Monthly Archives: February 2012

PAGG Stack: An Anecdotal Review.

As I’ve alluded to in the past I’m somewhat of a fitness buff, mostly to balance out my predominately sedentary lifestyle of IT work and computer games. Of course when these two worlds collide I end up applying the same kind of iterative process I would to any IT problem or challenge in a game to fitness and the past couple years have been no exception. I mentioned in the past that I was doing CrossFit and since then I’ve tried several other workouts, meal plans and supplement regimes in order to maximise the benefits I get from exercising. 2 months ago I decided to give the PAGG stack from the 4 Hour Body a go after hitting another plateau in my training and I thought I’d share my experiences with it.

Here’s a little background on me so you can put this in perspective (this is at the start of using PAGG):

  • Height: 187cm
  • Weight: 89KG
  • Body Fat: 18%
The particular PAGG stack I used consisted of these supplements:
I was also taking about 4 fish oil capsules a day as well as a daily multi-vitamin.

I took the PAGG stack as recommended: AGG 3 times a day, PAGG before bed and didn’t take it every Sunday. I wasn’t 100% with sticking to this, I’d say I was about 90% on time with it (meaning about 1 in every 10 times I’d miss taking it at the right time) but I believe that I was still close enough for it to be considered effective. I didn’t make any radical changes to my diet or exercise regime during this time either, so most changes can be ascribed to PAGG stack.

So as it stands right now I’ve gained approximately 2KGs whilst going down to 17%. Whilst it wasn’t the extreme fat burning I was expecting there was a definite downward trend when I was using PAGG. Since I’m trying to gain muscle at the moment its quiet possible that the supposed fat burning of PAGG is being muted somewhat as my caloric intake is somewhere around the 2800~3000 range every day. That being said since I didn’t change my diet during this time (and I’ve been on the same diet for a good 4 months prior) the additional 2KGs of muscle gain would appear to be attributable to taking PAGG.

Doing some extra research into the matter though it looks like the potential fat burning/muscle building effects that I experienced could be solely due to the EGCG in the stack. Indeed for the other components there is either no research showing efficacy (Policosanol, as 4HB even states), experimental evidence in certain models (ALA) or mixed experimental results (Allicin). Anecdotally the combination does appear to work, at least for me, but it’s entirely possible that EGCG is responsible for those changes alone. I’d do another round of anecdotal testing on myself to see how it goes, but I’ve got my eye on a new stack that I’m hoping will get close to ECA for efficacy.

Would I recommend PAGG for anyone? I would, at least for 2 months just to see if it works for you. If you buy the components individually it’s actually pretty cheap, on the order of about $30~$40/month, and you should be able to see benefits within a short enough time frame to know if its worth you continuing or not. Personally for me, whilst it did appear to work, I’ve decided to switch to some other supplements that have a bit more scientific backing on them and see how they turn out. If there’s one thing that I learnt from this is that EGCG is potentially quite powerful and should you not want to be downing 16+ pills a day then your best place to start would be with just that.

You Just Lost a Customer, Razer.

I like to think of myself as a good customer, having spent a good 6 years on the other side of the consumer equation. Whilst I might be ruthless in my product selection once your product is past that hurdle you’re guaranteed a whole bunch of free marketing from me, usually in the form of recommendations to my friends and sometimes even here on this blog. It’s not much but I’ll be damned if I haven’t swayed dozens of people to products that I’ve bought solely on my recommendation. It goes both ways though so if your product (or business practices) are terrible then you can be assured I’ll be voting with my wallet and encouraging others to do so.

Today, I’m going to do exactly that.

So for my birthday last year my loving wife bought me one of the TRON keyboards from Razer. It’s a very pretty keyboard but it’s unfortunately not all that great for gaming thanks to the extraordinarily large keys and tendency for the keys to get stuck in the on position when several are pressed together. Figuring that it would make a great keyboard for either my spare test machine or media PC I set about looking for a potential replacement keyboard, something more suited to my main purpose of gaming.

I had heard good things about the Razer series of mechanical keyboards. These are preferred for gaming due to their distinct actuation points rather than the rubber domes that are common on most keyboards today (including the TRON keyboard I have now). They’re also renowned for being quite loud due to their mechanical action and the keyboard I had my eye on, the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate  is known for having some of the loudest keys around thanks to Cherry MX Blue¹ type switches. Razer does make the same keyboard in a stealth option which uses the quieter MX Brown switches, something that I’d prefer to have so I don’t get driven insane by the loud clicking.

So of course I started looking around for somewhere to get the keyboard. Strange though all my usual sites don’t seem to stock it, but they do stock every other keyboard. Frustrated I check Razer’s store and it’s available through there for US$139.99. Googling around reveals that the stealth version is exclusive to the Razer online store. Fair enough I thought, the price is a little on the high side but it’s one of those things that you buy once and don’t replace for a good while. Attempting to follow the order screen through to see how much the total would be lead me to a brick wall, not being able to ship it to Australia.

Undeterred I saw that they had an Australian version of the store and the keyboard was available in there. The price, however, was no where near what I expected being a whopping $90 greater than its USA counterpart. Now Australia is renowned for getting gouged on pretty much everything, including in places where distribution doesn’t matter like Steam, but I still don’t tolerate companies that do it. Frustrated I tweeted at Razer about it, hoping for some kind of response but alas I got nothing. I could use a remailer service to get the keyboard here but then I’d be giving my money to a company that obviously doesn’t respect its customers enough to price their products fairly.

So instead I went looking elsewhere for a similar product and not 5 minutes later did I come across the Corsair K90 which ticks all the same boxes and has the better Cherry MX Red switches to boot. It might be more expensive than the stealth Razer in the USA but it’s available here from pretty much everywhere. Corsair also have a history of not treating their customers like crap either, I’ve sent several sticks of faulty memory back to them only to get better memory in return. I’m more than happy to give them my money, especially when it means not giving any more to Razer.

Will Razer respond to this post? Probably not, but it needs to be known that Razer have no respect for Australian consumers if it’s trying to pull crap like this. I’m doing the only thing a consumer can: voice their discontent and then vote with their wallet. If enough people don’t put up with these kind of shenanigans then maybe one day we’ll be able to buy products in Australia at fair market prices rather than at the garbage, price gouging levels we get today.

¹If you’re wondering what the hell I’m on about here check out this guide to mechanical keyboards on overlock.net to get the low down on the different types.

Uncharted 3 Screenshot Wallpaper Plane Crash

Uncharted 3: Same Old, Same Old Drake.

It’s not often that you see games stay as platform exclusives, especially successful ones. Since many publishers look to maximise their profit on any set of intellectual property a cross platform release, usually across the big 3 (PC, PS3, Xbox360), is inevitable especially if the franchise is successful. The Uncharted series from Naughty Dog is something quite special as whilst it has enjoyed success similar to that of say Mass Effect it has remained a platform exclusive for every release . The third instalment in this series, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, is no different and picks up sometime after the events that took place in Uncharted 2.

As in all Uncharted games you play as Nathan Drake, a rough and tumble treasure hunter with an eye for hunting down treasures hidden by one of his ancestors Sir Francis Drake. This time around Drake is investigating why it took his ancestor so long to sail across the east indies when he could have done it in a fraction of the time. This leads him on several quests to find the various items required to retrace Drake’s path and hopefully discover the treasure that remains hidden there. People from his past come back to haunt him in this adventure though and much of the back story between Drake and Sulley which hadn’t been explored up until now.

The Uncharted series has a reputation for being on the pretty side and Uncharted 3 is no exception. Whilst there doesn’t seem to be a vast improvement from that on previous titles there’s still some noticeable differences when you compare them side by side. It’s mostly in the small things like Drake’s face having a lot more detail to it. Since this is their 3rd release on the platform it follows that they’re probably pushing right up against the PS3’s limits, especially when the game ran as well as it did (I never noticed any slow down). Naughty Dog also get points for getting the lip syncing and motion capture spot on, something that too many games get horribly wrong.

Uncharted 3 retains the winning, Tomb Raider-esque game play style that has made it such a hit with its fans. Nearly every part of the game is filled with platforming sections, elaborate puzzle sequences, cover-based combat and a few quick time events thrown in there for good measure. Indeed at this point I’m willing to say that Uncharted is quite formulaic in its approach as the parallels you can draw between this latest instalment and its two predecessors is quite startling. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with it, Uncharted is successful for a reason, but this means its in the same category as games like Call of Duty. For some that will be off putting and I can understand where they’re coming from.

Now I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with me getting better at the Uncharted games or not but this time around I rarely struggled with any of the platforming or puzzle sections. The platforming sections really are just an organic progression blocker as Drake has very obvious queues about whether or not he can make it to the next ledge or not. It also seems that the developers, whilst keeping in the old hint system to help you get past a section should you get stuck, have made the NPCs that accompany you far more chatty when it comes to solving problems. Again it could just be me picking up on it more but it really did seem like the game’s overall difficulty had been taken down a notch or two.

Combat in Uncharted 3 is fast paced and action packed but felt like it suffered due to the inherent inaccuracy of doing a shooter on a console system. Now this could just be because I prefer the mouse and keyboard (and I could just shut up and buy the right peripherals) but most games like this compensate for that by helping you out a little, usually by locking onto the target once you get your sight in right the first time. Still there are times when I’d do a section and lay waste to an entire horde of baddies without breaking a sweat but it was just as common for me to struggle with bad aiming and misplaced grenades (is there a way to cancel a grenade throw? I couldn’t figure it out).

The quick time events also felt well placed for the most part, enabling Uncharted 3 to retain that movie level feeling whilst still letting you feel like you were in control of the action. There were a couple that dragged on for far too long however; long enough for my wife (who loves watching me play games like this) to leave the room and say “Call me back when this section is over”. It’s what my friends have come to call Epicness Fatigue when something is just so epic for so long that you get bored with it and just want it to be over. The game definitely didn’t need to be padded out at all, I mean its a relatively short game but still almost double the length of any recent FPS, so the few drawn out action sequences don’t do Uncharted 3 any favours.

The development of Drake and Sulley’s backstories was quite refreshing as it was something that was overlooked in the previous two releases. Up until this game I had just assumed that they were business partners of a few years and nothing much more than that. The story of Uncharted 3 reveals that they’ve been together for much longer than that which, if you retcon that back into the prequels to this, makes some of the decisions made by those characters seem very unusual. Still the backstory is tied in very well with the main plot so it works out anyway.

Overall the story is quite good, well above what you’d find in other games of similar calibre. Whilst I didn’t feel the same level of emotion as I have for other games I did genuinely care for the characters and hoped that certain events would unfold in the way that I wanted them. True to its Hollywood styling there’s an ending that’ll make everyone happy and thankfully doesn’t loudly declare that you should wait for the next one to come out. Undoubtedly there will be another, I believe Uncharted is to the PS3 as Xbox is to Halo, but a game always gets bonus points from me when they can wrap up the main story line like that.

Uncharted 3 might just be another instalment in a series that’s found its success formula and is sticking to it but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s just a damn fun game to play. Whilst none of the individual components stand out on their own as something revolutionary the seamless combination of all them comes together that makes something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. If you’re wondering why some people buy a PS3 over another console Uncharted 3 is definitely something I can point to as an example of what gaming on the platform can be like and indeed the Uncharted series is a great benchmark with which to compare other titles on the PS3.

Rating: 8.5/10

Uncharted: Drake’s Deception is available on PS3 right now for $78. Game was played entirely on the medium difficulty setting with around 12 hours of game time and approximately 30% of the achievements unlocked.

Don’t Turn me to AdBlock.

I’m probably one of the few geeks that doesn’t try to aggressively block all the ads that come to them via the Internet. I don’t find the majority of them intrusive to my browsing, especially if they’re the typical Google text blocks that sit nonchalantly beside the other wall of text that I’m staring at. Even the video ones, well mostly the ones on video sites like YouTube, are pretty tame and if they’re overly long you’re usually able to skip them after 10 seconds or so. My primary reason though is that I know that these ads support the websites that they’re on and the least I can do is let them show them to me.

I often get asked why I don’t run ads here on The Refined Geek. For the most part it’s laziness as the way I want to show ads isn’t exactly simple to set up. If I was going to show ads now I’d only want to show them to a subset of my readers (people coming here from searches and those who haven’t commented) and there’s no simple solution for that. Additionally right now I’m not really getting enough visitors to justify it as hosting this blog is cheap and I’m not exactly struggling financially. Once I reach a certain threshold of readers though you might see ads that are there to keep the site running, but that’s a little way off for now.

However recently I’ve noticed a trend with the ads that get presented to me. They’re all the damn same.

Now I do a lot of Googling, almost all of it when I’m logged in under my Google account. This means that Google knows quite a lot about me, enough to serve me some pretty targeted ads. In the past they’ve actually been helpful in tracking certain things down, especially if I’m looking to purchase something. However lately I’ve noticed that for certain sites I’m only getting served the exact same ad over and over again. This isn’t a caching issue or anything like that because it follows me between work and home. The most annoying part of it too is that I’m getting products advertised to me that I was already interested in buying or have already bought.

I have 3 examples of this which is what has made me think there’s something more to this than just dumb luck. The first I noticed a couple months back when I did a search for synthetic diamonds, wanting to see how far they’ve come in the past couple years. Now on certain sites all I’ll get is an ad for a particular online diamond store, over and over again. The second was for the GoPro HD Hero 2, a great little camera that I’m looking to take with me when I do Tough Mudder in just over 6 weeks. The third and final one is for Fat Gripz, an exercise accessory that came recommended to me from my brother in-law. I’d say about 50% of the ads I see online are these and they’re getting to the point where I want to block them entirely.

The explanation behind this is mostly likely that these are the highest paying ads that the site can display when I visit the site. The way AdSense works is that advertisers bid for the space by putting up their cost-per-click price and then Google will show the best ad for the slot. The diamond store, GoPro and Fat Gripz likely have high CPCs due to their products having a decent margin in them (Fat Gripz especially) and thus they can afford to pay a lot more than others to get the same advertising space. Still you’d think after I’ve seen the ad 100 times and not clicked on it they’d get the idea and start rotating out other ads, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

This is mostly just me whining about something that’s not much of an issue but as someone who’s trying to be a good netizen I feel like I’d hope my experience wouldn’t be bad enough to turn me to blocking them completely. Reddit et. al. gets this with many of the ads being rotated out for thank you pictures for those of us not running ad block. It’s not much but it does go a long way to help stem the flow of people to using things like AdBlock Plus. For now I’ll probably leave everything as is but if this trend continues I’ll soon be joining the ranks of my ad-block brethren.

Why Brakes are Needlessly Inefficient.

I don’t know why but the way brakes on cars, bikes, etc. has always puzzled me. For nearly all breaking systems in the world the main way they work is by converting your car’s kinetic energy (I.E. its movement) into heat through high friction pads attached to the wheel. This means that, for all practical purposes, the energy that went into creating said movement is unrecoverable and reduces the overall efficiency of the system. I figured that there had to be a better way to do it, one that would at least recover some of the energy lost in order to make all forms of transport more efficient.

Such a system became available with the first electric cars through a system called regenerative braking. The system comprises of a small generator that is attached to an axle or wheel hub that is engaged when braking is applied. This is then fed back into the battery, recharging it and extending the range of the vehicle. These systems are quite large however but I always envisioned some sort of system that could be scaled to fit transportation of any size, and someone has come up with it:

YouTube Preview Image

It’s really quite ingenious in its simplicity: braking spins the flywheel which functions as a kind of mechanical battery which can then be used on demand. Of course for a retail system you’d probably want to encase the flywheel in something, for both safety and efficiency purposes, as whilst flywheels are usually safe they can be rather destructive should anything mess with them. Still such a system could be easily scaled up, down or horizontally (use several in one vehicle) to suit almost any application.

There are some issues of course, ones that became painfully apparently back when several countries experimented with a scaled up version of this in the form of the Gyrobus. Granted these were using the flywheels as the sole power source so most of these issues are diminished at lower scales but all the concerns that applied to them still apply to the scaled down versions. Most of these can be overcome though and it will be interesting to see how the idea develops from here.

This is just another example of innovations that should be everywhere. The idea is so simple that it makes me wonder what’s stopping companies from pursuing this idea themselves, like there’s something that I’m not aware of. I’m sure the safety aspect plays a big role but a properly designed and secured flywheel is no more dangerous than a battery of similar size. I’m sure that videos like the one above will inspire companies to look into the idea more closely and hopefully start producing vehicles that are far more efficient than the ones they produce today.

Building Australia’s Silicon Valley (or The NBN Gambit).

It may come as a surprise to you to find out that Australia is a predominately service base industry. Whilst it’s hard to argue that we’ve enjoyed the benefits of the current mining boom Australia’s GDP is still predominately derived from our service industry, to the tune of 69% (pg. 134). Still the current prosperity and insulation from global economic crises that Australia has received from the growing mining sector won’t last forever and now is the time for us to start looking towards the future so we can ensure future economic prosperity. I strongly believe that we’ve already undertaken the first steps towards achieving this with the implementation of the National Broadband Network.

Australia as it stands today suffers from an incredible amount of skill drain to other countries. Well over half of the Australian residents who leave Australia for over a year or permanently were skilled workers and whilst the trend has gone down in recent times (thanks wholly to Australia’s isolation from the global economic turmoil) that hasn’t stemmed the flow of talent leaving our shores. For the high technology sectors at least there is the potential to recreate the hot bed of innovation that led to the creation of Silicon Valley on the back of the NBN. This would not only stem the brain drain overseas but would produce large and sustainable gains to the Australian economy.

Right now the public view of the NBN varies wildly. Businesses by and large have no idea what benefits it can bring them, public opinion is mixed (although Senator Conroy says differently) and even the federal government seems at a loss to what it could mean for Australia’s future, doling out cash to local governments in the hope they’ll be able to sell it for them. To combat this the government should instead provide incentives and seed capital to high-tech start ups who are looking to leverage Australia’s upcoming ubiquitous high speed Internet infrastructure, in essence building an Australian Silicon Valley.

Doing this requires co-ordination with entrepreneurial communities, venture capitalists and the willing hand of the government. They could easily make investment in these kinds of companies more desirable by extending tax breaks that are currently enjoyed by other asset classes to investment in NBN based high-tech start ups. This would also make Australian based startups incredibly attractive for overseas investors, pumping even more money into the Australian economy. As the sector grows there would also be an increasing amount of ancillary jobs available, ones that accompany any form of corporation.

Australia would then become a very desirable location for both established and aspiring businesses looking to expand into the Asia-Pacific region. It also works in the reverse, giving Asia-Pacific businesses (and nations) a more local launch pad into the western business world. Establishing Australia as a high tech hub between our strong local ties and western allies abroad would provide a massive economic boost to Australia, one to rival that of the current mining boom.

Of course it’s not like this hasn’t been tried before in Australia, indeed many have tried to recreate the success of the valley with little results. Indeed I believe this is due to a lack of co-operation between the key players, namely the government, entrepreneurs and investors. The NBN represents a great opportunity for the government to leverage the industry not only to ensure Australia’s future economic prosperity but also to establish Australia as a leader in technology. I believe that the government should be the ones to take the first steps towards fostering such an environment in Australia as once the industry knows they have the support they’ll be far more willing to invest their time in creating it.

Not leveraging the NBN in such a way would leave the NBN as a simple infrastructure service, woefully underutilised given the capabilities that it could unlock. Make no mistake the NBN puts Australia almost at the top in terms of ubiquitous, high speed Internet access and that makes a lot of services that are currently infeasible to develop attractive targets for investigation. Indeed since the same level of broadband access is almost guaranteed throughout the country it is highly likely that benefits will stretch far past the borders of the CBD, even as far as regional centres.

As someone who’s group up on and made his career in technology it’s my fervent hope that the Australian government recognizes the potential the NBN has and uses that for the betterment of Australia. As a nation we’re well positioned to leverage our investment in infrastructure to provide economic benefits that will far exceed its initial cost. Creating a Silicon Valley of the Asia-Pacific region would elevate Australia’s tech industry to rival those throughout the rest of the world and would have massive benefits far beyond Australia’s borders.

Full Body Scanners: Security Theatre at its Finest.

In my travels through the USA I became intimately acquainted with their high level of airport security. Upon entering the country we were finger printed, photographed and grilled about what our trip was about. There was also the long lines for getting through the metal detectors and full body scanners, usually taking up a good 45 minutes of my time to get through. I was never chosen to go through the backscatter x-ray machines (nor did I see any of the newer millimetre wave ones) but I did see many people go through it. Most of them weren’t exactly what you’d call a security risk (mostly people in wheelchairs) but I knew exactly why those machines were there: to make everyone feel safer without actually being so.

This is what is referred to as security theatre. These scanners are supposedly better at detecting things that slip by metal detectors which they accomplish by using low-energy x-rays that penetrate through clothing. Solid objects then should become obvious and should something suspicious be identified the passenger can be taken aside for further searching. Trouble is the machines aren’t terribly effective at what they’re designed to do and the back-scatter x-ray type machines emit ionizing radiation (not a lot mind you, but there’s been minimal research done into them). Using them then seems like a pointless exercise and indeed even though they’ve been in operation in the USA for quite some time the jury is still out on whether they’re actually being effective or not.

So you can then imagine my surprise when I find out that we’ll be getting these scanners at all international airports in Australia:

PASSENGERS at airports across Australia will be forced to undergo full-body scans or be banned from flying under new laws to be introduced into Federal Parliament this week.

In a radical $28 million security overhaul, the scanners will be installed at all international airports from July and follows trials at Sydney and Melbourne in August and September last year.

The Government is touting the technology as the most advanced available, with the equipment able to detect metallic and non-metallic items beneath clothing.

Now we won’t be getting the dubious back-scatter style ones here instead we’ll have the newer millimetre wave ones that don’t emit ionizing radiation. That’s the only good news though as they’ve also amended the legislation that allows you to turn down things like this in favour of a pat down, with the penalty for refusing to go through one being that you’ll be barred from your flight. To top it all off the transport minister Anthony Albanese sealed it with this choice quote “I think the public understands that we live in a world where there are threats to our security and experience shows they want the peace of mind that comes with knowing government is doing all it can”.

It’s almost like he knows these things are a useless piece of security theatre, but is going ahead with them anyway.

More than a decade has past since the events of 11/9/2001 and we’ve yet to see a repeat, or an attempted repeat, of the events that led up to that tragedy here or overseas. The health and privacy concerns aside the reality is that these scanners don’t really accomplish what they’re designed to do and are thus just another inconvenience and waste of tax payer dollars. I can understand that there are some who will feel safer by seeing them there but that doesn’t change the facts that they’re just another piece of security theatre, and a costly one at that.

 

To The Moon Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

To The Moon: I Told Myself I Wouldn’t Cry.

The renaissance that pixel-art styled games are undergoing currently, mostly thanks to the indie development scene, has produced some pretty spectacular works. Just last year I was introduced to Gemini Rue, a game that captured my primarily because of the nostalgia aspect. Of course the game stood alone in terms of game play and story, enough so that playing it didn’t feel like I was simply taking a trip down memory lane. It seems Wadjet Eye has a thing for pixel art styled games and late last year I was sent an email with a trailer for an upcoming game, To The Moon, from one of their partner developers Freebird Games. I’ll be honest when I first saw it I wasn’t particularly interested in playing it but after a strong recommendation from a friend (and watching the trailer) I thought it was worth a shot, even if it was just for the review.

You play as Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, two employees from a company simply called “The Agency” that specializes in memory altering technologies. This technology can be used to change events that happened in a person’s past which then allows them to alter the course of history within the patients mind. Due to the way this works it can only be performed on patients who a near death with the idea that they could have their memories altered to what they wanted and, upon awaking for the last time, enjoy that moment of fulfilment they longed for in life. Shortly after they would pass away. To The Moon follows a story of one patient named Johnny and his wish to journey to the moon.

To The Moon features some gorgeous pixel art scenes paying homage to the many games that used a similar style decades ago. Like Gemini Rue before it each of the scenes does an amazing job at evoking a certain atmosphere, something that plays a critical role in developing the characters. This goes hand in hand with the original sound track that was composed specifically for To The Moon and the combination elevates this simple pixel art adventure well above its expected station.

Like many games of its era To The Moon is primarily driven through character interactions that take place in the form of bite sized chunks of text that appear on screen. Initially the story works in reverse chronological order as you step back through Johnny’s memories in order to unlock his past and plant the idea of him going to the moon. It’s not a new plot mechanic but it was definitely an effective one, since all the characters can allude to the upcoming back story without it being hacky or cumbersome. Indeed the storytelling of To The Moon is what makes this game so compelling and every thing else in it is just ancillary to this purpose.

The game play of To The Moon is very simplistic, verging on the edge of being non-existent. This isn’t a bad thing, especially considering how good next-to-nothing game play games like Heavy Rain have been, just that if you’re the kind of person that enjoys the game play more than the story then To The Moon doesn’t have a lot to offer you. Indeed going into this I was worried that it was going to be another “combine this item with that item and use it there” kind of games, where most of the play time comes from constant iteration instead of enjoyable game play, but thankfully it’s nothing like that.

Between the dialogue scenes you’ll be put into control of one of the two doctors and it’s then your job to find a way back to another memory. This is done by finding a memento in the scene that links the current memory to one in the past. Once you’ve found that you then need to find memory links in order to unlock it. These usually take familiar forms, something which Dr. Watts remarks on during one of the scenes, but it’s basically a game of find the item on the screen. There are some puzzles that mix this up a little bit by throwing in dialogue options and asking you to type things but there’s not many of them, so the core game mechanic is pretty consistent throughout To The Moon.

After unlocking the memento you’ll have to prepare it in order to be able to jump back to another memory. This takes the form of a flip puzzle that you see above. If there’s anything of a game score to compare with your friends this is the only place you’ll find it as each puzzle has an “ideal” number of moves to solve it and there’s a running total of how you went at the bottom. Again these aren’t particularly hard with the most complicated puzzle still only requiring a single digits worth of moves so they’re more there to be a break from the motonity of the dialogue and the find the clue core game mechanics.

At the start I found it somewhat difficult to get into the story of To The Moon. The main characters, the two doctors, function as both the main protagonists in the story as well as being the comic relief. The comic relief sections felt boring and uninspired to me and at the start that’s what constitutes most of the story. After the first couple hours though its easy to put them aside in favour of the main story and on my second session I was instantly hooked back in. After a while though the story started to peter out a bit, with there being no solid plot developments for an hour or more. It was at this point that I got really worried and I got that horrible feeling in the back of my head that I was only playing this game all the way to the end for the review.

Indeed if there is one criticism I’ll level at To The Moon it is the disjointed pacing . There are some scenes that progress the story as much as 4 other scenes do which is what lead to me almost losing all interest in the game from about the half way to three quarters through mark. Whilst I don’t believe there are any excess scenes, indeed the story’s multiple plot lines do wrap up well, tying together some of the more dull scenes instead of having to go through the whole find the clues, unlocking the memento, do the puzzle routine could go a long way to ensure the balance between plot progression and player engagement is kept.

Having said that though it speaks volumes for a game that can turn from a boring slog to a heart arching drama almost at the drop of the hat. I can vividly remember sitting there, verging on the edge of giving up on the game when a couple key plot points were revealed to me. It was at that point that something happened to me that hadn’t happened with a game for a long time: I started crying. Not your typical single tear man cry, I lost it completely. I can’t say what it was that did it (to do so would ruin it and also render me an emotional wreck for the next hour, seriously) but suffice to say that once I had completed it I felt compelled to go and be manly for the next couple hours in order to recover. Working out the tears seemed to do the trick.

And that’s the reason why To The Moon is such an incredible story. Sure the game mechanics are simplistic and the pacing is troublesome but anything that can make me care about the characters deeply enough to bring me to tears at the end of it deserves every accolade that has been heaped on it. It shows that games as a story telling medium, no matter their game play or graphics, are joining the ranks of the traditional mediums. To The Moon is just another great example of a story transcending its medium, one that is a must play for anyone seeking a deep and engrossing drama.

Rating: 9.0/10

To The Moon is available on PC right now for $12. Game was completed with around 5 hours total play time.

Gingrich, Moon Colonies and the Limitations of the Private Sector.

I don’t pretend to be all up on American politics, I look to much more intelligent people than I for understanding of those matters, but if there’s one thing that I know inside and out its space and the industry that surrounds it in the USA. As it’s campaign time now in the USA presidential hopefuls turn to high rhetoric and sweeping promises in order to win votes for their elections and the space program is not immune to this. Indeed it seems that NASA is most often used as a rhetorical tool that ends up under-delivering on its promises, mostly because those promises aren’t backed up with the appropriate funding.

Jumping back a presidency you can see why this was so, with George Bush’s vision for space exploration that had us returning to the moon by 2020. Instead of adding additional funding to complete those goals and all of those already set out for NASA much of the vision was funded out of cancelling other projects, like the Shuttle and their involvement with the International Space Station. What this resulted in was a program that was under-funded and ultimately impinged heavily on NASA’s ability to conduct many of their other core directives. The VSE was then replaced by the Obama administration which had a larger focus on building core space exploration infrastructure whilst out-sourcing rudimentary activities to the private sector, a much better direction for NASA to head in.

Newt Gingrich, current candidate for the Republican nomination, made some sweeping statements about how he’d reform NASA and see Bush’s original vision achieved. He would see a permanent moon base by 2020, a good chunk of NASA’s budget allocated for private incentives and a culling of some of the bureaucracy. They’re ambitious goals, especially considering that Bush made similar ones almost a decade prior that are no where close to being achieved. Still there are some good ideas contained within his vision, but a whole lot more that just show a total lack of understanding.

As always Neil deGrasse Tyson does a much better job of tearing it down than I ever could:

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Neil hits on a point that I’ve long held true: NASA should be charged with advancing space frontiers and the private sector should be tasked with the things that are now routine. We’re already seeing that kind of industry develop what with companies like SpaceX gearing up to resupply the ISS with several others developing along the same lines. This is where the private industry does well but it does not do well in pushing the frontier forward. That’s an inherently risky venture, one that’s very unlikely to be undertaken by any private agency. Advancing the frontier is the realm of the government and NASA is the agency to do it.

Where I do agree with Newt though is the slimming down of the NASA bureaucracy. Much of the costs incurred by the Shuttle program was the standing army of people it had, not the actual launches themselves. The original plan of launching often, up to 50 missions per year, would have drastically reduced the impact this standing army had on the cost per launch of the Shuttle. With the cancellation of the shuttle program much of that will have already been cut but NASA is still quite a large agency. How that would be achieved  is left as an exercise to the reader.

Extraordinary ideas require extraordinary amounts of support and whilst I’d love to believe that Gingrich would follow through with this idea I’ve seen how ideas like this have panned out in the past. Thankfully, with or without Gingrich’s interference, the private space industry is setting itself up as being a viable replacement for the rudimentary activities that NASA needs not bother themselves with any more. What I’d like to see now is Obama’s vision for NASA has changed since he cancelled constellation and whether or not he falls victim to the same high rhetoric trap of over-promising and then not support the vision.

Improving the PS3 Experience.

I love me some Sony products but I’m under no delusion that their user experience can be, how can I put this, fantastically crap sometimes. For the most part their products are technologically brilliant (both the PS3 and the DSC-HX5V that I have fit that category) but the user experience outside that usually leaves something to be desired. This isn’t for a lack of trying however as Sony has shown that they’re listening to their customers, albeit only after they’ve nagged about it for years before hand. After spinning up my PS3 again for the first time in a couple months to start chipping away at the backlog of console games that I have I feel like Sony needs another round of nagging in order to improve the current user experience.

The contrast between Sony’s and Microsoft’s way of doing consoles couldn’t be more stark. Microsoft focused heavily on the online component of the Xbox and whilst there might be a cost barrier associated with accessing it Xbox Live still remains as the most active online gaming networks to date. Sony on the other hand left the access free to all to begin with and has only recently begun experimenting with paid access (the jury is still out on how successful that’s been). One of the most notable differences though is the updating process, major source of tension for PS3 owners worldwide.

As I sat down to play my copy of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Fortune I first greeted with the “A system update is required” message in the top right hand corner of my TV. Since I wasn’t really planning to go online with this one just yet I figured I could ignore that and just get to playing the game. Not so unfortunately as it has been so long since I last updated that Uncharted 3 required an update to be applied before I could play it. Fair enough I thought and 15 mins later I was all updated and ready to go. Unfortunately the game itself also had an update, pushing back my game time by another 5 minutes or so. This might not seem like a lot of time (and I know, #firstworldproblems) but the time taken was almost enough for me not to bother at all, and this isn’t the first time it has happened either.

Nearly every time I go to play my PS3 there is yet another update that needs to be downloaded either for me to get online or to play the game that I’m interested in playing. My Xbox on the other hand rarely has updates, indeed I believe there’s been a grand total of 1 since the last time I used it. Both of these approaches have their advantages and disadvantages but Sony’s way of doing it seems to be directly at odds with the primary use case for their device, something which doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. In fact I think there’s a really easy way to reduce that time-to-play lag to zero and it’s nothing radical at all.

Do the updates while the PS3 is turned off or not in use.

Right now the downloading of updates is a manual process, requiring you to go in and agree to the terms and conditions before it will start the downloads. Now I can understand why some people wouldn’t want automatic updating (and that’s perfectly valid) so there will have to be an option to turn it off. Otherwise it should be relatively simple to periodically boot the system into a low power mode and download the latest patches for both system and games that have been played on it. If such a low power mode isn’t possible then scheduling a full system boot at a certain time to perform the same actions would be sufficient. Then you can either have the user choose to automatically install them or keep the process as is from there on, significantly reducing the time-to-play lag.

I have no doubt that this is a common complaint amongst many PS3 users, especially since it’s become the target of Internet satire. Implementing a change like this would go a long way to making the PS3 user base a lot happier, especially for those of us who don’t use it regularly. There’s also a myriad of other things Sony could do as well but considering how long it took them to implement XMB access in games I figure it’s best to work on the most common issue first before we get caught up in issue paralysis. I doubt this blog post will inspire Sony to make the change but I’m hopeful that if enough people start asking for it then one day we might see it done.