Monthly Archives: June 2012

Australia is Too Focused on The Boats.

You know why I typically avoid posting about the political issue du jour? Mostly because it angries up my blood but also because it seems that the Australian public’s opinion on most matters is so woefully uninformed that I feel like an angry rant about it on my blog really won’t do anything to help the cause. Of course some issues get enough attention that I feel warranted in straying from my usual cool educative demeanor and instead zip up my flame suit and get ready to unload some napalm on my unsuspecting readers. I know that I’m preaching to the choir for the most part but there are some things that I feel just need to be said.

So as any Australian can tell you the hot button issue right now is the current debate raging over asylum seeker reform triggered by the deaths of 100 people aboard a boat off the coast of Christmas Island. “The Boats”, as the Australian media loves to refer them as, are always something of a topic of contention in Australia with one side furious about the way these people are arriving and the other side equally as angry about the way we treat said arrivals. Whilst I hesitate from making general accusations about how Australians tend to be xenophobic (I certainly have tons of anecdotal evidence to support that, but I digress) it does seem the idea of people coming to Australia via boat is found offensive by no small part of the Australian public and therein is where all the drama originates.

Now before I get into the slightly less ranty section of this post let me give you my opinion as it stood prior to me doing the research for this. I personally don’t have any good answers for what a perfect solution would be as an open door policy isn’t a great idea but neither is the strict mandatory detention and offshore processing arrangement we have right now. I feel that this should be a minor issue, something that’s completely under the purview of the government and should not be receiving so much attention. Whilst I don’t know the exact percentage of refugees and migrants coming to Australia via boats I know it vastly dwarfs that of other migrants who come here on real visas and that’s the reason why I can never understand why people go so ballistic when we find another boat coming to Australia.

I think people would do well to read the Lowy Institute’s report on Responding to Boat Arrivals as there’s a lot of information in there that will make people think twice about their stance on the boats. It’s quite lengthy though so I’ll summarize the more important points.

Firstly the acceptance rate for people arriving by boats when compared to that arriving through official channels is much,  much higher. What this means is that the vast majority of people arriving by boat are in fact refugees seeking asylum and the others, the ones who most Australian’s coming in “legitimately”, are more than likely not refugees. This supports my view that we’re far too focused on the wrong kind of immigration, if we should be focused on it at all (hint: we shouldn’t be, at least not in a negative sense).

Probably the major point though is that of the two types of factors that see asylum seekers come to our shores, pull (ones that draw them here) and push (ones that force them out of their country of residence), the push factors are far more influential in someone making the decision to come here. This also explains why Australia saw an increase in refugees when the rest of the world didn’t as the vast majority of our refugees come from 2 countries and the push factors in those areas escalated substantially at the same time (the ongoing war and dire human rights situation in Afghanistan are primarily responsible for this.).

In fact the most profound part of the Lowy Institute’s report are the reasons why Australia is attractive to asylum seekers. It’s not because of our “soft” asylum policies or anything like that, no it’s more to do with the fact that we’re a prosperous, democratic and fair place to live. Indeed should we want to make Australia unattractive to refugees the real way of doing it would be to abandon those qualities rather than “getting tougher on boat people”. Of course no one in Australia would support that idea which demonstrates why there really doesn’t need to be this much hype about asylum seekers in the first place.

I know that this isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind nor make the impact I would hope it to but I really couldn’t let my views go without a voice any longer. If you’ve been reading this and nodding along I’d urge you to educate people on the realities of the situation so that hopefully they won’t react in an irrational way because they don’t know the full story on asylum seekers arriving by boats. I don’t pretend to have an ultimate solution for all this but I’ll be damned if a better one couldn’t be found if this issue wasn’t used as a political punching bag for both sides to score points for the up coming election.

Yet Another Physics Demonstration.

Ah, another day another simple demonstration of physics:

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This video is awesome not just because they built a water slide that lets you do a loop the loop but because it’s a very simple demonstration of the centripetal forces that are in play. You’ll notice that there’s quite a bit of lead up to the actual loop itself, a requirement so that when you start to loop up the sum of the forces ensures that you can overcome the effects of gravity. Too little and you’d only find yourself getting part way around the loop before tumbling down. Too much and you’d risk breaking the supporting structure but you’d have to be going at quite a clip to accomplish that.

If you want to see a good demo of the forces in action the Physics Classroom has a good post on it.

 

The Sandia Cooler Could Be A Game Changer.

You’d have to dig far into my past to know that I was something of an extreme overclocker back in the day. I remember getting my little Athlon 1800+, then clocked at a paltry 1.53GHz, up to a whopping 2.1GHz thanks to my custom water cooling rig. The whole case was something of a monster being a full tower steel chassis that contained the entire cooling apparatus that’s major part was a full copper radiator salvaged from the corpse of a Ford Focus. Had I had the cash spare I would’ve gone even further as whilst I reached the limits of water I knew that there were many other possibilities out there, taunting me to try them. I may not have been that aggressive in the years since then but I still have a keen interest in the latest developments of CPU cooling and my latest rig is once again water cooled (albeit with an all in one solution).

It’s somewhat surprising to say then that in the last decade or so since my first forays into this strange, esoteric world of PC cooling there’s been little changes in the way things are done. Air coolers have stayed mostly the same with their high surface area fin designs with the only big change being the extensive use of heat pipes in order to facilitate more elaborate heat sink designs. Water cooling, phase change and peltier devices have also all remained largely the same although there has been heavy consumerisation in this space meaning many more people have these kinds of elaborate cooling systems which used to be only for the technical elite.

There was one piece of technology that was rumoured about a while ago that caught my eye however, and that was the Sandia Cooler.

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Whilst most cooler manufacturers look to improve their devices by adding additional surface area, using exotic designs to increase air flow and making fans that push more air quieter the Sandia cooler instead seeks to reduce the boundary layer of air, a dead zone where there’s no movement of air thereby reducing efficiency, whilst also moving air past it in a rather novel way. In traditional air coolers air is forced over the heat sink by a fan but in the Sandia Cooler it’s actually drawn through the heat sink as it rotates at approximately 2000RPM. This also has the advantage of keeping the heat sink free from dust but I’ll have to see one running in a dusty PC case for a year before I believe that.

From a technological point of view it’s quite an amazing device as the device uses an air bearing for heat transfer as well as the medium for providing the rotation of the heat sink. This is where much of the skepticism is being leveled at it currently as air is a poor method for heat transfer. Whilst we’re still yet to see any real world performance stats from them the developers of the Sandia Cooler have gone a long way to allay many of those concerns showing that there’s a lot more thought in this than just making a heatsink spin. The proof will still very much be in the pudding with this however but suffice to say I’m excited to see it working outside the lab.

If all their claims are accurate the Sandia Cooler could very well be a game changer, and not just for the PC cooling industry. There’s long been a thermal barrier of about 150W TDP which limits how far we can push processors destined for the desktop. A cooler like the Sandia, one that’s an order of magnitude more efficient and able to be packaged in the same size as current coolers, would enable us to push the thermal barrier much higher allowing even more powerful chips to be packed into the same size. This flows on to the higher end market as well enabling high end PCs and servers to have even more powerful chips again. Further iterations on the device or integration with other novel cooling solutions could see even more benefits realized, further pushing the amount of computing power available in a single chip.

This is all wild speculation on my part but since I found out about it last year they’ve firmly moved out of the “novel piece of technology that’ll never see commercial production” part of my head to the “potentially game changing tech that needs functional verification” part means that I think these guys are serious about their claims. Whether they turn out to be true or not remains to be seen but I’m definitely enthusiastic about what they have to offer and the potential for shake up of the PC industry.

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Resonance: An Enthralling Homage To Adventure Games Everywhere.

I’ve definitely developed a soft spot for Wadjet Eye Games over the past year or so. Whilst I skipped their last 2 releases (Blackwell Deception and Da New Guys) because they didn’t really tickle my fancy their other title, Gemini Rue, has ensured that I’ve kept a close on everything that they release. It was a couple months ago now I got an email from them about their upcoming game Resonance another sci-fi point and click  adventure that caught my attention in much the same way Gemini Rue did. That combined with the few reviews I allowed myself to tentatively read was enough to sell me on the title, and many others it seems.

 Resonance takes place in a world not too dissimilar to our own, being set around the same time. Throughout the game you will take control of one of 4 main characters: a scientist working with a brilliant professor on a new technology, a doctor who said scientist meets on the subway, a slightly renegade cop out to find the truth and a blogger (sorry reporter) who’s on the hunt for his next major story. When an explosion destroys the lab that the scientist is working for and mortally wounds his professor friend all 4 of their individual story threads come together as they try to find out the truth behind the accident.

It’s strange to think that this game has been in development for 5 years as at the time (we’re talking 2007) the idea of making a pixel art homage to the old adventure game genre would seem like a fool’s gambit. However Resonance has instead found itself quite at home with the current renaissance of pixel art titles that eschew modern graphics for a more nostalgic experience. Like many other pixel art games Resonance does not use a modern game engine as a basis, meaning that modern overlay effects like we’ve seen in titles like Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery and Lone Survivor aren’t present. Resonance does well without them however and if you’re a fan of the genuine old school adventure then their omission will be a boon rather than a bother.

Resonance starts off with you choosing your own path through the opening scenes of each of the main characters. This helps to provide some of the back story for all the main characters as well as serving as the tutorial for the main mechanics of the game. There’s really no denying that Resonance starts off quite slow in terms of story progression and I found myself putting it down just after I had completed this first section and leaving it for a day. The good news is that after that the story picks up pace quite dramatically and for the rest of my time with Resonance I didn’t stop until I got right to the end.

I can attribute much of this to the near seamless experience that Resonance presents. For most adventure games, especially ones that do not appear to be using modern game engines, the interfaces are usually clunky, the puzzles radically unintuitive and there’s usually a whole lot of back tracking through countless scenes to get that 1 item that you should have picked up but forgot to at the right time. Now Resonance isn’t completely innocent in this regard (something I’ll touch on a bit later) but overall the level of polish in the adventure game experience is incredibly high, rivaling that of its other Wadjet Eye titles. Considering its production time this is somewhat to be expected but we’ve all seen other titles where the same amount of development time leads to horrible things.

The inventory system is unique to Resonance featuring 3 distinct categories of items and information that you will use throughout your journey. The first is your Long Term Memory which basically functions as a replay device for key scenes that you’ll need to reference at a later date and is automatically populated for you. Short term memory on the other hand is populated directly by you by dragging items of interest into them which can then be used in conversations later on. The final section is just your regular inventory, holding all the items you’ll need to solve puzzles and further the story.

It’s a simple system on the surface but the kinds of puzzles it can create can be rather complicated. For the most part the things you have to talk to the NPCs about are usually in the room with you but there are several times when you need to mention something to someone and the only way to do it will be by dragging something into STM then travelling to them. Thankfully this isn’t often and I can only remember 2 times when I had to do some back tracking in order to progress further. Indeed the amount of back tracking required for the entire game was very minimal, something that definitely added much of my enjoyment to this game.

Unlike most other adventure games you can actually end up killing characters or stuffing up the game in a way which would make it impossible to finish it. Thankfully instead of making you reload your save game in order to fix the problem Resonance instead uses a Braid-esque technique of rewinding back time to a point just before the point where you failed, allowing you to retry the puzzle/section. This is by far the best solution I’ve seen to issues like this as whilst you can save whenever you want reloading a game, especially if you’re stuck at one section, breaks immersion completely. This rewind mechanic is a much better solution and definitely kept me playing much longer than having to reload saves would have.

The puzzles are, for the most part, quite intuitive if you grew up on these kinds of titles. Like all adventure games Resonance has its own way of doing things and this does cause some frustration initially as you struggle with rudimentary puzzles until you realize you’ve been approaching it the wrong way. I’ll admit that a couple of the puzzles completely stumped me at the time and had me reaching for a walkthrough guide to get me over that hump. I only did that a couple times however as for the most part the puzzles can be worked out with a little creative thinking (and possibly getting a coffee to take your mind off it for 5 minutes). My only quibble would be with the mouse based problems as Resonance’s mouse support seems to be a little iffy and can lead to some frustration when trying to complete some puzzles (the pad wiring one comes to mind).

Games like Resonance often rely heavily on the story to provide the majority of entertainment value and, whilst it doesn’t disappoint in that department, I found the game play of Resonance quite enjoyable. Indeed after the first hour which felt like a bit of a struggle I never once asked myself why I was playing this or thought to myself that I was just playing this for the review. The combination of polished interface and challenging puzzles is more than enough to carry this game along for its 6 hour duration. Of course the story doesn’t disappoint either, but there are some issues with it that bear mentioning.

Whilst the motivations of all the characters are quite clear, since you’re playing as them, there comes a point in the story where one of the characters radically changes their motivations. This is to serve as a turning point in the story (and is the basis of the major twist) however since you’ve played said character from the start, ostensibly since the point where they had said motivations, you would think there were some clues as to what they was up to. There were none however and the whole scene serves to open up several other plot holes that remain unanswered. It’s the same problem that plagued Heavy Rain and now, with my rose colored glasses firmly placed on the table, I can understand everyone’s frustration. Taken as a whole the story still works but they could have done a better job with the twist so it didn’t riddle the rest of the story with holes.

Resonance really was a joy to play, effortlessly capturing that nostalgic feeling of playing through its pixel art predecessors almost 2 decades ago. It feels strange for me to say that it was the game play that carried this game rather than its story as with games like this that’s never been the case, for me at least. It’s no surprise then that it has garnered very favorable reviews from everyone that’s played it and I’m glad that I can count myself among them. It might not be a flawless experience but Resonance gets all the fundamentals right resulting in an exceptional game that adventure fans will love and us nostalgic nerds will gush over for some time to come.

Rating: 9.5/10

Resonace from Wadjet Eye Games is available on PC right now for $9.99. Game was completed with around 6 hours of total playtime, score of approximately 300 and 63% of the achievements unlocked.

Can We Drop This Whole Left/Right Brain Business Already?

I’m something of an armchair neuroscience minor as I often find myself researching behavioral traits, influences and motivations simply for the heck of it. I think its partly because I have this need to understand why people act the ways they do at a fundamental rather than practical level thanks to my many years spent as an extreme introvert during my high school years. It also hooks into the skeptical side of me quite well as I’ll often find bits of pop psychology that get bandied around by my not-as-interested friends that I’ll attempt to correct, lest they spread that nonsense to other people.

It seems that some ideas are just too sexy to go away, however.

I was watching TV recently, a veritable treasure trove of techniques based on modelling the human psyche, when an ad for a car popped up. Now I can’t remember exactly which car it was and a quick Google brought up two current campaigns that play on the same idea. The first one is a series of print ads from Mercedes-Benz and the second (and the one that seems the most familiar) is one from Kia:

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They both play on that whole left brain/right brain idea where by the left side is some kind of cold calculating logic driven engine whilst the right side is the creative one, filled with random ideas and that spark that all creative people seek. This then lead onto the ideas that men are typically left side dominant and women are right side dominant. However there also seemed to be a bevy of online tests available to check if you were left or right side dominant, seeing if you’re more of a creative than logical kind of person. For years it seemed everyone was drinking this kool aid, seemingly without any consideration to how the brain actually works.

It is true that there are functions of the brain that appear to be dedicated to particular hemispheres, which is referred to as the lateralization of brain function, it can also be shown that both sides of the brain are quite capable of performing those functions and indeed do so in many cases. There’s also no guarantees as to which functions are lateralized where as different people will have different hemispheres dominant for a particular function. Short of removing one half of the brain no person can be truly left or right brain dominant in the sense of being creative or logical. Indeed the research shows that both logical and creative functions are present in both hemispheres completely debunking this whole idea.

What was even more preposterous were the online tests devised to determine whether you were right or left brain dominant. The most famous of which, one which spurred a rather heated discussion between me and my friends at the time, was the spinning dancer. Looking at the image you’ll see the dancer spinning either clockwise or counter clockwise and that was somehow meant to tell which part of your brain was dominant. Funnily enough I could see it spin both ways and could make it change on demand by looking at the feet and the shadow so I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was a proper test for a phenomenon I already didn’t believe in. Indeed it is simply just an optical illusion with your brain “filling in” details that it perceives as missing and such activities are carried out by the visual cortex which spans both hemispheres.

The fact that we’re still seeing things referencing this whole fake phenomena means that it’s still widely believed to be true, which is really unfortunate. Whether a person is more creative or logical has nothing to do with which part of their brain is dominant and is in fact more likely due to the nurturing of the innate creative/logical talent that we all have. I guess any simple metric that divides people into two groups will always be popular (“Oh you shouldn’t listen to him, he’s such a left brain!”). It’s a shame really but hopefully like any fad it’ll eventually fade away, never to be mentioned again.

I Think The Internet Doth React Too Much (or Really Guys? Have You Forgotten The Other Tomb Raiders?).

I tend to steer clear of controversial/hyperbolic writing mostly because I feel that, for the most part, it’s a cheap way to bring page views to a subject that usually doesn’t need that kind of  attention. Of course I’m not immune to this and I’ve posted my share of inflammatory stuff in the past and regrettably it does seem to work. Thankfully I take little joy in it so my forays into that realm are usually either genuine grievances that have driven me to the brink of insanity or the only thing I can think to write about on the day. Don’t worry today isn’t going to be another installment in my rant series but it is going to be about the topic.

The latest PR disaster that I’ve been privy to (apart from that whole Charles Carreon vs The Oatmeal stuff) is the surrounding the upcoming reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. Now the series doesn’t have the best reputation for portraying females in the greatest light. I mean sure Lara was one of the few female lead characters back when it was first release but it was painfully obvious that she was a woman designed through a man’s eyes. It didn’t help matters much that her bust size seemed to increase with every game that followed the original release. No the latest outrage comes from the trailer and one PR goon’s unfortunate choice of words.

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Watching the trailer in isolation you’d say that the new Tomb Raider takes on the now popular “gritty, realistic” approach to the game experience and focuses on Lara’s origin story rather than just plonking her down on the next tomb that need raiding. There’s one particular scene in there that’s suggestive of what might happen to her when she defies her captures and unfortunately the executive producer Ron Rosenberg referred to it as an attempted rape scene. They back peddled like crazy of course, but that didn’t stop the Internet reacting with a furor that had them calling the game every bad word under the sun, most about how sexist the game is.

Now usually I’ll write this stuff off and leave the Internet to its own business but for some reason this really got to me. In essence all the people reacting to this were going on were a 3 minute trailer (which shows only a tiny fraction of the whole game) and an executive producer’s comments on what the scene meant. Is it really fair then to judge the entire game, the development team and the writers behind the story on these small pieces of information? Personally I don’t think it is as you’re lacking all the context that the game developers will provide to you, context that could very well wash away any concerns you have.

That of course didn’t stop people from throwing all sorts of crazy accusations at them. Whilst some of them were just plain strange like the noises Lara was making were too sexual (really? Did any of them play Uncharted? Because Drake makes pretty similar noises in that and no one thought that was sexual) to legitimate concerns that the writers were using rape as a shock tactic. Honestly if you watch the video without the preconception that “Lara done gonna get raped” it feels like a legitimate part of the story, not a cheap writing tactic used to shock the audience. The whole line that you can only have a strong female character through overcoming adversity like that depicted in the trailer also felt like people making broad generalizations without much thought to all the other strong female leads we’ve had in games leading up to this point.

Thankfully not everyone is taking such umbrage with this whole fiasco and their investigation into the whole thing shows that the netizens who reacted so strongly did so without knowing all the information. All the scenes shown there are Lara’s origin story, showing how she became the fearless Tomb Raider that she was in the previous games. The “rape” scene was anything but poorly written, in fact it’s the turning point where Lara comes into her own. I personally found the trailer be incredibly engaging showing Lara as someone who’s completely out of her element who has to work incredibly hard just to survive. It’s no like this story is unique either so it really feels like a case where the Internet just had to blow something up just for the sake of it.

Really when I look back at all the articles I read, all the ranty comments that I got drawn into I should’ve just taken them for what they are: reactionary sensationalism. For some reason the Internet culture revolves around it, jumping at any opportunity to get riled up or rally behind the cause du jour. I’d love to think we’re past that but when I can find 10 articles jumping on the flame wagon and only 1 presenting a rational case that understands both sides of the argument I have to wonder what this Internet culture has done to the integrity of these supposed media outlets. I probably shouldn’t blame the Internet either as sensationalist reporting isn’t anything new to the medium, but it sure does feel like it happens more often thanks to its always available nature.

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Windows Phone 8 and Surface: Another Step Forward For Platform Unification.

I have a confession to make: I never took the plunge and bought a Windows Phone 7 handset like I said I would. It’s not because I didn’t want one, new gadgets are something I have a hard time turning down, it’s just that my desire to get one was overcome by the notion of spending several hundred dollars on a handset I wouldn’t use every day. I still kept my eye on them thanks to several people I work with having them but even their raving reviews of it weren’t enough to pull me away from my now Ice Cream Sandwich blessed Galaxy S2. In all honesty I had pretty much given up on Microsoft’s mobile efforts as they didn’t look like they’d be able to retake the crown they’ve lost to Google and Apple.

News comes today however that Microsoft has announced their latest version of their mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8. Unlike Windows Phone 7 which was more of a preview of Windows 8 than anything else WP8 keeps the same aesthetic that’s won them significant praise whilst firmly bringing their mobile platform into the Three Screens vision. WP8 also brings all the other improvements we’ve come to expect from new release such as support for faster phones, bigger screens, NFC and an upgraded browser that. The biggest improvement, from my point of view at least, is that WP8 devices will be running the full WinRT framework essentially elminating the gap between their tablet/ARM devices and their mobile line.

Now this isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before, Apple has long had a similar level of platform ubiquity between their tablet and handset platforms. However WinRT does provide the capability for applications to run on desktops as well, something Apple (or anyone else for that matter) has yet to achieve. Whilst the 3rd screen, the TV, has yet to receive the WinRT treatment from any Microsoft product it would seem to be a safe bet that the next generation Xbox will feature the framework. This is of course wild speculation on my part however Microsoft would be foolish not to take advantage of the foothold they already have in the home entertainment space and I’m sure the people inside Microsoft think in the same way.

Interestingly enough the announcement of Windows Phone 8 comes hot off the heels of another announcement from Microsoft: that of their new Surface tablet. Now this isn’t to be confused with the original Surface table as that’s now been renamed to Microsoft PixelSense. No this tablet is a lining up to be a direct competitor to the iPad having very similar styling and identical use cases. The differences appear to be however that the Surface will come in two versions, one WinRT only and the other a full blown x86 PC. The delineation isn’t made lightly and it’s obvious that the x86 model is going to be aimed more at corporate users who need all their applications and the WinRT version will be meant for the consumers. It looks like a solid product however I can’t help but shake the feeling that it might not be the greatest step forward for Microsoft.

You see whilst Microsoft does need to do something about getting into the tablet space they’ve already done most of the legwork with Windows 8. They already have great relationships with OEMs and this is why you don’t see a whole bunch of Microsoft branded devices around the shop: they make the software and others provide the hardware. Getting into the tablet business means they’re kind of thumbing their nose at the OEMs, especially when each license for Windows 8 will cost them $85. As long as Microsoft makes their tablet a premium price range product though this won’t be so much of an issue but they could really do some damage to their OEM relationships if their tablets debut in the $200~$400 range. Since there’s not a whole bunch of information about it now I’ll have to play wait and see with this one as things could change significantly between now and launch day.

Microsoft’s mobile platform has been taking a battering from every side but with the unification between all of their platforms they might just be able to tempt people away from their Android and iPhone comfort zones. Certainly the unified platform provided by WinRT will be attractive to developers and that will hopefully see more killer applications find their way onto Windows Phone 8. The next year of Windows 8 related releases will be key for Microsoft’s future and will be telling if their vision for platform unification is the direction they need to be heading in.

Shenzhou-9 Docks with Tiangong-1 Giving China It’s First Manned Space Station.

I’ve always felt that China’s exclusion from the International Space Station project has been a huge misstep on the USA’s part. Sure I can understand that there are some concerns, as there always are with any international co-operative effort, but the fact is that China really did have a lot to offer the ISS even if it wasn’t anything that the Russians could provide. Exclusion from such a project has sent them down their own path of space exploration and the last decade has shown that China are not only capable of putting their own Taikonauts up there but they’re also quite adept at pushing the boundaries of their capabilities much faster than governments have done in the past.

It was just on 9 months ago today that China launched their own space station, Tiangong-1. It didn’t take them long after that to launch an unmanned Shenzhou capsule and dock it with the space station, verifying that all the systems required for humans to be able to visit the station were in place and functioning correctly. 4 days ago saw the launch of Shenzhou-9 carrying with it 3 Taikonauts (including China’s first female space fairing citizen) with their destination being none other than Tiangong-1. Yesterday saw them dock and for the first time in history China now has a manned space station in orbit.

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The total mission time for Shenzhou-9 is about 2 weeks giving the taikonauts around a week or so aboard Tiangong-1. In that time they’ll be doing some medical experiments and studying the development of butterflies in a microgravity environment. Realistically the payload of this mission is the taikonauts themselves and this just serves as a shake down of the systems aboard Tiangong-1 ahead of future missions that will visit it and it’s successors. There’s one more manned visit planned after this one concludes currently scheduled for some time next year, after that Tiangong-1 will be deorbited and then replaced by upgraded versions of the craft. Ones which will form the basis of their permanent space station.

China has made a lot of progress in the past couple years and it looks like they’re not about to stop any time soon. Whilst I don’t believe that their achievements will see them end up being contributors to the ISS it will put pressure on the USA to relax their rules around co-operation with them as their original reasons (that China had nothing to give the program and would only take) really don’t hold any ground anymore. Of course that’s never stopped anyone from holding on to an irrational point of view before and I don’t expect it to change any time soon.

It’s really quite exciting to see so much development in space exploration even if it isn’t new territory. Governments competing with each other for space supremacy is how we landed men on the moon before we had modern computers and China’s incredible efforts to get a foothold in space could spur on another race of similar magnitude. If I’m honest I do wish that this wasn’t the case, I’d much prefer them just to do it for the sake of doing it, but nothing gets superpowers moving faster than the potential for their pride to be hurt. With an election on the horizon there’s ample opportunity for the upcoming Presidential candidates to start affirming their commitment to being the leaders in space and hopefully we’ll start to hear them doing so soon.

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Max Payne 3: Trouble Just Can’t Stay Away From Him.

This may come as something of a surprise but I missed the boat on the entire Max Payne series. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of the game, I can clearly remember playing through the opening scenes of the original, I just failed to play it through to its conclusion. The same can be said for its sequel which, being released a mere 2 years after its predecessor, wasn’t enough to grab my attention away from whatever else I was playing at the time. Max Payne 3 on the other hand grabbed my attention, partly because Rockstar was ballsy enough to release it on the same day as Diablo 3 but mainly because of the hype surrounding it. I figured it would be worth a look.

Max Payne 3 takes place 9 years after the events of the previous installment in this series, seeing Max retired from his job at the NYPD. The events of the past decade haven’t been kind to him as the burning desire for revenge and justice has faded into a deep sense of self loathing. He spends his days now getting drunk and popping pain killers like they were candy when out of the blue Raul Passos, a man claiming to be one of Max’s buddies from the academy, offers him a security gig in Brazil. He resists at first but after becoming a mob target thanks to killing the son of a mob boss he reluctantly accepts and finds himself deep in the tumultuous world of Sao Paulo.

Right off the bat Max Payne 3 delivers with impressive visuals and cinematography. It’s not often that I’ll talk about the camera work in a game, mostly because there doesn’t appear to be much thought given to it, but the framing, angles and  action movie feel that you get when playing Max Payne 3 is just incredible. It’s somewhat done out of necessity as a good chunk of the game, I’d wager somewhere between 30~50% of it, takes place in either in-game cutscenes or pre-rendered video. For me personally I loved it as it gave ample attention to both the main characters and the plot allowing them to develop beautifully.

This is more impressive considering the long development time and several delays that Max Payne 3 underwent in order to get to this point. Max Payne 3 was confirmed as being in development in 2004 but it wasn’t until 2009 that it was actually announced. It then underwent a series of delays until it was finally launched just over a month ago, something that usually sees a game being released looking dated. Max Payne 3, whilst not being the pinnacle of graphical achievement, still fits well with similar titles that have been released in the past year or so. This is a testament to Rockstar’s development teams who’ve managed to pull similar miracles with other games like L.A. Noire.

What really got me about the first Max Payne was the heavy use (and I’d say overuse) of metaphor that was a major part of Max’s internal dialog. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it certainly helped with the game’s noir direction, but I personally found it tiresome after a while. Max Payne 3, whilst still being an incredibly dark story, does away with these metaphors and instead favors more direct dialog. It feels fitting as Max Payne 3 is more of an action-thriller type game where as its predecessors were better described as gritty noir cop dramas. I’m a big fan of action games so this sits well with me, but fans of the series might not like this change of tone.

The core game is thrilling and fast paced but it has a strong strategic element that rewards a methodical approach. At its heart Max Payne 3 is your typical run and gun affair having you duck in and out of cover whilst you pick off enemies and advance forward. There is, of course, the tried and true bullet time mechanic allowing you to slow down time in order to pick off hordes of enemies that would otherwise mow you down before you got a single shot off. Indeed the tactical aspect of the game relies heavily on how you use your precious amount of bullet time to its maximum advantage, ensuring that at the end you’ve offed the maximum number of enemies without putting yourself in danger.

There are also some RPG elements in the game that reward players who have that investigative streak in them. Scattered throughout each level are pills, golden gun parts and clues pertinent to the case you’re currently working on. The pills function as a sort of life system allowing you to either refill your health meter on demand or, and I think this is probably the better way to do it, allowing you to have a final chance at taking down the enemy that took you down which will then refill your health bar. The golden guns appear to be just another collectible allowing you to make certain guns be completely gold but with no additional damage or benefit that I could see. There might be some benefit to collecting the clues but apart from the bits of back story you get from them there’s no real reason to get them. Still these things make exploring the environment worth doing and it certainly didn’t feel like a waste of time.

It’s not exactly a trouble free experience though. For some reason Max loves his trusty 1911 so much that if there’s a cutscene he’ll switch over to it regardless of whatever gun you picked up. This might sound like a minor quibble but there are some scenes where gun choice can make or break an encounter and having to switch back loses you precious seconds. There’s also the times when he inexplicably drops a gun between encounters, leaving you with the default weapons and having to play the ammo conservation game again. Again seems minor but when you have to play the same scene a couples times over until you get it right these little frustrations do start to build up.

Max Payne 3 also seems to be the only game in the world where picking up a gun with a laser sight attached to it makes you less accurate than not having one at all. You see with your default targeting reticle you have no kick back and the bullets land exactly where you aim them. With a laser sight your aim suffers from wild kick back and at medium to long distances you can’t even make the dot out meaning you’re basically spray and praying the whole time. It’s not really a problem until late in the game when everyone seems to be packing laser sights and you have no choice but to pick up one of their weapons. That did make some of the final scenes far more frustrating than they should have been.

There’s also some sections where no matter how many pills you’ve got left over that you’ll get instantly one shot. This is fine in some circumstances, like when you’re trying to guide a player away from one area, but when it’s a part of a boss fight that’s not particularly obvious (the one in the police station comes to mind) getting one shot only serves to break your immersion as you try to figure out just what the hell you need to do to progress to the next scene. Thankfully these kinds of encounters weren’t common and most of them could be overcome with a little bit of planning and clever use of bullet time.

However for all these little irritations the story of Max Payne 3 is what brings the game together. I might not be a long time fan of the series but I readily empathized with Max and his motivations, even if I didn’t identify with his self-destructiveness early on in the game. The plot, whilst being semi-obvious after about an hour or two in (although I will admit I identified the wrong character as being the protagonist), is more than enough to carry Max through a torrent of bad guys, explosions and ludicrous situations. You’re not going to find any deep meanings here but I felt it was enough to keep me planted in my seat for the majority of Max Payne 3.

I really didn’t know what to expect when I came into Max Payne 3 and I think that lack of expectations is what led me to be so pleasantly surprised by what it had to offer. Thinking back to the little experience I had with the original I get the feeling that people who’ve played through its predecessors might not like the change in overall tone that Max Payne 3 takes but for people like me who are basically new comers to the series there is a lot to love in this most recent installment. If you’re a fan of games that are heavy on action with a story that doesn’t feel like it was written by the developers then Max Payne 3 will definitely be a game you’d enjoy and I’d definitely recommend you give it a play through.

Rating: 9.0/10

Max Payne 3 is available on PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and PC right now for $78, $78 and $89.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on PC on the hard difficulty with around 7 hours of total play time.

VMware VIM SDK Gotchas (or Ghost NICs, Why Do You Haunt Me So?).

I always tell people that on the surface VMware’s products are incredibly simple and easy to use and for the most part that’s true. Anyone who’s installed an operating system can easily get a vSphere server up and running in no time at all and have a couple virtual machines up not long after. Of course with any really easy to use product the surface usability comes from an underlying system that’s incredibly complex. Those daring readers who read my last post on modifying ESXi to grant shell access to non-root users got just a taste of how complicated things can be and as you dive deeper and deeper into VMware’s world the more complicated things become.

I had a rather peculiar issue come up with one of the tools that I had developed. This tool wasn’t anything horribly complicated, all it did was change the IP address of some Windows servers and their ESXi hosts whilst switching the network over from the build VLAN to their proper production one. For the most part the tool worked as advertised and never encountered any errors, on its side at least. However people were noticing something strange about the servers that were being configured using my tool, some were coming up with a “Local Area Network 2″ and “vmxnet3 Ethernet Adapter #2″ as their network connection. This was strange as I wasn’t adding in any new network cards anywhere and it wasn’t happening consistently. Frustrated I dove into my code looking for answers.

After a while I figured the only place that the error could be originating from was when I was changing the server over from the build VLAN to the production one. Here’s the code, which I got from performing the same action in the VIClient proxied through Onyx, that I used to make the change:

            NameValueCollection Filter = new NameValueCollection();
            Filter.Add("name", "^" + ServerName);
            VirtualMachine Guest = (VirtualMachine)Client.FindEntityView(typeof(VirtualMachine), null, Filter, null);
            VirtualMachineConfigInfo Info = Guest.Config;
            VirtualDevice NetworkCard = new VirtualDevice();
            int DeviceKey = 4000;
            foreach (VirtualDevice Device in Info.Hardware.Device)
            {
                String Identifier = Device.ToString();
                if (Identifier == "VMware.Vim.VirtualVmxnet3")
                {
                    DeviceKey = Device.Key;
                    NetworkCard = Device;
                    Console.WriteLine("INFO - Device key for network card found, ID: " + DeviceKey);
                }
            }
            VirtualVmxnet3 Card = (VirtualVmxnet3)NetworkCard;
            VirtualMachineConfigSpec Spec = new VirtualMachineConfigSpec();
            Spec.DeviceChange = new VirtualDeviceConfigSpec[1];
            Spec.DeviceChange[0] = new VirtualDeviceConfigSpec();
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Operation = VirtualDeviceConfigSpecOperation.edit;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Key = DeviceKey;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.DeviceInfo = new VMware.Vim.Description();
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.DeviceInfo.Label = Card.DeviceInfo.Label;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.DeviceInfo.Summary = "Build";
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Backing = new VMware.Vim.VirtualEthernetCardNetworkBackingInfo();
            ((VirtualEthernetCardNetworkBackingInfo)Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Backing).DeviceName = "Production";
            ((VirtualEthernetCardNetworkBackingInfo)Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Backing).UseAutoDetect = false;
            ((VirtualEthernetCardNetworkBackingInfo)Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Backing).InPassthroughMode = false;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Connectable = new VMware.Vim.VirtualDeviceConnectInfo();
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Connectable.StartConnected = Card.Connectable.StartConnected;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Connectable.AllowGuestControl = Card.Connectable.AllowGuestControl;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Connectable.Connected = Card.Connectable.Connected;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Connectable.Status = Card.Connectable.Status;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.ControllerKey = NetworkCard.ControllerKey;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.UnitNumber = NetworkCard.UnitNumber;
            ((VirtualVmxnet3)Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device).AddressType = Card.AddressType;
            ((VirtualVmxnet3)Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device).MacAddress = Card.MacAddress;
            ((VirtualVmxnet3)Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device).WakeOnLanEnabled = Card.WakeOnLanEnabled;
            Guest.ReconfigVM_Task(Spec);

My first inclination was that I was getting the DeviceKey wrong which is why you see me iterating through all the devices to try and find it. After running this tool many times over though it seems that my initial idea of just using 4000 would work since they all had that same device key anyway (thanks to all being built in the same way). Now according to the VMware API documentation on this function nearly all of those parameters you see up there are optional and earlier revisions of the code included only enough to change the DeviceName to Production without the API throwing an error at me. Frustrated I added in all the required parameters only to be greeted by the dreaded #2 NIC upon reboot.

It wasn’t going well for me, I can tell you that.

After digging around in the API documentation for hours and fruitlessly searching the forums for someone who had had the same issue as me I went back to tweaking the code to see what I could come up with. I was basically passing all the information that I could back to it but the problem still persisted with certain virtual machines. It then occurred to me that I could in fact pass the network card back as a parameter and then only change the parts I wanted to. Additionally I found out where to get the current ChangeVersion of the VM’s configuration and when both of these combined I was able to change the network VLAN successfully without generating another NIC. The resultant code is below.

            VirtualVmxnet3 Card = (VirtualVmxnet3)NetworkCard;
            VirtualMachineConfigSpec Spec = new VirtualMachineConfigSpec();
            Spec.DeviceChange = new VirtualDeviceConfigSpec[1];
            Spec.ChangeVersion = Guest.Config.ChangeVersion;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0] = new VirtualDeviceConfigSpec();
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Operation = VirtualDeviceConfigSpecOperation.edit;
            Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device = Card;
            ((VirtualEthernetCardNetworkBackingInfo)Spec.DeviceChange[0].Device.Backing).DeviceName = "Production";
            Guest.ReconfigVM_Task(Spec);

What gets me about this whole thing is that the VMware API says that all the other parameters are optional when its clear that there’s some unexpected behavior when they’re not supplied. Strange thing is if you check the network cards right after making this change they will appear to be fine, its only after reboot (and only on Windows hosts, I haven’t tested Linux) that these issues occur. Whether this is a fault of VMware, Microsoft or somewhere between the keyboard and chair is an exercise I’ll leave up to the reader but it does feel like there’s an issue with the VIM API. I’ll be bringing this up with our Technical Account Manager at our next meeting and I’ll post an update should I find anything out.