rates in Australia. The data is a bit vague on how many crimes are directly related to drugs but 41% of detainees in Australia attribute their crimes at least in part to drugs (this also includes alcohol). The data seems to show that around that half of them would attribute that directly to alcohol, leaving around 20% of our prisoner population being there for some sort of drug related offence. Even if we’re conservative and say that at least three quarters of those offences would have been committed anyway that’s still a potential crime rate reduction of 5% which would be coupled with the benefit of adding revenue. There just doesn’t seem to be a downside to this equation.

Australia is in a really good position to attempt something like this. We’ve already got the basis in the lax enforcement of the laws and I’m sure there’s more than a handful of people out there with the infrastructure to provide for such an industry should their current activities become legalised. Still we’re in the midst of many other more pressing issues so something like this won’t get any airtime for a while to come. Maybe next term.

But then again I am relying on logic to dictate politics, and we all know how well that works ;)

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STS-129, Chock Full of Space Goodness.

The twilight years of any space program are usually filled with extremely interesting times. For the most part you’re either gearing up for the next biggest thing or getting ready to plunge your craft back down to earth in a spectacular fireworks show. STS-129, which launched at around 6:30am AEST, is the former as it brings with it a truckload of spare parts, many experiments and something that has got me all flustered about the future of the International Space Station. There’s the usual media coverage as well as a NASA tweetup giving blow by blow accounts of mission as it goes ahead. Of course there’s a lovely 10 minute video of the launch and trip into orbit.

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The first part of the payload is 2 ExPRESS Logistics Carriers which combined weigh a total of around 13 tons. These are primarily filled with spares and other equipment necessary to ensure that the station can function properly. As the shuttle is one of only 2 craft (the other being the Japanese HTV as I mentioned previously) that can bring up large sized cargo it makes sense that they’ve crammed 2 of these things into its payload bay. They’ll spend most of their life attached to the main truss segments, only being accessed when the parts are needed. They are in essence, giant supply crates.

Another payload they are bringing up is a Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) carrier which is an experiment designed to see how certain materials and coatings hold up in space. They’ve flown a few of these before with the ones being sent up now having the designation of MISSE 7A and 7B respectively. Back before the days of the International Space Station they did similar experiments to these on a much larger scale. The Long Duration Exposure Facility was a school bus sized version of MISSE that flew on STS-32. It was initially envisioned as a one year project being repeated multiple times but due to budget constraints and the tragic Challenger disaster its retrieval was postponed indefinitely. It was eventually retrieved however after almost 6 years in orbit after STS-41C launched a communications satellite for the navy. The launch of this expriment made for quite an impressive picture to:

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There’s a couple other minor things flying as well, like a S-band Antenna Sub-Assembly which is being flown up as a spare. The mission’s experiments consist of a microbe experiment (to see how they grow in microgravity), some butterfly larvae which will hatch on the station and be studied alongside their cousins which have been raised by school kids from over 100 schools across the US and finally a plant experiment to see how microgravity affects their growth. Pretty standard stuff, but that’s not what’s got me so excited.

The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) UHF communication unit is being flown up with STS-129. For those of you in the know the COTS program is a NASA initiative focused on encouraging private industry to develop launch capabilities that NASA can then purchase from them. This particular piece of equipment is developed by none other than my space crush company SpaceX, and will facilitate communication between the ISS and the future manned space capsule called Dragon. It’s a tantalizingly real step towards a fully private institution providing transportation to the ISS, something which has never been done before. It also shows that all of SpaceX’s work is very real and they’re extremely serious about making sure that once the shuttle retires that NASA will have a local alternative to get their astronauts up into space. Back a few years ago it was hard to judge whether or not SpaceX would be able to provide such capability to NASA. Today it is a guarantee.

So whilst this isn’t the most sexy mission (that still belongs to the Hubble servicing mission that just oozed cool) it is definitely a big step forward for the future of space. The ISS is being geared up for the shuttle’s retirement by stocking it up with all the goods it will need for a long time whilst SpaceX continues to push the envelope in terms of its capability. Next year’s test launch of the Falcon-9 rocket really can’t come soon enough and I know it won’t be long before the Dragon meets the ISS.

Blog fodder doesn’t get much better than this ;)