Monthly Archives: November 2013

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The Shivah: Are You Mesuggah?

Often the origin tale of a developer can be just as interesting as the games they develop. Long time readers on here will know that I’ve got a soft spot for Wadjet Eye Games who’ve been responsible for publishing some of the best pixel-art adventure games in the last couple years but they’re also a developer themselves having released numerous titles previously. Their first ever game was called The Shivah, initially done as a entry into a monthly game contest, but quickly became their first commercial title. I unfortunately never even heard of it at the time, most likely because I was deep in the throws of my World of Warcraft addiction at the time, but they’ve since remastered it and released it as The Shivah: Kosher Edition and they provided me with a copy for review.

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You play as Russell Stone the lone rabbi of a small synagogue in New York city. It’s not the easiest of times for Rabbi Stone as his congregation has been steadily shrinking and the bills keep piling up. Just when he was about to pack everything in he gets a knock at the door: the police want to see him about something. As it turns out a former member of his congregation left him a large sum of money in his will, more than enough to keep the synagogue open. Puzzled as to why this strange windfall has come his way rabbi Stone sets out to find out the reasons as to why this money was left to him and the circumstances in which came.

Whilst I never played the previous version looking through the various guides and reviews of the previous edition of The Shivah shows that a lot of work has gone into revamping the visuals with every aspect being redone. The difference is quite stark with every scene now having a lot more detail, fidelity and lighting effects. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve come to expect from every game Wadjet Eye publishes and I’m glad that their in house titles are no different.

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The Shivah is an adventure game where you’ll spend the majority of your time clicking on things, reading through text and figuring out where to go next in order to progress the story. Whilst I can’t comment on its previous incarnation it does feel like this was the part was left pretty much as is as the mechanics are quite simple and barring a couple of the challenges you’re not likely to get stuck at any one position for long. I think this is telling of its origins as an entry to a game challenge contest as many games done in a similar fashion eschew elaborate puzzles due to the constrained development time.

Whilst there’s an inventory system it’s thankfully kept to the bare minimum, mostly serving as another point of reference for solving the other puzzles. I must admit that playing The Shivah I felt like I’d been spoiled by more recently releases in the genre with many implementing a clue system to record pertinent details. The Shivah has this for a few things but there were a couple times where I found myself forgetting a name and having to scramble around the game looking for it again. The notable lack of feedback for some turning points, like in other games where a clue being added to your journal was a good indicator that you could progress, can also leave you wondering what else you need to do. Thankfully most of the time you can get past that by simply travelling to another location but I did manage to get myself caught up in my own head a couple times.

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The story is interesting, running you through the trials and tribulations that religions face in the modern day and how the rigorously devout deal with them. Whilst I was a little sceptical as to it being of any interest to me the way The Shivah deals with people compromising on their ideals and how others react to that is quite intriguing. I might understand the plight of the modern day Jew but I’m very familiar with people holding one stance publicly yet doing something else privately and the way The Shivah deals with such hypocrisy has a very real feeling about it.

With it being a rather short game though it’s hard to deeply empathize with any of the characters and whilst some of the scenes can be confronting on an emotional level it certainly didn’t elicit emotions of the same level as say To The Moon (although to be fair few do). The Shivah does get a lot of bonus points for having a story that changes depending on your actions though as how you resolve the situation will greatly depend on how you conduct yourself. Thankfully getting all of them isn’t too difficult so there’s no need to keep a treasure trove of saves lying around and the auto-save function ensures that you’ll have all the chances you need to get the ending you want.

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The Shivah: Kosher Edition is a short but sweet experience from Wadjet Eye games, capturing the essence of what led to the publisher’s creation and showing how remastered games in this genre should  be done. It’s a simple title, one that’s aptly suited to the iOS platform that this version is available on, and whilst the replay value isn’t high if you’re a fan of Wadjet Eye style games then you’ll definitely enjoy The Shivah.

Rating: 7.5/10

The Shivah: Kosher Edition is available on PC and iOS right now for $4.99 and $1.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours total play time and 60% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of this game was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of reviewing.

Kepler Space Telescope

Kepler May Be Down But It’s Far From Out.

The Kepler Mission is by far one of the most exciting things NASA has done in recent memory. It’s goal was simple, observe a patch of stars continuously for a long period of time in order to detect the planets that orbit them. It’s lone instrument for doing so is a highly sensitive photometer designed to detect the ever so subtle changes in brightness of a parent star when one of its planets transits in front of it. Whilst the chances are low of everything lining up just right so that we can witness such an event the fact that Kepler could monitor some 145,000 stars at once meant that we were almost guaranteed to see a great deal of success.

Indeed we got just that.

Kepler Space TelescopeThe first six weeks of Kepler’s operation proved to be highly successful with 5 planets discovered, albeit ones that would likely be inhospitable due to their close proximity to their parent stars. The years since then have proved to be equally fruitful with Kepler identifying thousands of potential exoplanet candidates with hundreds of them since being confirmed via other methods. These discoveries have reshaped our idea of what our universe looks like with a planetary system like our own now thought to be a relatively common occurrence. Whilst we’re still a long way from finding our home away from home there’s a ton of tantalizing evidence suggesting that such places are numerous with untold numbers of them right in our own galaxy.

However earlier this year Kepler was struck with an insurmountable problem. You see in order to monitor that field of stars precisely Kepler relied on a set of reaction wheels to ensure it was pointed in the right direction at all times. There are a total of 4 of them on board and Kepler only needed 3 of them in order to keep the precision up at the required level. Unfortunately it had previously had one fail forcing the backup wheel to kick into motion. Whilst that had been running fine for a while on May 15th this year another reaction wheel failed and Kepler was unable to maintain its fix on the star field. At the time this was thought to be the end of the mission and, due to the specialized nature of the hardware, likely the end of Kepler’s useful life.

However, thanks to some incredibly clever mechanics, Kepler may rise again.

Whilst there are only 2 functioning reaction wheels NASA scientists have determined that there’s another source of force for them to use. If they orient Kepler in a certain way so that its solar panels are all evenly lit by the sun (the panels wrap around the outer shell of the craft) there’s a constant and reliable force applied to them. In conjunction with the 2 remaining reaction wheels this is enough to aim it, albeit at a different patch of the sky than originally intended. Additionally it won’t be able to keep itself on point consistently like it did previously, needing to reorient itself every 3 months or so which means it will end up studying a different part of the sky.

Whilst this is a massive deviation from its original intended purpose it could potentially breathe a whole new life into the craft, prolonging its life significantly. Considering the numerous discoveries it has already helped us achieve continuing its mission in any way possible is a huge boon to the science community and a testament to NASA’s engineering prowess. We’re still at the initial stages of verifying whether or not this will work as intended but I’m very confident it will, meaning we’ll be enjoying Kepler aided discoveries for a long time to come.

 

23andmekit

Know Thyself, Genetically Speaking.

The body is a machine, one that consists of innumerable complexities of which modern science is only just beginning to get a grasp on. Still even with our admittedly limited understanding of how many of the bodily functions work we’re still able to figure out how to optimize its performance at various tasks. To that end I’ve personally read through reams of research to find out what I can to do maximise many aspects of my life, from my fitness to my cognitive faculties and even to my skills as a gamer. Of course my process lacks much of the scientific rigour that I’ve come to admire so more often than not I’ve found myself pursuing something without doing the right amount of research into it.

23andmekitOne of the many things that’s been on my to do list for a while was to get my DNA sequenced by 23andMe to find out what my genetic profile is like when compared to the rest of the world. Whilst I’m already somewhat aware of the health risks that run in my family I’ve always thought it would be good to backup the anecdotes with a little bit of data, even if it was only a single sample point. I’m also lucky enough to have a wife who understands biology on a level that far surpasses mine so the possibility of me finding out that I have a propensity for a rare genetic condition and flying into a wild panic are somewhat diminished.

However it seems that others aren’t so lucky and upon finding out the results of their 23andMe test are seeking treatments for conditions which may be completely unnecessary. This has since prompted the FDA to serve 23andMe with an enforcement action, essentially a cease and desist order giving the company a couple weeks with which to comply with them or face the consequences. Honestly when I first heard about it I was wondering why the FDA would bother targeting them, indeed I thought the kinds of people interested in such data would be well equipped to interpret it, however reading over one particular case showed that 23andMe could stand to use a little more rigour.

Of course the big issue here is people using this data in a vacuum and failing to consult with others to get clarity on what the numbers mean in the real world. My sister in-law found herself in a similar situation recently when the doctors refused to guarantee her child would be free of downs syndrome. The reality is that it’s simply something that we can’t rule out, no matter how good the indicators are, however when the chances are on the order of 1 in 100,000 or greater you have to understand that the risk of it actually happening is quite low. 23andMe results need to be taken in a similar light and in the event should they predict something horrific the next stop should be a genetic counsellor, not the surgeons knife.

I still plan to use the service one day as whilst my primary focus would be looking for potential treatments to improve parts of my life I’m also very interested to see what statistics has to say about the things locked away in my genetic code. Whilst I’ll likely research anything that I feel might be a threat I’ll be sure to temper that research with advice from people more qualified on this area than me. Perhaps this is something that 23andMe should look into doing as whilst it’s nice that they don’t alert you to potentially life changing facts without warning you first getting some context from a real person would probably go a long way to solving their problems with the FDA.

Steam Reviews

Valve Launches Steam Reviews, Make Writer All Giddy With Excitement.

I’ve been reviewing games for about 4 years now and since I’m not exactly a top tier reviewer I’ve had to employ other tactics to get my reviews in front of other people. Primarily this just used to be via my Twitter and Facebook accounts however after I noticed my reviews getting submitted to other sites (by other people, no less!) I decided to start doing that process myself rather than wait for some unknown individual to do it for me. Primarily I used to just post to N4G and Reddit however after the launch of Steam Communities I started posting my reviews on there, figuring that people who were buying the game would likely sift through there before purchasing. Seems I wasn’t the only one doing this as Valve has decided to formalize the idea in Steam Reviews.

Steam ReviewsIt’s essentially just another part of the Steam Community Hub that every game has (which now includes things like game guides and trading posts) where users can leave and rate reviews for that particular title. If this sounds similar to the recommendations that steam has had for ages you’d be right and this new review system will be replacing it wholesale. All your old recommendations will be upgraded to reviews however which means that it’s somewhat useful right off the bat (although unlikely to have anything negative due to the way the old system worked) and none of the work anyone put in gets lost in the transition.

One of the marked improvements that the Steam platform can give to reviews like this is that users will not be able to review a game they haven’t played. This doesn’t extend to needing to own the game either so if you played a game on a free weekend or got a title shared to you from a friend you’ll be eligible to write a review on the Steam page for it. Whilst this won’t entirely eliminate the bad review train that tends to happen with certain titles it does limit the scope to people who’ve actually had a crack at the game rather than anyone who feels like jumping on a bandwagon.

Currently they’re just worded reviews with no score indicator on them however that’s apparently set to change during the beta. Whilst some will lament their inclusion I still believe that they have some value so long as we, the gaming community, use them appropriately. Since I’ll be actively participating in this open beta (I’ve still got a ton of reviews on my blog that haven’t made their way onto Steam in one way or another) I’ll be submitting feedback to encourage use along those lines so that games can more easily compared against each other, rather than some subjective view of perfection. How this will come about I can not be entirely sure but if anyone can change the way scores are used in the wider gaming world its Valve and Steam is the platform to do it.

Whether this will translate into more exposure for small time reviewers like myself will be something of interest as whilst I’ve had a few people come to read my review from Steam it pales in comparison to other platforms. Steam Reviews could change that as they’ll be given a prominent location in the Community Hub rather than being lost in the wash of the general discussion forum. That’s really a side benefit for people like me however as the real value here will be from getting a much better view of what the gaming community thinks of a title, hopefully free from much of the bandwagoning that’s made Metacritic what it is today.

 

Bryce Landscapes

Making Things Difficult For Myself (or Game Art is Hard).

I’m no stranger to game development, having dabbled in it when I was at University. It was by far my favourite course as whilst I had a decent amount of programming knowledge translating that into creating something playable seemed like a monumental step that required a whole lot of knowledge I simply did not have. This was long before the time when tools like Unity or GameMaker were considered viable and our lecturer made everything easy for us by providing a simple framework on top of DirectX, allowing us to create simple 2D games without having to learn the notoriously complicated API. Since then I’ve tried my hand at Unity several times over and whilst it seems like a programmer’s dream there’s always one place I come unstuck on: the art.

Bryce LandscapesThis isn’t exactly an unknown issue to me, all my university projects used sprites that were pilfered from various free game resource sites and anything extra was little more than primitive 3D objects whipped up in 3D Studio Max. For my current project however I had the bright idea to try and generate some terrain using one of those fancy bits of software that seem to make good looking landscapes without too much hassle. After wandering through a sea of options I found Bryce seemed to be the one to go for and, better yet, it had the ability to export all the mesh so I could import it directly into Unity without too many hassles. For the $20 asking price I figured it’d be worth it to get me going and hey, should I want to go full procedural down the line it’d be a good introduction into the things I’d need to consider.

Oh how naive I was back then…

Whilst Bryce is everything it claims to be (and the tutorials on using it are really quite good) I just couldn’t seem to get it to create the type of scenery I had in my head. This is entirely a user based problem, one that I’ve suffered with for a long time where the interconnects between my brain and the tools I’m using to create just don’t seem to be able to gel well enough to produce the results I’m looking for. Whilst I was able to generate a decent looking mesh and import it into Unity it was nothing like I wanted it to be and, after sinking a couple hours into it, I decided that it was best left to one side lest I uninstall everything in frustration.

Realistically though the problem was one of expectations where the disjoint between my abilities with a program I had never used before and my expectations of what I’d produce were completely out of alignment. After mulling it over for the past couple days I’ve come to realise that I had set the bar way too high for what I wanted to create and indeed creating such things at this stage of development is actually a distraction from the larger goals I’m trying to achieve. I’ve since settled on just making do with a flat plane for now (as that’s all I’ll really need for the foreseeable future) or, should I really want to put something pretty in there, I’ll just lift a 3D model from a game that’s close enough so I’ve got something to work with.

You’d think after churning through project after project I would’ve become adept at recognising when I was pursuing something that was antithetical to making actual progress but it seems even after so many years I still find myself making things far more difficult than they need to be. What I really need to do is focus on the parts where I can make good progress and, should I make enough in those areas, then look towards doing the parts that are outside my area of expertise. Of course the best solution would be to partner with a 3D artist, but I’d rather wait until I’ve got something substantial working before I try and sell someone else on my idea.

That is unless you’re one and you’ve got nothing better to do with your time ;)

 

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Call of Duty: Ghosts: War in a Post-Apocalyptic USA.

I have something of a soft spot for the Call of Duty series, a trait which I think is highly evident given the fact that I’ve been reviewing their games for the past 4 years. This primarily extends from their highly cinematic single player experiences where the actual game play borders on being more like an action movie rather than a traditional FPS. However I also found myself inexplicably drawn to the multiplayer, finding myself being one of “those people” who just couldn’t get enough of the fast paced, super spammy Nuketown map. I also have to admit that I did feel pretty special to be invited to come and preview their games way back when (something I’ve been unfortunately unable to repeat lately) and the fact that they sent me copies to review was a kind of validation that I hadn’t got before. Whilst that trend didn’t continue this year I’m still a fan of the series in general and have spent the better part of 2 weeks gorging myself on everything Call of Duty: Ghosts has to offer.

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Call of Duty: Ghosts takes place in the not too distant future in an alternate timeline to the rest of the Call of Duty series. You primarily play as Logan, the son of a lifetime military man Elias who regales you with the story of an elite unit who faced down overwhelming odds and came out the other side. They called themselves the Ghosts, known for never giving up until their mission was completed and always ensuring that all their men got out, dead or alive. The story is unfortunately cut short as it quickly becomes apparent that the USA is under attack however the origin of the bombardments isn’t quite clear. What is for certain however is that the new world superpower, The Federation, are behind it and they need to be stopped.

Ghosts is one of the first titles to make it onto the next console generation (although its still available on current gen) and the improvements to the graphics that they enable are quite impressive. Whilst the difference between Black Ops II and Ghosts is as great as you’d expect to be, especially with this being the first next gen Call of Duty title, there’s still been a dramatic improvement since the last Infinity Ward game. All of the screenshots were taken in game and I think they speak volumes to the amount of effort put in to the set pieces that Infinity has created. It’s also probably the reason why the game comes in at 28GBs, by far one of the largest downloads I’ve ever had for a single player game (the multi is a separate 4GB download of its own).

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The game play is your standard corridor shooter with you being guided from point A to point B by one or more NPCs with different kinds of objectives along the way. Saying that for most games would be a jab at their originality or banality but the Call of Duty series does it so well that it’s hard for me to criticize them for it. Still if you were looking for something innovative or different about the single player campaign you’re going to be disappointed as it really is just a scenic tour through a whole bunch of impressive artwork with action movie style combat thrown in so you don’t get bored walking everywhere. That being said it is quite the ride with you rarely being given more than a couple moments to catch your breath before the next unbelievably epic moment occurs.

The combat is, as always, polished and refined to the point where it’s smooth as glass. The only variation from previous games is the weapons and equipment that will be made available to you and for the most part the differences are largely cosmetic as they’re all guns that shoot bullets. There is a little variety in the way the guns act in different environments, like when you’re in space or under water, but the standard assault rifle will be your mainstay for the majority of the game. If there’s one thing I’ll criticize Ghosts for it’s the use of sniper accurate enemies who seem to be able to hit you from almost any angle, leading to long periods where you have to peek your head out, get hit, figure out where they are and then try to pick them off before they or their friends do the same to you. This is made somewhat more annoying by the unpredictable nature of the NPCs who sometimes charge ahead or seem to get stuck in one position until you do the charging, but then again I’ve yet to find a game where I’ve felt the NPCs were truly useful additions.

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Considering the amount of hype and focus the dog got prior to Ghosts’ release I’d be remiss if I didn’t give my perspective on it. Riley (that’s his name) is essentially another mechanic for them to throw at you with his main function being that of a kind of single target grenade that you can point at anyone and have him take them down. There are also some more weird sci-fi sections where you’re able to control him directly, making him sneak behind enemy lines and even take down people from a remote console. It fits in with the overall game, although why such a big deal was made of it I’ll never quite understand, and there’s a particular heart wrenching moment when he gets shot and you have to carry him through the battlefield. Conveniently they also provide you with an insane machine gun at that point, allowing you to go full rambo on the assholes who shot your dog which was probably one of my favourite parts of Ghosts.

I’m somewhat thankful that Ghosts took a new route as the previous storyline was starting to get a little long in the tooth, especially with all the various sub-plots that I just couldn’t seem to keep track over between instalments. They’ve taken a break from the traditional clandestine unit saving the USA from imminent attack, instead putting you in a world that’s been devastated by the newest superpower. It’s best not to think about it too deeply though as it tend towards more being an action movie than a psychological thriller, hoping that you won’t think and instead enjoy the ride. If you do that the story is passable and is more than enough to keep you motivated from one objective to the next.

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The multiplayer breaks away from Infinity Ward’s traditional way of doing things (where most things are locked until you level up enough to get them) and instead adopts a Squad Point system for upgrading your character. Unlike the the cash system that the original Black Ops had Squad Points aren’t earned in troves by simply playing. Whilst you will get points for levelling up the system is obviously more geared towards you completing challenges, both grand ones that require multiple games to accomplish as well as field orders which grant you a bonus during the game. Because of this all the guns in the game are available to you from level 1 and all that’s required is that you grind out a few points to unlock them.

The perks, however, are hard locked to your level with the more powerful ones being reserved for the later stages. This does mean that particular play styles are just simply not feasible until you get to that stage as you won’t be able to have your pick of the perks until you hit level 60. For someone like me who’d developed a distinctive play strategy (I’m a rusher style player) it meant that I had to change the way I played in order to get anywhere in the game. It doesn’t take too long to adjust as you can still do the traditional assault rifle style play but I did feel a little miffed that I couldn’t engage in the insane runabout shenanigans that I did in previous games.

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Indeed it seems that Infinity Ward is trying to encourage a slightly different style of play with Ghosts as there are now many more open maps that are more conducive to sniping than there was in the previous games. You can imagine how annoying this is to a rusher like me where my style of combat relies on getting in people’s faces, but it means that you just have to adapt or die. There are still a few crazy small maps however it seems that they’re no where near as popular as the Nuketown of old as there’s rarely more than 100 players in the Ghost Moshpit game type with most staying on Team Deathmatch or Domination. This is probably not so much of a problem on the consoles however as there’s an order of magnitude more players around at any given time.

For what its worth I feel that the multiplayer of Ghosts is weaker than previous instalments as it just doesn’t seem to have that same pulling power on me that it used to. I’ve still racked up about 7 hours on it after taking about 2 to find my feet again but I just don’t have that same sense of compulsion pulling me back. Maybe its the lack of Nuketown, maybe it’s the lack of my spammy akimbo style of game play but whatever it is it just isn’t the same as it used to be. Activision said that they were expecting lower sales this time around due to the console switch over and that seems to be reflected in the multiplayer. Hopefully the next instalment won’t suffer because of it.

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Call of Duty: Ghosts is another highly polished instalment in the franchise, showing that Infinity Ward is capable of delivering a highly cinematic experience that’s thoroughly enjoyable to play through. Whilst the stories and setting are always different the core game play remains the same and it’s commendable that they can still make it enjoyable this many years on. However the multiplayer experience is definitely a step down from previous games, lacking the same addictive power that compelled me to become a fan of the series all those years ago. Overall it’s still a solid game experience but they’re going to have to aim higher next time around if they want to recapture their original glory.

Rating: 8.0/10

Call of Duty: Ghosts is available on PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360, XboxOne, WiiU and PC right now for $78, $78, $78, $78 , $99.95 and $89.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 5.4 hours in the single player campaign and 7.1 hours in multiplayer.

AMD Logo

The Real Winner of the Console Wars: AMD.

In the general computing game you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s 2 rivals locked in a contest for dominance. Sure there’s 2 major players, Intel and AMD, and whilst they are direct competitors with each other there’s no denying the fact that Intel is the Goliath to AMD’s David, trouncing them in almost every way possible. Of course if you’re looking to build a budget PC you really can’t go past AMD’s processors as they provide an incredible amount of value for the asking price but there’s no denying that Intel has been the reigning performance and market champion for the better part of a decade now. However the next generation of consoles have proved to be something of a coup for AMD and it could be the beginnings of a new era for the beleaguered chip company.

AMD LogoBoth of the next generation consoles, the PlayStation 4 and XboxOne, both utilize an almost identical AMD Jaguar chip under the hood. The reasons for choosing it seem to align with Sony’s previous architectural idea for Cell (I.E. having lots of cores working in parallel rather than fewer working faster) and AMD is the king of cramming more cores into a single consumer chip. Although the reasons for going for AMD over Intel likely stem from the fact that Intel isn’t too crazy about doing custom hardware and the requirements that Sony and Microsoft had for their own versions of Jaguar could simply not be accommodated. Considering how big the console market is this would seem like something of a misstep by Intel, especially judging by the PlayStation4′s day one sales figures.

If you hadn’t heard the PlayStation 4 managed to move an incredible 1 million consoles on its first day of launch and that was limited to the USA. The Nintendo Wii by comparison took about a week to move 400,000 consoles and it even had a global launch window to beef up the sales. Whether the trend will continue or not considering that the XboxOne just got released yesterday is something we’ll have to wait to see but regardless every one of those consoles being purchased now contains in it an AMD CPU and they’re walking away with a healthy chunk of change from each one.

To put it in perspective out of every PlayStation 4 sale (and by extension every XboxOne as well) AMD is taking away a healthy $100 which means that in that one day of sales AMD generated some $100 million for itself. For a company who’s annual revenue is around the $1.5 billion mark this is a huge deal and if the XboxOne launch is even half that AMD could have seen $150 million in the space of a week. If the previous console generations were anything to go by (roughly 160 million consoles between Sony and Microsoft) AMD is looking at a revenue steam of some $1.6 billion over the next 8 years, a 13% increase to their bottom line. Whilst it’s still a far cry from the kinds of revenue that Intel sees on a monthly basis it’s a huge win for AMD and something they will hopefully be able to use to leverage themselves more in other markets.

Whilst I may have handed in my AMD fanboy badge after many deliriously happy years with my watercooled XP1800+ I still think they’re a brilliant chip company and their inclusion in both next generation consoles shows that the industry giants think the same way. The console market might not be as big as the consumer desktop space nor as lucrative as the high end server market but getting their chips onto both sides of the war is a major coup for them. Hopefully this will give AMD the push they need to start muscling in on Intel’s turf again as whilst I love their chips I love robust competition between giants a lot more.

 

MAVEN Orbiter

MAVEN Launches, The Mars Atmosphere Mystery Awaits.

Mars is by far the most studied planet that isn’t our own, having had 46 separate missions launched to it since the 1960s and is currently host to no less than 5 active missions both in orbit and on its surface. Those missions have taught us a lot about our red celestial sister, the most intriguing of which is that it was once not unlike Earth, covered in vast swaths of ocean which could potentially have been host to all sorts of life. Even more interesting is that while it’s little more than a barren desert that’s only notionally above vacuum it still contains water ice in non-trivial quantities, leading many to speculate that somewhere its liquid form must also exist. The process by which Mars transformed from a lush landscape like ours to the wasteland it is today is still shrouded in mystery and is something that MAVEN, NASA’s latest mission to Mars, is seeking to solve.

MAVEN OrbiterMAVEN successfully launched yesterday atop of an ATLAS V rocket and will spend the better part of a year transiting the distance between Earth and Mars. Its primary objective is to investigate the evolution of Mars’ atmosphere to try and ascertain the factors that influenced its demise. Since the current prevailing theory is that a cooling planetary core led to a loss of a protective magnetic field which then allowed the solar wind to slow strip away the atmosphere many of the instruments aboard the craft are geared towards measuring solar particles around Mars’ orbit. The rest of the instrumentation is focused on directly measuring Mars’ atmosphere which will then allow scientists to reconstruct a full picture of it and the influences working on it.

I believe this is also (and someone feel free to correct me on this) the reason for its slightly abnormal orbit for when it arrives at Mars. Instead of taking the usual approach of having a near circular orbit (like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) it instead has a highly elliptical orbit with the closet approach being a mere 150KM above the surface whilst its furthest point is 6200KM out. This would allow the craft to get good measurements of the levels of solar particles as it gets closer to the surface and how that compares to it further out. Considering the orbital period will also only be 4.5 hours it would make for some rather exciting flybys if you were aboard that craft but then again that’s not an orbit you’d use if you had people on board.

The orbit also has the rather unfortunate effect of limiting one of MAVEN’s more long term capabilities: it’s link back to Earth. MAVEN has a 10Mbit/s link thanks to an updated Electra array which is almost twice as powerful as MRO’s. However due to the rather eccentric orbit it won’t be available as often which will limit the amount of data that can be passed back. This doesn’t just impact the satellite itself though as whilst the rovers on Mars can communicate directly to Earth it’s not a very fast connection, so most offload onto a local satellite for their more data hungry applications. Since it’s currently only an augment to the other fleet of satellites around Mars this isn’t too much of an issue although it could present some contention issues later on the track when the other satellites are retired.

The science that MAVEN will conduct on its planned 1 year mission will prove invaluable in determining just what happened to Mars’ atmosphere and, by extension, what the chances are of any life existing on its surface today. It will also provide infrastructure for future missions, allowing them to be more ambitious in the goals that they attempt to reach. For now though it’s 1 day into its long trip to our celestial sister, quietly awaiting the day when it can finally start fulfilling its purpose.

 

DSC_0305

Parcel Lockers Are Awesome, We Just Need More.

You’d think that with my time spent as a retail worker I’d have some sense of loyalty to real world shop fronts, knowing that there’s value in a good salesperson’s opinion on what product best suits my needs. There’s something to that and indeed should I find myself out of my depth or simply not wanting to do the research myself I’ll head on into the store but my primary means for conducting my shopping is still via online merchants. Whilst its hard to argue the convenience factor of the majority of the experience the last mile delivery system is somewhat lacklustre, usually requiring me to either truck out to a depot, abscond from work early or hope that my darling wife will be able to break herself away from her studies so the goods can be delivered.

DSC_0305Before anyone suggests getting it delivered to my work I’ll have to say that my experience in doing so has been rather mixed. In the past I had had places where the delivery guys came right up to our reception desks to deliver things and this worked great. However as I graduated to bigger and better places that had delivery docks my lowly deliveries often got lost in the works, sometimes for days on end, with no way for me to track them. Thus I’ve since refrained from using them as at least when I get them delivered to my home I’ll either still have tracking from the courier or a note from Australia Post telling me where to pick it up. However if the latest innovation from Australia Post has anything to do with it I might need not rely on either of those processes again thanks to the introduction of Parcel Lockers.

For the uninitiated Parcel Lockers are a free service from Australia Post. You sign up for one at their website, select the location where you’d like your parcels delivered to and you’ll receive a shipping address which you can have your packages delivered to. Then when your package arrives you’ll receive a SMS with a code in it and you can then go to the locker in question and retrieve your package. Initially they were only available in a few select locations, the middle of Canberra being one of them, but they’ve since spread to other mid to large sized post offices although their availability at postal locations is still not ubiquitous.

After forgetting that I had signed up for one for the better part of 3 months I finally decided to give them a go to see how the process would pan out. I figured I’d keep it simple so I ordered a book from Book Depository that I’ve been eyeing off for ages (Critical Path if you’re wondering, and yes I’m trying to do exactly that) so that if I didn’t get it there’d be no great loss. About 2 weeks after placing the order I got my message saying a parcel was ready for me to pick up. Picking it up was painless, just punch in the code and the parcel locker opens for you, the screen even tells you where to look if it’s that hard for you to notice it opening. That’s it, nothing more to it.

Of course there are some limitations to this service as you can see from the picture above. You can’t get anything you want delivered to them as they don’t have sizes to accommodate everything and I’d hazard a guess that they’d send you a message to come collect it from somewhere else should you attempt to do so. Additionally since these are obviously at something of a premium they’ll get aggressive should you fail to pick it up swiftly (I forgot to get mine on the day and was told to pick it up 2 business days later before the afternoon). The simple solution to this is to get more of them something which Australia Post appears to be doing.

Ultimately what I’d love to have would be my very own parcel locker style device at my house that deliveries could be made to. I’d be happy to pay for the privilege too as the amount of convenience it would deliver would exceed even that of the current parcel lockers. However I’d likely be just as happy if my local post office had one as whilst this is somewhat convenient it’s only just above going to my local post office since I don’t live anywhere near to one of these (and indeed only recently started working in walking distance to one). Unfortunately they don’t seem to have a roadmap available as to when these will become available in other locations but I can’t imagine this is something they’ll want to limit just to the bigger distribution centres.

AGIMO ICT Strategy Summary

A New AGIMO Policy is Great, But…

Canberra is a strange little microcosm. If you live here chances are you are either working directly for the government as a member of the public service or you’re part of an organisation that’s servicing said government. This is especially true in the field of IT as anyone with a respectable amount of IT experience can make a very good living working for any of the large department’s headquarters. I have made my IT career in this place and in my time here I’ve spent all of my time lusting after the cutting edge of technology whilst dealing with the realities of what large government departments actually need to function. As long time readers will be aware I’ve been something of a cloud junkie for a while now but not once have I been able to use it at my places of work, and there’s a good reason for that.

AGIMO ICT Strategy SummaryNot that you’d know that if you heard the latest bit of rhetoric from the current government which has criticised the current AGIMO APS ICT Strategy for providing only “notional” guidelines for using cloud base services. Whilst I’ll agree that the financial implications are rather cumbersome (although this is true of any procurement activity within the government, as anyone who’s worked in one can tell you) what annoyed me was the idea that security requirements were too onerous. The simple fact of the matter is that many government departments have regulatory and legal obligations not to use overseas cloud providers due to the legislation that restricts Australian government data from travelling outside our borders.

The technical term for this is data sovereignty and for the vast majority of the large government departments of Australia they’re legally bound to keep all their services, and the data that they rely on, on Australian soil. The legislation is so strict in this regard that even data that’s not technically sensitive, like say specifications of machines or network topologies, in some cases can’t be given to external vendors and must instead only be inspected on site. The idea then that governments could take advantage of cloud providers, most of which don’t have availability zones here in Australia, is completely ludicrous and no amount of IT strategy policies can change that.

Of course cloud providers aren’t unaware of these issues, indeed I’ve met with several people behind some of the larger public clouds on this, and many of them are bringing availability zones to Australia. Indeed Amazon Web Services has already made itself available here and Microsoft’s Azure platform is expected to land on our shores sometime next year. The latter is probably the more important of the two as if the next AGIMO policy turns out the way it’s intended the Microsoft cloud will be the defacto solution for light user agencies thanks to the heavy amount of Microsoft products in use at those places.

Whilst I might be a little peeved at the rhetoric behind the review of the APS ICT Strategy I do welcome it as even though it was only written a couple years ago it’s still in need of an update due to the heavy shift towards cloud services and user centric IT that we’ve seen recently. The advent of Australian availability zones will mean that the government agencies most able to take advantage of cloud services will finally be able to, especially with AGIMO policy behind them. Still it will be up to the cloud providers to ensure their systems can meet the requirements of these agencies and there’s still every possibility that they will still not be enough for some departments to take advantage of.

We’ll have to see how that pans out, however.