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The Long Dark: So Cold…

The survival genre and I have never really gotten along. I can appreciate the challenge you can create out of just existing but for me these kinds of games just never satisfied me. The act of survival is typically one of repetitive tasks and if I wanted to do that I’d go back to playing MMORPGs. Still enough people in my gaming circle had said that The Long Dark’s story mode, Wintermute, was worth the look in, with many comparing it to Firewatch. I’ll have to strongly disagree that the experiences are comparable but, at the very least, it’s reaffirmed my aversion to this genre.

Set in the present day The Long Dark takes place after a great “geomagnetic disaster” which wiped out the power grid for many. You play as Will Mackenzie, a pilot who services many of the remote towns in the Canadian wilderness. After a brief reunion with Astrid, his ex-wife, you agree to take her to where she needs to go without asking too many questions. On the way there however you hit rough whether and your plane comes crashing down long before reaching its destination. Stranded in the isolated wilderness you have to survive and, if you can, try to find Astrid before its too late.

Aesthetically The Long Dark opts for stylized/cartoony visuals much like that of Firewatch and games from Telltale. This does mean that the visuals are relatively simple and uncluttered, something which is a blessing when you’re scrounging around for things to help you survive. Interior buildings are a bit more detailed but then it’s more clutter than anything, which can make scavenging buildings a little more challenging. Fitting in with the simple visual theme is the lack of in-game physics on a lot of things, something which I think many of us have simply grown accustomed to seeing everywhere. Back when The Long Dark was first released I’m sure this visual style would have been quite impressive however, this being 2017, they do seem a little dated. I don’t expect that to change though.

Given The Long Dark’s 3 or so years in Early Access the survival game play is quite well developed. You’ve got a number of attributes that you need to keep up including food, water, heat and sleep. At any time you could be affected by any number of conditions ranging from things like food poisoning to wolf bites to good old fashioned hypothermia. Should you not manage your attributes properly your “condition” will start to deteriorate and, should it reach zero, you will pass into the long dark. Everything you need is available in the wilderness but it won’t be easy and you’ll have to make sure that you can survive long enough so you can…keep on surviving. This is all happening whilst you’re following the story line which, for the first hour or so, serves as an extended tutorial of sorts. Past there it becomes somewhat optional, although following it does have its benefits.

Just like in real life the business of just plain surviving in The Long Dark isn’t exactly a pleasant one. You’ll find yourself doing the same basic tasks time after time just to make sure you have a fire that will last, enough food to not starve and a small stash of emergency supplies should you fall down or get attacked by wolves (or worse). It’s these kinds of activities that turn me off these kinds of survival/sandbox simulators as I’m really not interested in having to gather firewood for the hundredth time or trying haphazardly to hit a rabbit with a rock so I won’t starve. Additionally, and I’m not sure if this was a limitation of the story mode, it seemed like I didn’t have a lot of options to improve my ability to survive beyond scavenging. Certainly the crafting menu was never populated with any beyond some simple things, despite me finding all sorts of materials.

Credit where it’s due though as the game really does a great job of simulating all the various things that drastically alter your chances of surviving. It didn’t take me too long to realise that venturing out at night was a fools errand, especially if I didn’t have a torch in my hand. I learnt this after following what I thought was a road for some time, only to find out it was a path to literally no where. Trudging along the same path during the day I could see where I went wrong and it became all too clear how easy it would be to get lost in the dark in bad weather. From there on I’d often spend just as much time indoors waiting out the time so I didn’t have to expend a ton of resources just to stay alive out in the night.

The Long Dark’s story starts off well however as the time between major events starts to draw out I started to become disinterested in it. The longest part of the story arc that I played (which is Episode 1, I gather) consisted mostly of fetch quests for a NPC, something which I’m not the biggest fan of even in the MMORPG genre. This means that the main story kind of stalls at this point and the ultimate conclusion to it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying at all. Firewatch by comparison had great pacing for both the main arc and the sub-plots ensuring that you always felt like whatever you were doing was leading somewhere. The Long Dark, at least in its first 4 hours, doesn’t have that and I’m not enough of a fan of the survival genre to forget that.

The Long Dark’s time in Early Access has resulted in a well crafted game but it’s unfortunately just not for me. I can appreciate the simplistic aesthetic it’s going for, especially when it produces something as gorgeous as the screenshot above, but it is erring on the dated side now. The survival mechanics are deep, requiring a lot of effort on the part of the player to make sure your character doesn’t simply freeze to death on the first day. The story’s strong opening fades relatively quickly and, should you not enjoy survival games as a rule, there won’t be much else to carry it on past the first few hours. Overall I can appreciate the craftsmanship of The Long Dark but it’s simply not a game for the likes of me, but it could very well be for you.

Rating: 6.0/10

The Long Dark is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $34.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4 hours playtime and 10% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 07/08/2017 to 13/07/2017

State of the Game: 24/07/2017 to 30/072017

State of the Game: 10/07/2017 to 16/10/2017

State of the Game: 15/05/2017 to 21/05/2017

Enceladus’ Watery Secret Confirmed.

The search for life beyond that of our planet is a complicated one. As it stands we only know of life arising in a particular way, one we can’t be sure isn’t unique in the universe. Still it’s the best model we have to go by and so when we search for life we look for all the same signs as we do for anywhere here on Earth. The one constant that binds all life on Earth is water and so that is why we search so fervently for it anywhere in the solar system. Surprisingly there are many places to find it but none are more spectacular than Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Enceladus CassiniEnceladus is a strange world, truly unlike anything else in our solar system. Its surface is incredibly young, mostly devoid of the numerous pockmarks that are common among other atmosphereless celestial bodies. This is because it’s in a constant state of change, it’s icy surface splitting and cracking open to reveal a new unsullied surface. Enceladus is like this because Saturn’s massive girth warps the tiny moon as it makes its orbit, generating incredible amounts of heat in the process. The same process is responsible for the amazing cryovolcanoes that dot its south pole, spewing forth tons of water per day into the depths of space. Whilst it’s easy to confirm that there’s liquid water somewhere on Enceladus (those cryovolcanoes aren’t magical water spouts) the question of where the reservoir is, if there even is one, has been the subject of much scientific study.

It has long been thought that Enceladus was host to a vast underground ocean although its specifics have always been up for debate. Unlike Europa which is thought to have a layer of liquid water underneath the ice (or a layer of “warmer” ice) the nature of Enceladus’ ocean was less clear. However data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft during its flybys of the moon in 2010~2012 show that it’s very likely that there’s a subsurface ocean below the area where the plumes originate. How they did this is quite incredible and showcases the amazing precision of the instruments we have up in space.

The measurements were made by using the radio communications between Cassini and Earth. These stay at a relatively fixed frequency and thus any changes in the craft’s speed will manifest themselves as slight Doppler Shifts in the frequency. This is the same principle behind how the sound of an approaching ambulance changes as it gets closer and farther away and it allows us to detect even the smallest changes in Cassini’s speed. As it turns out when Cassini flew over Enceladus’ south pole, which has a great big depression in it (meaning there’s less gravity at that point) the change in speed was far less than what we expected. What that means is there’s something more dense below the depression that’s making up for the lack of matter in the depression and, since water is more dense than ice, a giant hidden sea is a very plausible explanation.

There may be other explanations of course, like a giant deposit of heavy elements or just plain rock, however the fact that there’s water gushing up from that location gives more credence to the theory that it’s an ocean. The question now turns to nailing down some of the other variables, like how big it actually is and how the water gets to the surface, which I’m not entirely sure the Cassini craft is capable of determining. Still I wasn’t completely sure it was capable of doing this before today so I’m sure the scientists at NASA have some very interesting ideas about what comes next for Enceladus.

Windows XP is No More, Finally.

It’s late 2001 and I’ve finally managed to find a group of like minded people who enjoy computers, games and all things that I felt ashamed of liking for the better part of my teenage life. We’re gathered at a friend’s house to have a LAN as this was long before the time when broadband was a common thing in Australian households. As much as these gatherings were a hive for sharing ill-gotten files they were also the beginnings of my career in IT as often we’d be experimenting with the latest software just for laughs. It’s at this very gathering where I had my first encounter with the latest operating system from Microsoft, Windows XP, and little did I know that I’d still be encountering it for the next 13 years.

XP IS DEAD LONG LIVE WINDOWSToday marks a day that we have known was coming for a long time but many have refused to accept: the day when Windows XP is no longer supported by Microsoft. You can still get support for Microsoft Security Essentials on Windows XP until July 14, 2015 but Microsoft will no longer be providing any updates, free or paid, to the aging operating system. For administrators like me it’s the ammunition we’ve been using for the better part of 2 years to get people to move away from the old operating system as nothing scares corporate customers more than the possibility of no support. Still though out of the total Windows market share XP still claims a staggering 27%, meaning almost 1 in every 3 Windows users is now on a system that won’t have any kind of official support. Many have criticised Microsoft for doing this but in all honesty it had to happen sometime or they’d never see the end of it.

The reason behind XP’s longevity, something which is usually unheard of in the high technology industry, can be almost wholly attributed to the utter dismal failure that Windows Vista was. Prior to that Microsoft customers were more than happy to go through the routine upgrade process every 3~5 years however the fact that Vista didn’t deliver on what it promised, coupled with it’s astoundingly bad reliability, meant that the vast majority of organisations got comfortable with Windows XP as their operating system. The time between XP and Windows 7 was long enough that the pain of moving forward became too great and many opted to wait until there was just no option left for them. My most recent project was a great example of this, migrating a large government department to Windows 7 from XP which only barely missed the deadline that was hit today.

This is the prime reason behind Microsoft’s recent change from a longer product cycle to one that’s based around rapid innovation. Whilst it’s true that Windows 8 is shaping up to be the Vista of this current product cycle, with Windows 7 adoption rates still outpacing it, the vast majority of the hard work will be done if users finally move to Windows 7. The upgrade paths from there are a whole lot more forgiving than coming from XP and moving from 8 to 8.1 takes about as much effort as installing a patch. I’m quietly hopeful that Windows 7 won’t become the next XP but at the same time I know how readily history can repeat itself.

So it’s without a heavy heart I say goodbye to Windows XP. It will not be missed by anyone in the industry as it was supposed to be dead and buried a long time ago and it was only through the stubbornness of the majority that it managed to stick around for as long as it did. I’m hoping for a much brighter future, one where Microsoft’s quickened pace of development is embraced and legacy systems are allowed to die the swift death that they so rightly deserve.

 

Motorola 360: Defy One Trend, Follow The Other.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of the current generation of smartwatches as I feel that, in terms of functionality, they simply don’t provide enough for me to justify purchasing one. Sure they’re pretty neat bits of technology but geek lust can only drive me so far as should I buy one and only end up using it as a watch then I’ll likely feel disappointed. When I thought about this more I figured it was a little strange as I’m already a watch wearer and so you’d think that if it came down to that then, realistically, I was getting my money’s worth anyway. After seeing the Motorola 360 though I think I know why all of the other smartwatches are so lacklustre.

Moto360__Metal_RGBFor the uninitiated last week saw the debut of Android Wear, a new version of the Android phone operating system that’s focused specifically on wearable technology. Right now it’s focused at developers with current applications that produce notifications with preview allowing developers to see how they’ll look on future devices. Interestingly enough it supports both the traditional smartwatch screen (square/rectangle) along with a more traditional round face. Considering every smartwatch that I’ve heard of up until this point had a square face I was wondering who would be create such a beast and it’s Motorola, something I probably should’ve seen coming.

Smartwatches have always gone for the rectangular style screen for 2 reasons. The first is that’s what screen manufacturers make and getting something that isn’t standard like that ends up costing quite a considerable amount. In order to make them affordable enough for people to want to buy them this kind of precludes doing anything particularly fancy so square faces it was. Secondly doing content layouts for square screens is hard enough already and doesn’t translate well to the rounded format. Motorola’s 360, in combination with Android Wear, makes this non-standard fantasy a reality but the question then becomes, why?

As it turns out Motorola has realised that smartwatches, whilst a popular niche in their own right, are focusing on one demographic: technophiles. The 360 on the other hand isn’t targeted at them specifically instead it’s aimed more at “people who wear watches” hence the round design (which apparently is 80% of all watch sales worldwide, who knew). Indeed the 360 looks like it’d be right at home among the chunkier watch offerings that have become popular of late with the added side benefit of having additional functionality built into it. The Pebble Steel made some headroads in this regard although it’s hard to deny that the 360 is a much more striking beast.

So I guess what was needed for me to overcome my initial skepticism about smartwatches wasn’t so much the functionality, although I’d admit I still dream of getting an all in one, it was more of design. It will be interesting to see if the round watch face gamble pays off for Motorola since they’ll be the first to market with their device and it’ll likely be the standard by which other Android Wear products are judged. I’ll hold off on saying Motorola has my money for this one until I see one or two in the wild but it’s been quite interesting to see my opinion changed due to good design.

Maybe I am an Apple fan boy after all. *shudder*

What Is Google Doing With All These Robotics Companies?

Google isn’t a company that’s known for curtailing its ambitions; starting off with its humble beginnings as the best search engine on the web to the massive conglomerate that it is today, encompassing everything from smartphones to robotic cars. In the past many of the ideas were the result of acquisitions where Google made strategic purchases in order to acquire the talent required to dominate the space they were in. More recently however they’ve started developing their own moonshot style ideas through their Project X labs, a research and development section that has many of the hallmarks of previous idea incubators. Their most recent acquisition trend however seems to be a mix of both with Google picking up a lot of talent to fuel a potential project that they’re being incredibly tight lipped about.

Big Dog Concept ArtNow I’ll be honest, I really had no idea that Google was looking to enter in the robotics industry until just recently when it was announced that they had acquired Boston Dynamics. For the uninitiated Boston Dynamics is a robotics company that’s been behind some of the most impressive technology demonstrations in the industry, notably the Big Dog robot which displayed stability which few robots have been able to match. Most recently they started shipping out their Atlas platform to select universities for the DARPA robotics challenge program which hopes to push the envelope of what robots are capable of achieving.

Boston Dynamics is the 8th acquisition that Google has made in the robotics space in the past 6 months, signalling that they’ve got some kind of project on the boil which needs an incredible amount of robotics expertise. The acquisitions seem to line up in a few categories with the primary focus being on humanoid robots. Companies in this area include Japanese firm Schaft, who has created a robot similar to that of Atlas, and several more industrial robotics focused companies like Industrial Perception, Meka, Redwood Robotics. They also snapped up Bot and Dolly, the robotics company behind the incredible Box video, who’s technology provided some of the special effects for the recent movie Gravity. There were also 2 design firms, Autofuss and Holomni, who were also picked up in Google’s most recent spending spree.

At the head of all of this is Andy Rubin who came to Google as the lead of Android. It’s likely that he’s been working on this ever since he left the Android division at Google back in March this year although it was only recently announced that he would be heading up the robotics projects. As to what that is currently Google isn’t saying however they have said that they consider it a moonshot project, right alongside their other ideas like Project Loon, Google Glass and the Self Driving Car. Whilst it seems clear that their intention with all these acquisitions will be to create some kind of humanoid robot what kind of purpose that will serve remains to be seen, but that won’t stop me from speculating.

I think in the beginning they’ll use much of the expertise on these systems to bolster the self driving car initiative as whilst they’ve made an incredible amount of progress of late I’m sure the added expertise in computer vision systems that these companies have will prove to be invaluable. From there the direction they’ll take is less clear as whilst it’d be amazing for them to create the in home robots of the future it’s unlikely we’ll see anything of that project for at least a couple years. Heck just incorporating all these disparate companies into the Google fold is going to take the better part of a couple months and it’s unlikely they’ll produce anything of note for sometime after.

Whatever Google ends up doing with these companies we can be assured it’s going to be something revolutionary, especially now that they’ve added the incredible talent of Boston Dynamics to their pool. Hopefully this will allow them to deliver their self driving car technology sooner and then use that as a basis for delivering more robotics technology to the end users. It will be a while before this starts to pay dividends for Google however the benefits for both them and the world at large has the potential to be quite great and that should make us all incredibly excited.

 

A Distant Ancestor of the Programmable Computer.

Ask any computer science graduate about the first programmable computer and the answer you’ll likely receive would be the Difference Engine, a conceptual design by Charles Babbage. Whilst the design wasn’t entirely new (that honour goes to J. H. Müller who wrote about the idea some 36 earlier) he was the first to obtain funding to create such a device although he never managed to get it to work, despite blowing the equivalent of $350,000 in government money on trying to build it. Still modern day attempts at creating the engine with the tolerances of the time period have shown that such a device would have worked should have he created it.

But Babbage’s device wasn’t created in a vacuum, it built on the wealth of mechanical engineering knowledge from the decades that proceeded him. Whilst there was nothing quiet as elaborate as his Analytical Engine there were some marvellous pieces of automata, ones that are almost worthy of the title of programmable computer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUa7oBsSDk8

The fact that this was built over 240 years ago says a lot about the ingenuity that’s contained within it. Indeed the fact that you’re able to code your own message into The Writer, using the set of blocks at the back, is what elevates it above other machines of the time. Sure there were many other automata that were programmable in some fashion, usually by changing a drum, but this one allows configuration on a scale that they simply could not achieve. Probably the most impressive thing about it is that it still works today, something which many machines of today will not be able to claim in 240 years time.

Whilst a machine of this nature might not be able to lay claim to the title of first programmable computer you can definitely see the similarities between it and it’s more complex cousins that came decades later. If anything it’s a testament to the additive nature of technological developments, each one of them building upon the foundations of those that came before it.