Monthly Archives: February 2013

Cloud Atlas Banner

You Want My Money? Fuck Off Your Artificial Scarcity Bullshit.

You know who gets a ton of my money these days? Game publishers. Whilst they might not get the same amount per sale that they used to the amount I pump into the industry per year has rocketed up in direct correlation with my ability to pay. Nearly every game you see reviewed on here is purchased gladly with my own money and I would happily do the same with all forms of entertainment if they provided the same level of service that the games industry does. However my fellow Australian citizens will know the pain that we routinely endure here with delayed releases and high prices, so much so that our Parliament subpoenaed several major tech companies to have them explain themselves.

If I’m honest though I had thought the situation was getting a bit better, that was until I caught wind of this:

Cloud Atlas Banner

I saw the trailer for Cloud Atlas sometime last year and the concept instantly intrigued me. As someone who’s nascent years were spent idolizing The Matrix I’ve always been a fan of the Wachowskis’ work and so of course their latest movie was of particular interest. Since I’m on the mailing list for my local preferred cinema (Dendy, in case you’re wondering) I simply waited for the email announcing it. For months and months I waited to see something come out until I started hearing friends talking about how they had seen it already. Curious I checked my favourite Usenet site and lo and behold it was available, which mean only one thing.

It was available on DVD elsewhere.

That email I was waiting for arrived a couple days ago, 4 months after the original theatrical release in markets overseas. Now I know it’s not that hard to get a film approved in Australia nor is it that difficult to get it shipped over here (even if it was shot on film) so what could be the reason for such a long delay? As far as I can tell it’s the distributors holding onto their out dated business models in a digital era where they have to create artificial scarcity in order to try and bilk more money out of the end consumers. I’ve deliberately not seen movies in cinemas in the past due to shenanigans like this and Cloud Atlas is likely going to be the latest entry on my civil disobedience list.

I seriously can’t understand why movie studios continue with behaviour like this which is what drives customers to seek out other, illegitimate means of getting at their content. I am more than happy to pay (and, in the case of things like Cloud Atlas, at a premium) for content like this but I do not want my money going to businesses that fail to adapt their practices to the modern world. Artificial scarcity is right up there with restrictive DRM schemes in my book as they provide absolutely no benefit for the end user and only serve to make the illegitimate product better. Really when we’re hit from all sides with crap like this is it any surprise that we’re a big ole nation o pirates?

A decade ago many of my generation simply lacked the required disposable income in order to support their habits and piracy was the norm. We’ve all grown up now though with many of us having incomes that we could only dream of back then, enough for us to begin paying for the things we want. Indeed many of us are doing that where we’re able to but far too many industries are simply ignoring our spending habits in favour of sticking to their traditional business models. This isn’t sustainable for them and it frustrates me endlessly that we still have to deal with shit like this when it’s been proven that this Internet thing isn’t going away any time soon. So stop this artificial scarcity bullshit, embrace our ideals and I think you’ll find a torrent of new money heading in your direction. Enough so that you’ll wonder why you held such draconian views for so long.

 

Alpha Nerd

I Ain’t Got Time For You, Alpha Nerd.

I often find myself trusted with doing things I’ve never done before thanks to my history of delivering on these things but I always make people well aware of my inexperience in such areas before I pursue such things. I do this because I know I’m not the greatest engineer/system administrator/coder around but I do know that, given enough time, I can deliver something that’s exactly what they required. It’s actually an unfortunate manifestation of the imposter syndrome whereby I’m constantly self assessing my own skills, wondering if anything I’ve done was really that good or simply the product of all the people I worked with. Of course I’ve worked with people who know they are the best at what they do, even if the reality doesn’t quite match up to their own self-image.

Alpha Nerd

Typically these kinds of people take one of 2 forms, the first one of which I’ll call The Guns. Guns are awesome people, they know everything there is to know about their job and they’re incredibly helpful, a real treasure for the organisation. I’m happy to say that I’ve encountered more of these than the second type and they’re in no small part responsible for a lot of the things that I know today. They are usually vastly under-appreciated for their talents however as since they usually enjoy what they do to such a great extent they don’t attempt to upset the status quo and toil away in relative obscurity. These are the kinds of people I have infinite amounts of time for and are usually the ones I look to when I’m looking for help.

Then there’s the flip side: the Alpha Nerds.

These guys are typically responsible for some part of a larger system and to their credit they know it inside and out. I’d say on average about half of them got to that level of knowledge by simply being there for an inordinate amount of time and through that end up being highly valuable because of their vast amount of corporate knowledge. However the problem with these guys, as opposed to The Guns, is that they know this and use it to their advantage in almost every opportunity they get. Simple change to their system? Be prepared to do a whole bunch of additional work for them before it’ll happen. A problem that you’re responsible for but is out of your control due to other arrangements? They’ll drill you on it in order to reinforce their status with everyone else. I can’t tell you how detrimental these people are to the organisation even if their system knowledge and expertise appears invaluable.

Of course this delineation of Guns and Alpha Nerds isn’t a hard and fast line, there’s a wide spectrum between the two extremes, but there is an inflexion point where a Gun starts to turn Alpha and the benefits to the organisation start to tank. Indeed I had such a thing happen to me during my failed university project where I failed to notice that a Gun was turning Alpha on me, burning them out and leaving the project in a state where no one else could work on it even if they wanted to. Whilst the blame still rests solely on my shoulders for failing to recognise that it still highlights how detrimental such behaviour can be when technical expertise isn’t coupled with a little bit of humility.

Indeed if your business is building products that are based on the talents of said people then it’s usually to your benefit to remove Alpha Nerds from your team, even if they are among the most talented people in your team. This is especially true if you’re trying to invest in developing people professionally as typically Alphas will end up being the de-facto contacts for the biggest challenges, stifling the skill growth of members of the team. Whilst they might be worth 2.5 times of your average performers you’re likely limiting the chances of the team being more productive than they currently are, quite possibly to the tune of much more than what the Alpha is capable of delivering.

Like I said before though I’m glad these kinds of people tend towards being less common than their Gun counterparts. I believe this is because during the nascent stages of someone’s career you’re likely to run up against an Alpha and see the detrimental impacts they have. Knowing that you’re then much more likely to work against becoming like them and should you become an expert in your chosen area you’ll make a point of being approachable. Some people fail to do that however and proceed to make our lives a lot more difficult than they should be but I’m sure this isn’t unique to IT and is innate to organisations both big and small.

 

Memento LifeLogging Device

The Social Implications of Google Glass.

My group of friends is undeniably tech-oriented but that doesn’t mean all of us share the same views on how technology should be used, especially in social situations. If you were to see us out at a restaurant it’s pretty much guaranteed that at least one of us is on our phone, probably Googling an answer to something or sifting through our social networking platform of choice. For most of us this is par for the course being with all of us being members of Gen Y however some of my friends absolutely abhor the intrusion that smartphones have made on normal social situations and if the direction of technology is anything to go by that intrusion is only going to get worse, not better.

Memento LifeLogging Device

Late last year I came across the Memento Kickstarter project, a novel device that takes 1 picture every 30 seconds and even tags it with your GPS location. It’s designed to be worn all the time so that you end up with a visual log of your life, something that’s obviously of interest to a lot of people as they ended up getting funded 11 times over. Indeed just as a device it’s pretty intriguing and I had caught them early enough that I could have got one at a hefty discount. However something that I didn’t expect to happen changed my mind on it completely: my technically inclined friends’ reactions to this device.

Upon linking my friends to the Kickstarter page I wasn’t met with the usual reactions. Now we’re not rabid privacy advocates, indeed many of us engage in multiple social networks and many of us lead relatively open online lives, but the Memento was met with a great deal of concern over it’s present in everyone’s private lives. It wasn’t a universal reaction but it was enough to give me pause about the idea and in the end I didn’t back it because of it. With Google Glass gearing up to increase its presence in the world these same privacy questions are starting to crop up again and the social implications of Google’s flagship augmented reality device are starting to become apparent.

Google Glass is a next step up from Memento as whilst it has the same capability to take photos (without the express knowledge or consent from people in it) its ability to run applications and communicate directly with the Internet poses even more privacy issues. Sure the capability isn’t too much different than what’s available now with your garden variety smartphone however it is ever-present, attached the side of someone’s head and can be commanded at will of the user. That small step of taking your phone out of your pocket is enough of a social cue to let people know what your intentions are and make their concerns known well before hand.

What I feel is really happening here is that the notion of societal norms are being challenged by technology. Realistically such devices are simply better versions of things we have natively as humans (I.E. imaging devices with attached storage) but their potential for disseminating their contents is much greater. Just like social norms developed around ubiquitous smartphones so too they must develop around the use of augmented reality devices like Google Glass. What these norms will end up being however is something that we can’t really predict until they reach critical mass which, from what I can tell, is at least a couple years off in the future, possibly even longer.

For my close knit circle of tech friends however I can predict a few things. Most of them wouldn’t have any issues with me wearing and using it whilst we were doing things together but I can see them wanting me to take them off if we were sitting down to dinner or at someone’s private residence. It could conceivably be seen as somewhat rude to wear it if you’re deep in conversation although I feel that might change over time as people realise it’s not something that’s being used 100% of the time. Things will start to get murky as Glass like devices start to become smaller and less obtrusive although the current generations of battery technology put Glass on the slimmest end of the spectrum possible so I doubt they’ll be getting smaller any time soon.

Essentially I see these kinds of augment reality devices being an organic progression of smartphones, extending our innate human abilities with that of the Internet. The groundwork has already been laid for a future that is ever-increasingly intertwined with technology and whilst this next transition poses its own set of challenges I have no doubt that we’ll rapidly adapt, just like we have done in the past. What these adaptations are and how they function in the real world will be an incredibly interesting thing to bear witness to and I, for one, can’t wait to see it.

 

Azure Websites Stats

The Ups and Downs of a Weekend Developing on Azure.

I heap a lot of praise on Windows Azure here, enough for me to start thinking about how that’s making me sound like a Microsoft shill, but honestly I think it’s well deserved. As someone who’s spent the better part of a decade setting up infrastructure for applications to run on and then began developing said applications in its spare time I really do appreciate not having to maintain another set of infrastructure. Couple that with the fact that I’m a full Microsoft stack kind of guy it’s really hard to beat the tight integration between all of the products in the cloud stack, from the development tools to the back end infrastructure. So like many of my weekends recently I spent the previous coding away on the Azure platform and it was filled with some interesting highs and rather devastating lows.

Azure Websites StatsI’ll start off with the good as it was really the highlight of my development weekend. I had promised to work on a site for a long time friend’s upcoming wedding and whilst I had figured out the majority of it I hadn’t gotten around to cleaning it up for a first shot to show off to him. I spent the majority of my time on the project getting the layout right, wrangling JavaScript/jQuery into behaving properly and spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get the HTML to behave the way I wanted it to. Once I had gotten it into an acceptable state I turned my eyes to deploying it and that’s where Azure Web Sites comes into play.

For the uninitiated Azure Web Sites are essentially a cut down version of the Azure Web Role allowing you to run pretty much full scale web apps for a fraction of the cost. Of course this comes with limitations and unless you’re running on at the Reserved tier you’re essentially sharing a server with a bunch of people (I.E. a common multi-tenant scenario). For this site, which isn’t going to receive a lot of traffic, it’s perfect and I wanted to deploy the first run app onto this platform. Like any good admin I simply dove in head first without reading any documentation on the process and to my surprise I was up and running in a matter of minutes. It was pretty much create web site, download publish profile, click Publish in Visual Studio, import profile and wait for the upload to finish.

Deploying a web site on my own infrastructure would be a lot more complicated as I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to chase down dependency issues or missing libraries that I have installed on my PC but not on the end server. The publishing profile coupled with the smarts in Visual Studio was able to resolve everything (the deployment console shows the whole process, it was actually quite cool to watch) and have it up and running at my chosen URL in about 10 minutes total. It’s very impressive considering this is still considered preview level technology, although I’m more inclined to classify it as a release candidate.

Other Azure users can probably guess what I’m going to write about next. Yep, the horrific storage problems that Azure had for about 24 hours.

I noticed some issues on Friday afternoon when my current migration (yes that one, it’s still going as I write this) started behaving…weird. The migration is in its last throws and I expected the CPU usage to start ramping down as the multitude of threads finished their work and this lined up with what I was seeing. However I noticed the number of records migrated wasn’t climbing up at the rate it was previously (usually indicative of some error happening that I suppressed in order for the migration to run faster) but the logs showed that it was still going, just at a snail’s pace. Figuring it was just the instance dying I reimaged it and then the errors started flooding in.

Essentially I was disconnected from my NOSQL storage so whilst I could browse my migrated database I couldn’t keep pulling records out. This also had the horrible side effect of not allowing me to deploy anything as it would come back with SSL/TLS connection issues. Googling this led to all sorts of random posts as the error is also shared by the libraries that power the WebClient in .NET so it wasn’t until I stumbled across the ZDNet article that I knew I wasn’t in the wrong. Unfortunately you were really up the proverbial creek without a paddle if your Azure application was based on this as the temporary fixes for this issue, either disabling SSL for storage connections or usurping the certificate handler, left your application rather vulnerable to all sorts of nasty attacks. I’m one of the lucky few who could simply do without until it was fixed but it certainly highlighted the issues that can occur with PAAS architectures.

Honestly though that’s the only issue (that’s not been directly my fault) I’ve had with Azure since I started using it at the end of last year and comparing it to other cloud services it doesn’t fair too badly. It has made me think about what contingency strategy I’ll need to implement should any parts of the Azure infrastructure go away for a extended period of time though. For the moment I don’t think I’ll worry too much as I’m not going to be earning any income from the things I build on it but it will definitely be a consideration as I begin to unleash my products onto the world.

 

Strike Suit Zero Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Strike Suit Zero: One Ship To Rule Them All.

The time between space sim style games is way too long in my opinion as there’s usually only one per year that manages to grab my attention. Even then most of them fail to live up to my expectations which I think is due to Freelancer setting the bar so high. Kickstarter seems to have been something of a haven for this niche genre however as I’ve backed not one but two of them recently. I was then surprised to find out that Strike Suit Zero, released just under a month ago on Steam, was the result of yet another Kickstarter that finished in November last year. Had I known about it then I probably would’ve thrown money at it sooner.

Strike Suit Zero Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Strike Suit Zero is set in the far off future where humanity has expanded to some of the furthest reaches of the galaxy thanks to a signal of unknown origin that urged them to do so. After a long period of colonizing many planets and star systems the source of the original signal has been found, an escape pod that contained highly advanced technology. The colonies, seeking freedom from Earth’s oppressive grip, struck a bargain for their independence. This didn’t last long as Earth discovered something that they didn’t want to reveal to the colonies, which lead to the expulsion of the Earth researchers and the revocation of the colonies indepdendence. War ensued and you, playing as a formerly disgraced space pilot named Adams, find yourself in the middle of it and quickly become one of the turning points in this conflict.

Compared to the other recent space sims that I’ve reviewed on here Strike Suit Zero is graphically superior, ostensibly owing to its origins as a PC only title. Compared to other modern titles released recently however it’s nothing to write home about with many of the models and animations being relatively simple. In earlier missions this leads to the battlescapes being somewhat empty and boring but as the missions get bigger and the targets more numerous it changes into a cacophony of lights, explosions and giant planets looming overhead. Essentially whilst the graphics aren’t anything to write home about they do work quite well, especially when compared to Galaxy on Fire 2 or SOL: Exodus.

Strike Suit Zero Screenshot Wallpaper Folding out

Strike Suit Zero favours a linear mission structure, giving you a list of 13 missions that you can complete from start to finish. Each one of them is divided up into check pointed sections with a pretty well defined set of parameters that need to be accomplished before you can move onto the next section. It’s reminiscent of the stages of PVE missions in Eve-Online although the triggers, instead of being a certain ship or NPC structure, are usually something like “destroy all the things” or “destroy these things in this order”. If you were looking for an open ended experience Strike Suit Zero isn’t it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have some influence over how the mission progresses.

The first few missions are heavily centred around good old fashioned ship to ship combat which usually entails you chasing down enemy craft whilst pummelling them with missiles, lasers and, interestingly enough, machine guns. All of this works as you’d expect it with missiles requiring lock on and dumb fire weapons requiring you to lead your target with the help of a HUD aim assist. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary which is to be expected as it’s much like FPS’s in that regard with formulaic approach being good due to the level of refinement it has received over the past 2 decades.

Strike Suit Zero Screenshot Wallpaper Strike Mode

One of the major selling points was that whilst you might be the main character of the game Strike Suit Zero still wanted to make you feel like you were part of something much bigger. This was something that I’ve always wanted to see in space sim games as many of them make you the entire focus of everything which limits the potential for huge, awesome battles in space. Strike Suit Zero stays true to its word in this regard as once you’re past a certain point you’ll be facing off against ships that are hundreds of times more massive than yourself but you’ll be backed up by equally as impressive ships and a whole fleet worth of fighters at your side.

When this first starts happening it’s quite awesome as you duck and weave your way through the throng of fighters in order to square up against a giant capital ship, usually so you can take down some critical part of it. However as you progress and the ship number increases (along with the power of their weapons) it becomes clear that the AI really likes to target you in preference to, well pretty much everything else. This leads to some missions which require you to make tedious runs past the capital ships, inflicting a small amount of damage before you have to jet straight back out again lest you end up a pile of wreckage. I understand that this is part of the challenge but there was many a dogfight where I was the only target of any enemy fire which left me spending countless minutes simply running away from everything rather than being part of the action.

Strike Suit Zero Screenshot Wallpaper Shines

Once you get the Strike Suit this changes a bit as its Strike Mode allows you to unleash all sorts of pain in short order. However whilst you’re highly maneuverable you can’t use your emp or thrusters which, combined with the fact that the AI targets you even more heavily, makes you something of a glass cannon. Now this is probably something that can be countered by doing the additional objects in order to get the upgrades (which I got the majority of) but they don’t seem to have much of an impact past keeping you in line with the ramping up of the mission difficulty. Usually with these kinds of games you get to craft a ship which just massively out-guns anything you come across but you can’t really do this in Strike Suit Zero, which is a little bit disappointing.

The story is also decent but it’s let down by the mediocre voice acting which is usually delivered flat without much feeling behind it. For instance whenever the enemy seems to surprise one of the fleet commanders they sound as if they’re one of the Neutrals from Futurama reacting to the beige alert on their screen. I can’t comment on the conclusion as I stopped playing it in frustration when one of the missions took forever to complete and then placed me right beside a carrier, killing me instantly and forcing me back 15 minutes.

Strike Suit Zero Screenshot Wallpaper Nebula Interceptor

For the time frame that it was delivered in Strike Suit Zero is pretty impressive as it has all the trappings of the space sims of yore whilst avoiding many of the mistakes of more recent titles. However I feel like there was so much more that could be done with things like the upgrade system, ship choice and breaking away from its highly linear nature. Strike Suit Zero then is a great base for Born Ready Games to expand upon, using the universe that they’ve created to form the foundation for future titles. If you liked games like Freelancer you’re sure to enjoy Strike Suit Zero, but be sure to go in with your expectactions set accordingly.

Rating: 7.5/10

Strike Suit Zero is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 5.2 hours with 50% of the achievements unlocked.

PlayStation 4 Announcement

Surprising No One, Sony Announces The PlayStation 4.

You don’t have to look far on this blog to know that I’m a Sony fan although my recent choice in products would tell you otherwise. I do genuinely appreciate them as a company as whilst they’ve made a whole bunch of mistakes they’ve also delivered some amazing products on the years, typically in industries where they’re far from being industry leaders. My relationship began with them many years ago when I first laid my hands on the original PlayStation console and has continued on since then.

Today they announced the next generation of their home entertainment systems: the PlayStation 4.

PlayStation 4 Announcement

Whilst the event is still unfolding while I’m writing this there’s already been a lot of rumours confirmed, surprises unveiled and of course a whole bunch of marketing blather that no one is interesting in hearing. Among the confirmed rumours are the fact that it’s an x86 platform under the hood, the controller has a touchpad on it (among several other features including a Kinectesque motion tracking system) and a customized PC GPU. Of course the really interesting things are the features that have managed to remain secret throughout the various leaks and speculative sprees that have been occurring over the past couple months.

For starters it appears that the PS4 will come equipped with a whopping 8GB of GDDR5 rather than the 4GB that was previously advertised. This is interesting because the Durango apparently faced issues trying to integrate that amount of memory due to the bandwidth requirements and thus opted to go with DDR3 and a speedy 32MB cache to counter-act that. Sony has either made a last minute change to the design to get specification parity (although 4GB GDDR5 is arugably much better than 8GB of DDR3) or had this planned for quite a long time, meaning that they overcame the engineering challenge that Durango couldn’t (or wouldn’t, for various reasons).

One of the much speculated features was the integration of streaming services allowing users to share screenshots, game clips and all manner of things. Part of the leaked specifications for both Durango and Orbis hinted at an external processing unit that would enable this without the main GPU or CPU taking a hit. This has come to fruition and it appears that Ustream will the the platform of choice. Whilst I know a lot of people aren’t particularly thrilled with this (it seems a lot of us gamers didn’t get out of the anti-social gaming box we cocooned ourselves in during our formative years) for someone like me who reviews games it’s an absolute godsend as it means that my convoluted recording rig won’t be required just so I can get a few in game screen shots. Realistically this is just an organic progression of features that have been present in some games to making them available natively in the platform, something I’m sure the developers are thankful for.

There’s also a swath of remote play stuff which looks like a natural progression of the stuff that’s already in the PS3/PSP combo. Some of the pictures shown during the stream indicate that it might extend further than just the Vita and that’d definitely be something as not everyone (not even me, shocking I know) wants to invest in a Vita in order to get that kind of functionality. With their acquisition of Gaikai, which was ostensibly for the streaming backwards compatibility that’ll come for PS1/2/3 games, they do have the opportunity to take that same streaming and let you play your games anywhere with your PS4 providing the underlying grunt. There’s no mention of that specifically but all the key parts are there and that’d certainly give them a leg up on Microsoft when it comes to delivering a ubiquitous platform.

Fanboyism aside the PS4 does genuinely look like a great piece of hardware and the services that are being built on top of it are going to be really competitive. Sony has been lagging behind Microsoft for a long time in the services space and it looks like for the first time they’ll at least be at parity with them. We’ll have to wait for the Durango announcement first before we can make true comparisons between the two but if the leaks are anything to go by it’s going to be a good time for us gamers, whatever our chosen platform is.

Now if only they gave us a release date. That one delicious piece of information is curiously absent.

Durgano Block Diagram

The Longevity of Next Gen Consoles.

There’s an expectation upon purchasing a console that it will remain current for a decent length of time, ostensibly long enough so that you feel that you got your money’s worth whilst also not too long that the hardware starts to look dated in comparison to everything else that’s available. Violating either of these two constraints usually leads to some form of consumer backlash like it did when the Xbox360 debuted rather shortly after the original Xbox. With the next generation bearing down on us the question of how long this generation of consoles will last, and more importantly stay relevant, is a question that’s at the forefront of many people’s minds.

Durgano Block Diagram

 

Certainly from a purely specifications perspective the next generation of high performance consoles aren’t going to be among the fastest systems available for long. Both of them are sporting current gen CPUs and GPUs however it’s quite likely that their hardware will be superseded before they ever hit the retail shelves. AMD is currently gearing up to release their 8000 series GPUs sometime in the second quarter of this year. The CPUs are both based off AMD’s Jaguar micro-architecture and should be current for at least a year or so after their initial release, at least in terms of the AMD line, although with the release of Haswell from Intel scheduled for some time in the middle of this year means that even the CPUs will be somewhat outdated upon release. This is par for the course for any kind of IT hardware however so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that more powerful options will be available even before their initial release.

Indeed consoles have always had a hard time keeping up with PCs in terms of raw computing power although the lack of a consistent, highly optimizable platform is what keeps consoles in the game long after their hardware has become ancient. There does come a time however when the optimizations just aren’t sufficient and the games start to stagnant which is what led to the more noticeable forms of consolization that made their way into PC games. It’s interesting to note this as whilst the current generations of consoles have been wildly popular since their inception the problem of consolization wasn’t really apparent until many years afterwards, ostensibly when PC power started to heavily outstrip the current gen consoles’ abilities.

Crytek head honcho Cevat Yerli has gone on record saying that even the next gen consoles won’t be able to keep up with PCs when it comes to raw power. Now this isn’t a particularly novel observation in itself, any PC gamer would be able to tell you this, but bringing in the notion of price is an intriguing one. As far as we can tell the next generation of consoles will come out at around $600, maybe $800 if Sony/Microsoft don’t want to use them as loss leaders any more. Whilst they’re going to be theoretically outmatched by $2000 gaming beasts from day 1 it gets a lot more interesting if we start making comparisons to a similarly priced PC and the capabilities it will have. In that regard consoles actually offer quite a good value proposition for quite a while to come.

So out of curiosity I specced up a PC that was comparable to the next gen consoles and came out at around $950. At this end of the spectrum prices aren’t affected as much by Moore’s Law since they’re so cheap already and the only part that would likely see major depreciation would be the graphics card which came in at about $300. Still, taking the optimizations that can be made on consoles into account, the next gen consoles do represent pretty good value for the performance they will deliver on release and will continue to do so for at least 2~3 (1~2 iterations of Moore’s Law) years afterwards thanks to their low price point. Past then the current generation of CPUs and GPUs will perform well enough at the same price point in order to beat them in a price per dollar scenario.

In all honesty I hadn’t really thought of making a direct comparison at the same price point before and the results were quite surprising. The comparison is even more apt now thanks to the next generation coming with a x86 architecture underneath which essentially makes them cheap PCs. Sure they may never match up to the latest and greatest but they sure do provide some pretty good value. Whilst I didn’t think they’d have trouble selling these things this kind of comparison will make the decision to buy one of them that much easier, at least to people like me who are all about extracting the maximum value for their dollars spent.

Unintentional Science: “Smoking Alcohol”.

Long time readers will know that I have a penchant for videos that demonstrate scientific principles, especially if they’re somewhat unintentional. Usually the first video will lead me on a vast clicking spree as I search for another video explaining the phenomenon as whilst I pride myself on my enthusiast level of scientific knowledge I have a bad habit of getting key things wrong. I can often overcome this with some avid Googling and following the rabbit’s hole that is Wikipedia’s reference system but for this particular video I think I’m diving into new territory.

Now before you watch the whole thing I’ll warn you that the ending contains vomiting, the first minute or two is skippable and I’ll admit this isn’t the most high brow video I’ve linked here. All you really want to see is the demonstration of this rather fascinating process however, everything else around it is irrelevant:

YouTube Preview Image

The reason why I picked this particular one over the dozens of similar videos that are around is because he uses many different types of liquor and each of them has the same curious result of creating what appears to be ethanol vapour. One of the current top comments says that it is in fact just carbon dioxide, which was plausible given the carbonated beverages he was using initially, however he also uses boxed wine which doesn’t contain any carbonation and still yields the same results. Failing to find a decent explanation I consulted with my wife who’s currently studying chemistry at university and I think we’ve come up with a decent conclusion about what’s happening there.

For starters this is nothing like Alcohol WithOut Liquid gadgets which are technically called nebulizers and work by mixing your alcohol of choice with oxygen in a fine mist spray. This means that you’re still ingesting all of the drink in question anyway, you’re just not doing it through your stomach like you usually would. The reason we believe it isn’t working like this is because of the high amount of remaining liquid after the rapid de-pressurization is completed and the apparent effects on the person who’s imbibing in the resulting mist. From what we can tell it has to do with ethanol’s low vapour pressure.

Most people are familiar with the triple point of water whereby the state of said liquid can change depending on a couple variables, namely temperature and pressure. Now the pressurization of the bottle at the start would increase the boiling point significantly however upon releasing that pressure there would be a small vacuum created at the surface as all the air starts to rush out. This would cause the ethanol (and some of the water too, I’m guessing) to boil away from the surface rapidly and it would be dragged upwards with the escaping air creating the mist.

Now I might be getting the mechanism wrong here but this was the best explanation we could come up with after watching the process a couple times over. If you’ve got a much more scientific explanation than what we’ve come up with than I’d like to hear it as I’m sure there’s a bit more going on here than I can figure out. Still it’s a pretty interesting bit of accidental science going on here, even if the end result is somewhat…questionable ;)

The Chelyabinsk Meteor: A Fireball We Didn’t (and Couldn’t) See Coming.

You’d have to be under a rock (ha!) to have not heard about the recent meteor that entered out atmosphere over Russia on Friday (which just so happened to be my birthday, what a present!). Thanks to the proliferation of cameras everywhere, predominately the dash cams which are common in Russia to avoid insurance scammers, the Chelyabinsk event was pretty well documented from multiple angles. If you had ever wondered what a decent sized asteroid air bursting in the atmosphere would look like and what it’d eventually do you couldn’t really get a better example, even from the wealth of smaller impacts that are witnessed every year.

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There’s been a lot of questions about this particular event and I caught a couple of them when I was reading through the comments on some of the videos. One of them that caught my eye was one asking why there appeared to be 2 contrails (I believe it was on this video). From what I can tell that’s probably some time after the air burst as it took the shockwave approximately 2 minutes to reach the surface after it occurred. Reports from various space agencies afterwards state that there was at least 3 probable impact sites which would corroborate my idea of it breaking up after the air burst. Not that there’d be a lot of it left after that however as it was rated at something like 500kt, about an order of magnitude higher than the first atomic bombs.

By far the most common question was how we could have missed something like this when we were quite capable of tracking a near-miss asteroid that just happened to pass by 15 hours later. There are a couple factors at play here but I’ll start with the most pertinent. For starters this is actually quite a small meteor with current estimates pegging its original size at somewhere around 17m² with a total mass of approximately 7000 tons. 2012DA14 was about 2~3 times the size and several orders of magnitude heavier (~190000 tons) making it a lot easier to spot. Secondly whilst we are capable of spotting asteroids like this prior to them entering out atmosphere we purposely limit ourselves to track the bigger ones since they have a much greater chance of causing extinction level events. With greater funding to NASA and related space agencies it would be possible to get more warning about things like this before they happen.

There would still be ones that we wouldn’t see coming unfortunately as depending on their make up and direction they come from they can be incredibly hard to spot. The Chelyabinsk meteor was, as far as we can tell, rocky and this tends have quite a low albedo which makes them quite difficult to track, especially if they come from certain directions where they won’t get much illumination. Large, primarily metallic asteroids are quite easy to track and the most devastating should they collide with us, but they’re also somewhat rare so the vast majority are simply larger rocky asteroids that have a decent albedo.

It will likely be a long, long time before we bear witness to something like this again. Whilst we’re likely to capture any event of note thanks to the proliferation of cameras everywhere there’s still an awful lot of this earth where us humans just aren’t present to see it and as such many events like this go completely unnoticed. It’s a shame really as they’re quite intriguing events and they can help us learn about what will happen should a larger asteroid cross our path one day.

Antichamber Screenshot Wallpaper WTF

Antichamber: Where Non-Euclidean Space Is Just The Beginning.

I’ve become a really big fan of titles that challenge our expectations and perceptions of what constitutes a game. Usually this comes down to mechanics, like how Half Life 2 introduced physics based puzzles (something that was essentially impossible previously) but there have been many titles that have up ended the traditional idea of how games should operate. Quite often this leads to novel experiences that you just won’t find in other games, although there have been some notable exceptions. Antichamber is one such game that takes your preconceived notions of traditional game mechanics and continuously breaks them down in order to build them back up and does so in an incredibly intriguing way.

Antichamber Screenshot Wallpaper L I F E

Antichamber throws you into a dark room with 3 walls that look like chalkboards and one that’s a window, with the apparent exit sitting behind it, tantalizingly out of reach. You’ll then turn your eyes to what looks like the beginnings of a map whereby a single click will transport you into a room. Things seem somewhat normal at first but it doesn’t take long before you’re seemingly trapped in a world that’s constantly changing the rules on you, forcing you to break all the conceptions you have about how things should behave and reforming them to fit into this strange new world.

The world of Antichamber is one of stark contrasts with the primary colour being white which is then offset by heavily saturated colours, all blended together in cel-shading to give everything this slightly surreal cartoonish feel to it. The visual style reminds me of The Unfinished Swan which similarly used white as the primary colour and it works just as well when its transported from that whimsical world to the cold, unforgiving world that is Antichamber. This combined with the decidedly organic sounds that proliferate the environment make for an unique experience that’s hard to put into words accurately but it certainly does work well.

Antichamber Screenshot Wallpaper WTF

Now this is the point in the review when I go over the core game mechanics which, for most games, typically consists of a few well known ideas with an unique twist. Whilst there are some familiar mechanics in Antichamber they are really only a distraction when compared to the variety of ways in which the game world behaves differently to that of any other game. Looking at a wall from one side could should you one thing while looking at it from another could show you something entirely different. You could walk down the same path dozens of times, seemingly going around in circles, only to find that if you turn around the correct path suddenly appears before you. Just when you think you’ve figured them all though you’ll likely be surprised by yet another strange twist on how this reality operates, forcing you to rethink not only the current puzzle but all of the ones that you encountered previously.

The non-euclidean geometry is only the beginning as well. Part way through you’ll be given a gun, for want of a better term, that’s capable of removing, storing and then placing blocks ala Minecraft style. Initially the use of blocks is relatively limited, usually used in order to trigger switches, hold doors open or as ledge for you to jump on. However as you go through the various levels you’ll be able to find upgrades to it that will allow you to draw blocks in a line, required for some puzzles where you can’t place blocks directly, and another which allows you to tell blocks to move to a certain point. The mechanics sound simple on their own but their use is really anything but leading to a whole bunch of highly frustrating yet satisfying puzzles.

Antichamber Screenshot Wallpaper Choose your destination

The use of all these tools as well as the non-euclidean nature of most the puzzles is actually fairly intuitive for the most part which most puzzles having a pretty obvious solution should you be familiar with this particular style of game. This is primarily due to the not-so-secret hints that are contained within every little pictograph that’s lying around before/after each puzzle which gives you a bit of indication of how to go about solving it. Without any tutorial to speak of however there are some mechanics that aren’t really explained at all which can lead to you getting stuck with no way of progressing until you haphazardly figure it out or look it up online.

The prime example of this for me was the ability to generate an unlimited number of blocks if you drew a hollow square on a wall. Upon completing said square it will fill itself in, generating a large number of blocks for you to use which can then be used to generate even more, ad infinitum. The “Too Many Lasers” puzzle is a prime example of a puzzle that you will simply not be able to solve unless you’re aware of this mechanic and a quick Googling around reveals that most people discovered this mechanic by mistake, not by intuition from the game. It’s probably the biggest criticism that I’ll level at Antichamber as whilst I can understand the idea of making discovery part of the game you at least need to include a decent way of discovering the core mechanics, especially when its as vital as the one I mentioned.

Antichamber Screenshot Wallpaper EVIL CUIBE

There’s also an incredible amount of emergent game play possible once you’ve got the fully upgraded manipulator gun and a decent supply of blocks stored up. Whilst I’m sure this has been taken into consideration during Antichamber’s design there were a couple puzzles which I put in the too hard basket early on only to come back later and breeze through thanks to my stash of blocks. Not all of them can be done like this due to the use of the block destroying gates but there are quite a few that you can break severely should you manage to bring your blocks along.

For a game with potential for so many game breaking bugs I’m happy to report that my experience with Antichamber was mostly trouble free with the exception of trying to get it to run at the start. There’s a rather unfortunate bug in earlier versions of the PhysX engine which conflicts with the UDK which causes Antichamber to die before you can even get into it. Thankfully checking the discussion forums on Steam led to me finding the required update and the game ran smoothly after then. This solution isn’t working for everyone at the moment so your mileage may vary.

Antichamber Screenshot Wallpaper Impossible Structures

Antichamber is a truly mesmerizing and challenging game, filled with puzzles that will break down your preconceptions, rebuild them and then unceremoniously break them again just to keep it interesting. So many of the puzzles were incredibly cheeky in their implementation, teasing you openly for thinking that something should have worked which simply didn’t. It was one of those times where getting a puzzle wrong was actually one of the most enjoyable aspects as I know the coding behind this must have been an incredible challenge developer, something I really appreciate. Antichamber is right up there with titles like Portal for its innovative game play and definitely makes my list of must play games for 2013.

Rating: 9.25/10

Antichamber is available on PC right now $19.99. Total game time was 4 hours.