Monthly Archives: August 2012

VMware Has Always Been Playing The Long Game.

VMware has always been the market leader in terms of functionality in the virtualization space. Initially this was because they were the only real player in the market with every other alternative being either far too specific for widespread adoption or, dare I say it, too hard for your run of the mill system administrator to understand. That initial momentum allowed them to stay ahead of the curve for quite a long time enabling them to justify their licensing fees based on the functionality they could deliver. In recent years however the fundamental features that are required of a base hypervisor have, in essence, reached parity for the all the major players seemingly eliminating the first to market advantage that VMware had been exploiting for the better part of a decade.

However it’s not like VMware wasn’t aware of this. Back when I first started doing large virtualization projects the features of the base hypervisor were very rarely the first things you’d discuss with your local VMware representative. Indeed they were much more focused on the layers on top of the base hypervisor which they could provide. Whilst Microsoft and CITRIX struggled for a long time to provide even the most basic of services like vMotion/Live Migration VMware knew that it was only a matter of time before their base product offered feature parity to theirs. As such VMware now has an extensive catalogue of value add products for environments based on their hypervisor and that’s where the true value is.

Which is why I get surprised when I see articles like this one from ArsTechnica. There’s no doubting that VMware is undergoing a small transformation at the moment having back peddled on the controversial vRAM issue and even taking the unprecedented step of joining OpenStack. However their lead in terms of functionality and value add services for their hypervisor really can’t be matched by any of the current competitors and this is why they can truthfully say that they still have the upper hand. Just take a look at the features being offered in Hyper-V 3.0 and then look up how long VMware has had that feature. For the vast majority of them it’s been available for years through VMware and is only just becoming available for Hyper-V.

Having a feature first might not sound like a big advantage when most people only want your hypervisor but that can be a very critical factor, especially for risk adverse organisations. Being able to demonstrate that a feature has been developed, released and used in the field gives those kinds of customers the confidence they need in order to use that feature. Most organisations won’t trust a new version of Windows until the first service pack is out and it’s been my experience that that same thinking applies to hypervisors as well. Microsoft might be nipping at VMware’s heels but they’ve still got a lot of ground to make up before they’re in contention for the virtualization crown.

Indeed I believe their current direction is indicative of how they see the virtualization market transforming and how they fit in to it. Undeniably the shift is now away from pure virtualization and more into cloud services and with so many big players backing OpenStack it would be foolish of them to ignore it lest they be left behind or seen as a walled garden solution in an increasingly open world. They certainly don’t have the market dominance they used to however the market has significantly increased in the time that they’ve been active and thus complete domination of it is no longer necessary for them to still be highly profitable. VMware will still have to be careful though as Microsoft could very well eat their lunch should they try to rest on their laurels.

ABC Gets It: Competing With, Not Against The Pirates.

For the longest time large media and entertainment companies have been competing against pirates by any way they deem necessary. For games they lavish on restrictive DRM schemes, giving us only limited installs and mandating Internet access before we’re allowed to play. For music, movies and TV shows us Australians seem to be relegated to the backwaters of delayed releases at prices that are cemented in decades old thinking when it actually did cost a lot to ship stuff to us. The pirates then have been offering a service that, put simply, were far more attractive than their legitimate counterparts and this is why it continues to be such a big problem today. A few companies have got the right idea though and surprisingly one of them is our very own Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

For uninitiated ABC has long had a pretty darn good service called iView, an on demand streaming service akin to the BBC’s iPlayer.  For PlayStation 3 owners in Australia we’re also lucky enough to have a dedicated link to it on our cross media bar, making it quite painless to use. If you also happen to be on Internode all the traffic to iView is unmetered as well meaning you can stream a good section of the entire ABC back catalogue for nothing. When a couple of my favourite shows were on there (Daily Show, Colbert Report) I used it quite often as I could just browse the list and then hit play, nothing more was required. The service has gone down hill as of late as they don’t keep entire back catalogues up for very long (I think it was about 6 episodes per show, usually for a time after they had aired) but the idea behind it is very solid.

News comes today though that they’re doing some quite extraordinary: putting up episodes of Doctor Who online right after they’re shown in the UK, a week before they’re shown in Australia:

In an Australian first, the new adventures of Amy, Rory and The Doctor will be available on the ABC’s iView player from 5.10am AEST on Sunday September 2, just hours after the first episode airs in the UK.

The show will then reappear in the future, on ABC1at 7:30pm the following Saturday, September 8.

ABC1 controller Brendan Dahill said the decision to air the show online before television was motivated by a desire to reduce piracy, as well as fulfill the needs of drooling Whovians, who have waited almost a year for the new series.

Indeed the biggest complaint that many people had regarding the Doctor Who series was that even if it was available in their region it was often significantly delayed. The Doctor Who fans are a rabid bunch and being out of sync with the greater community is something that many of them couldn’t bear and so turned to pirated solutions. Offering up the episodes at nearly the same time will go a long way to turn those pirating users into viewers that can be monetized in some way, although how that will be given ABC’s lack of commercial interests remains to be seen. The producers of Doctor Who must be in on this however so I’m sure there’s something in it for them.

I think it’s quite commendable that ABC has decided to tackle piracy in this way instead of trying to take more draconian measures, as is the usual route. Whilst it won’t stop pirating entirely it will go a long way to making the ABC’s offering that much more desirable. I’m sure they could up the ante significantly by opening up their entire back catalogue for a nominal fee but I’m not sure what kinds of regulations they’re under, being a government funded initiative and all. I might not be an ongoing customer but I could see myself buying a month here or there when a I got interested in a series they had.

This is the future that media giants should be looking towards. Instead of trying to force the pirates further underground they need to make their offerings better than what they can get elsewhere. iView is a great example of that and they really are only a couple steps away from beating the pirate option in almost every respect. Hopefully this spurs the other commercial stations to do similar and then Australia won’t be the pirate ridden media backwater that it has been for the past couple decades.

Seriously, Exercise Is Awesome.

Even though I’ve dedicated a whole category on this blog to Fitness I’ve only ever posted a couple things directly relating to it. For the uninitiated I’m not what you’d call an expert on these matters, I know many more people more qualified than myself to give proper health advice, but would consider myself an informed individual. I’ve read countless numbers of journals, scientific news sites and rafts of forum posts to figure out the secrets to getting fit and staying that way. Of course in my research I’ll also come across some of the lesser known benefits of exercise and to me they make for some of the most compelling reasons to start exercising regularly.

I mentioned at the end of last year that you can see some pretty amazing benefits if you just stopped sitting for half an hour a day. This came hand in hand with another study that showed as little as 15 minutes worth of moderate exercise per day could add another 3 years to your life with the benefits apparently scaling linearly with more exercise. The effects of exercise appear to get even better if you manage to stay fit between your 30s and 50s, significantly reducing the incident rate of chronic illnesses as you age:

For decades, research has shown that higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels lessen the risk of death, but it previously had been unknown just how much fitness might affect the burden of chronic disease in the most senior years — a concept known as morbidity compression.

“We’ve determined that being fit is not just delaying the inevitable, but it is actually lowering the onset of chronic disease in the final years of life,” said Dr. Jarett Berry, assistant professor of internal medicine and senior author of the study available online in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In essence this means you can push back the clock on these age related diseases significantly should you keep your fitness level up during mid-life. Their recommendation is a paltry 2.5 hours per week of moderate to intense aerobic activity, something that can be achieved in well under 30 mins per day. This leads to an incredibly increase in your quality of life in later years meaning you’ll spend much less time having to deal with a chronic affliction later in life.

For me it just reinforces the notion that the “slowing down” everyone feels when they get older really is just a perception and not a physical constraint. Indeed all you need to do is to look at the MRIs comparing a 40 and 70 year old triathlete to that of a sedentary individual which shows that lean muscle mass can be preserved as long as you continue your exercise program. The benefits are not only under the skin either as this 75 year old demonstrates:

YouTube Preview Image

I remember one of my friends a while ago saying to me that now they were getting close to 30 they could start to feel parts of their body wearing out on them. To put it bluntly I lost my shit at them saying that I’d never been more active or physically fit in my life and put it to them that they were just perceiving that they were slowing down because they weren’t trying to be more active. If a 75 year old can look that good and still be working out at that age then us young whipper snappers who aren’t even half her age really have no excuses.

I could go on but realistically if these kinds of benefits, which can be had with very little time invested, aren’t enough to motivate you then I’m not really sure what will. Sure I’ll give you that it isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do but it’s very much a thing of habit and once you start doing it regularly you’ll find it incredibly hard to stop. Then later in life when you’re still feeling as awesome at 50 as you did at 30 you’ll know it was worth all the effort.

Apple’s Win Could Hurt Them More Than Samsung.

I haven’t talked about the Apple vs Samsung court case that’s been raging on for the past year mostly because I didn’t feel like there was anything interesting to say about it. Usually these kinds of court cases are business negotiations that have gone south and they’re just using the legal system to figure out who should be paying who for what. The Apple vs Samsung case was slightly different as it appeared to be more of a move from Apple to try and block Samsung out of the USA market, one where they’re starting to get quite the foothold thanks to their flagship Galaxy devices selling like the proverbial hotcakes. Samsung isn’t completely innocent in this regard either, pulling the same kind of tactic in other markets.

Of course the news recently broke that after 2 days of deliberation the jury on the Apple vs Samsung case returned the verdict that Samsung had indeed wronged Apple and were awarded a cool billion dollars in damages. The damages were broken down on a per device level based on the jury’s judgement of how much they infringed on what the appropriate damages would be. No matter what the decision in the case ended up being there was always going to be something of a media storm following it, and boy was there ever.

On the surface it didn’t look like the fallout from the case was doing Samsung any favours. Trading for Samsung stock closed 7% down on the day after the announcement was made, wiping $12 billion of value from the company and making the fine look like a pittance by comparison. Of course the verdict isn’t completely finalised yet with a potentially lengthy appeals process (and issues with the way the jury decided the verdict could have the whole thing thrown out) to come but there’s no denying that the immediate down turn in the confidence that the market has in Samsung will affect them adversely in the short to medium term.

However Apple may have set themselves up for an unlikely consequence: they put Samsung in the same league as them.

Us high tech geeks could rattle off the differences between Apple and Samsung’s products for hours and realistically they’re completely different beasts. However with this very public lawsuit Apple has gone on record saying that Samsung is basically equivalent to them and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the general public. Indeed this was very much the same way Samsung managed to establish itself as a dominant player in the LCD TV business, often being touted as the cheaper version of the higher quality Sony¹. The same thing appears to be happening in relation to Apple with Samsung more than happy to be second fiddle in such a large market. Indeed the numbers back this idea up, especially when you look at the sales figures of their recent flagship product, the Galaxy S3.

I didn’t come up with this idea myself however, that credit goes to two posts I caught on Google+. It still might be wild speculation but the history of similar things happening with Samsung and other competitors does lend some credence to the idea. Whether Samsung can capitalize on that, especially with the market looking down on the ruling, is something that we’ll only know as time goes on. Their stock hasn’t tumbled any further though so there’s some indication that the initial fine shock might’ve been just that.

Personally I feel it highlights the problems with the USA’s current patent system more than anything else. Instead of them being used to encourage innovation, as was their original intent, they’re now far more likely to be used as weapons in big lawsuits or in negotiations over licensing fees. How we go about solving that problem isn’t something I have a good answer for but until we do we’ll continue to have these kinds of high profile cases which tie up resources that could be put to much better use.

¹I will freely admit that I don’t have anything solid to back this assertion up apart from the countless hours of research I poured into finding the best TV for the right price all those years ago. A cursory search finds threads like this one  which echo the sentiment I’m referring to.

Sleeping Dogs Screenshot Wallpaper Wei Shen's Firey End

Sleeping Dogs: Do You Have What It Takes To Be Sun On Yee?

I try to lay my biases out on the table when it comes to reviewing games here so you can get a feel for when I may be judging a game too harshly or if I’m making myself deliberately oblivious to some of the more glaring faults. I believe this works well as you know things like survival horror and open world games are likely to get rated down whilst things like RTS, RPGs and FPSs are usually going to be rated slightly higher (although there are notable exceptions). Still though I try my best to rate a game based on its merits in relation to other titles within the same genre and thus Sleeping Dogs, the latest instalment in the True Crime series from Luxoflux and United Front Games, will be judged against other recent titles like Prototype 2.

Sleeping Dogs takes place in present day Hong Kong putting you in control of an undercover agent named Wei Shen. Your job is to infiltrate the infamous Sun On Yee triad in hopes to bring them down from the inside starting out by using one of your former connections to gain a first meeting with one of their Red Poles, Winston Chu. From there the game takes the usual route of open world escalation, starting you off in the doldrums beating up vendors for protection money as you work your way up the gang hierarchy. At the same time the police want to use your connections to help further their cause in other areas leading you to bust up drug rings, smuggling operations and prostitution syndicates.

Visually Sleeping Dogs is quite vibrant drawing inspiration from the real Hong Kong’s neon saturated environment. From what I can recall the graphics are pretty much on par with other open world titles like Grand Theft Auto IV meaning they’re pretty good but they make trade offs in order to keep the game running smoothly as you rush through busy streets crowded with people and cars. I had to actually turn the graphics down slightly from their ultra maximum settings due to the frame rate dropping so much (although that might be an issue rather than a compliment as I’ll expand on later).

Like all open world games Sleeping Dogs features a multitude of different core game mechanics, mini-games and open world events to while away your time with. The main core of the game is a cross between an Arkham Asylum/City style beat-em-up and Grand Theft Auto’s weapon focused game play. Sleeping Dogs also throws free running in there for good measure, allowing you to climb all over different parts of Hong Kong in the search for collectibles, upgrades and cold hard cash. I guess the feeling I’m trying to convey here is that there is certainly a lot to do in Sleeping Dogs, possible even more than I’ve come across in other recent open world titles.

The main plot of the story is progressed via 2 different styles of missions: ones with the triads and the other with the police. These take the usual typical open world style of giving you a way point on your map that you can travel to at your leisure and there’s no hard and fast requirement to do the triad and police missions in sync with each other. Indeed I chose to most of the triad missions first as I found them to be more fun (and more rewarding) which did leave me in the rather awkward position of having to travel the full length of the map constantly as I had progressed out of the area in which the police missions take place. I kind of feel like this could have been remedied by the developers by having multiple police locations for the missions which would’ve saved me quite a bit of time.

The experience system also works along the separate cop/triad lines with each of them giving you access to an unique set of upgrades. The triads are focused mostly on melee upgrades, giving you additional moves as well as improving your effectiveness in melee combat. The cop upgrades focus more on vehicles and weapons, giving you access to things like a slim jim to jack cars without setting off the alarms. In addition to the two main upgrade paths there’s also several ancillary upgrade paths that unlock more cars, additional melee moves as well as upgrades to your total health.

The main experience system works on the idea of stars, with 3 being the highest you can get. They work in different directions however with the police experience starting off at maximum and then you losing points for doing things wrong (like running people over) whilst the triad experience increases, ostensibly for being as brutal as you possibly can be. These two things are in direct competition with each other and it’s often a choice between maximising one or the other. What got me though is that the bars need to be completely filled in order for them to be considered achieved meaning that for the police experience you can’t do 1 thing wrong and for the triads you really need to go all out at all times in order to get it. The triads one I can understand, its something you work towards, but the cops one feels a bit anal as you can lose points by simply touching another car, depriving you of an entire block of experience even if that’s your only mistake.

The ancillary upgrade systems are useful but not necessary to completing the game. The Face system for instance which you level up by: doing favours for people, engaging in martial arts tournaments and completing street races, really only helps in getting you access to better clothes (most of which have bonuses attached), better cars (which you can steal anyway) and a couple perks which can be useful (like the valet who can bring you a car whenever you want, or at least that’s what they say). The Jade statues feel more like an organic progression system trussed up as another upgrade path as all of the 12 statues are hidden in plain sight during the triad missions so you never really miss out on one. The health shrines, which give you more health when you find a certain number of them, are really just another collectible as I never found myself in a situation where I needed more health than I started out with.

The mini-games are thankfully quite varied meaning that you don’t usually find yourself doing the same one twice in a row. Whilst they do get kind of samey towards the end I didn’t feel like I was trapped in mini-game hell each time one of them came up, something that happens quite often when there’s little variety on offer. They’re all necessarily simplistic in order to save you time and effort (many of them take place during timed events) so they’re not going to be a great challenge for anyone but at least they don’t feel like stone walls to progression.

Of all of the mini-games there were two that I avoided: the karaoke and the racing. You’ll have to do both in the course of the main story line but there’s also the opportunity to do them outside of that for Face experience and cash. The karaoke is so simplistic as to be quite boring and I couldn’t really bring myself to sit through3~4 minutes per song to get through them all. The racing also feels kind of pointless especially when you consider that the vehicle engine in the game isn’t the greatest which is one of my bigger complaints of Sleeping Dogs.

Whilst there’s much to praise about the vehicle system, like the traction changing when its raining and the progressive damage system that turns your shiny new car into a train wreck should you bounce all over the road, the nature of Sleeping Dog’s open worldness means that it does unfortunately skimp on some points. Using the handbrake for example seems to turn off friction in some instances (like if you go from a standing start) but in others turns it up phenomenally (like if you’re trying to drift through a corner). This coupled with the camera system which doesn’t allow you to look up past about 10 degrees and snaps wildly between front and back views means that driving somewhere can become quite the chore very quickly. Additionally depending on how you have your graphics set you could run into another problem: the dreaded input lag.

I mentioned earlier that I had to turn the Sleeping Dog’s graphics down at the start due to the frame rate dropping too low. Now that didn’t mean it was unplayable, indeed it was running quite smoothly, but I found that using vehicles was completely unwieldy and moving my character around felt…weird. I had encountered this problem before back when I was playing Red Faction: Guerilla when if your framerate dropped below the magic number (I believe it was 60 FPS) then the game engine didn’t know how to cope with it and you got massive amounts of input lag. Sleeping Dogs suffers from the same problem and whilst anything above 50FPS is usually quite playable anything below a certain rate (I didn’t bother to check it) will turn your game into an unplayable mess. This is undoubtedly due to its console origins as there are other aspects (like some of the controls on the mini-games for instance) which have also suffered because of this.

However I did feel that Sleeping Dogs redeemed itself in the story department. Whilst there’s far too much back story wrapped up in walls of text in the police reports and profiles that you get after each mission I did feel that the main story line gave you enough insight into the main characters for it to be acceptable. Now it’s not exactly Oscar material with many of the main plot points being extremely obvious but I really did find myself caring about many of the characters, especially the ones that are with you throughout the length of the game. The side romance stories seemed a little contrived though and I didn’t bother pursuing any of them past the first one.

For a game that’s been called everything from the poor cousin of Grand Theft Auto to the sleeper hit of 2012 Sleeping Dogs really does have a lot to offer. Whilst the completionist in me died a long time ago when I started giving myself deadlines for reviews the amount of time I spent in Sleeping Dogs could easily be doubled or tripled by someone seeking to get the coveted 100% completion mark. I might not agree that its the sleeper hit of this year I do feel like it makes very few mistakes save for the technical issues and wonky vehicle implementation. Still I’d recommend it especially if your a fan of open world games.

Rating: 8.5/10

Sleeping Dogs is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $49.99, $88 and $88 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 13 hours of total play time and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

Thirty Flights of Loving Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving: Hyper-Accelerated Story Telling.

It may come as a surprise to long time readers who’ve followed my near clockwork routine of one post per weekday for the past couple years that I can be rather awful at scheduling, especially under certain circumstances. This week I had genuinely intended to review Sleeping Dogs however I completely underestimated how much time would be required to blast through the main story line and thus when Tuesday night came around and I had no indication I’d be done within the next couple days I started looking for alternatives. I did grab a copy of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet as  I heard it was relatively short and well received but I didn’t manage to get enough time on that either. Thankfully my bacon was saved by an intriguing set of games that promised intense story telling that rivalled AAA titles.

Gravity Bone puts you in Blendo Game’s Citizen Abel world, a place where everything is stripped down to its most simplistic representation. You are Citizen Abel, a spy who’s been sent to perform a mission in this particular section of the world. The first mission acts as a kind of tutorial, showing you how the game operates and setting up the main character for the second (and final) act.

Usually I make comments about the graphics here, commenting either on the how advanced/dated they are or how the choice of stylization worked or didn’t work. It almost seems redundant to comment on that here as the graphics really are the bare minimum required to carry the story forward with the most advanced thing in there being a couple particle effects. It’s not bad mind you, both Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving make good use of such a simplistic format. Indeed I don’t think this kind of game would benefit from advanced graphics in any way, it would just be more distraction from the real core of the game.

The actual mechanics of the game are also pretty secondary to the visual story telling aspect of these games. If I was to classify it in any particular way it’s like a traditional platformer/puzzler but instead of the story being progressed by lengthy dialogue or massive walls of text you’re instead treated to environmental clues, flash backs and weird jump cuts that allows you to piece the story together as you go along.

Before I dive into the stories of these two games however I will make a note of a couple issues I had when playing. At the end of both games I inexplicably couldn’t exit them, being left with a black screen and an unresponsive game. I’m not sure if this was a quirk of the engine (it uses the Quake 2 engine) or something on my end but the first time I was willing to write it off as a quirk, the second not so much. I also had a crash when I was playing through a second time with the developer commentary on when it tried to load the second half of the game.

Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving’s true strength comes from its ability to tell a story in the extremely short time frame. Both of these games are incredibly short, 15 minutes each give or take, and this doesn’t leave any time for extended periods of dialogue, cut scenes or any other forms of traditional story telling. It’s quite similar to Unmechanical in that regard as all the game world is the narrator, showing you various bits and pieces allowing you to pick up on bits of the story and draw your own conclusions as to what it’s all about.

Comparatively though the way in which the stories of these two games play out are very different beasts with Gravity Bone being pretty linear in its progression whilst Thirty Flights of Loving being much more of a jump cut fever dream that forces you to make connections between the disjointed scenes. The contrast is actually quite stark when you play them back to back and shows that the developer behind Blendo games has grown considerably in the interim between releases (approximately 3 years).

The enjoyment from these games comes from noticing all the subtle environmental clues and then using your imagination to draw the connecting dots. This kind of story telling isn’t for everyone, indeed the developer notes that many players will simply breeze past key sections without a second thought, but there is definitely a lot of people who like drawing their own conclusions about how the story fragments join together. I personally found it highly confusing at the beginning (as was intended, I believe) of both of the games but the utlimate conclusions are pretty damn satisfying and they wrap up the story quite well.

Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving then are a real oddity, even in light of the massive influx of weird and whacky games that have come out of the indie scene in recent times. I quite enjoyed them and it was great to run through the latter with the developer comments on to get a feel for how my experience of the game lined up with what the developer was trying to craft. Considering that these will only take up less than an hour of your time combined I highly recommend giving them a play through, even if you’re only doing so to say you’ve played them.

Rating: 8.0/10

Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving are available on PC right now for free (on the developer’s website) and $4.99 on steam.

Why Plain Packaging Legislation is Bad Policy.

I’ve never been a smoker but I did live with one for the better part of 20 years. My father smoked for about 30 years up until he had a heart attack over a decade ago and that’s a pretty good thing to set everyone straight on the risks of smoking. However I don’t believe it’s my, or anyone else’s business, if people who are fully aware of the risks involved choose to engage that behaviour anyway so long as they’re not harming anyone else in the process. This is why I supported legislation that banned smoking in clubs and in outdoor areas of restaurants as the risk was real and provable then. What I don’t support however is the idea that plain packaging, I.E. olive green packages with bigger warning labels on them, will do anything to lower smoking rates in Australia.

Now I’m fully aware that some people may write me off as a corporate apologist in this regard, I do have a rather lengthy track record of defending certain company’s actions from time to time, but my concerns aren’t the ones that the tobacco companies have brought forward. Whilst I do believe there needed to be some more discussion surrounding the loss of branding potential and the real risk of product counterfeiting my concerns come from the research backing the legislation which, as far as I can tell, don’t really match up with the line that’s being marketed to Australia.

For reference the research I’m referring to are the Cancer Council’s Position Statement and the University of Sterling’s systemic review of plain packaging research.

The research from both articles is quite similar so I’ll focus on the systemic review since that’s a much more sound piece of scientific literature. Below is an excerpt showing the review’s aims:

The primary aim of this review is to assess the impact of plain tobacco packaging on the:
1. appeal of the packaging or product;
2. salience and effectiveness of health warnings; and
3. perceptions of product strength and harm.

I’m not going to judge the validity of these research goals, indeed they are interesting points to note, however I feel it’s something of a leap to translate those particular goals into a reduction in of the current rate of smoking. Indeed the main point that the Australian government hammered home with the plain packaging idea was that it would help stop our younger generation from taking up the habit. Looking deeper into the research there’s really nothing in it to support that idea as there was no investigation into the vectors by which youths (and adults) are introduced to tobacco.

The research is also heavily qualitative in nature, which isn’t technically a bad thing, but for the most part it’s also quite comparative. Take for instance the following paragraph relating to product strength and harm:

Perceptions of harmfulness and strength  were assessed in several ways, by asking respondents which packs: would deliver the most tar and/or nicotine or would be ‘lighter’ in tar; were a greater risk to health compared to other brands;  would be associated with greater or lesser harm; would trigger discussions on harmfulness; inform the smoker about the health effects; and would be more likely to make you think that the cigarettes inside were dangerous.

Whilst this might have shown that people would believe that plain packaged cigarettes were more dangerous to their health than branded ones the research doesn’t show how this would translate into lower smoker incident rates. Indeed much of the research is done in the same manner, with the results being that people found the branded packages more appealing (is that really a surprise?) and that people were more likely to remember the health warnings if they were displayed on a plain package. I’m not disputing these findings, indeed I’m inclined to agree with them, what I’m not getting is how they make the leap to reducing our smoker population.

The argument can be made that if the packaging is less appealing, the health warnings more remembered and the product is thought to be more damaging to their health that these pressures will lead to smokers dropping the habit. You could also argue that it may have some impact on uptake rates as well however the small amount of research into that very idea doesn’t support it. From the systemic analysis again:

Four studies examined the potential impact of plain packs on participants’ own smoking behaviour.
Again the overall pattern is mixed but tends to be supportive of plain packaging having a deterrent
effect on smoking.

It’s statements like the above that really get to me as you can not conclude from mixed results that something is in support of your hypothesis. The only thing you can draw from that is that more research is required to make a proper conclusion, not that it supports your idea. If the conclusion of the study was in fact “we need more research done into this” I’d be much more supportive but instead we’ve got legislation, which is the real issue here.

We’ve had a lot of successful schemes that have helped reduce the number of new and old smokers. Both the health warnings and the ad campaigns on free to air television have a long history of being effective and had good supporting research behind them. Plain packaging on the other hand doesn’t have the same level of evidence to support the conclusion that’s currently being made and fails to investigate critical things like the origins of people’s habits. I would have fully supported a year long trial in order to judge the effectiveness of it and then should the evidence support our hypothesis then we could legislate. However the current approach of taking tangentially related research and then creating policy around that isn’t something I can support and neither should you.

BitInstant PayCard Card Front BitCoin

BitInstant, BitCoin Market Corrections and Cryptocurrency’s Future.

There seems to be a prevailing idea that the price of BitCoins is somehow intrinsically linked to the overall confidence in the use of the nascent cryptocurrency. If you’ve read any of my previous articles on BitCoin you’ll know that I strongly believe that that isn’t the case and indeed a rising price is usually a signal of speculative investors gaming the market to turn a quick profit more than it being an indication of market confidence. Indeed I was most bullish on the idea of BitCoin when its price  stop fluctuating which meant it was far less risky for people to use it as a wealth transfer vehicle, especially for those who are taking the risk of using them in their business.

Now I’ll be completely honest here, when I saw the first stirrings of an upward tick in BitCoin’s price I wasn’t too worried that it would lead to a speculative bubble. Sure it was dangerously close to the same ramp up just a year previous but I felt that the higher transaction volume, larger amount of wealth contained in the BitCoin network and hopefully the market’s long term memory would ensure that any growth in the price was purely organic and sustainable. Of course this discounted external actors with larger amounts of capital working to skew the market in order to turn a profit but I felt that the speculators had had their fun last year and had moved onto other, more lucrative endeavours.

Looks like I was wrong.

As you can see from the above graph the BitCoin price took a turn for the volatile side around the middle of July. Since then there’s been several spikes in trading volume most of which have coincided with a jump in the price. Whilst there appears to be islands of stability that last about a week it never lasted long before another trading bout would push the price upwards. This culminated in a peak price of about $14 late last week quickly followed by a swift downward correction in price with it stabilizing around the $10 mark. As I’ve said before this kind of price volatility is very much at odds with BitCoin being a proper currency and it’s unfortunate to see history repeating itself here again.

Interestingly though the correction in price may actually be due to dwindling confidence, but not in the BitCoin idea itself. The first lawsuit involving BitCoins and the failed wallet service Bitcoinica was lodged just days prior to the value taking a swift nose dive. This was most likely exacerbated by people attempting to cash out at the current peak as you can see the transaction volume on that day was several times higher than the average for the preceding couple of months. Bitcoinica, unfortunately, isn’t the only story of BitCoin based services that have endured failure and this could have very easily shaken the market enough to attempt to dump out early to avoid losing all their value.

The underlying cause to much of the volatility that the BitCoin market experiences is the relatively small amount of value that it captures. Whilst as a whole the BitCoin market is valued at some $97 million (total number of BitCoins in existence multiplied by current price) the total transaction volume on any given day usually only averages $800,000. That’s incredibly open to manipulation and showcases just how crazy those peak trading days, the ones where the value changing hands is on the order of 3 times the average, really are.

Now I don’t pretend to have a solution to this but a new startup called BitInstant might have the right idea when it comes to injecting more value into the market and hence (hopefully) reducing its volatility.

BitInstant is a clever little idea using prepaid MasterCard debit cards which are then backed with either real US currency or BitCoins. The cards can be recharged either by traditional means or by using a BitCoin address that’s printed on the back of the card. They make this even easier by also including a QR code on the back which would enable users to transfer BitCoins between them using things like BitCoin enabled apps on their smart phones. The details on it are still being finalized but this has the potential to take BitCoins from their current niche operations to a much larger scale and hopefully with that bring a lot more stability to the BitCoin price.

BitCoin purists will probably detest the cards since they will require some level of formal identification for them to be able to use it, thus eliminating the benefits of anonymity, but I don’t believe BitInstant’s product is aimed at them. Indeed it seems to be more of a way to make BitCoin function more like a traditional currency as currently it really is only for the technical elite or those who have a need to transfer funds in a completely untraceable manner. Giving people a physical card they can use anywhere will go a long way to making BitCoins much more palatable for the masses, something that all the current BitCoin services I feel have failed to do.

BitInstant is just one piece in the larger puzzle though and realistically its going to take many, many BitCoin enabled services to make it viable as a currency. Good news is that appears to be happening with BitInstant being just the latest contender to throw their hat into the BitCoin ring. Hopefully this means that the peaks and troughs in BitCoin’s trading price will soon be a lot more tame and then I’ll stop harping on about how BitCoin’s price is the last thing we should be thinking about if we’re serious about it being a currency.

Voyager 1 in space

35 Years Later and Voyager 1 Still Going Strong.

It was only 2 weeks ago today that the world was captivated by our latest endeavour in space exploration: the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. No doubt it was a great achievement and the science data that the rover will bring back to us will undoubtedly further our understanding of our red celestial sister in ways that we can’t possibly fathom yet. Still Curiosity achievement was only possible due to the great amount of work that came before it in the form of dozens of other space problems, numerous landers and of course other roving space craft. There is one craft in particular that has had so much to do with space exploration (and that just crossed a major milestone) that I feel it bears mentioning.

That craft is Voyager 1.

On August 20, 1977 NASA launched the first of two craft in the Voyager program. At the time the alignment of all the planets in our solar system was quite favourable, allowing a probe to be able to visit all of the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) without having to use much propellant or having to spend a lot of time travelling between them thanks to the gravity assists it could get from each of the giants. Indeed the recently launched New Horizons craft that will be visiting Pluto sometime in 2015 will have a speed of roughly 15KM/s which is about 2KM/s slower than Voyager’s current speed showing you just how much those gravity assists helped.

Voyager 1’s primary mission was to study the planets of the outer solar system and it made quite a few interesting discoveries. On its approach to Jupiter Voyager 1 noticed that it actually had rings like Saturn’s although they were much to faint to see with any earth bound telescopes at the time. Voyager 1 also discovered that Io was volcanically active, something that the previous Pioneer probes and earth based observatories had failed to see. It’s encounter with Saturn provided some incredible insights into Titan however this precluded it from being able to visit any of the other planets in the grand tour due to it missing out on the potential gravitational boost and trajectory alignment that Saturn could have provided. Still this set it up for it’s ultimate mission: to study interstellar space.

Whilst Voyager’s list of scientific achievements is long and extremely admirable there are actually 2 non-scientific things that keep it stuck in my mind. The first is something that Voyager 1 (and its sister craft) carries on board with it: the Voyager Golden Record. Contained on the record that’s made from materials designed to withstand the harsh environment of space are recordings of various classical music, pictures of earth as well as pictograms that depict how the record should be used by anyone who finds it. Since Voyager 1 will be the first interstellar craft it is quite possible that one day another form of intelligent life will come across it and the record will serve as an introduction to the human species. It’s an absolutely beautiful idea and symbolizes the human desire to reach further and further beyond our limits, something that I believe is a driving force behind all of our space exploration.

The second was a picture and whilst I could go on about its significance I think there’s someone much better qualified than me to do so:

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It’s sometimes hard to believe that we’ve managed to create something that’s lasted for 35 years in the harshest environment that we know of. The fact is though that we did, we designed it, built it and launched it into the great unknown and because of that we’ve been able to reap the rewards of undertaking such a challenging endeavour. I find projects like these incredibly inspiring; they show that through determination, hard work and good old fashioned science we can achieve things that we never thought possible. I am truly grateful to be alive in such times and I know that the future will only bring more like this.

Happy birthday Voyager 1.

Seems OnLive Couldn’t Handle Being a Niche Product.

It’s no secret that I’ve never been much of a fan of the OnLive service. Whilst my initial scepticism came from my roots as someone who didn’t have decent Internet for the vast majority of his life while everyone else in the world seemed to since then I’ve seen fundamental problems with the service that I felt would severely hamper adoption. Primarily it was the capital heavy nature of the beast, requiring a large number of high end gaming PCs to be always on and available even when there was little demand for them. That and the input lag issue that would have made many games (FPS being the most prominent genre) nearly unplayable, at least in my mind. Still I never truly believed that OnLive would struggle that much as there definitely seemed to be a lot of people eager to use the service.

For once though I may have been right.

OnLive might have been a rather capital intensive idea but it didn’t take long for them to build out a company that was getting valued in the $1 billion range, no small feat by any stretch of the imagination. It was at that point that I started doubting my earlier suspicions, that level of value doesn’t come without some solid financials behind it, but it seems that since that dizzying high (and most likely in a reaction to Sony’s acquisition of their competitor Gaikai for much less than that) that they only had one place to go and that was down:

We’re hearing from a reliable source that OnLive’s founder and CEO Steve Perlman finally decided to make an exit — and in the process, is screwing the employees who helped build the company and brand. The cloud gaming company reportedly had several suitors over the last few years (perhaps including Microsoft) but Perlman reportedly held tight control over the company, apparently not wanting to sell or share any of OnLive’s secret sauce.

Our source tells us that the buyer wants all of OnLive’s assets — the intellectual property, branding, and likely patents — but the plan is to keep the gaming company up and running. However, OnLive management cleaned house today, reportedly firing nearly the entire staff, and we hear it was done just to reduce the company’s liability, thus reducing employee equity to practically zero. Yeah, it’s a massive dick move.

We’ve seen this kind of behaviour before in companies like the ill-fated MySpace and whilst the company will say many things about why they’re doing it essentially it makes the acquisition a lot more attractive for the buyer, due to the lower ongoing costs. Whoever this well funded venture capitalist is they don’t seem to be particularly interested in the company of OnLive itself, more the IP and massive amount of infrastructure that they’ve built up over the course of the last 3 years. No matter how the service is doing financially those things have some intrinsic value behind them and although the new mysterious backer has committed to keeping the service running I’m not sure how much faith can be put in those words.

Granted there are services that were so costly to build that the initial companies who built them folded but the subsequent owner who acquired everything at a fire sale price went onto to make a very profitable service (see Iridium Communications for a real world example of this). However the figures that we’ve been seeing on OnLive’s numbers since this story broke don’t paint a particularly rosy picture for the health of the service. When you have a fleet of 8000 servers servicing at most 1600 users that doesn’t seem sustainable by any way that I can think of lest the users be paying out the nose for the service (which they’re not, unfortunately). It’s possible that the massive amount of lay offs coupled with a reduction in their current infrastructure base might see OnLive become a profitable enterprise once again but I’ll have to say that I’m still sceptical.

Apart from the monthly access fee requirement being dropped none of the issues that I and countless other gamers have highlighted have been addressed and their niche of people who want to play high end games without the cost (and don’t own a console) just isn’t big enough to support their idea. I could see something like this service being an also-ran for a large company, much like Sony is planning to do with Gakai, but as a stand alone enterprise the costs of establishing the require infrastructure to get the required user base are just too high. This is not even touching on the input lag or the ownership/DRM issues either, both of which have been shown to be deal breakers for many gamers contemplating the service.

It’s a bit of a shame really as whilst I love being right about these things I’d much rather be proven wrong, especially when it comes to non-traditional ideas like OnLive. It’s entirely possible that their new benefactor could turn things around for them but they haven’t done a lot to endear themselves to the public and their current employees so their battle is going to be very much up hill from now on. I’m still willing to be proven wrong on this idea though but as time goes on it seems less and less likely that it’ll happen and that’s a terrible thing for my already inflated ego.