Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Ghost Towns of Google+.

It’s hard to believe that we’re still in the first year of Google+ as it feels like the service has been around for so much longer. This is probably because of the many milestones it managed to pass in such a short period of time, owing the fact that anyone with a Google account can just breeze on into the nascent social network. I personally remained positive about it as the interface and user experience paradigms suited my geeky ways but the lack of integration with other services along with the lack of migration of others onto the service means that it barely sees any use, at least from me.

Still I can’t generalize my experience up to a wider view of Google+ and not just because that’s bad science. Quite often I’ve found myself back on Google+, not for checking my feed or posting new content, but to see conversations that have been linked to by news articles or friends. Indeed Google+ seems to be quite active in these parts with comment threads containing hundreds of users and multitudes of posts. Most often this is when popular bloggers or celebrities start said thread so its very much like Twitter in that regard, although Google+ feels a whole lot more like one big conversation rather than Twitter’s 1 to many or infinitum of 1 to 1 chat sessions. For the most part this still seems to be heavily biased towards the technology scene, but that could just be my bias stepping in again.

Outside that though my feed is still completely barren with time between posts from users now expanding to weeks. Even those who swore off all other social networks in favour of Google+ have had to switch back as only a small percentage of their friends had an active presence on their new platform of choice. This seems to be something of a trend as user interactivity with the site is at an all time low, even below that of struggling social network MySpace. Those figures don’t include mobile usage but suffice to say that the figures are indicative of the larger picture.

Personally I feel one of the biggest problems that Google+ has is lack of integration with other social network services and 3rd party product developers. Twitter’s success is arguably due to their no holds barred approach to integration and platform development. Whilst Google+ was able to get away with not having it in the beginning the lack of integration hurts Google’s long term prospects significantly as people are far less likely to use it as their primary social network. Indeed I can’t syndicate any of the content that I create onto their social network (and vice-versa) due to the lack of integration and this means that Google+ exists as a kind of siloed platform, never getting the same level of treatment as the other social networks do.

Realistically though it’s all about turning the ghost towns that are most people’s timelines into the vibrant source of conversation that many of the other social networks are. Right now Google+ doesn’t see much usage because of the content exclusivity and effort required to manually syndicate content to it. Taking away that barrier would go a long way to at least making Google+ look like its getting more usage and realistically that’s all that would be required for a lot of users to switch over to it as their main platform. Heck I know I would.

Samsung Galaxy S3 Specs Revealed, Nerd Chills Had.

7 months down the line and I’m still a big fan of my Samsung Galaxy S2. It’s been a great phone, combining large screen size with a slim, lightweight shell that I sometimes have to check for to remind myself that its still in my pocket. It’s surprisingly resilient as well, having taken more than a couple drops from pretty decent heights and coming out the other end with only minor scuffs and nary a scratch on the screen. Sadly I can’t say much more for the battery life as it seems that the more apps I pile on there the worse it gets, but I can’t really blame the phone for my app hoarding ways.

However I always knew that this relationship would be temporary, I mean how could it not? It started with geek wunderlust and as it is with all relationships that start like that it’s inevitable that my eyes would begin to wander, and so they have with this announcement:

…Ladies and gentlemen, here is the Samsung Galaxy S III:

  • 1.5GHz quad-core Samsung Exynos processor
  • 4.8-inch “full HD” 1080p resolution with 16:9 aspect ratio display
  • A 2-megapixel front-facing camera and an 8-megapixel rear camera
  • Ceramic case
  • 4G LTE
  • Android 4.0

I’ll spare you the photoshopped Galaxy S2 images that are doing the rounds but suffice to say those specs are pretty darn amazing. They’re also fairly plausible as well given Samsung’s research into the component technologies and current trends for both carriers and the Android platform. The detail that caught my eye however was the ceramic case as that’s not a material that you’d usually expect to see on a mobile phone with plastic and glass being the only 2 real choices. There could be reasoning behind it though and if my suspicions are correct its due to the crazy amount of tech they’ve stuffed under the hood.

Traditionally ceramics are pretty poor heat conductors which is why they make for good mugs and insulation materials. However there are quite a few advanced ceramics that are very capable of moving heat just as efficiently as most metals are, some even better. Now anyone who has a dual core smart phone knows how hot the buggers get when you’re using them for an extended period and since most phones are plastic that heat tends to stick around rather than dissipate. The ceramic case could then be an attempt to mitigate the heat problems that will come with the quad core processor and larger screen. This also has the potential to make the phones somewhat more brittle however (ceramics don’t flex, they shatter) so it will be interesting to see how Samsung compensates for that.

With just those few details though I’m already excited for Samsung’s next instalment in their flagship line of smart phones. Their last 2 iterations of the Galaxy S line have gone from strength to strength, firmly cementing themselves as the number one Android handset manufacturer. The Galaxy S3 looks to continue this trend with specifications that are sure to tempt even the most recent purchasers of the S2. I know I’ll find it hard to resist and I’m thankful that it probably won’t be out for a little while longer.

I don’t think my wallet would appreciate buying 2 phones within 7 months of each other ;)

Dear Esther Screenshot Wallpaper Start Lighthouse

Dear Esther: A Game It Is And So Shall It Be Judged.

Recent years have seen the lines of what defines a game blurred significantly. Games like Heavy Rain eschew normal game mechanics in favour of only minimal interactivity, instead focusing very heavily on the story. Most gamers called titles like these playable movies or cinematic gaming (although the later is now more often used for big budget titles that have a movie feel about them) in order to set them apart from their more traditional gaming ancestors. Dear Esther is another one of these such games, being re-released as a stand alone game after it enjoyed some mild success back as a source engine mod. The game made waves as it recouped its cost in no less than 5 hours after going on sale and with the usual friend recommendation I thought it would be worth a shot.

Dear Esther drops you on an unnamed island, put in charge of an unnamed person. As you move through the world a narrator reads sections of dialog describing one of 3 separate story lines. There’s really no driving goal, the narrator doesn’t prompt you to move anywhere, but there’s enough clues to show that you’re pointing in the right direction. There are no puzzles to solve, no enemies to defeat, you must simply keep progressing forward as the narrator reads and you explore the island.

Graphically Dear Esther isn’t that impressive, mostly due to its source engine roots. Whilst there are some scenes that are quite beautifully created the rest of the game is ridden with over-specularity that makes the objects appear fake. It’s not exactly terrible though as there’s really not that much you can do with a long deserted island to make it visually interesting so overall the graphics are passable but nothing really spectacular.

Now this is where I’d usually start talking about the game play, but there’s really nothing more to say about it. All you do is walk around, look at things and have the narrator read passages to you. There’s no sprint button so you’re stuck walking at the exact same speed every time and the only real secret to the game play is to try and find all the places that you can walk to as the majority of them will trigger another dialogue section.

However doing that is not an exact science either as there are many sections that look like they’re inviting you to come down there for another piece of dialogue when in fact there’s nothing there at all. This wouldn’t be so bad but the achingly slow pace at which the main character walks means that what looks like a short trip can take you several minutes to accomplish. When there’s nothing else to do but walk and hope that the narrator starts talking again this gets quite laborious to the point where I just stopped trying.

What’s worse is that if you do play Dear Esther as a game by say trying to decipher the all the clues that are seemingly littered around the place you’re in fact just wasting your time. Sure they tie into the story somewhat but there’s no rhyme or reason to them, they are just there to break the game up visually. Indeed without them you’d spend long sections looking at nothing but varying shades of brown, green and grey. Even then though after seeing the same pattern repeated over and over again they don’t really even serve that purpose, instead just blending into the background as noise.

All of this then combines into an experience that is, for what its worth, completely and utterly boring. There’s really nothing interesting about the experience at all as the jumbled story (done deliberately, apparently) slow pace and so-so visuals do nothing to inspire enjoyment on any sort of level. It got so boring that at a certain point, where a giant hole in the ground is presented to you, I threw my character in there in the hopes something interesting would happen. Instead I was just catapulted back a couple minutes which just extended the painful time I had to spend with Dear Esther.

Reading other people’s experiences had me questioning whether it was fair to judge Dear Esther based on its merits as a game. Indeed nearly all traditional elements that we’ve come to expect from a game have been stripped away from Dear Esther, even further than that of any of the playable movies that have been released to date. Judging Dear Esther as a game then would seem unfair as it’s more akin to a strange kind of performance art than anything else.

The thing is though Dear Esther is sold as a game on a platform that deals exclusively in games. It has the same controls as a game, for the most part, and is being talked about almost exclusively by the gaming community. Judging it on its merits as a game then seems fair to me as whilst it might be far removed from even its closest cousins to completely exclude it from that genre is to ignore some of the core aspects which constitutes a game.

As a game then Dear Esther is astonishingly terrible in every regard. It’s (thankfully) very short with my play clocking in at just over an hour and the longest plays barely touching 2. The graphics, whilst capable of producing some decent set pieces like that shown above, are nothing spectular and above all the game play is simply non-existent. Even forgetting for a second that the lack of game play is intentional the story, which is what should carry a game in absence of game play, is boring and uninspired. I felt nothing for any of the characters in any of the stories and the whole idea of giving you random sections of the story so you have to draw your own conclusions is a hacky way of trying to make each game play unique.

Dear Esther then fails to entertain as a game, as an art piece or whatever it set out to be. The added insult is that I paid $10 for the experience, a price which has netted me other titles like Cave Story+ that managed to not only entertain me but also did so for more than an hour. Based on this I can’t really recommend Dear Esther to anyone unless you feel the need to torture yourself with a slow moving game that will ultimately leave you unsatisfied.

Rating: 3.0/10

Dear Esther is available on Steam right now for $10. Game was played entirely on the PC with a total of 63 minutes played.

Day One DLC: The Hate, The Reasoning and The Understanding.

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of DLC. Whilst there are many games that I enjoy going back to it’s not usually because there’s a sliver more of content available for them, it’s because the games themselves warranted it. The trend now however is to continue to release bite sized chunks of additional game play after it’s been released rather than the more traditional model of expansion packs which delivered what amounted to a game in its own right. Still there have been some notable exceptions like the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution Missing Link DLC which I’ve heard is quite lengthy and well worth the play through (I’ve still yet to play it, though). What irks me, and most gamers, is when a company releases DLC on the same day that they release the full game and an upcoming release has brought this issue to the table once again.

My first encounter with day one DLC wasn’t that long ago, it was with Dragon Age: Origins. I was a fair way through the game, not completely understanding the camp mechanic, when I saw a new character appear. Starting the conversation with them led to a quest (like it almost always does) but before he would accept it I was told that I’d need to pony up the cash to play it. Since the quest didn’t appear necessary and I had little interest in paying another $10 for a game I had just bought I left the optional DLC by the wayside and never looked back. Since then I’ve had several encounters with games that have had day one or close to it DLC and every time my reaction has been the same.

There is one exception though. Since my tendency is to buy the collector’s edition of games I’m usually treated to a free ride for most early DLC. This hasn’t changed my opinion on it though and in fact my experience with such DLC has reinforced my original stance that of if the game developers have time to develop early DLC then it should probably be included as part of the game. One of my all time favourite games will soon be releasing a sequel however and the outrage from the day one DLC has revealed that my current position might be somewhat ill informed.

The game in question is Mass Effect 3. Long time readers will know that my fanboyism for this game approaches near ridiculous levels: I bought a Xbox360 just to play it (I’ve bought other games for it, but make no mistake that Xbox360 was there for one reason only), I’ve got multiple characters and each time I’ve bought the collector’s edition. Had I done a Game of the Year post for 2010 it is quite likely that Mass Effect 2 would have come out on top. What I didn’t mention at the time was that there was some day one DLC included and whilst I did play it I didn’t feel like it added anything (nor distracted from) to the main core of the game. Indeed it could have been left out entirely and I wouldn’t have noticed a difference.

It has been revealed that Mass Effect 3 will have day one DLC, free to collectors and charged to everyone else. This put the community up in arms with many (myself included) wondering why this wasn’t part of the core game. Bioware came out and defended it fervently and revealed a point that I hadn’t really considered. The certification process for consoles is a long one, filled with all sorts of radical testing like clicking buttons thousands of times to ensure most of the bugs have been stamped out. This takes approximately 3 months and during that time many publishers elect to have the developers work on DLC rather than move them onto other projects (or do nothing at all). Since there’s less certification required to release DLC you then end up with a finished DLC product right on release day, much to the dismay of the fans.

That’s changed my view on day one DLC significantly, but it probably won’t change my purchasing patterns. Indeed I can understand why people are particularly frustrated about this particular DLC, it seems like a particular character (who’s previously appeared in the series) will only be available through it. That’s enough to put some people off it and I wouldn’t be too happy with somewhat plot critical elements being thrown into paid for DLC either. If it wasn’t included in the collector’s edition I certainly wouldn’t be bothered with it and my review later would reflect that.

For this case at least it looks like day one DLC didn’t come at the cost of the game itself but the gaming community is going to have a hard time swallowing that line from every publisher. It might then be worth delaying DLC to some time after the initial release in order to avoid this kind of negative publicity. Still I don’t have the numbers on this and if day one DLC works financially then you can bet on seeing more games with it in the future. I may not support it financially but so long as the core game isn’t affected by it I won’t say anything bad about it, but if  said DLC does impact on the game you can rest assured I’ll give them a thorough panning on here.

Everyday Science.

It’s amazing how common demonstrations of scientific principles are in every day life, like the video below:

YouTube Preview Image

Such a simple thing, a slinky walking down a treadmill, but it aptly demonstrates the principles of kinetic/potential energy, friction and a whole host of other physical science concepts. This is why I’m such a big fan of Mythbusters as whilst their experiments aren’t exactly rigorous science they do aptly demonstrate many basic scientific principles in a way that’s easily understood. Plus they have massive explosions nearly every episode and those never go astray ;)

Let’s Get Moore’s Law Straight, Ok?

Anyone who’s had a passing interest in computers has likely run up against the notion of Moore’s Law, even if they don’t know the exact name for it. Moore’s Law is a simple idea, approximately every 2 years the amount of computing power than can be bought cheaply doubles. This often takes the more common forms of “computer power doubles every 18 months” (thanks to Intel executive David House) or, for those uninitiated with the law, computers get obsoleted faster than any other product in the world. Since Gordon E. Moore first stated the idea back in 1970 it’s held on extremely well and for the most part we’ve beaten the predictions pretty handily.

Of course there’s been a lot of research into the upper limits of Moore’s Law as with anything exponential it seems impossible for it to continue on for an extended period of time. Indeed current generation processors built on the standard 22nm lithography process were originally thought to be one such barrier, because the gate leakage at that point was going to be unable to be overcome. Of course new technologies enabled this process to be used and indeed we’ve still got another 2 generations of lithography processes ahead of us before current technology suggests another barrier.

More recently however researches believe they’ve found the real upper limit after creating a transistor that consists only of a single atom:

Transistors — the basic building block of the complex electronic devices around you. Literally billions of them make up that Core i7 in your gaming rig and Moore’s law says that number will double every 18 months as they get smaller and smaller. Researchers at the University of New South Wales may have found the limit of this basic computational rule however, by creating the world’s first single atom transistor. A single phosphorus atom was placed into a silicon lattice and read with a pair of extremely tiny silicon leads that allowed them to observe both its transistor behavior and its quantum state. Presumably this spells the end of the road for Moore’s Law, as it would seem all but impossible to shrink transistors any farther. But, it could also points to a future featuring miniaturized solid-state quantum computers.

It’s true that this seems to suggest an upper limit to Moore’s Law, I mean if the transistors can’t get any smaller than how can the law be upheld? The answer is simple, the size of transistors isn’t actually a limitation of Moore’s Law, the cost of their production is.

You see most people are only familiar with the basic “computing power doubles every 18 months” version of Moore’s Law and many draw a link between that idea and the size of transistors. Indeed the size is definitely a factor as that means we can squeeze more transistors into the same space, but what this negates is the fact that modern CPU dies haven’t really increased in size at all in the past decade. Additionally new techniques like 3D CPUs (currently all the transistors on a CPU are in a single plane) have the potential to exponentially grow the number of transistors without needing the die shrinks that we currently rely on.

So whilst the fundamental limit of how small a transistor is might be a factor that affects Moore’s Law it by no means determines the upper limit; the cost of adding in those extra transistors does. Indeed every time we believe we’ve discovered yet another limit another technology gets developed or improved to the point where Moore’s Law becomes applicable again. This doesn’t negate work like that in the linked article above as discovering potential limitations like that better equips us for dealing with them. For the next decade or so though I’m very confident that Moore’s Law will hold up, and I see no reason why it won’t continue on for decades afterward.

Don’t Get Me Wrong, Kickstater is Great, But…

The idea behind Kickstarter is a great one: you’ve got an idea and you’ve got the fixins of a potential business going but the financial barrier of bringing it to market are keeping you from seeing it through. So you whip up a project on there, promise people rewards or (more commonly) the actual product you’re intending to sell and then wait for backers to pledge some cash to you. For the backers as well its great as if the project doesn’t get fully funded then no one has to donate any money, so your potential risk exposure is limited. Of course Kickstarter take their slice of the action, to the tune of 5% (plus another 3~5% for the payment processing) so everyone comes out a winner.

It’s a disruptive service, there’s no denying that. There are many products that wouldn’t have made it through a traditional venture capital process that have become wild successes thanks to Kickstarter. This of course gets people thinking about how those traditional systems are no longer needed, I mean who needs venture capitalists when I can get my customers to fund my project? Well whilst I’d love to believe that all we need for funding is crowdsourcing tools like Kickstarter I can’t help but notice the pattern of most of the successful endeavours on there.

They’re all done by people who were already successful in the traditional business world.

Take for instance the latest poster child for the success of Kickstarter: The Double Fine Adventure. For gamers the Double Fine name (and the man behind it, Tim Schafer) is a recognizable one, having worked on such cult classics as The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and releasing others such as Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. Needless to say he’s quite well known and made his name in the traditional game developer/publisher world. Kickstarter has allowed him to cut the publishers out of this particular project, putting more cash in his pocket and allowing him total control of it, but could someone without that kind of brand recognition pull off the same level of success?

The answer is no.

For all the successes that are seen through Kickstarter only 44 percent of them will ever actually get the funding they require. Indeed in the Video Games category the highest funded game (there are a lot of projects in there that aren’t exactly games) before the Double Fine Adventure managed about $72,000. Sure it’s nothing to sneeze at, it was almost 6 times what they needed, but it does show the disparity between relative nobodies attempting a to crowdfund a project and when a well known person attempts the same thing. Sure there are the few breakout successes, but for the majority of large funding successes you’ll usually see someone who’s already known in that area involved somehow.

Now I don’t believe this is a bad thing, it’s just the way the process works. Nothing has really changed here, except the judgement call is shifted from the venture capitalists to the wider public, and as such many of the same factors influence if, when and how you get funded. Name recognition is a massive part of that, I mean just take a look at things like Color that managed to pull in a massive $41 million in funding before it had even got a viable product off the ground just because of the team of people that were behind the idea. Kickstarter doesn’t change this process at all, it’s just made it more visible to everyone.

Does this mean I think you should keep away from Kickstarter? Hell no, if you’ve got a potential product idea and want to see if there’s some kind of market for it Kickstarter projects, even if they’re not successful, are a great way of seeing just how much demand is out there. If your idea resonates with the wider market then you’re guaranteed a whole bunch of free publicity, much more than what you’d get if you just approached a bank for a business loan. Just be aware of what Kickstarter does and does not do differently to traditional ways of doing business and don’t get caught up in the hype that so often surrounds it.

Cave Story Plus Screenshot Wallpaper (5)

Cave Story+: Robots, Rabbits and Rivals.

The last few years have seen many independent developers attempt to expand on the traditional platformer style, usually either by re-imagining the concept or by combining it with elements that are common place amongst more modern games. Few however attempt to make a platformer that wouldn’t be out of place with its ancestors, in both regards to game play and graphics. Cave Story+ is one of those rare few, being first released over 7 years ago makes it even rarer as there was nary an indie scene to speak of, and it’s recent re-release on steam (and inclusion in the Humble Bundle) has seen it meet many more eyeballs, including my own.

Without so much as little bit of back story or title sequences explaining things you’re dumped straight into the game. You, although you’ll only find this out as you work your way through the game, are an amnesiac robot who’s managed to find himself in the middle of a plot being hatched by someone simply referred to as the Doctor. His plot seems to revolve around the native inhabitants of the area called the Mimiga, a race of humanoid rabbit looking folk. You then dive into the various sections of the world in order to help out the Mimiga and hopefully foil the plot of the Doctor.

I hate to start off the review with a criticism like this but the absence of some form of a tutorial makes the first hour or so (and some sections later on) with Cave Story+ a little frustrating. Whilst the arrow keys control movement the jump button isn’t up or space (it’s x) and fire is z. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem, I’d just check the options menu I hear you say, well unfortunately that’s not accessible once you start playing the game. You’ll have to quit to the main menu in order to be able to view the key bindings. It’s a shame really as this game has gone through several revisions since it was first released and I can’t be the only one who thought this wasn’t ideal, so my mind boggles as to why it’s still that way.

Cave Story+ does get points though for having art work that would not be out of place in games that were almost a decade its senior. Whilst there’s no real evocative mood along the lines of other recent pixelart games like Gemini Rue and To The Moon the artwork does a good job of paying homage to the games that inspired it. My only complaint about it would be that it’s sometimes hard to tell which things are meant to be interactive and which things aren’t, although to be fair that was true of the games that Cave Story+ seeks to emulate and is probably intentional.

Like it’s ancestors Cave Story+’s story is driven by the good old fashioned wall of scrolling text. There’s a good amount of dialogue in Cave Story+ as well, enough so that the back stories of each character get filled out well enough that you can understand their motivations in the story. This makes up somewhat for the beginning’s complete lack of information and confusing switching between you and another character.

One annoying part though was the limited way in which to skip dialogue. You can hold down the enter key to make it scroll faster but you’ll have to hit it again every time they reach the end of their section of dialogue. This wouldn’t be too bad but there are some sections where you’re required to make a choice, and with the default always being “Yes” this means that it’s quite easy to make a wrong choice at a point (as I did a few times). You can reload to do it again, but there’s also the issue with that as should you fail at a section and restart at your last save point you’ll have to go through all the dialogue again, even if there are no choices to be made.

Combat in Cave Story+ though is surprisingly inventive, varied and above all fun. Whilst you start out with only a single gun, what appears to be a Revolver named the Polar Star, your arsenal quickly expands to multiple weapons. Each of the weapons has their own unique ability, like bouncing balls of fire or a gun that blows protecting bubbles around you, and depending on your situation there will be a weapon that’s ideal for that particular engagement. This is what makes Cave Story+ so appealing, but it doesn’t stop there.

As you defeat enemies they drop little glowing triangles and collecting these will level up the weapon you currently have equipped. Each weapon changes significantly as it progresses through the levels and at the final level they usually have some kind of added bonus that makes them really worth while. My weapon of choice was the Machine Gun as it’s level 3 ability is to be able to push you upwards if you fire it downwards, making the platforming sections much easier and a lot of fights trivial. This is followed in close second by the sword which functions as an area of effect weapon at its highest level and is particularly devastating against bosses.

The weapon system also plays a heavy part in the strategies that you’ll form as you go through Cave Story+. You see when you get hit both your life and current weapon level will go down and depending on the weapon this can mean an instance de-level (like with the sword). For some boss fights then, when its impossible to not get hit, switching between the appropriate weapon and another one you don’t care about can mean the difference between beating the boss easily or stumbling your way through with the wrong weapon for the job. It’s immensely satisfying and is undoubtedly why Cave Story+ has a following like it does.

As for the overall story itself I could take it or leave it as there’s nothing particularly memorable about any of the characters which I’d say is due to the limited amount of dialogue in it. Sure there’s enough to keep the story going but after being spoiled with great stories recently, even ones without dialogue, I can’t help but feel that Cave Story+ doesn’t deliver in the story department. I’m putting myself at odds here with the greater community who commend Cave Story+’s err story but I stand by my comments.

Despite all these difficulties though Cave Story+ is still at its heart very fun to play. I didn’t catch myself wondering why I was playing this game, questioning whether or not I was doing it just for the review, which speaks volumes to Cave Story+’s game play. If you’re a fan of the old school style platformers then Cave Story+ is right up your alley and even if you’re not it still stands on its own as a really enjoyable game, even if it suffers from some solvable problems.

Rating: 8.25/10

Cave Story+ (or some form of it) is available right now on PC, OSX, WiiWare and DSiWare right now for $9.99, $9.99 and some amount of Nintendo points. Game was played entirely on the PC on the Easy difficult setting with around 5 hours played and 45% of the achievements unlocked.

I Guess It Was Inevitable: R18+ Referred For Parliamentary Inquiry.

Why things like this still surprise me is beyond my comprehension:

We’ve just heard word from Ed Husic, MP for Chifley, who has tweeted that the Coalition has asked that the R18+ bill be sent for an inquiry.

As part of the legislation process, if one MP calls for an inquiry on a proposed bill, that bill must undergo extra scrutiny and further examination by a Standing Committee. This inquiry process is usually utilised for bills that are deemed complex or controversial.

The frustration with this is that, as far as anyone can tell, this really isn’t a controversial topic for anyone but a few vocal minorities. All public consultation on the matter has been overwhelmingly in the postive so referring it to an inquiry seems like the work of someone just looking to delay this as long as possible. The timing is rather curious as well as if the bill doesn’t come back before parliament sits again in March then it won’t be looked at again until May, since they don’t sit in April.

There’s a slim bit of hope that this will be handled by those knowledgeable on the matter and that the turn around time for it could just be a single day. Well this particular news story broke 2 days ago now and I haven’t heard anything so my guess is that it’s not being fast tracked as everyone was hoping it would be. Is that a surprise? Not really as any government process usually takes at least 20 times as long as anyone expects it to but it does show how desperate the gaming community is to see this through if we’re willing to hope for something like that to happen.

And who can blame them really. By the time this legislation gets into gear it will be well over a decade since it was first talked about and 3 years since people started forming grass roots initiatives to make it happen. It took one Attorney-General retiring, another capitulating and a Minister on a war path just to get to this point and that’s with overwhelming public support. Why something as simple as this has been so difficult for the Australian political system to handle is really beyond me and calls into question just who these people in parliament are representing.

Yes I’m pissed off about this as the only reason this is happening is because we have certain MPs who pay far too much attention to certain lobby groups. Whilst I’m glad it’s not as bad as it is in America it still seems like we, the gaming community, are the butt of some long play legislative trolling as I’ve never seen something with such great support endure such torture on its way to realisation. The worst part about it is that, for now at least, there’s not a whole lot we can do. If it gets referred for a full inquiry then we’ll be able to have our voice heard (again) but I’d much rather just see it go through the houses without this kind of time-wasting tactics employed.

But who am I kidding, I’ve been blogging about this for 3 years and I really should know better.

CleanSpace One: The Trouble With Orbital Garbage Collection.

In the short time that we’ve been launching stuff into orbit around our little blue marble we’ve made quite a mess of things up there. Sure it’s not that much of problem currently thanks to NASA tracking the most dangerous parts of it but the fact is that as time goes on the problem isn’t going to get better on its own. Whilst most space junk that’s close to earth or beyond geosynchronous will eventually burn up or leave our orbit for good  the space in between there is littered with junk that will stay around from a couple decades to even a few centuries. It’s not exactly an easy problem to solve either as orbital mechanics aren’t exactly energy efficient, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

There are two factors that make cleaning up space junk difficult: the orbital speeds involved and the fact that most space junk doesn’t share an orbit. The first one is the reason that space junk is such a big problem in the first place. You see to stay in orbit you need to be travelling at some 26,000KM/h (Mach 26ish) and when you hit that speed small things start to become rather dangerous. The ESA has some good pictures of what hypervelocity impacts look like and should such an impact happen on a craft it’s usually the end of it, and the beginning of yet another debris field.

The orbits also pose a problem as any efficient space junk collector will need to change orbits often in order to be able to capture as much space junk as possible. Doing so requires either a lot of energy or an incredibly efficient engine (thus, lots of time) and there’s really nothing that solves either of these problems well when it comes to a space junk collector. The Swiss Space Centre still wants to have a crack at it though with their concept craft CleanSpace One:

The cleanup satellite has three major challenges to overcome, each of which will necessitate the development of new technology that could, in turn, be used down the road in other applications.

After its launch, the cleanup satellite will have to adjust its trajectory in order to match its target’s orbital plane. To do this, it could use a new kind of ultra-compact motor designed for space applications that is being developed in EPFL laboratories. When it gets within range of its target, which will be traveling at 28,000 km/h at an altitude of 630-750 km, CleanSpace One will grab and stabilize it – a mission that’s extremely dicey at these high speeds, particularly if the satellite is rotating. To accomplish the task, scientists are planning to develop a gripping mechanism inspired from a plant or animal example. Finally, once it’s coupled with the satellite, CleanSpace One will “de-orbit” the unwanted satellite by heading back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where the two satellites will burn upon re-entry.

In essence CleanSpace One is a simple capture and de-orbit craft, designed to be disposable. They’re looking to create a whole family of them that can cater to any kind of satellite and presumably looking to launch several at once in order to keep the cost down. Whilst such a craft would eliminate some space junk it doesn’t address the larger problem of those satellites not being managed properly in the first place, which I think is the core of the problem.

You see most of the junk satellites are still there because they weren’t designed with any kind of de-orbiting mechanism in them. The reasoning behind this is simple, such systems add cost to already expensive satellites and are therefore usually overlooked. There’s also a lot more maintenance and regulation required for such things as well like Hydrazine which is commonly used in such systems. It’d be far more cost effective to regulate that all new satellites have to have something like NanoSail-D attached to it as they’re relatively cheap and can de-orbit a satellite without the added hassles of current de-orbit systems.

I still commend the Swiss for being forward thinking with this issue however and realistically this is logical first step towards fixing the space debris problem. With experience they might be able to find clever ways to structure orbits for debris capture or devise better propulsion systems that will make more efficient collection possible. Developments in this area will also have flow on effects for other space programs as well as many of the technologies developed for something this will have dual uses elsewhere. Hopefully this will trigger other countries to start thinking about their own kind of space debris management system and eventually lead to an end to the mess that we created up there.