Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Newest Extreme Sport: Space Diving.

For all my love of aviation and aeronautics I’ve never taken the opportunity to leap from a flying aircraft to experience a glympse of what weightlessness would feel like for a brief moment in time. It’s not due to fear, although I did struggle with heights up until I started rock climbing as a teenager, more I’d say it was due to sheer laziness on my own part. There’s a recurring joke amongst our group of friends that we should go sky diving at the end of the year, only for it to never happen. We’ll make excuse after excuse for not doing it, but in reality we’re just really lazy.

That doesn’t stop me from being interested in the sport however. One of the most popular ways for you to get flight hours up is to become a sky diving pilot. They do an exceptional amount of hours ferrying people up there and usually all your flight costs are paid for (you getting paid is a grey area in Australia, elsewhere is downright illegal if you’re not licensed commercially). So when news came my way of a skydiver attempting to break the record for highest jump ever I was instantly intrigued:

A “space diver” will try to smash the nearly 50-year-old record for the highest jump this year, becoming the first person to go supersonic in freefall. The stunt could help engineers design escape systems for space flights.

On 16 August 1960, US Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger made history by jumping out of a balloon at an altitude of some 31,333 metres. “I stood up and said a prayer and stepped off,” he recalled (see Space diving: The ultimate extreme sport).

Since then, many have tried to break that record but none have succeeded – New Jersey native Nick Piantanida actually died trying in 1966. Now Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner has announced he will make the attempt, with help from Kittinger and sponsorship from the energy drink company Red Bull.

I’ve heard about many people attempting to break this record before and have always shared their disappointment when they’ve failed. Still when I first heard about a similar attempt a year or so ago I decided to look up the person who held the current record, Joe Kittinger. His record stands as part of experiments to make sure that pilots ejecting at high altitudes wouldn’t go into a fatal flat spin when return to earth at extremely high speeds (such as those achieved by the SR-71 which exceeds Mach 3). His work also paved the way for something novel that NASA has only recently begun to test: orbital skydiving.

For any space mission the trip and back down is the most dangerous time as that’s when huge changes in energy are occurring. On the way up you’re being accelerated to an equivalent of Mach 25 and when you’re coming back down you have to lose all of that speed somehow. For nearly all spacecraft this is done via what’s called an Ablative Heat Shield, which basically melts away and produces a gas layer that keeps most of the heat away from the space craft. These are extremely heavy and in an industry where any weight you carry up means that much more fuel and less payload alternatives are constantly being searched for. This research then spun off a very interesting idea.

NASA, in their quest to find better alternatives to ablative shields started to look at exotic designs and materials. One of them was proposed by a partner agency Aerojet which consisted of what amounts to a giant nose cone shaped balloon covered in a wire cloth impregnated with silicon rubber and silicon carbide dust. The shield itself wasn’t meant for spacecraft, it was meant as an escape craft for astronauts who were stuck on a space station with no where else to go. It was, in essence, a space parachute.

As crazy as it sounds the idea had some legs and NASA has been investigating it thoroughly. In fact last year saw the test of IRVE, which was a slightly more advanced version of the Aerojet proposal. All the tests looked good and whilst we’re a fair way away from strapping an actual person to one of these things and seeing if they can make it back to earth safely it does show that there are many ways of improving safety in space. I can only imagine the space liner of the future will be packed with enough of these to ensure all future private astronauts can return to earth safely.

It’s this kind of envelope pushing that drives the fledgling space industry forward. Whilst people like Baumgartner are seen as the extreme dare devils of today they will be looked back upon as those who pushed the limits of our perception and forced a paradigm shift amongst us all. I wait for the day that for the cost of say a concord flight will buy you an orbital sky dive.

What a rush that would be!

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Apple’s iPad: Not Just an Awkward Name.

Finally after the collective Internet hive mind being caught up in a flurry of speculation and turtle-necks we’ve finally been put out of our misery and Steve Jobs has unveiled the much rumoured new product: the iPad. It has caused such a fluster that it managed to eek its way onto the local news this morning, something which things like shuttle launches struggle to do. I’d been following the rumours pretty closely in the hopes that whatever Apple released would be appropriate for a demonstration I was planning for when Geon hit the next milestone. To be honest I’m a little disappointed at Apple’s offering, but not for the reasons you might think.

Apple is renowned for their good design and keen eye for minimalist aesthetics. The iPad unfortunately suffers from the legacy of its predecessor the iPhone. Initial mock-ups that floated around the Internet showed something scarily similar to that of the picture shown above which is in essence just a scaled up iPhone. The kicker here is though that unlike the iPhone the iPad has a giant black bezel around the screen which makes it look kind of clunky. I can see why they did this though as the device is only half an inch thick, something which they would’ve struggled to achieve had they not made it a little taller and wider. Still it looks more like those cheap digital photo frames more than a classy Apple product. I’ll still reserve final judgement for when I see one of these things in the store though.

There is however one place I feel I can criticize fairly aptly, the tech specs. Apple has been kind enough to provide a list as long as your arm of the features that the iPad includes:

  • 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy widescreen Multi-Touch display with IPS technology
  • 1024-by-768-pixel resolution at 132 pixels per inch (ppi)
  • Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
  • Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR technology
  • Wi-Fi + 3G model
  • UMTS/HSDPA (850, 1900, 2100 MHz)
  • GSM/EDGE (850, 900,1800, 1900 MHz)
  • Data only
  • Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR technology
  • Wi-Fi
  • Digital compass
  • Assisted GPS (Wi-Fi + 3G model)
  • Cellular (Wi-Fi + 3G model)
  • 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB flash drive
  • 1GHz Apple A4 custom-designed, high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip
  • Accelerometer
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Built-in 25Whr rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
  • Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music
  • Dock connector
  • 3.5-mm stereo headphone jack
  • Built-in speakers
  • Microphone
  • SIM card tray (Wi-Fi + 3G model only)

Nice sized screen and lots of connectivity options so that’s a good start. Where things start to awry is when you look at what’s under the hood: a 1GHz custom CPU, hard drives smaller than the majority of SSDs available and no mention of how much ram the thing has. What I’m seeing here is actually just an upscaled version of the iPhone something that’s actually quite comparable to say the Nexus One. So realistically it would be more aptly described as a stripped down netbook, as it doesn’t really have much grunt behind it at all. Though I admit the iPhone did show you can do some quite interesting stuff with minimal amounts of power.

The real crux of it though comes down the Operating System (OS) that runs on top of all this hardware. Seeing it this morning it looked like the iPad was running yet another custom OS from Apple. Turns out this isn’t true and it is in fact running the 3.2 version of the iPhone OS. So the iPad shares the flash immunity of its iPhone brother (and by extension, Silverlight to) and will be limited to applications available on the app store (seems Apple isn’t done milking that cash cow just yet). So it looks like the rumours of the iPad just being a huge iPhone are confirmed, which is extremely disappointing.

So overall Jobs has put forward something that is far from revolutionary, is extremely limited in its application and really fails to meet the industry standard of what we’ve come to expect from a tablet PC (be honest with yourself, its a scaled up MID). I wholeheartedly swallowed the rumours on the device and was quite prepared to shell out $1000 for something that would be running say a cut down version of OSX, but it seems that’s never to be. I’m sure the iPad will enjoy a decent amount of success thanks mostly to the Apple brand but when the $800 netbook I bought months ago runs circles around it you can guarantee one of these won’t be making an appearance in my house.

And I thought I was beginning to like Apple, for reals.

Display
*  9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy widescreen Multi-Touch display with IPS technology
* 1024-by-768-pixel resolution at 132 pixels per inch (ppi)
* Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
* Support for display of multiple languages and characters simultaneously
Wireless and Cellular

Wi-Fi model
* Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n)
* Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR technology

Wi-Fi + 3G model
* UMTS/HSDPA (850, 1900, 2100 MHz)
* GSM/EDGE (850, 900,1800, 1900 MHz)
* Data only2
* Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n)
* Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR technology
Location

* Wi-Fi
* Digital compass
* Assisted GPS (Wi-Fi + 3G model)
* Cellular (Wi-Fi + 3G model)
Capacity
* 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB flash drive
Processor
* 1GHz Apple A4 custom-designed, high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip
Sensors

* Accelerometer
* Ambient light sensor
Battery and Power

* Built-in 25Whr rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
* Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music
* Charging via power adapter or USB to computer system
Input and Output

* Dock connector
* 3.5-mm stereo headphone jack
* Built-in speakers
* Microphone

  • * SIM card tray (Wi-Fi + 3G model only)

A Hacked PS3 Anyone? Bueller?

Take any piece of modern hardware and guaranteed its locked down in one way or another to make sure it’s not used in a way that the vendor didn’t intend, expect or desire. Take Apple for example, they strictly control what can and can’t be run on their entire range of hardware products to make sure that their brand name isn’t tarnished (and they fight fervently when there’s even the slight hint that it might). Such restrictions give rise to the hacker community dedicated to unlocking the full potential of the hardware. To them it’s not so much the potential of having unrestricted access, more it is about the challenge that is presented with these restrictions and finding that loophole that lets them circumvent it.

To date nearly every major console and handled game device had been hacked into in at least some form. A couple days ago however the king of the unhackable hill, the Playstation 3, has apparently fallen from its perch:

I have read/write access to the entire system memory, and HV level access to the processor. In other words, I have hacked the PS3. The rest is just software. And reversing. I have a lot of reversing ahead of me, as I now have dumps of LV0 and LV1. I’ve also dumped the NAND without removing it or a modchip.

3 years, 2 months, 11 days…thats a pretty secure system

Took 5 weeks, 3 in Boston, 2 here, very simple hardware cleverly applied, and some not so simple software.

As noted in the quote above its been quite a long time coming for such a hack to appear. So long in fact that I doubted that it was legitimate considering that the site itself is extremely new (well under a month) and was proclaiming something that had been tried before and failed spectacularly. My mind was changed when I checked out who the hacker was, George Hotz, who’s claim to fame before his PS3 shenanigans was unlocking the iPhone. So his street cred checks out.

I put off posting about this for a couple days so I could glean a little bit more info about the whole thing before posting about it. The hack itself doesn’t appear to be too complicated however what is going to be complicated is making anything of it. Whilst the original “phat” PS3s were quite capable of running Linux (albeit quite horribly, I don’t even bother with my install anymore) many of the higher level functions, like access to the full set of GPU instructions and the SPEs, was disabled. This meant that anything running on the PS3 that wasn’t sanctioned by Sony was inherently crippled. Getting access to these extra bits of functionality would make allow people to create games without forking over for Sony’s developer kit ($10,000 FYI). You can see why they tried so hard to keep people from doing such a thing.

There’s also the darker side to this hack appearing: piracy. Sure there are legitimate reasons for blowing open access to a console like this but for the most part any successful cracking of a game console has ultimately lead to a rampant piracy scene. Whilst it would be difficult to judge the actual financial damage to Sony and the publishers who have games on the PS3 it would still be there, and you can bet your bottom dollar that it would be cited as a reason for any bad financial quarters. GeoHot’s hack is a far cry from this however, so there’s still a long time before any real piracy scene appears for the PS3.

Still I can’t help but wonder, will anyone really bother? A typical game on the PS3 can be anywhere from 10GB to 25GB something which, especially in Australia, would be rather hard to swallow when your download cap is a mere 75GB such as mine. Additionally with many games appearing cross platform you’re really only going to be pirating the exclusives and if you bought a PS3 its not really worth your trouble just to pirate those. Would you really spend the cash for a blu-ray burner, discs and bandwidth in order to play a few games a year? I’m guessing not.

So whilst I was initially excited at the prospect of some intrepid hacker finally cracking the PS3 code it wore off pretty quickly. With my secret addiction to collector’s editions that have things you can’t pirate still running rampant I have no inclination to pirate games on my PS3, nor do I have a need for yet another computer in my house (there’s 5 in the same room as the PS3, I’ll be damned if I need the PS3 to do their jobs). With this hack taking so long to come out I can’t help but feel that the majority of PS3 owners are in the same boat, happily residing themselves to never thinking about home brew or piracy on the PS3.

Still I’ve been wrong before so I’ll be watching the developments pretty closely. It certaintly has made for interesting reading at the very least :)

How To Make Your System Admin Go Postal.

So you’re a large company or government organisation with a decently sized IT department. Everything is running smoothly as far as you can tell but there’s something missing. You can’t quite put your finger on it but there’s just no “buzz” or “synergy” or any of those other words you heard other middle managers use at that conference you went to last week. You can’t let this go on too long or something terrible will happen, so what can you do?

FEAR NOT MIDDLE MANAGEMENT CREATURE!! THE REFINED GEEK PERSCRIBES YOU THE 10 FOLLOWING STEPS TO MAKE SURE YOU GET ALL THE SYNERGY YOU NEED!!!!!

  1. Have one of your system administrators design or redesign a system. Make sure its business critical.
  2. After several long meetings with that administrator get them to start implementing it.
  3. Ensure that no documentation is created regarding the design, implementation or required maintenance.
  4. Make sure everyone knows about it but not enough to be able to figure it out.
  5. Halfway through them implementing it give them another high priority task.
  6. Let the system stagnate for about 6 months. This ensures that everyone who was working on will no longer have any idea how it was implemented and if you used a contractor for it they’ve either moved on or been fired (they were useless anyway, right?)
  7. Bring up the unfinished project at some meeting and tangle it up with another project that’s less than a month away from its final deadline.
  8. Now here comes the great part, find your target and dump the system on them. Make the costs of the project failing so high that they’ll have no choice but to complete it on time or be fired.
  9. Additionally get them to redesign the system. This means that you can instantly go back to step 1 and repeat the process on another target should you so wish.
  10. Sit back and relax. Your little worker bee is now a couple weeks away from going completely postal on your entire company!

Using this secret technique you to can ensure that none of your projects are delivered on time, your staff overworked and most importantly none of the blame will ever reside with you. Also you will get RIPPED IN 4 WEEKS!!!!#()*$)#*$)(#$*)#$*

END TRANSMISSION…

Reading the passage above you may be lead to believe that I’ve gone completely bonkers after an incident at work. You’d be right to since I’m here at work on Australia Day thinking up a plan of action for something vaguely approaching what I described above. Sure I was probably going to be in here anyway but I was going to get a lot of work done that was really quite interesting and fun. Instead I’m now going to be spending the next 3 weeks unravelling yet another mess of what can only be described as fire-fighter¹ architecture. I’m beginning to question how sane I was taking the extension in the first place.

Sure there are benefits to doing something like this as I’ll be learning a bit of tech that I’ve only dipped my toes into previously. Still when I get given something like that I don’t like having to dive in head first into it without the proper information which is, of course, no where to be found. I’ve never left a workplace without documenting all the inane crap I did to make sure someone else doesn’t end up in this situation. It seems more and more I’m amongst a minority in this case.

I was decidedly more livid about this whole situation yesterday when trying to voice my concerns (and possible solutions) and having them fall on deaf ears. Today however I’ve decided to isolate what I can and can’t do and start hacking away at it. If this bit of work is going to be my downfall I’ll go down swinging, but I would’ve still preferred to have not been put in this situation in the first place.

So ends this little foray into crazy rant world. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled blogging and we can all put this behind us.

That or I’ll find those 10 steps above on a management website and I’ll just have to give up on the IT industry completely ;)

¹I use this term to describe something that arose out of an immediate problem. One example I was unfortunately responsible for was copying files from a Unix share to Windows. The program that needed the files couldn’t read the share directly, no matter what we or the vendor tried. So I made a script that copied them from the Unix system to a Windows share. This of course was a band aid solution on a much bigger issue and of course anytime the system broke down they instantly blamed it. I put out the fire with a quick solution, but it became a critical part of the architecture.

uncharted-2-among-thieves1

Uncharted 2: You Had Me At Marco.

Back in the early days of the Playstation 3 there wasn’t that many good games to be had on the console. The only launch title that was any good was Resistance: Fall of Man and that was enough to tide most people over until some of the big titles started to hit the shelves. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune came out in November almost 9 months later to a crowd of Playstation owners who were desperate for something new, exclusive and hopefully good. By all accounts Uncharted managed to fulfill these expectations completely and the wise cracking hero had his triumphant return announced a year later, and was on the shelves a year after that. In my first weekend off from various project work in well over a month I decided to sit down and play through the sequel from almost start to end (I caved when I bought it last year and played about 2 hours before putting the controller down) and thought I’d share my experiences with you.

The first thing that you’ll notice about Uncharted 2 is the absolutely stunning graphics that Naughty Dog has managed to cram into this game. From the jungle ruins to the mountains of Nepal all of the levels are carefully crafted to be visually stunning and not one of them fails to deliver on this aspect. I caught myself a few times just spinning the camera around just to look at everything and was always suprised to see those little details that you usually go wanting for in such games. You can see why this game was made exclusive for the PS3 as they needed the full 25GB of space on the blu ray disc in order to have such rich detailed environments.

The visual onslaught doesn’t stop there either. One of my gripes I had with Assassin’s Creed 2 (although I failed to mention it in the review) was that whilst the story was deep and thoroughly engaging many of the characters were stuck firmly in the uncanny valley. In Uncharted 2 however the motion capture technology coupled with the extremely well done character models made the characters that much more believable. Couple this with the amazing voice actors and exceptional camera work done for many scenes and you have a game that has an almost Hollywood feel to it. This is quite a feat for a game that isn’t part of my secret pleasure genre cinematic gaming.

Uncharted 2 is a strange mix of several different core game play mechanics. Initially it starts out as your not-so-typical 3rd person shooter, with Drake being able to carry 2 guns, some grenades and of course his fists. The variety of weapons isn’t huge but there’s enough for you to be able to handle any situation the game throws at you. The inclusion of special items such as riot shields, chain-guns and mounted weapons (ala the first Predator movie) also provide some fun with an almost comic relief quality to them. Whilst there aren’t any vehicle sections that you control in Uncharted 2 you’re not starved for vehicle hi-jinks, with many adrenaline fueled scenes to play through.

The next game play mechanic is that of a 3D platformer. Having just finished Assassin’s Creed 2 just a week before you’ll excuse me for making some direct comparisons between the two. With Drake the climbing is much less of a star than it was in Assassin’s Creed 2. Realistically it would be more appropriate to call the platformer sections of Uncharted 2 a mini-game as whilst there are many of them (and it has been integrated with the other mechanics seamlessly) all of them are quite linear with few opportunities for you to stray from the designer’s path. That’s not to say that some of them aren’t challenging, far from it. But if you’re used to being able to climb almost anywhere ala Assassin’s Creed 2 you’ll be sorely disappointed in Uncharted 2, as many of the surfaces that appear climbable simply aren’t. One advantage of this is there’s less chance for you to leap unknowingly off a cliff or into a deep abyss, although that can still happen from time to time. Overall the platformer aspect of Uncharted 2 is quite good and I won’t fault the game because of it, but that still doesn’t make the numerous falling deaths Drake suffered at my hand any less annoying ;)

The last is something that many games attempt to do and usually fail at: stealth combat. Whenever games have tried to give you the option of going stealth it usually ends up in a blithering mess. Games with it as a core mechanic such as the Theif series and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow usually do quite well but until Uncharted 2 I hadn’t had one that seemlessly integrated the stealth with its shooter aspect. They even give you “ninja bonuses” for taking out opponents in sneaky ways, something that lead me to try it whenever I could. Granted you’ll usually end up in a point where you can no longer do it by stealth and have to start spraying bullets, but that just seemed to be part of the fun.

There’s something to be said for a game that’s both visually gorgeous at the same time as having a plot to rival most blockbuster movies . Just like Modern Warfare 2 Uncharted 2 had a kind of hollywood action feel to it. In fact both of them share very similar lineage as both of them were new IP when they were released (MW2 had the edge here with brand name, but make no mistake MW1 was new IP for Infinity Ward) and both were leaps and bounds more successful than their prequels. Most of this can be put down to them building successfully on the groundwork laid by their predecessors, which is unfortunately the source of my biggest gripe with Uncharted 2.

It would seem that we as a gaming community have a very short memory in terms of prequels. For all the accolades that Uncharted 2 seems to pile up none of them seem to make the connection that the game is really not that much more different from Uncharted 1. The climbing mechanics are the same, the weapons are the same and whilst the levels are set in a different location they play almost exactly the same as they did in Uncharted 1 all those years ago. Sure the game is enjoyable and the plot is vastly different but when you had something like Assassin’s Creed 2 that managed to basically reinvent itself between releases you start to wonder why Naughty Dog didn’t attempt the same thing. Granted when you have a formula it’s hard to convince the investors to let you deviate from it but at its heart Uncharted 2 is the same game as Uncharted 1, which is why it is surprising to see this one so critically acclaimed whilst its predecessor’s reception was lukewarm by comparison.

To be honest though I don’t think I could’ve spent my first Saturday off any better than playing my way through Uncharted 2. I put off playing the first one for a long time until one of my long time friends (and fellow blogger, definitely worth a read) swapped me Uncharted for Assassin’s Creed. I’m glad I did as the first one was a refreshing change from the garbage I had been playing and Uncharted 2 is no exception. Whilst it may be almost the same game it was 2 years ago that doesn’t stop it from being extremely enjoyable and well worth a playthrough should you be a memeber of that not-so-exclusive club of Playstation 3 owners.

Rating: 9.0/10

Uncharted 2 is exclusively available for PS3 right now for AU$78. Game was played on the Playstation 3 with around 12 hours of gameplay total and a paltry 37% achievement completion. No multiplayer has yet been attempted but from all accounts it appears good. Review may be updated should I ever attempt it :)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

OnLive: Can They Handle Being a Niche?

You might recall a while back me ranting about Cloud Computing and how it was just an idea that died a long time ago but managed to resurrect itself under a flashy web 2.0 name. In that post I made a passing mention to a gaming service called OnLive which promised to deliver high definition gaming experiences to any platform that was capable of streaming video over the Internet. Although I really didn’t mention it in that post I was pretty skeptical that it could deliver on any of its promises and had many conversations with my gamer pals along those lines. Still they had open their services up for a closed beta for carefully selected people (most notably only in the US) but details had still been scant. That was until one of the guys at PC Perspective managed to wrangle himself a login:

Of course things aren’t always as easy as they seem.  Immediately after the 2009 announcement technology and game journalists began to wonder how the game service could work as easily and and as effortlessly as OnLive claimed.  By far the most troubling question was regarding latency – how would a service like OnLive deal with the input latency (time between data leaving your PC and arriving at the data center) of a mouse, keyboard or controller?  With as much as 100 ms of delay between servers on the Internet, that is a potentially long time between your mouse movement and your mouse movement appearing on screen.

Well, obviously looking for answers, I found a login for the closed OnLive beta and decided to sit down for a couple of weeks and give the service a thorough evaluation.  In this article we’ll look at both the ease of use of the service as well as the real-world experience of playing a few of the games.  I think you will find the results to be interesting!

Indeed the results were and I encourage you to follow the link above and read through the article in its entirety. He raises some good points and also highlights what the big road blocks are for the service. There was one thing that he didn’t end up mentioning though, and that was the business model that OnLive is going to be relying on.

For game publishers OnLive is a dream come true. No longer are gamers buying physical copies of their games which have that nasty effect of generating the second hand market they can’t profit from (not for lack of trying, however) and are also rife with piracy. Instead you’re now only renting a copy of the game and the second you stop paying, you stop playing. It has the effect of turning a one off sale into a continuing revenue stream. Much like a MMO without the continual investment in providing new content. You can see why nearly every major publisher has jumped on the OnLive bandwagon, it’s a huge potential cash cow.

However the problems that Shrout notes in his review of the OnLive service are real threats to their bottom line. For instance let us assume that their service works flawlessly given you’re within a certain range of the data center. The range limit then shrinks the potential customer base substantially since, although Internet access is pervasive amongst the gamer community, not all of them are within a short distance from a data center. There’s still a large potential market of people who are (namely any city with a population over 100,000) but this still requires that OnLive servers be installed at these locations and here’s where the problems start to arise.

With any new installation there’s going to be an overhead of minimum equipment required to provide the OnLive service. This then rules out most of the smaller cities since they won’t be able to guarantee there will be enough subscribers to justify the install costs. As such it would appear that OnLive would be limited to medium to large cities who could have a large enough population to guarantee the minimum number of subscribers to make the installation viable.

There’s also the fact that the service really only appeals to the casual gaming crowd. Sure I’d love to be free of the upgrade cycle but if I have to deal with input lag, blocky compression and having to pay a continuing fee to access the games I want suddenly buying my own PC capable of playing the games doesn’t seem like so much of a hassle. Casual gamers on the other hand would rather that they just be able to play the game and would be less concerned about the issues I meant above.

So in the end the target audience for OnLive is the casual, city dwelling gamer and to be honest most of them are pretty satisfied with their consoles or Pop cap game collections. Don’t get me wrong there are definitely people out there who would use and love the service however I keep getting the feeling that the idea of OnLive somehow revolutionizing the way we play games is just plain marketing hyperbole. But then again I guess that’s what all good marketing companies do when they’re pushing a product that’s completely different from anything else that’s been offered before.

The real question then becomes: can OnLive survive and profit from this niche? Only time will tell. With our gaming rigs lasting a lot longer due to the console revolution most gamers aren’t too fussed when their rig needs an upgrade. Couple that with the average age of a gamer being somewhere in their early 30′s with a much larger disposable income and the advent of digital distribution you’re looking at a market who doesn’t really need the services that OnLive provides. They may attract enough of a crowd to continue on for as long as they need to but I doubt they’ll ever become the pervasive service that they were initially marketed to be.

cemetery-ghosts

Weapons Grade Bollocks.

You might notice that I don’t usually post on the same topic more than once per week. That’s because I’ve usually said all I can think about for that area and posting again just feels like I’m repeating myself. So in essence skepticism was done for the week after I posted my rant yesterday about alt-med and I set off on trying to find something else new and interesting to blog about. So you can imagine my frustration when over a morning coffee a news story pops up that flared up my bullshit detector and sent me into a wild skeptical flail. The story itself? Ghosts appearing in photos in a cemetary:

DOES this photograph show the figures of two children, born nearly a century apart, walking in their own paranormal playground?

The family who took this picture while on a ghost tour in Picton, NSW,  swear there were no children inside the St Mark’s Cemetery.

Which begs the question: who, or what, is out there?

Local legend has it that the two children are David Shaw and Blanche Moon, who died 60 years apart.

Just so I don’t explode from the sheer amount of stupid that’s emanating from the media outlets that are lapping up this story (even when it’s not a slow news day, what with Prince William being here) let me tear down why this story, and indeed all stories like this, are pure weapons grade bollocks.

The first problem I see with this story is that the picture was from a digital camera. It’s not explicitly stated but the family said when they “uploaded” the photos they saw the children who weren’t there when they took the photo. Right off the bat this shows that they could have easily been altered and the lack of the original hi-res photo makes inspection for alterations difficult. The reporter on the news this morning said inspection of the photo showed no alterations since the noise appeared to match the background.

Ok sure it’s not like we can add in noise to pictures afterwards… oh wait yes we can. It’s rather trivial to put objects into a photo that weren’t there in the first place, blur them slightly and then add film grain over the top to make it appear like the photo was an original. Plus the size of the image floating around is ridiculously small with JPEG compression knocking out a good whack of detail. Additionally none of the images on the web contain the EXIF data either, which is basically a fingerprint of data the camera leaves on every shot it takes. This has all the makings of a faked image if I ever saw one.

What gets me though is that the locals were so quick to jump on the bandwagon and say who the children were. I mean really can you even make a face out in those pictures? As far as I can tell they’re the same kid and you’d have zero chance of identifying anyone with a shot that blurry. So of course the local legend must be right since the picture is of 2 kids. Usually something like this would flounder on the back pages but somehow its made its place amongst a prince visiting our country and the tragedy in Haiti. Smells like a PR stunt to me.

As you can probably tell I never buy this kind of bull that seems to come my way every so often. These kinds of things play on people’s inbuilt fear of death and hopes for an afterlife, something which I don’t believe should be used for material gains. Whenever you see something like this take a step back and ask yourself “How hard would it be to fake that?”. 99.999999999999999999999% of the time you’ll think of ways pretty quickly, in the other cases it’s a complicated illusion that will take you a lot longer to pick apart. There’s a reason why a lot of magicians out there are also rabid skeptics.

Alt Med: That Makes Me ANGRY!

For the most part I give alternative medicine a free pass since the company I keep generally doesn’t buy into the whole scene. I almost bit the head off some very nice Americans on Turtle Island when they started blathering on about it but the cocktails and amazing food kept the raging skeptic in me at bay. More recently however the alt-med nonsense has been creeping back into my life, and I can’t say that I’m willing to give it the calm disdain I had for it previously.

My sister in-law recently went and saw someone recommended to her by a friend. They didn’t state at the start what qualifications they had nor what kind of practitioner they were. After asking some general questions about health she was then subjected to something that was akin to the Scientology’s e-meter, in essence a gussied up resistance meter. The practitioner touched the device to various parts of her hand which made the meter jump and make some kind of “woooooooo” noise when it did. She then moved pegs on a board labelled with the internal organs. Apparently this was done to judge the health of her said organs. For about an hour of this she was charged the princely sum of $200, told to take some herbal concoction she mixed up and avoid any grains.  I had to laugh because otherwise I would’ve been tracking that person down and throwing science at them until they relented.

As far as I can tell this was some off-shoot of Electrodermal Screening, something I had quite a bit of trouble tracking down. Needless to say it’s impossible to diagnose someone’s health by measuring the resistance of the skin on your hand and as she was explaining it to me you could see she was realising that she’d basically been conned. However she still went on to explain it to everyone else and regurgitated what the practitioner had told her despite my advice that she should disregard everything that she had been told.

I can understand the reasons why though, when you figure out you’ve been conned there’s a certain amount of social stigma attached to it. Admitting that to your peers only serves to weaken your image amongst them, even more so when you’ve parted with your hard earned cash. Still it’s this kind of social behaviour that the alt-med practitioners prey upon in order to keep themselves in business. Sure the fair majority of them actually believe that they’re helping but that doesn’t detract from the fact that they are in fact scamming people. Wilful ignorance is not a defense in my eyes.

It probably doesn’t help that the majorit of my family-in-law had a healthy distrust for doctors. I wish I could say this was rare to but it seems that no matter who you talk to they can rattle off a bad experience with a doctor, which gives undue credit towards these alt med whackos. Sure they make mistakes but do you really want to put your health in the hands of someone who’s whole profession is based around heresay and conjecture or someone who’s spent the better part of a decade in training backed up by decades of science? It seems that we’re all to willing to throw that all out the window in the hopes that the person with the magic beans has the solution.

I’m a keen believer in that if I need information in a field that I’m not (or can’t become in a reasonable amount a time) an expert in I should delegate to the experts. My health is one of those fields and so far the expert advice of eat healthy, exercise and keep everything in moderation has served me pretty well. Sure I might begrudge having to go to the doctor when I’ve got the flu in order to get a piece of paper telling me I have the flu to get out of work, but I can appreciate the work they do. Otherwise I’d have to train myself to be a doctor and I really don’t have 10 years to spare right about now :)

Why Your Gamer Friends Are Missing.

2009 was a bit of a dry spell for gamers. Sure we had a couple great hits with the likes of Modern Warfare 2, Assassin’s Creed 2 and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune but for the most part we were denied the games that were set to end the decade with a very memorable bang. We can partly blame the GFC for most of this since most consumer reports showed a decline in people’s willingness to part with their disposable income (and who could blame them really) and no one wants to release their game into a bear market. Still we managed to smash the previous record for biggest media release of all time so it wasn’t all bad and for the most part the games were delayed to ensure they’d have that extra layer of polish that would ensure they lived up to everyone’s expectations.

The reason I’m writing about this is that after completing Assassin’s Creed 2 I thought I’d check up on the pre-order status of some of my favourite titles that were scheduled for release last year but got the chop. To my surprise my list ended up looking like this:

That’s not mentioning that I’ve still got Uncharted 2, Bayonetta and Batman: Arkham Asylum to play through! I had promised myself a month off after finishing a recent project (not Geon, that still has a long way to go) and it seems I’ll be spending the majority of it either cemented to the couch or firmly planted in front of my PC. Not that I’m complaining though, but it would seem like I have well over 100 hours worth of gaming being released in the next month. Sometimes I wish I was unemployed ;)

To be honest though two of those titles there aren’t really what you’d consider AAA titles that are going to attract the majority of gamers. Heavy Rain is a highly specialized game for people like me who revel in the fledgling cinematic gaming genre. It’s target audience is squarely aimed at those people who enjoyed Fahrenheit and possibly those who enjoy a good murder mystery. White Knight Chronicles is at the other end of the spectrum as at its heart it’s a Final Fantasy clone. The only reason I carry such an obsession for it is because I saw it as one of the darlings of the PS3 when it was announced all those years ago. After having been taunted by it for almost 5 years I’m chomping at the bit to actually play it, even if it turns out to be completely crap.

Mass Effect 2 is another one of those games that drove me completely wild when I first saw it. I’m a sucker for good Sci-Fi and Bioware has never failed in delivering an epic RPG. In fact I bought into the hype so badly I ended up buying an Xbox 360 just so I could play it, much to the lament of my friends who said if I waited it would eventually come out on PC. I think the $500 investment was worth not having to wait 6 months for the release :) Strangely enough I bought Bioshock with the console to, since it was either get the Xbox or a new video card and I knew I had to get a Xbox eventually. Still I think I’ll be getting Bioshock on the PC this time around since the experience was much better comparatively.

So if you find yourself alone in the coming months you can rest assured that the gamers in your life have probably locked themselves in a room to get through the massive backlog of tremendous titles that are being released. So whilst 2009 might have been the year of the delayed release it would seem that 2010 will make up for it in spades.

What a way to welcome in the new decade :D

ac26

Assassin’s Creed 2: I Have Seen The Truth.

Sequels are always a tricky thing when it comes to games. If you’re a game developer lucky enough to get the opportunity to make one you know that the original game garnered at least some respect from your peers and the wider consumer market. Unfortunately with the games industry becoming an extremely large and profitable business we’ve been inundated with nothing but sequels recently as businesses seek to reduce risks whilst still increasing profits. The original Assassin’s Creed, released just over 2 years ago, was an original storyline and game play idea that by all accounts was a smashing success (knocking the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare from the top spot on its debut). Still it wasn’t without its criticisms as the core game play mechanic as well as the side missions became rather repetitive and tedious as the game played along. Still the story was utterly intriguing and the ending, whilst unashamedly screaming “LOOK OUT FOR THE SEQUEL”, left me begging for more. My fix came in the form of Assassin’s Creed 2 which I managed to finish over the weekend.

The setting for Assassin’s Creed 2 is set in the late Renaissance period in Italy. It’s a far cry from the original’s settings of Israel and I have to say initially I was sceptical. The original was sold on the basis of exploring the original roots of the assassin’s and seeing it jump forward almost 300 years had me wondering how they would connect the two together. Thankfully I can say that despite the gap in the assassin’s story lines the lineage is still there and is referenced constantly throughout the story. Your character is the young noble Ezio Auditore da Firenze who’s journey begins in betrayal leading him on his own personal crusade.

When you compare the sequel to the original at first it is a little overwhelming. Whilst playing as Altair the only other parts to the game, apart from assassinating people, are running a few side missions or trying to collect flags from all over the city. I happily avoided doing this in the original since there was no appreciable benefit to doing so. Whilst playing as Ezio however there’s opportunity to buy new weapons, armour and even buy upgrades for your villa and the surrounding town. At first I thought this was just a tacked on after-thought however since the upgrades you buy actually improve the town I started to get a feeling of connection between my efforts and improvement I was seeing. I quickly spent all my hard earned cash on upgrading everything from the doctor’s surgey to the brothel, reveling in a strange sense of pride. All your weapons and armour that are not in use are displayed on racks inside your own villa which was another cool addition. In terms of engagement Assassin’s Creed 2 is definitely a step up from the last.

One of my gripes about the original Assassin’s Creed was that whilst the assassination’s were thrilling any other combat felt rather stilted and repetitive. The base combat hasn’t changed that much in the sequel, however the variety of combat is much greater and is far more enjoyable. From disarming enemies and then taking them down with their own weapons to running up to high ground only to turn around and leap on top of your enemies to quickly dispatch them I never had a dull moment when it came to combating everything from the run-of-the-mill grunts to the heavily armored and agile guards. The ability to pick up weapons that your enemies have dropped is a great addition to as stealing a 2 handed weapon can turn a fight that would last 20 minutes into a 2 minute affair.

Another small gripe some people (especially players of the PC version) had with the original was that, although the free-running was new and highly enjoyable, it was a tad unpredictable leading to many awkward moments of Altair leaping to his death or straight into a bunch of guards. The free running with Ezio is far more fluid and with the addition of the crouched-leap which is gained part way through the game many areas that looked inaccessible suddenly open up. There’s also the addition of swimming in the game, which at first looks like a gimmick but soon turns out to be a powerful tool when you stumble into Venice. I still don’t understand why anyone other than Ezio who dares take a plunge instantly perishes, but it can still lead to some rather comical moments when you accidentally shove a civilian in the drink.

These are really all an aside to the main star of this game: the story. From the beginning where you suffer a brutal betrayal to the your rise from the ashes to your acceptance of who you and your family are I couldn’t find a moment in whilst playing Assassin’s Creed 2 where I wasn’t wholly engaged in the people and my place amongst them. Initially I lamented the lack of interaction with Desmond as the interplay between his waking life and time spent in the Animus was something I really enjoyed. However after a while I began to forget I was playing through Desmond’s eyes and began to appreciate the depth of character development that Ezio undergos throughout the story.

One of the features of Assassin’s Creed 2 is the included database that pops up when you get near a historical place or building. This serves 2 purposes, the first was to immerse you even further in the world. I found myself reading through every database article, soaking myself in the world of late renaissance Italy. The second was to guide you to places that held some significance, either to Ezio in the form of the assassin’s tombs which unlock the best armor in the game (worn by Altair apparently, although you never get a classy black garb like this one in the original) or more interestingly to Desmond, who is hunting down clues placed by another user of the animus, Subject 16.

This was probably one of the most engaging parts of the game. Hidden on buildings throughout the game are glowing glyphs which, after a cryptic puzzle which can involve simply finding something in a picture to cracking some extraordinarily hard codes, unlock just under a second of a video. The puzzles are usually based around technological events in history with everything from Telsa to the atomic bomb making an appearance. The clips of the video are just as confusing until the whole series is unlocked and the revelation gained from doing so, whilst completely unrelated to the game, is something to behold. I just stared at the screen for a minute or two after watching it, contemplating what it meant.

All of this is brought to a dramatic end that wraps up the main story arc of Ezio whilst opening up more questions for Desmond. It was one of the most gripping ends to a game I’ve ever experienced with my emotions following those of the characters in the game. There will definitely be an Assassin’s Creed 3 and I can tell you now, it can’t come any sooner. There’s potential for the game to go several ways and no matter what option they choose they can’t go wrong with the formula they have developed. This is a story that’s just begging to be told.

I’ve intentionally left my gripes to the end because really they’re nothing when compared to the rest of the game. There are some frustrating moments when you push the controller in just the wrong direction, sending Ezio to his untimely death. This becomes all the more painful when you’re introduced to the dreaded jump puzzles to unlock Altair’s gear, especially when they add a timer to them. Still these parts of the game are at their heart platformer puzzles and they’d just be a waste of time if getting that jump just right wasn’t the secret to success.

Overall Assassin’s Creed 2 takes all the criticisms levelled at its predecessor and emphatically puts forward solutions to silence even its most harshest critics. If you enjoyed the first Assassin’s Creed you’re guaranteed to like the second one and those of you who found the first lacking in some way will find their wants satisfied.

Rating: 9.5/10

Assassin’s Creed 2 is available for PS3 and Xbox360 right now for AU$78. The PC version has an expected release date of March 16, 2010. Game was played on the Playstation 3 with around 20 hours of gameplay total and 90% completion.