Monthly Archives: February 2010

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There Goes my Weekend…

I picked something up yesterday, something looking suspiciously similar to this:

Yeah I think you can guess where I’ll be spending a good chunk of my weekend, firmly welded to the couch while I bathe myself in what is going to be one of the most enthralling cinematic gaming experiences to cross my path. The fact that the guy I picked it up from at EB asked me if I had played Fahrenheit shows just what kind of a following this game has and I’ve deliberately steered clear of any news or reviews of the game, lest they ruin my experience.

Now it’s one thing to get excited over a game due to the hype buildup or developer loyalty but, for me at least, Heavy Rain is in another category entirely. That’s not to say it’s the most excited I’ve been about a game, far from it. I was much more jittery when it came to picking up the Mass Effect series of games or even the first World of Warcraft expansions. No, there’s something different about this game that is tickling a part of my brain that I don’t think a game has ever triggered before, and that in itself is saying something.

I can probably put this down to the Four Days online experience that Quantic Dream put on. Basically it was a prologue to the game and involved putting you in the shoes of one of the characters of Heavy Rain who was investigating a murder. It played out over 3 days of each week for 3 weeks and to be honest the first one came and went with me barely giving it a second look. However things started to get interesting when the second one came along.

The event started with a series of interactive Youtube videos that put you on the other end of a 911 phone call. The idea was to keep her on the phone as long as possible so you could extract information about what she saw. If you do it right you’ll be sent to another website with a grab bag of evidence from the crime scene which contains various photos other bits of info. What drew me in at this point was a link to a Twitter account, and this is where things got a bit crazy.

It just so happened that I got the evidence package late at night and decided to check out the account to see if there was anything on it. Amazingly right as I was going onto the website the person behind the account started to answer questions about what he saw that night. Queue 3 hours of me furiously sending questions to him and refreshing the page, desperately hanging on for every little bit of information I could drag out of him. I went to bed before the whole event finished but as I drifted off to sleep my head was filled with even more questions that demanded answers and I spent the next day on the edge of my seat waiting for the mysterious character to return.

The next day saw me selecting the 4 most appropriate pieces of evidence from the crimescene to be submitted for further investigation. After a few attempts I got it right and was rewarded with a code for an early copy of the demo. Not wanting to spoil anything of Heavy Rain I filed it away and waited for the next challenge to begin.

The last challenge in the Four Days campaign wasn’t as enthralling as the one that preceeded it. Basically it was just looking at Facebook fan pages and figuring out who best fit the data. It was kind of spooky when I got an email out of the blue from another person who was apparently working the case for her own reasons, and the page she linked to instantly identified her as one of the characters right out of Heavy Rain. I still spent some time reading all the profiles but that initial buzz I felt from staring at SleeperInTheSun’s Twitter feed was a distant memory.

Despite the climax being somewhat disappointing (although the trailers that followed were amazing) it made me step back and take stock of the emotional responses that this little meta game invoked. Fahrenheit was one of those games that drew you deep into the story and its characters, even to the point of stretching the definition of what constituted a game (My game developer friend Tim doesn’t let me call them games, only interactive movies). Heavy Rain made no secret that it’s striving for an emotive experience first and gameplay second which has drawn some harsh criticisms from more traditional game reviewers. So far every one of the cinematic games I’ve played have been experiences I’ve savoured like a fine wine and if the small tidbits of Heavy Rain that I’ve indulged in are anything to go by this will be another fine addition to my shelf.

Internet Filter Opt Out: Logical and Deliciously Dramatic.

Way back when, long before I got involved in blogging as a means of chronicling my various exploits in relation to Australia’s Internet filter the policy itself was really nothing to get excited about. Taking a step back into the distance past we can find its roots in the NetAlert program that sought to provide free private Internet filters to all families that wanted them. To say that the program was a failure and complete waste of time is harsh but accurate, as the usage statistics showed a severely disproportional amount of money spent vs actual usage of the program. It was a fairly quiet failure to and if you’d pulled anyone off the streets you could easily have forgiven them for not knowing anything about it. Overall NetAlert was just another government boondoggle and it died the quick quiet death it deserved.

Conroy decided to up the ante a little bit and put forth the beginnings of the Internet filter proposal not too long after that. Having survived the NetAlert program without any noticeable damage to the freedom of the Internet and the IT profession as a whole the netizens community shrugged it off as well. At this time the filter proposal wasn’t as malicious as it is today with the option of being able to opt out being one of its defining characteristics. Sure we were annoyed that we’d have to tell our ISPs that we’d prefer them not to filter our Internet (which in the public eye puts you in the same category as paedophiles, criminals and sexual deviants) but it wouldn’t be too much hassle and the government could sing their success from the rooftops, even if we didn’t really agree with them.

It didn’t take too long however for a bombshell to drop, you couldn’t opt out.

And so spawned the No Clean Feed movement, along with this blog and many others. I’ve analyzed it from all angles and there’s not been one use case that’s had the Internet filter coming out smelling like roses. This coupled with the fact that the policy just doesn’t seem to die despite massive delays and public backlash makes it all the more scary that such an abomination make actually make its way into reality. There is however a small glimmer of hope:

Labor Senator Kate Lundy plans to propose a filter “opt out” when the legislation goes before caucus.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in my proposal,” she told The Australian.

“The feedback I’m getting back from colleagues is that there are concerns around freedom of speech and lack of parental empowerment.”

Senator Lundy said the Conroy filter took control away from parents.

To date that has been the only sensible idea that I could ever support with an Internet filter for Australia. Why it has taken over a year and a half to come full circle and propose that we let people opt out (or better yet, opt in) is beyond me, but it signals that there’s enough pressure from the wider public to make at least a few backbenchers uneasy about putting their vote behind legislation that won’t buy them any favours.

The interesting, but not unexpected, result of Lundy seeking to amend the legislation is the rest of the Labor government becoming rather uneasy about the whole subject. There’s tangible opposition mounting on both sides of parliament but many of the more conservative members are sticking to their guns and not renouncing support for the filter. The reasons for this are twofold. The first is that many members can’t quite bring themselves to oppose the filter save for associated themselves with child pornographers and other miscreants. I’d bet my dollar on this being a lack of education on their part as they don’t really understand how ineffectual and detrimental such a filter would be. Thus they tow the popularist line of protecting the children and the wider public from the deprived hedonism of that dark place we call the Internet.

The second is just pure politics, they don’t want to be seen as changing opinions lest they be seen as playing to the popularist movement. That I can understand, but will never condone.

I still hold out the belief that this will die a slow and agonizing death but every news story that crops up about the Internet filter is just more salt in an old wound. With people like Lundy causing a stir in parliament and making the appropriate headlines I’m sure we’ll soon reach a critical mass of public opinion that will help sway some of the more stalwart members across to our side but we’re still far from being in clear on this one and I urge you to support the No Clean Feed movement in any way you can.

As much as I love all things Chinese, I’d prefer my Internet to stay Australian.

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The Falcon is About to be Unleashed.

I’ve got a not-so-secret man crush on the entire SpaceX operation. In a time of diplomatic turmoil and economic disasters they have continued to pioneer on with their founder’s dream of being the first fully private company to deliver launch capability to the wider world. It’s been quite a roller coaster ride for them but they’ve constantly shown that every failure is just another step towards ultimate success. With their Falcon 1 having notched up 2 successful launches in a row they have upped the ante quite considerably by rolling out their Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 (home to famous launches such as Cassini-Huygens) and just recently, they moved it into launch position.

Tipping it upright might not seem like a milestone to celebrate but it marks the beginning of a very exciting series of events that are going to occur over the next couple months:

Fueling rehearsals, called a wet dress, and a short, 3.5-second static test firing of the Falcon 9’s first stage engines are the next major milestones.

“SpaceX has not set specific dates for wet dress or  static fire as [the] schedule will be driven by the satisfactory completion of all test objectives and a thorough review of the data,” SpaceX officials said in a Sunday update.

This is not the first time SpaceX has hauled its 180-foot (55-meter) Falcon 9 rocket vertical atop its launch pad. The company assembled and moved its first Falcon 9 to pad in January 2009 as part of integration tests.

So in essence for the past couple months SpaceX has been doing dress rehearsals for what it would be like to do a fully fledged launch of their Falcon-9 rocket. They’ve also been making modifications to their launch site in order for it to be able to handle the Falcon as it was previously set up for the Titan series of rockets. Whilst they may have erected the rocket like this before they weren’t doing it in preparation for an actual live fuel and fire test, which is scheduled to happen sometime soon.

This isn’t the first time they’ll be firing the Falcon 9 however. At it’s heart the Falcon 9 is just 9 Falcon 1 engines (called Merlin) strapped together but as I’ve said before adding more engines isn’t a trivial task and we’ve seen world superpowers try and fail to get them all working properly. Thankfully getting 9 engines to work synchronously is far simpler than 20+ and 2008 saw SpaceX successfully test fire the engines in several configurations. The culmination of which was firing all 9 engines at once for a full mission duration of around 3 minutes. Here’s a video of the test, well worth a watch in my opinion:

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In the middle of all the controversy surrounding the future of America’s place in the final frontier it’s refreshing to see private companies forging ahead like nothing had changed. The public might not yet know about SpaceX and their various accomplishments but we’re only a short few years away from the first fully private company sending cargo and people into the great black sea that surrounds us all.

And I couldn’t be more excited!

iPad Revisited, Still Not Convinced.

I spent last weekend in Adelaide with many of my good friends (and two of them fellow bloggers). For the most part we’re a pretty technical bunch with nearly all of us in IT based fields. You can then imagine that many of our conversations came down to various bits of tech or services that we might have found interesting or useful and with the hype of the iPad still fresh in our minds we inevitably came to discussing the implications of the device and strangely, for me at least, ended up with an agreement to disagree on many aspects of this device. Today I’d like to take a go at deconstructing the arguments that were put forth and see where it takes me.

“The iPad, from a technical standpoint, is nothing more than an overgrown iPod touch”: This point we could all agree on. Realistically the device itself is nothing of a technical revolution, nor is the software running on top of it. When Apple released the iPhone they did what they were good at, making tech that was reserved for the annals of geekdom cool and easy to use for the masses. The iPad takes the innovations of the iPhone and just plonks them on new hardware, with only small variations here and there. The real differences do lie within the software but as far as normal releases of Apple hardware go this was something of a technical let down, but that really only means anything to us geeks.

“Apple is seeking to revolutionize the print media industry/The iPad will see the birth of digital news subscriptions”: From eBooks to online newspapers the iPad is quite capable of serving them up on a quite large screen. Traditional media organisations have typically been pretty hostile towards new formats and the digital realm has been no different. Apple is definitely working at getting more content available for the iPad through direct channels with news organisations however their style of business is clashing with those of the old media giants. The talks are still in early days and there are already some publishers pledging their allegiance to the platform but I still don’t think this is enough. The iPad’s iPod ancestors had their content channels (read: iTunes) setup and ready to go long before the release of the device. Sure much of the iTunes infrastructure will be used in order to facilitate the delivery of said content but without solid media deals in place beforehand I can’t see this being as revolutionary as it’s being made out to be.

Similarly a point was made that the iPad would see people coming full circle on their news consumption habits and we would see the rebirth of the newspaper subscription, albeit in digital form. At the time I made the unsubstantiated claim that no one would pay for it, based mostly on the idea that I wouldn’t. There does seem to be some hard evidence to suggest that I’m not alone, with a recent experiment netting only 35 subscribers in 3 months for a total cost of $4 million. Just because the subscription might be made available on the iPad doesn’t necessarily mean that people will be willing to pay for it. In fact I’d argue that most of the big media corporations will continue to offer the majority of their content online for free and continuing to reap what they can from advertising.

The argument was then made that people are always willing to pay for good journalism. Whilst I can understand the idea behind that (you get what you pay for) the fact is that no matter how many paywalls go up there will always be another alternate source of news that will be made available for free. Many of the wire feeds can be had for a certain fee and realistically it wouldn’t take too much programming effort to grab said feeds, format them appropriately, slap on some advertising and put it on the web for all to see. The fact of the matter is that the current generation of netizens are accustomed to getting their fix of digital news for free and putting up paywalls, no matter how they’re delivered to the end user, will end in utter failure for them. I can see the possibility of say search deals with Google (as they have done for a good number of paywalled sites already) that drop the paywall in return for favourable search listings but the net result is still the end user not paying directly for the content.

“The iPad is a great eBook reader”: Well yes and no. It’s great for those who haven’t lashed out for an eBook reader and wanted a device to fill a need they didn’t know they had but as an eBook reader well it’s sub par. The LCD screen, whilst an appropriate size and quite usable, isn’t what you’d want to be reading books on for an extended period of time. E-Ink systems such as those found on the Kindle and Nook are far more readable in many more conditions than that of a LCD. It might sound like yet another geek technicality but those I’ve spoke to who own one of those devices swear by them. Many of them had attempted reading eBooks on other LCD based devices before switching to their new E-Ink device and for the most part wouldn’t want to take a step back, even for something that has oodles more functionality.

Additionally the biggest advantage that the Kindle and Nook have over the iPad is the free cellular wireless connection that comes with every single device sold. Whilst I can appreciate the fact that the iPad can have similar connectivity or the fact that many of these won’t be away from a wireless access point for very long the fact still remains that almost anywhere in the world the current eBook readers have free access to their book stores and various Internet sites. If you want Internet on your iPad you will be paying at least US$130 more for the privilege or you’ll be hopping from hot-spot to hot-spot, something which you just can’t do very well in places like Australia.

The picture looks even more grim for the iPad as an eBook reader when you consider the sales of devices already in the market. The Kindle is already over 3 million units shipped and the Nook, released only a few months ago, could already be passing the 500,000 mark. That’s an enormous install base to get past and, thanks to the proprietary nature of the current eBook market, none of them are going to want to switch since they would either relegate themselves to having to use 2 devices or give up on the book collection they acquired on their pre-iPad device. Consequently the range of books available through iBooks is currently unknown and you can bet your bottom dollar that Amazon and Barnes and Noble won’t be too keen to share their range with what will be their biggest competitor.

“The iPad seeks to create a niche, not fill one”: I agreed with this point as it’s something that Apple has done several times in the past with great success. Their combination of minimalistic design and it-just-works usability has made geek tech cool and accessible to the masses. The iPod and iPhone are great examples of this with both of them coming into a market that was already awash with many other devices but was struggling to reach critical mass. The iPad is probably one of the little more adventurous additions to the Apple product line as whilst there are a few other tablets out there they’re still having trouble getting into people’s homes. This is in contrast to say the MP3 player and smartphone market before them which where very much alive and kicking at the time, but were still lacking mass market appeal.

Consequently calling the iPad a tablet PC is somewhat of a misnomer since it really doesn’t fit into the definition of a tablet that the market had defined prior to its arrival. Tablet PCs to this day have had the ability to function as full fledged computers on their own. The iPad on the other hand really can’t be used as a replacement for a full desktop or laptop simply because it lacks the higher end functionality that these devices bring. It would be far more apt to call the iPad a netbook since it aligns much more closely to those ideals, what with the custom user interface (ala the EEE) and lack of computing power.

Is there a market for this niche they’re looking to create? Absolutely. If we learnt anything from the Joo-Joo (aka Crunchpad) there are people out there who like to do the majority of their computing, mostly consisting of web browsing and light document editing, in non-traditional computing settings. These are the people that have been up until this point unsatisfied with their laptop/netbook and are looking for something, how would you say, more casual. Devices like this aren’t meant to be a drop in replacement for your home computer but if you’re wanting to quickly check your flight before you rush out the door a quick booting device that shows a web browser is exactly what you need. Couple this with iPad’s insane brand loyalty and you’ll have many of these devices hitting homes around the world before people are even sure what they want to do with them, but that will only last so long.

“Apple is a hardware company”: This is a point I didn’t make during the discussions with my peers but its something that’s come up time and time again in the online buzz surrounding the iPad. For all their spruiking and hype about the various services they provide the majority of them don’t appear to make a whole lot of money for Apple. Trying to uncover some hard numbers on their sales figures leads only to a rampaging horde of opinion pieces, none of which provide accurate figures. Steve Jobs has said in the past that it only makes enough to cover its costs, and has said similar things about the App store. You’d then wonder why they bother providing them in the first place.

Well the first reason is fairly obvious: Jobs was lying and their a massive profit machine. Without hard numbers though it’s just going to be another he-said she-said situation so I’m going to work on the assumption that they at least cover their costs, and are at least turning a profit now.

What I can work on though are some hard numbers of say what an iPhone costs to make. Taking numbers from here the grand total for the bill of materials for an iPhone is US$178.96 and that phone will sell for a good US$699. If we round up the cost to $200 to cover shipping and whatnot you’re still looking at a whopping $500 profit on each handset sold. To put that in perspective most companies run on profit margins for hardware somewhere in the vicinity of 3~5% which pales in comparison to the 250% that Apple makes on each iPhone sold. It is therefore worth their time to create services that, whilst not explicitly profitable for them, drive the more profitable hardware sales.

You can see this in every aspect of their business to with their entire range of Apple products attracting premium pricing regardless of the competition on the market. Initially this started with their desktop range and sales where driven by the “it-just-works” meme that Apple has indoctrinated into its users. Initially the hardware was significantly different to what regular consumers got but in the last few years the hardware they use is identical to what you’ll find in most common PCs. The premium then comes from the integration of all the various bits and pieces together into one cohesive bit of hardware and software that to the end user is almost brainless to use. Couple that with the hipster cred that comes along with it and you’ve got products that market themselves.

After all this I’m still not convinced that the iPad will achieve the greatness that the Apple fan club has attributed to it. Sure it might sell a decent number of units but I don’t think that will be enough to drive the eBook and online media revolution that some have ascribed to it. My RSS feeds used to be ablaze with the hub-bub about the iPad but the last month has seen that die down to a quiet whisper in the background. Time will tell how successful the iPad is and whether it can achieve all it sets out to do, and this blog post will either stand as a triumphant prediction of the future or a large helping of my own words which I will have to humbly consume in front of the wider Internet audience.

You can probably guess which I’m hoping it is ;)

UPDATE: Some recent developments have shown TV execs are also hesitant to cave into Apple’s demands for cheaper entertainment that would help spur sales of their devices. Can’t say that I blame them since it would be a boon for all of Apple’s media devices and probably wouldn’t be so good for them:

Apple has supposedly been pitching networks on lower prices for TV shows, cutting the current standard from $1.99 to 99¢. If a report in the New York Times is accurate, it seems that most networks have been reluctant to consider lowering prices for two reasons: they fear the lower price will devalue the content, and doing so may give Apple more control than they would like.

Though iTunes music sales have been a success in the face of dropping CD sales and increasing P2P file sharing—Apple is already gearing up to commemorate 10 billion songs downloaded—two-dollar TV episodes have only been downloaded about 375 million times. Apple is trying to convince networks that 99¢ will make TV shows more palatable and drive increasing sales.

Not that I wouldn’t mind that though. Paying that much for a high quality copy of a TV show would be mighty tempting, especially if there was no delay between the free-to-air and digital release. Yet another piece of interesting information to consider in the greater iPad world.

Diving Deep Into The Internet’s Underbelly.

My friends and long time readers will know that I’m no stranger to the darker sides of the Internet. Whilst I don’t spend every spare minute seeking out the depraved sanctuary that many of those sites provide I do love a foray onto the wrong side of the railroad tracks every so often just to see what happens when you grant a large audience an ability they didn’t have before. To be honest it’s probably more apt to describe it as a kind of Internet adrenaline sport although I must admit the rush is nothing compared to say, Zorbing in New Zealand (highly recommend that by the way).

With this in mind you can imagine the slightly perverted part of my subconscious perked up when he heard about a new site called Chatroulette. Stay your hand before clicking that link though as what lies beyond is not for everyone and most assuredly, not safe for work. I came across the site in my usual daily intake of random tech-oriented awesome over at Boing Boing, and throwing caution to the wind about the warnings of penises a plenty I decided to fire up my poor web cam (which has the IR filter removed, making most things appear strangely coloured) and see what came out on the other end. Needless to say I was in for a surprise.

The first bunch of people on the other end looked to be mostly college students, staring intently into the camera probably hoping for girls on the other end of the line to show them some skin. I say this because most of them spent about 2 seconds looking at me before hitting the next button. Feeling slightly disappointed that my random Internet encounters weren’t going to turn up a passable conversation I decided to unleash my inner 4chan troll and mess with the people on the other side of the camera.

This is when things started to get weird.

At first I just tuned into one of my favourite trance channels and turned up the volume loud enough for it to be heard on the other end whilst pointing the camera at a nearby wall. The first of my victims seemed to like the music and it inspired him to dance whilst intently watching the screen. After about 10 seconds I decided to spook him by pointing the camera at myself and yelling, which led to a very surprised reaction and a quick click of the next button. I wasn’t done with Chatroulette yet and decided that whilst providing random dance music to strangers was all good there was something missing. My web cam needed an actor.

One of the side effects of my collector’s edition addiction is the swath of various figurines and models that adorn my computer desk. They then became my avatar in this world of random encounters. From a Cylon to a Daeva from Aion to an Optimus Prime Potato Head they all got their 15 seconds of fame with those who were connected to my den of cheesy trance music. For the most part people just clicked straight on but occasionally I’d get the obviously inebriated college student who would just stare blankly at the screen for several minutes. Despite my hopes of conjuring up a good conversation with phrases like “I’m a Cylon :D” or “Where the hell did I drop my nose?” many of them would just click on, still on the hunt for random Internet strange.

And then there was the torrent of male genitalia. I’d have to say that at least 1 out of every 5 of the strangers I was connected to was a single male with the camera pointed directly at his wedding tackle. I’m sure most of them were hoping for a free peek at some Internet strange but really, why bother? It’s possible they thought that just putting it out there would hopefully make any female that was using Chatroulette to stay more than the second it would take to load up the first frame from their web cam, leading to a IRL hookup.

I think it would be more likely that they’d get their junk struck by lightening, but I’m somewhat of a realist.

You can then imagine my shock and surprise (or lack thereof) when I saw the New York Times publishing an article on the site:

Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University who researches how people share and record video on YouTube, said Chatroulette was a “very exciting reuse of existing technologies.” But he warns parents to educate their children. “I can’t say that I would want my kids on there,” Mr. Wesch said, “but I know they are going to eventually find the site anyway.”

From my experience on the site, echoed by those I’ve spoken to, it seems as if 90 percent of users are genuinely looking for novel and unexpected conversation; the rest — well, let’s just say they have debauchery in mind.

Either Bilton is using a completely different site to the one I was on or he somehow managed to avoid the 20% penis rule that I encountered. For the most part the users I connected with were only interested in possibly seeing some random woman’s privates, even the ones who weren’t flashing their trouser snake to the world. The few who attempted to engage in conversation with myself or my various avatars barely managed to get past the first sentence before moving along which is what led me to indulge my inner troll.

What all of the stories on this new sensation fail to mention is that it is basically a direct rip off of another service called Omegle. Granted this service is text only but it has been around for a lot longer and appears to have a steady following. Honestly the people using Omegle were far more interested in a real conversation with someone on the other end of the line than the people using Chatroulette were and, much like Twitter, the limitations of the service are what drive the real creative uses of it. Sure adding video would attract more users but then you’d just end up with the same torrent of random boobie trollin’ strangers that plague Chatroulette’s service.

Both of these sites play into the dark side of us that strives to cast off our identity in order to create a new one that is free from all the boundaries that we’ve built around ourselves. Just like their predecessors they attract both those who seek genuine value from the service and those who seek to unleash their inner deviant. Thrusting myself into this world was an interesting experiment as I went from a seeker of genuine to connection to /b/tard in record time. I can’t see myself going back anytime soon but if I do you can be assured that the return of the trance loving Cylon isn’t too far away.

Urge to troll rising….. ;)

Obama Gone Nuclear With Power.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big supporter of nuclear (and renewable) sources of energy and how frustrated I am that the social stigma attached to it has seen what would otherwise be a clean and safe source of power slip by the wayside. Many people seem to think that there’s more danger inherit in this technology than there is in other power generation when this is simply not the case, but it seems that incidents of reactors past are still fresh in everyone’s mind. Still with countries like France pioneering the way for nuclear energy I’ve always held out that hope that one day we can transition away from our current energy dependency on oil and coal.

It would seem that Obama isn’t as short sighted as many of his constituents are:

In his speech, Mr. Obama portrayed the decision as part of a broad strategy to increase employment and the generation of clean power. But he also made clear that the move was a bid to gain Republican support for a broader energy bill.

“Those who have long advocated for nuclear power — including many Republicans — have to recognize that we will not achieve a big boost in nuclear capacity unless we also create a system of incentives to make clean energy profitable,” Mr. Obama said.

He also strikes on one of the biggest problems (other than the social stigma) that nuclear power faces: the cost. Current estimates for new reactors peg the total construction cost between $6~10 billion dollars with costs of construction going up faster than other means of power generation. Obama hits the nail on the head when he says that incentives are needed as the majority of western countries are quite hostile to new nuclear plants. The amount of regulation and beaucracy involved in setting up these plants typically makes them unprofitable for those who would want to set them up. Guaranteeing funding for the majority of the work means that a lot of the risk is absolved by the government, making the endeavour much more attractive.

Obama also gets kudos for using the proper spelling of nuclear (although that could be the reporter, I haven’t heard the speech myself. If you’ve got a link to it let me know!).

There is however hope for future reactors like the Westinghouse AP1000 (Yes, that Westinghouse) which has been commissioned by China for the princely sum of just $2 billion, a drastic reduction in cost. Additionally with China’s economy still growing strong they’ve planned a grand total of 100 of these reactors to be built over the course of the next decade which will have the added side effect of driving massive economies of scale when it comes to building AP1000 plants. With time I can see this reactor tech becoming a lot cheaper than their coal and oil counterparts, a critical step in driving mass adoption of nuclear technology.

However, whilst I believe that nuclear is the solution to many of our current problems I do not believe that it is the final solution to our insatiable craving for energy. Research shows that as GDP increases so does energy consumption, so you can imagine that a country like China who is just beginning to create a giant middle class will create a demand for energy on a scale that we haven’t seen before. Whilst nuclear will be capable of sustaining them (and others) in the short term the fact remains that nuclear is really just a far more efficient fossil fuel, and alternatives must be sought.

Currently my hopes remain in fusion technology. Whilst they still fall under the umbrella of fossil fuels they produce far and away more energy from orders of magnitude less fuel. However the technology is still in its infancy and requires significant amounts of research before commercial reactors become available. The good news is that many see the potential in this future technology with projects like ITER attracting funding and involvement on an international scale. People might say that fusion is always 20 years away, but I have my hopes for this technology.

Windows Mobile 7: Microsoft’s iPhone Envy.

I’ve had a good share of Windows Mobile phones over the past few years and, up until recently, never really liked any of them. My first was an O2 XDA Atom Exec which I bought because I’d become one of those super smart IT admin-type guys and I should have a phone to match. It worked well for the first few months before starting to show problems like dropping calls and freezing at random times. After replacing the screen on the Atom it developed the fun problem of randomly turning off if it was bumped in any way and I ended up replacing it just on a year later with a HTC Touch Diamond. I thought that it was a brilliant phone until it decided to mute my speaker every time someone called me so I couldn’t talk to them and no amount of ROM flashing or hacking could convince it not to do it otherwise. My Xperia X1 has managed to avoid developing any show stopping problems thus far, but the hardware keyboard seems to be on the way out, missing keystrokes or repeating them 25% of the time.

I’m not alone with these gripes either and that’s why there’s a massive community dedicated to improving Windows phones by any means possible. Companies like HTC have allowed these things to flourish as they usually end up using many of the improvements that the forum generates (rumour has it their Touch-Flo UI was apparently born out of there). However this just shows how rife with systemic problems the Windows Mobile Platform is when people are that dedicated to making the devices more usable. It’s been the norm for the past 5 years and up until recently Microsoft had shown no signs of changing.

That was however before they announced the Windows Phone 7:

Microsoft really has changed nearly everything. Most obviously, the user interface is new. Touch is mandatory for all 7 Series devices, and the user interface reflects that; it’s touch-driven through and through. No longer will phone users have to use small, fiddly, desktop-oriented scroll bars; smooth finger scrolling with inertia is the order of the day. The finger-friendliness is exemplified by the new start screen. There are large panels in a smooth-scrolling grid. The look is clean and crisp, balancing at-a-glance information—counts of unread text messages and e-mails neatly displayed in their squares, for example—with simple thumb-sized accessibility. Each panel represents a particular “hub”—a place where all related information (be it contacts, photos, music and videos, etc.) is brought together and managed. As you move between the screens of each hub, smooth animations rotate and slide information into place, giving the user interface a kind of cohesive “joined up” feel.

This particular paragraph of the Ars Technica article really hits on the points that have frustrated us Windows Mobile users for years. At its heart any Windows Mobile device is really just a scaled down version of Windows, including the UI. For something that will predominately be used without a mouse and keyboard such a design drastically reduces the usability of the device, relegating many users to a “hunt and peck” style of interfacing with their device. HTC and others tried desperately to improve this by creating their own UIs that were more targeted towards mobile usage but if they didn’t include a certain application in their redesign you were straight back into mobile hell. I won’t even bother with the poor attempts at virtual keyboards.

With the coming of the iPhone and its finger friendly design Microsoft obviously began to reconsider it’s mobile design. Just as the iPod served as a testbed for some of the UI elements that made their way into the iPhone Microsoft is using a similar approach with the Zune. The extremely minimalistic design lends itself much more easily to use without a stylus and is a drastic improvement over what is available now. They’ve steered clear of many iPhone-esque features in order to create their very own look and feel for when you’re on a Windows 7 phone. Additionally they’ve also provided a fairly strict set of minimum requirements for any phone that might run the new mobile OS, which leads me onto the crux of the matter.

Whilst the biggest player in the smart phone market still isn’t Apple (it’s RIM, because of their corporate market capture) they are the largest direct competitor for Windows mobile devices. Additionally with Android on the up and up Microsoft is under incredible pressure to innovate or die and of course they’ve taken the route they always take: clone their best competitor. Sure on the surface the new OS doesn’t look anything like the iPhone but in reality the differences are quite deep. A minimalistic and finger friendly UI definitely resonates with Apple’s design philosophies and the strict platform requirements, whilst not as closed as Apple’s, are yet another Apple trademark. The icing on the cake is the recent launch of the Windows Marketplace for mobile applications, a direct competitor to the App Store.

For me however all of these are secondary to the biggest feature that the new mobile OS will bring: Silverlight to the mobile market. I was excited at the prospect of them bringing it to all Mobile 6 devices and above however they canned that idea sometime last year in favour of focusing on support for Mobile 7. The introduction of this tech to mobile handsets makes it possible for me to maintain a single code database for both web and mobile application version of Geon with only minor modifications, a significant reduction in coding time. It might sound like I’m just being lazy but the development road map I have requires support for the iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile and Web. If I can combine 2 coding streams into one that’s a reduction of almost 25% of my work with the added benefit of additional features that might not be available in platforms that don’t run Silverlight natively.

The unfortunate thing about this however is the release date for Mobile 7 is “holiday 2010″ which basically means the end of the year. I’m sure there will be beta versions of it all over the Internet well before then but I can’t really devote anytime to coding for a product that’s not released and with an unknown user base. So it seems for now I’ll be stuck with my good old Xperia X1 running 6.0 and maintaining 4 separate code bases for my pet application. Still it’s something to look forward to and who knows if Geon takes off maybe they’ll even swing a phone my way for free (oh come on Google did it, why shouldn’t Microsoft!) ;)

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Mass Effect 2: Devastatingly Good.

Mass Effect will always have a very special place on my shelf of games. Way back in the day I remember reading a couple previews of it and being semi-interested but no more than I was in say Bayonetta (which is currently gathering dust, but more on that another day). Then I saw a video of the game play and was instantly captivated. I spent a good couple hours scrounging up every single shred of detail that I could find, becoming ever more entranced in the Mass Effect universe. It got to the point where I said that right before Mass Effect came out I would buy a Xb0x 360 just to play it. My friends told me I was silly for doing so as the game would eventually be out on PC. For me however the 70+ hours that I got out of the game many months before they got to play it was worth every dollar I had spent on purchasing an entire console for just one game. I still do not regret it to this day.

I knew from the start that Mass Effect was destined for a trilogy and immediately after finishing the first I was anxious for the second. Bioware was very tight lipped on the subject for quite a long time and the ravenous sci-fi RPG’er in me was quelled until rumours starting popping up again. For the most part I steered clear of them, not wanting to spoil the narrative that I would soak myself in. So when the day finally came for me to walk into my local EB Games and pre-order the collector’s edition you can imagine how excited I was, which was only matched by the day I picked it up.

Mass Effect, just like Dragon Age: Origins, let you alter your appearance in such detail that you could almost recreate any face in the game. My initial attempts to recreate myself were a bit of a failure, that was until my wife and ex-room mate took it upon themselves to do it for me. It was a decent representation and made for some fun moments when Shepard was doing the horizontal mambo with his various alien conquests. For most of Mass Effect 2 however he looked as he does above since this was the best armor available (part of a pre-order deal with EB). I would’ve liked the ability to turn the helmets off on any armour and not just the default, but it seems it was not to be. Still there were some amusing scenes with Shepard attempting to be comforting in a rather evil looking set of armour.

From the very first scenes of Mass Effect 2 you’re thrown into an increasingly tangled web of loss and sacrifice. The opening scene was heart wrenching to see as all you built up in Mass Effect was destroyed in front of your eyes, including your rendition of Shepard. His resurrection is far from a glorious rise from the ashes where upon he is thrust into the fray instantly upon awakening met with both suprise and cold disdain. This sets the scene for the rest of the game as you struggle with the fact that 2 years of Shepards life have disappeared and everyone you once knew has moved on.

To be honest I was angry with the opening scene for a good while as it felt like a cheap Modern Warfare 2-esque attempt to inspire feelings of shock and loss. However I came to realise that, apart from it setting the scene for your love-hate relationship with your new employer Cerberus, it gave the developers a good “in” to make some much needed upgrades to the layout of your base camp (The Normandy) and to make room for the expanded crew size. Additionally it allowed them to rework and evolve many of Shepard’s past companions without having to do it painfully throughout the game. It’s much easier than the usual attempt of having a screen saying “2 years later” and then everyone has a moustache or another time-has-past telltale sign.

The combat and inventory in Mass Effect 2 is a great evolution of the system that they had in the original Mass Effect. In the original it was very much closer to a traditional RPG with countless items, upgrades and stats to choose from. If you’d played any other Bioware RPGs before the interface would’ve been familiar enough to get around it without too much hassle. Still when playing on a console item management easily became quite a chore and gearing up your party before you left could take quite some time. Combat still retained a lot of RPG elements with the ability to pause the game to queue up abilities, Medi-Gel being the health potion and special abilities having separate cool downs.

Mass Effect 2 on the other hand has taken cues from other great console games on the Xbox 360 like Gears of War, replacing theold health bar with the typical unlimited health so long as you take cover when your damaged system. This then changed the focus of combat quite significantly as it put a much higher value on cover than it did in the previous version. That also had the effect of giving you a pretty good indication when a fight was coming up, since there would usually be boxes or crates strewn across the level for you to hide behind. One thing that I can’t remember if it was present in Mass Effect 1 or not was the mapping of abilities to buttons so they could be used in real time. After discovering that (through the in-game tips section) the game took on a much faster and thrilling pace.

My first play through with this character on  the original was a soldier built to run up to people and smash them into the ground with his bare fists. Not being able to find the melee button for quite a while (it’s B on the Xbox) I had thought they took melee out. After rediscovering it my new Shepard, who was a Vanguard, became an iron fist of destruction, charging any enemy he could and punching them into submission. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to punch Harbinger into submission time and time again, as well as any minion who would dare get in melee range.

It wouldn’t be Mass Effect (or a Bioware RPG) if there wasn’t a chance to get intimate with your crew mates. From the start I had my heart set on Miranda as her cold disdain towards me only served to get me more interested. It seemed that over time she began to trust me with more and more information about her personal life. The scenes with her remembering stories of her childhood and father are heart wrenching, and her loyalty mission only served to cement the bond that I wished to share with her. Of course Shepard got what he wanted and whilst, in true Mass Effect style, there’s little opportunity to talk with your new found lover afterwards before sending yourself on a suicide mission it was still a romantic scene. I’m looking forward to seeing how this relationship develops in Mass Effect 3 (and really, how it will go down with Ashley who was my conquest in Mass Effect) but the effect of these relationships always seems a bit secondary and doesn’t really influence the rest of the game. It could be that they’re playing directly into the hands of the majority of gamers out there (I mean really, the majority of them are just going to go after them for the doink scene, nothing more) but the characters always seem more emotionally involved with each other up until the point where they consummate their relationship, where it usually takes the turn to back to normality. I can understand this level of depth is hard to achieve in a game like Mass Effect (I’m looking forward to Heavy Rain’s take on this issue) but I think the medium and the majority of consumers are mature enough to handle it.

I was hoping to give Mass Effect 2 the coveted perfect 10/10 as the original was one of my favourite games of all time. However I can’t let my inner fan boy override the reality that there are some points of this game that could do with a lot of improvement. The mineral scanning is one of the worst time sink aspects of the game and while I can understand that they have to make the upgrades mean something but wasting the player’s time really isn’t a good way to go about it. Adding in the ability to buy and sell minerals would’ve alleviated this somewhat, as would have say a scanner that would do a radar like sweep across the planet highlighting resource points.

In my 32 hours playing through as my the Vanguard Paragon Shepard I struggled to find times where I had had enough of the game and wanted a break from it. The story was infinitely captivating, the combat engaging and thrilling and the ultimate end was a climatic ending that has me begging for more and eyeing my second Renegade playthrough save with a keen eye. As with any Bioware RPG I can see myself discussing this game at length with all my friends for a while to come as we revel in the little differences that made our playthroughs unique. It is this which is what makes Mass Effect 2 one of the greatest games to grace us as gamers and I can’t recommend it enough to everyone out there.

Rating: 9.75/10

Mass Effect 2 is available for Xbox360 and PC right now for $AU108 and $98 respectively. Game was played on the Xbox 360 on Hard difficulty with around 32 hours of playtime total. Majority of the decisions where along the Paragon lines with the occasional Renegade snap decision.

What a Difference a Year Makes.

So today I turn 25. It’s not celebrated as much as say turning 18 or 21 but for someone like me who’s a bit of a car nut its just as special since I pass that unfortunate tag of “youth” driver and classify for some reasonably priced insurance on spectacularly unpractical cars. I thought it would be a great time also to look back at the post I made on this same day a year ago only to find out, to my surprise, that there wasn’t one. The blog technically had its first birthday back in December but looking back on the post counts and page views it really only became a true blog in April when I started my daily routine of posting once a day, integrating with other social media services and you know putting some actual effort into developing it.

It’s a well known fact that I started this blog as a kind of knee jerk reaction to my assignment as a media spokesperson for the Canberra arm of the No Clean Feed organisation. For reasons I can’t exactly explain I thought this would be my in to speaking on other technology topics and hoped to use the grass roots effort to stop the clean feed as a sort of step up into the wider world of media. Obviously that didn’t happen, but that wasn’t for lack of trying.

I’ve casually mentioned a few times that this isn’t my first blog but never made the all important link to them. Well the first ever one was a half hearted attempt at website for a Team Fortress Classic clan called Vitor De Caelum (back when it was cool to have a Latin name) which was created in a rather mangled fashion using Dreamweaver and some of the tools that Geocities provides. I’ve tried to find a copy of the page but have always come up blank. I think it got trashed when Yahoo re-branded Geocities (although the account still exists but the alternate email address goes to one I haven’t had access to for almost 7 years). I might have a copy of it on a hard drive somewhere though…

The second is still alive and kicking despite not being updated for almost 3 years now. It started out as a hopeful dream of mine to chronicle my first trip overseas with my now wife Rebecca. Needless to say I didn’t actually end up posting anything about the trip and only mentioned a few things here and there. It’s kind of interesting to look at now as there’s the first tenuous steps into what I mostly do now with the whole analysis of tech, providing links to more information (I’ve even used Wikipedia in there, huzza!) and trying to educate people. It also signals the transition I made from working in the government to working for them as an outsourcer, which I am technically still doing to this day.

Like all of those who dare venture into this world of blogs and the new social media I started those sites with the thought that it was going to be my ticket to Internet fame and fortune (or at least a forum I could rule with an iron fist!). So it’s interesting to look back on all the failed attempts and see that really the only reason they didn’t take off was because I put absolutely zero effort into it. This blog on the other hand became somewhat of a passion once people told me they were reading it and I felt compelled to continue writing. It has since then turned from getting maybe 1 person a day reading one page for 20 seconds to well over 30 staying for minutes at a time. While I’m no Internet diva by any stretch of the imagination it still fills me with pride that people want to read what I’m writing.

And really that’s what this blog is all about: you the readers. I could blast out 10 articles a day on various bits and pieces but it would mean nothing if no one was reading. Whilst the recent growth over the past couple months is probably due to my blog reaching a critical SEO threshold (I.E. enough content to appear in multiple keyword searches and old enough to not be a throwaway site) the initial readership of around 10 people per day was a dedicated crowd of friends, relatives and those few who found me through random Google searches for strange keywords. Whilst I don’t have anything to lavish on you guys today (the next release of Geon is a while away, but it will be a big’un) I still want to say thanks for dropping by, reading my various blatherings and dropping the occasional comment.

A special thanks has to go out to my lovely wife for the awesome birthday presents she got me, 5 sets of Buckyballs and a NES business card holder. Truly I am a spoiled geek :D

Operation Titstorm: Stupid on Stupid Redux.

It really was only a matter of time until the collective hive mind of Anonymous got whipped up into a fury over the latest censorship news in Australia. What with our strange stance on certain female bodily functions and minimum restrictions on their bust sizes to even being so bold as to ask the almighty Google themselves to censor Youtube (and comparing us to China in the process, seriously Conroy are you that bonkers?). The media is already in a tizzy over all these issues but of course the stand alone complex that is Anonymous will take any opportunity to strike at the heart of the beast and they did so with Operation Titstorm yesterday morning:

Several Australian government websites were slowly recovering Wednesday hours after the online prankster group Anonymous unleashed a massive distributed denial-of-service attack to protest the country’s evolution toward internet censorship.

The group, which previously brought down Scientology’s websites has also undertaken a host of other online pranks. It dubbed the new attack “Operation Titstorm” to protest the government’s move to require the filtering of pornography that uses adult actors if they appear underage. Violent material targeting children is also to be censored.

“No government should have the right to refuse its citizens access to information solely because they perceive it to be unwanted,” the e-mail said. “The Australian government will learn that one does not mess with our porn. No one messes with our access to perfectly legal (or illegal) content for any reason.”

It was just over 5 months ago that Anonymous launched their first attack against the government and to be honest my opinions on the attacks haven’t changed. Whilst this certaintly has accomplished the goal of getting more attention on the issue using such nefarious means is both childish and damaging to people who are fighting the course through legitimate channels. Luckily many of the media outlets only go so far as to say the attackers called themselves Anonymous and list their various pranks. Heaven help us if a real journalist did some investigation and made the connection back to 4chan and all the inaccurate connections that implies.

What did suprise me though was the reaction at my workplace, which spurred a quite intelligent discussion about the matter. Don’t get me wrong we’re all quite tech savvy but my reaction amongs the general populace when it comes to talking about the Internet filter in Australia is usually one of either misinformation or complete disdain. When the proposal was first introduced I spent a good hour explaining to the in-laws how damaging it would be. With 2 of them being members of the Australia Federal Police force it was even harder as they have had to deal with real world implications of what the filter would attempt to stop. To their credit though once the facts were laid out to them (I think the tipping point was how easy it was to circumvent) they did come around and are now at least questioning what benefit the filter will provide.

The sad thing is that an attack like this generated more press in a day than most of the No Clean Feed campaigns have done in their entire lifetime. I still believe that the grass roots approach is the best legal method of garnering attention but when a collective hive mind can flood a couple servers and in doing so the newspapers as well it makes you look at all the effort put into these legitimate campaigns with a twinge of frustration. Sure our initial volleys certaintly did damage to the proposal (by all means it was meant to be implemented now) but few of us made waves comparable to that of Operation Titstorm.

I can’t condone these attacks yet I feel that I also can’t condem them either. The more publicity the Internet Filter gets the more likely it is to go down in flames however every one of these attacks is yet another rhetorical weapon to use in the fight to get it implemented. Only time will tell whether the end justified the means in this case and I hope our fight won’t suffer because of it.

That won’t stop me from giggling at the name though :)