Pluto and Charon

Pluto and Charon Revealed to Us at Last.

It’s been a decade in the making but today, after such a long wait, we can now see Pluto and Charon for what they are.

And they’re absolutely stunning.

Pluto and Charon

The image on the left is the high resolution image taken by the LORRI camera a few days before its closest approach (which you’ve undoubtedly seen already) with the one on the right being a recently released image of Charon. Neither of these images are the sharpest available, indeed for both Pluto and Charon we have images with up to 10 times the resolution streaming back to us right now, but they are already proving to be fruitful grounds for science. Indeed these two images have already given us insights into other celestial bodies within our solar system. Of course the most interesting thing about these pictures is what they reveal about Pluto and Charon themselves and the insights are many.

The biggest surprise is just how “young” the surfaces of both Pluto and Charon are, devoid of the impact craters that are commonplace on celestial bodies that lack an atmosphere. What this means is that both Pluto’s and Charon’s surfaces have been geologically active in the recent past, on the order of some 100 million years ago or less. There’s even a chance that their surfaces are geologically active today. If they are geologically active today it means that our current theories about the mechanism for this happening aren’t complete and there’s another way for a planet’s surface to refresh themselves.

You see current thinking is that for an icy moon or planet to be able to churn its surface over on a regular basis an outside force has to be acting on them. This is based on the current set of icy moons that orbit around our two gas giants, their giant gravitational fields bending and warping their surfaces as they orbit. However neither Charon nor Pluto has the required mass to induces stresses of that magnitude however their surfaces are still as geologically young as any of the other ice moons. So there must be another mechanism in action here, one that allows even small icy planets and moons to refresh their surfaces on a continual basis. As to what this mechanism is we are not sure but in the coming months I’m sure the scientists at NASA will have some amazing theories about how it works.

The most striking feature of Pluto is the heart which has been tentatively dubbed Tombaugh Regio for Pluto’s discoverer. It consists of 2 different lobes with the one on the left being noticeably smoother than the one on the right. It is currently being theorized that the one on the left is a giant impact crater that was then filled up with nitrogen snow (Pluto’s surface is 98% frozen nitrogen). Considering the resolution of the images we’ll have access too soon I’m sure there will be more than info to figure out the heart’s origin and any other surprising things about Pluto’s surface.

Charon on the other hand appears to be littered with giant canyons, many of them several miles tall. It’s possible that whatever is responsible for the young surface of Charon is also responsible for these giant canyons, something we’ll have to wait for the high resolution images to figure out. Also of note is the giant dark patch on Charon’s polar region which is thought to be a thin deposit of dark material with a sharp geological feature underneath it. As to what that is exactly we’re not sure but the next few months will likely reveal its secrets to us.

These two images alone are incredible, showing us worlds that were simply blurs of different coloured light for almost a century. We most certainly don’t have the full picture yet, the data that New Horizons has will take months to get back to us, but they’ve already provided valuable insight into Pluto, Charon and the solar system in which we live. I can’t wait to see what else we discover as it’s bound to shake up our understanding of the universe once again.

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Polymer Photovoltaic Cells See Efficiency Boost with Better Designs.

The solar cells you see on many roofs today are built out of silicon, the same stuff that powers your computer and smartphone. The reasons for this are many but it mostly comes down to silicon’s durability, semiconductor properties and ease at which we can mass produce them thanks to our investments in semiconductor manufacturing. However they’re not the only type of solar cell we can create, indeed there’s a different type that’s based on polymers (essentially plastic) that has the potential to be much cheaper to manufacture. However the technology is still very much in its infancy with the peak efficiency (the rate at which it can convert sunlight into electricity) being around 10%, far below even that available from commercial grade panels. New research however could change that dramatically.

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The current standard for organic polymer based solar cells utilizes two primary materials. The first is, predictably, an organic polymer that can accept photons and turn them into electronics. These polymers are then doped with a special structure of carbon called fullerene, more commonly known as buckyballs (which derive their name from their soccer ball like structure). However the structures that form with current manufacturing processes are somewhat random. This often means that when a photon produces a free electron it recombines before it can be used to generate electricity which is what leads to polymer cell’s woeful efficiency. New research however points to a way to give order to this chaos and, in the process, greatly improve the efficiency.

Researchers at the USA’s Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have developed a method to precisely control the layout of the polymers and fullerene, rather than the jumbled mess that is currently standard. They then used this method to test various different arrangements to see which one produced the highest efficiency. Interestingly the best arrangement was one that mimicked the structure we see in plants when they photosynthesize. This meant that the charge created in the polymer by a photon wasn’t recombined instantly like it usually was and indeed the polymers were able to hold charge for weeks, providing a major step up in efficiency.

Whilst this research will go a long way to solving one of the major problems with polymer based solar cells there are still other issues that will need to be addressed before they become commercially viable. Whilst a typical silicon solar cell will last 20 years or more a polymer one will only last a fraction of that time, usually only 4 years or so with current technology. For most solar cells that amount of time is when they’ve just paid back their initial investments (both in terms of energy and revenue) so until they get past this roadblock they will remain an inferior product.

Still research like this shows there’s potential for other technologies to compete in the same space as silicon, even if there are still drawbacks to be overcome. Hopefully this research will provide further insights into increasing the longevity of these panels at the same time as increasing their efficiency. Then polymer panels could potentially become the low cost, mass produced option enabling a new wave of investment to come from consumers who were previously locked out by current photovoltaic pricing.

Two Dell Alienware 13 Non-Touch notebook computers.

The Ultrabook Upgrade Conundrum.

I’ve had my ASUS Zenbook UX32V for almost three years now and, if I’m quite honest, the fact that it’s managed to last this long has surprised me. Notsomuch from a “it’s still working” perspective, more that it still seems just as capable today as it did back then. Still it has begun to show its age in some regards, like the small 28GB SSD (which for some reason doesn’t show up as a unified device) being unable to do any in-place upgrades due to the limited space. Plus I figured this far down the line there was bound to be something better, sleeker and, possibly, far cheaper and so I began the search for my ultrabooks replacement. The resulting search has shown that, whilst there’s dozens of options available, compromise on one or more aspects is the name of the game.

Two Dell Alienware 13 Non-Touch notebook computers.

Two Dell Alienware 13 Non-Touch notebook computers.

Essentially what I was looking for was a modern replacement of the UX32V which, in my mind had the following features: small, light, discrete graphics and a moderately powerful CPU. Of course I’d be looking to improve on most other aspects as much as I could such as a better screen, longer battery life (it’ll get at most a couple hours when gaming now) and a large SSD so I don’t run into the same issues that I have been. In general terms pretty much every ultrabook out there ticks most of those boxes however once I start adding in certain must-have features things start to get a little sticky.

For starters a discrete graphics card isn’t exactly standard affair for an ultrabook, even though I figured since they crammed in a pretty powerful unit into the UX32V that they’d likely be everywhere the next time I went to look. No for most ultrabooks, which seem to be defined as slim and light laptops now, the graphics card of choice is the integrated Intel chipset, one that isn’t particularly stellar for anything that’s graphically intensive. Larger ultrabooks, especially those with very high res screens, tend to come with a lower end discrete card in them but, unfortunately, they also bring with them the added bulk of their size.

Indeed it seems anything that brings with it a modicum of power, whether it be from the discrete graphics chip or say a beefier processor, also comes with an additional increase in heft. After poking around for a while I found out that many of the smaller models came with a dual core chip, something which can mean it will be CPU bound for tasks. However adding in a quad core chip usually means the laptop swells in thickness in order to accommodate the additional heat output of the larger chip, usually pushing it out of ultrabook territory.

In the end the conclusion I’ve come to is that a sacrifice needs to be made so that I can get the majority of my requirements met. Out of all the ultrabooks I looked at the Alienware 13 (full disclosure: I work for Dell, their parent company) meets most of the specifications whilst unfortunately falling short on the CPU side and also being noticeably thicker than my current Zenbook is. However those are two tradeoffs I’m more than willing to make given the fact it meets everything other requirement I have and the reviews of it seem to be good. I haven’t taken the plunge yet, I’m still wondering if there’s another option out there that I haven’t seen yet, but I’m quickly finding out that having all the choice in the world may mean you really have no choice at all.

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LHC Starts Back Up, Where to From Here?

It was 3 years ago that particle physicists working with CERN at the Large Hadron Collider announced they had verified the existence of the Higgs-Boson. It was a pivotal moment in scientific history, demonstrating that the Standard Model of particle physics fundamental basis is solid. Prior to this announcement the LHC had been shut down for a planned upgrade, one that would see the energy of the resulting collisions doubled from 3.5TeV per beam to 7TeV. This upgrade was scheduled to take approximately 2 years and would open up new avenues for particle physics research. Just last week, almost 3 years to the day after the Higgs-Boson announcement, the LHC began collisions again. The question that’s on my mind, and I’m sure many others, is just what is LHC looking for now?

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Whilst the verification of the Higgs-Boson adds a certain level of robustness to the Standard Model many researchers have theorized of physics beyond this model at the energies that the LHC is currently operating at. Of these models one that will be explored by the LHC in its current data collection run is Supersymmetry, a model which predicts that each particle which belongs to one of the two elementary classes (bosons or fermions) has a “superpartner” in the other. An example of this would be an electron, which is a fermion, would have a superpartner called a selectron which would be a boson. These particles share all the same properties with the exception of their spin and so should be easy to detect, theoretically. However no such particles have been detected, even in the same run where the Higgs-Boson was. The new, higher energy level of the LHC has the potential to create some of these particles and could provide evidence to support supersymmetry as a model.

Further to the supersymmetry model is every new particle physicist’s favourite theory: String Theory. Now I’ll have to be honest here I’m not exactly what you’d call String Theory’s biggest fan since, whilst it makes some amazing predictions, it has yet to be supported by any experimental evidence. At its core String Theory theorizes that all point like particles are made up of one-dimensional strings, often requiring the use of multi-dimensional physics (10 or 26 dimensions depending on which model you look at) in order to make them work. However since they’re almost purely mathematical in nature there has yet to be any links made between the model and the real world, precluding it from being tested. Whilst the LHC might provide insight into this I’m not exactly holding my breath but I’ll spin on a dime if they prove me wrong.

Lastly, and probably most excitingly for me, is the prospect of discovering the elusive dark matter particle. Due to its nature, I.E. only interacting with ordinary matter through gravity, we’re unlikely to be able to detect dark matter particles in the LHC directly. Instead, should the LHC generate a dark matter particle, we’ll be able to infer its existence by the  energy it takes away from the collision. No such discrepancy was noted at the last run’s energy levels so it will be interesting to see if a doubling of the collision energy leads to the generation of a dark matter particle.

Suffice to say the LHC has a long life ahead of it with plenty of envelope pushing science to be done. This current upgrade is planned to last them for quite some time with the next one not scheduled to take place until 2022, more than enough time to generate mountains of data to either support or refute our current models for particle physics.

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Batman: Arkham Knight: The Day the Dark Knight Fell.

Even though I’ve been reviewing games for fun for the better part of 6 years now there are few series that I’ve been able to catalogue my experiences of completely. Many of the big AAA games have been going on since long before I started blogging and there are many new IPs since then that have failed to see further instalments. However one of the stand out series I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing has been the Batman: Arkham games which have set the standard to which many others are compared. The last title in this series, Arkham Knight, sees a return of Rocksteady Studios as the developer and with them the hopes that this game will bring a return to form for the IP. Indeed, at least for this review, that’s very much the case however you’d have to be living under a rock to not know about the turmoil that this title endure during its first weeks on the shelves.

Batman Arkham Knight Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Although his nemesis might be gone Batman has continued his work in Gotham City, becoming an ally of the GCPD rather than its adversary. In the year since the events of Arkham City Gotham has become a place of peace with crime rates tumbling and the populace feeling safe in their home town. However Batman’s continued spoiling of everyone’s nefarious plans has not gone unnoticed and they have all banded together with the one singular goal: to kill the batman. At the helm is Scarecrow who threatens the entire city and causes a mass evacuation, leaving the streets to be filled with criminals, looters and a sense of fear. It is up to you now, dear Batman, to rid Gotham of this disease once again but the journey may leave you losing much more than you’d ever had hoped to.

Arkham Knight is an absolutely stunning game with the graphics easily surpassing any of the previous titles in the series. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s running on the Unreal 3 engine which, as of writing, was released almost 11 years ago. The trademark Gothic style is back once again with everything in Gotham having this certain retro-futuristic chic about it. Climbing to the top of any building is rewarded with a gorgeous landscape that’s just brimming with detail which only gets better upon closer inspection. There are some pretty great innovations in here too, like how rain falls on surfaces and slicks down or how the turbulent waters of Gotham’s harbours churn and crash against the walls. Going back and looking at my previous screenshots from other Batman titles Arkham Knight really is a generation ahead of its predecessors, an incredible feat considering the last title was released less than 2 years ago.

Batman Arkham Knight Review Screenshot Wallpaper Gotham is Gorgeous

For those who’ve played any of the previous Arkham titles the core game play will be familiar, taking much the same approach as Arkham City did. You’re plopped down into a vast open world with numerous objectives, all of which are centred on one of the characters from the Batman franchise. You’re free to pick and choose from any of the objectives all of which will grant you upgrade points which you can spend to upgrade Batman’s skills, gadgets and combat moves. You will also be treated to the wonder that is the Batmobile, a nimble tank that’s got a staggering array of weaponry at its disposal, which you’ll need to make good use of if you’re to get anywhere in this game. The traditional beat ’em up combat remains intact with only a few new options added into the mix to differentiate it from its predecessors. In terms of scale it’s the biggest Batman game ever released, one that will keep even the most dedicated achievement hunter busy for a very long time.

The melee combat remains largely the same as it did in previous Arkham games with the addition of a few new gadgets and enemy types. If I’m honest it actually feels slightly weaker than previous titles as the new gadgets fail to make up for the lack of new combos or takedowns. Pulling off massive combos doesn’t seem to have the same spectacular pay off that it used which was a big driver, at least for me, to get better at landing them. There’s the inclusion of the fear takedown, which basically works as an opener to take out the most dangerous enemies first, which is cool but does take away a fair chunk of the skill required to take down massive groups of varied enemies. This, coupled with the lack of any big melee boss fights, means that whilst the essence of the combat is still there it just doesn’t have the same attraction it once did.

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This is made up for entirely by the inclusion of the Batmobile, the single most fun thing that Rocksteady included in Arkham Knight. From the second you first get your hands on it the Batmobile is a cacophony of destruction, metallic car noises and oodles of weaponry that border on being ludicrously excessive. Driving around Gotham is just plain fun as you smash and crash your way through pretty much everything that gets in your way. The vehicle combat makes up for the less than stellar melee combat although after the 30th drone battle over a mine it does start to lose its lustre somewhat. However the integration of the Batmobile into almost every aspect of the game is done so well you start to wonder how they managed to build a Batman game without it. I’m not sure how canon this form of the Batmobile is however as it’s pretty much a killing machine on wheels, something which isn’t strictly in alignment with the Batman ethos. Not that that really matters, though.

The stealth sections are back again this time with even more ways for the enemies to locate you and ruin your Not Seen and Not Shot bonuses. The mechanics will be instantly familiar, finding vantage points and sneaking through grates, however for each new hazard you’re given a new way to deal with it. Much like the melee combat though it feels a little weaker than previous games, possibly because it is so similar or maybe because other elements (like the Batmobile) are just that much better. Suffice to say most of my stealth sections usually ended in me unceremoniously taking out everyone after they spotted me once and more than a few angered restarts because of that.

Batman Arkham Knight Review Screenshot Wallpaper Aquaducts

Due to the outrage over how unplayable Arkham Knight was I decided to hold off until the first patch was released and I’m glad I did. I experienced no performance issues at all with Arkham Knight being buttery smooth the entire time. It was not, however, a completely glitch free experience as there were numerous times where things didn’t work as expected. Chasing Firefly in the Batmobile would often result in it not being able to drive forward for some reason, requiring me to jump out and back in again (sometimes allowing him to escape). On more than one occasion the indicators that I should counter something during a cutscene simply didn’t pop up, leading to a few frustrating moments where I simply could not figure out how to get to the next section. However none of these issues are what I’d consider game breaking as I would not have invested so much time into Arkham Knight if it was as broken as everyone was making it out to be. As of writing Arkham Knight is still not for sale on Steam, something which I honestly don’t agree with after playing through it this past week.

The story serves as the conclusion to the Arkham series and, I’m glad to say, rounds out the various stories of all the main characters quite well. For those of us who’ve stuck with the Arkham series since Asylum it’s been quite a ride and to have it end so well, when so many games have done endings like this poorly, is a most welcome change. This does not mean that the Batman IP has run its course yet, indeed the upcoming Batgirl DLC is a testament to this, however the story ark of Batman and Joker is done and dusted. I’ll be interested to see if Rocksteady or another development studio will look to replicate the success of this series with other characters within the same franchise as, whilst I’m glad this chapter has come to a close, I’d very much like to explore more of this world from a different perspective.

Batman Arkham Knight Review Screenshot Wallpaper Fear the Dark Knight

Batman: Arkham Knight is a fitting finale to this venerable series, capturing everything that made the series great whilst amping it up to the next level with a solid story and, of course, the Batmobile. The combat and stealth retain the essence of what made the previous games great although fail to innovate much beyond that. The Batmobile makes up for this in spades, delivering gloriously dumb action as you tear through the streets of Gotham. The story finishes the major Batman and Joker arc beautifully, leaving you with a sense of closure whilst also wanting to see more of this world that Rocksteady has built up over the past 5 years. Even if you haven’t been following the series since day dot you won’t be disappointed in the experience that Batman: Arkham Knight brings as it is truly a stellar game, even in its own right.

Rating: 9.25/10

Batman: Arkham Knight is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $99.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 16 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

Euler’s Disk: Surprising Complexity.

As long time readers will know I’m a fan of simple experiments or demonstrations that have some underpinning scientific phenomenon. It was things like these that first spurred my interest in science, especially since places like Questacon (a must visit place if you ever find yourself in Canberra) were filled to the brim with experiments like them. Thus whenever I find one I feel compelled to share it, not so much for myself but in the hopes that when someone sees it their curiosity will be piqued and they’ll pass that same passion onto others. In that vein I give you Euler’s Disk, one of the most fascinating science based toys I’ve come across:

The disk gets its name from Leonhard Euler, an eighteenth century physicist and mathematician who was behind such revelations as infinitesimal calculus and many other fundamental things. He studied the disk as part of his other research however it wasn’t until recently that they found themselves back in the limelight again. Back in 2000 Cambridge researcher Keith Moffatt demonstrated that air resistance played only a small part in the rate in which the disk slowed down with the vast majority coming from the rolling resistance between the surface and the disk’s edge.

What interest me about it most is the gradual speed up of the revolutions coupled with the increasingly bizarre noise that accompanies it. Then, right at the end when it appears to be spinning at its fastest the disk stops, as if some outside force robbed it of all its momentum instantly. This demonstrates how momentum is conserved as the rate of precession of the disk increases as it spins downward. Explaining the phenomenon though is much harder than just watching it however, which is why it’s such a great scientific toy.

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Microsoft Builds Four Bridges to Universal Apps.

Windows 8 was supposed bring with it the platform by which developers could produce applications that would have consistent experiences across platforms. This came in the form of Metro (and now Modern) apps which would be powered by the WinRT framework, something which had all the right technological bells and whistles to make such a thing possible. However with the much maligned desktop experience, most of which was focused specifically at the Metro apps, the platform unification dream died a quick death. Microsoft hasn’t left that dream behind though and their latest attempt to revive it comes to us in the form of Universal Applications. This time around however they’re taking a slightly different approach: letting the developers build what they want and giving them the option of porting it directly across to the Windows platform.

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Under the hood the architecture of Universal Apps is similar to that of their Metro predecessors, providing a core common set of functionality across platforms, however the difference comes in the form of developers being able to create their own platform specific code on top of the core binary. This alleviates the main issue which most people had with Metro apps of the past (I.E. they felt out of place pretty much everywhere) and allows developers to create their own UX for each platform they want to target. This coupled with the new “4 bridges” strategy, which defines a workflow for each major platform to come into the Universal App fold, means that Microsoft has a very compelling case for developers to spend time on bringing their code across.

As I talked about previously the two major smartphone platforms get their own bridge: Project Islandwood (iOS) and Project Astoria (Android). Since the first announcement it doesn’t seem that much has changed with this particular strategy however one key detail I didn’t know at the time was that you’d be able to directly import your Xcode project into Visual Studio, greatly reducing the effort required to get going. What kind of support they’ll have for Android applications, like whether or not they’ll let you import Eclipse projects, still remains to be seen unfortunately. They’ve also announced the bridge for web applications (Project Westminster) although that’s looking more and more like a modern version of ActiveX rather than something that web developers will be actually interested in pursuing.

The latest bridge to be announced is Project Centennial, a framework that will allow developers to port current Win32 based applications to the Universal platform. Whilst this likely won’t be the end game to solving everyone’s woes with migrating poorly coded applications onto a more modern OS (App-V and other app virtualization technologies are the only real treatments for that) it does provide an avenue for potentially aging code bases to be revamped for a new platform without a herculean amount of effort. Of course this means that you’ll need both the original codebase and a willingness to rework it, both things which seem to be rare for old corporate applications that can’t seem to die gracefully. Still another option is always welcome, especially if it drives further adoption of the Universal Platform.

Universal apps seem to have all the right makings for a revolutionary platform however I can’t help but take a reserved position after what happened with WinRT and Modern Apps. Sure, Windows 10 is likely shaping up to be the Windows 7 to the ills of Windows 8, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the technological innovations that come along with it will be welcomed with open arms. At least now the focus is off building a tablet/mobile like experience and attempting to shoehorn it in everywhere, something which I believe is behind much of the angst with Windows 8. It’ll likely be another year before we’ll know one way or the other and I’m very keen to see how this pans out.

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Would You Pay $10,000 to Never Pay an Electricity Bill Again?

Make no mistake; renewables are the future of energy generation. Fossil fuels have helped spur centuries of human innovation that would have otherwise been impossible but they are a finite resource, one that’s taking an incredible toll on our planet. Connecting renewable sources to the current energy distribution grid only solves part of the problem as many renewables simply don’t generate power at all times of the day. However thanks to some recent product innovations this problem can be wholly alleviated and, most interestingly, at a cost that I’m sure many would be able to stomach should they never have to pay a power bill again.

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Thanks to the various solar incentive schemes that have run both here in Australia and other countries around the world the cost of solar photovoltaic panels has dropped considerably over the past decade. Where you used to be paying on the order of tens of dollars per kilowatt today you can easily source panels for under $1 per kilowatt with the installation cost not being much more than that. Thus what used to cost tens of thousands of dollars can now be had for a much more reasonable cost, something which I’m sure many would include in a new build without breaking a sweat.

The secret sauce to this however comes to us via Tesla.

Back in the early days of many renewable energy incentive programs (and for some lucky countries where this continues) the feed in tariffs were extremely generous, usually multiple times the price of a kilowatt consumed off a grid. This meant that most arrays would completely negate the energy usage of a house, even with only a short period of energy duration. However most of these programs have been phased out or reduced significantly and, for Australia at least, it is now preferable to use energy generated rather than to offset your grid consumption. However the majority of people with solar arrays aren’t using energy during peak times, significantly reducing their ROI. The Tesla Powerwall however shifts that dynamic drastically, allowing them to use their generated power when they most need it.

Your average Australian household uses around 16KW/h worth of electricity every day something which a 4KW photovoltaic system would be able to cover. To ensure that you had that amount of energy on tap at any given moment you’d probably want to invest in both a 10KW and 7KW Powerwall which could both be fully charged during an average day. The cost of such a system, after government rebates, would likely end up in the $10,000 region. Whilst such a system would likely still require a grid connection in order to smooth out the power requirements a little bit (and to sell off any additional energy generated during good days) the monthly power bill would all but disappear. Just going off my current usage the payback time for such a system is just on 6 years, much shorter than the lives of both the panels and the accompanying batteries.

I don’t know about you but that outlay seems like a no-brainer, especially for any newly built house. The cost of such a system is only going to go down with time as more consumers and companies increase their demand for panels and, hopefully, products like the Tesla Powerwall. Going off grid like this used to be in the realms of fantasy and conspiracy theorists but now the technology has been consumerised to the point where it will be soon available to anyone who wants it. If I was running a power company I’d be extremely worried as their industry is about to be heavily disrupted.

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New Horizons Enters Safe Mode, Causes Heart Attacks.

There are numerous risks that spacecraft face when traversing the deep black of space. Since we’ve sent many probes to many locations most of these risks are well known and thus we’ve built systems to accommodate them. Most craft carry with them fully redundant main systems, ensuring that if the main one fails that the backup can carry on the task that the probe was designed to do. The systems themselves are also built to withstand the torturous conditions that space throws at them, ensuring that even a single piece of hardware has a pretty good chance of surviving its journey. However sometimes even all that engineering can’t account for what happens out there and yesterday that happened to New Horizons.

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New Horizons is a mission led by NASA which will be the first robotic probe to make a close approach to Pluto. Its primary mission is to capture the most detailed view of Pluto yet, generating vast amounts of data about our most diminutive dwarf planet. Unlike many similar missions though New Horizons won’t be entering Pluto’s orbit, instead it will capture as much data as it can as it whips by Pluto at a blistering 17 km/s. Then it will set its sights on one of the numerous Kuiper Belt objects where it will do the same. This mission has been a long time in the making launching in early 2006 and is scheduled to “arrive” at pluto in the next 10 days.

However, just yesterday, the craft entered safe mode.

What caused this to happen is not yet known however one good piece of news is that the craft is still contactable and operating within expected parameters for an event of this nature. Essentially the primary computer sensed a fault and, as it is programmed to do in this situation, switched over to the backup system and put the probe into safe mode. Whilst NASA engineers have received some information as to what the fault might be they have opted to do further diagnostics before switching the probe back onto its primary systems. This means that science activities that were scheduled for the next few days will likely be delayed whilst these troubleshooting process occur. Thankfully there were only a few images scheduled to be taken and there should be ample time to get the probe running before its closest approach to Pluto.

The potential causes behind an event of this nature are numerous but since the probe is acting as expected in such a situation it is most likely recoverable. My gut feeling is that it might have been a cosmic ray flipping a bit, something which the processors that probes like New Horizons are designed to detect. As we get more data trickled back down (it takes 9 hours for signals to reach New Horizons) we’ll know for sure what caused the problem and what the time frame will be to recover.

Events like this aren’t uncommon, nor are they unexpected, but having one this close to the mission’s ultimate goal, especially after the long wait to get there, is sure to be causing some heartache for the engineers at NASA. New Horizons will only have a very limited opportunity to do the high resolution mapping that it was built to do and events like these just up the pressure on everyone to make sure that the craft delivers as expected. I have every confidence that the team at NASA will get everything in order in no time at all however I’m sure there’s going to be some late nights for them in the next few days.

Godspeed, New Horizons.

Homesick Review Screenshot Wallpaper A Spot of Colour

Homesick: Longing For a World Long Since Past.

With game creation now within the reach of anyone who has the time to dedicate to it the differentiators usually stem from the strengths of their creators. Many come from a writing background, pouring themselves into the creation of a brilliant narrative that flows through the game. Others develop wild and intriguing mechanics, some that allow the players to develop their own story within a world they create. Few however find their strength in the art and graphical fidelity as out of all the things that make a game it is by far the most costly and time consuming to create. Homesick is one of those rare few indie games that brings with it astonishing visual quality that even rivals recent AAA titles.

Homesick Review Screenshot Wallpaper A Spot of Colour

You wake to a world that’s cold and unfamiliar. The world is barren, bereft of nearly all life and seemingly cold despite the sun’s unrelenting rays punching down through every crack and crevice. As you explore though you see remnants of the world that once was, little reminders that show people were here…once. However you struggle to make sense of the world, the books and letters are all written in code and try as you might there’s little sense to be made of them. You know one thing though, you must get out. You must find your way into the light.

I would forgive people for thinking that Homesick was simply a demo project for a new engine as it’s honestly by far the best looking indie game I’ve ever seen. The attention to details is astounding from things like the rooms with wallpaper peeling off to the fully working (but out of tune) piano. Looking at Barrett Meeker’s (the creative director) history in animation and effects it’s not hard to see why as he’s worked on such titles like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. If I hadn’t taken these screenshots myself I would’ve written them off as carefully crafted renders but the game really does look this good when you’re playing it. Of course there were some sacrifices made for this beauty, namely the extremely simplistic animations and accompanying sound effects, but it’s hard to deny that the graphics are anything but amazing.

Homesick Review Screenshot Wallpaper A Most Unusual Place to Rest

Homesick is your (now) bog standard walking simulator where you’ll move forward at a relatively slow pace that encourages you to take in your surroundings, look at everything and essentially be a tourist in the game’s world. Each room has a set of puzzles that you’ll need to figure out in order to progress and, interestingly, they all share the same end goal. However that doesn’t detract from the challenge at all as figuring out how to accomplish said goal can sometimes involve a myriad of steps, not all of which will be obvious at first glance. Once you finish a section it’s off to the dream world which will allow you to progress to the next section.

The Kickstarter for Homesick described the puzzles as “hard, yet fair and sensible” and for the most part that rings true. The game provides absolutely not tutorial to speak of so for the first 10 minutes or so you’re on your own to figure out how everything fits together in this world. Thankfully whilst all the rooms are interconnected they’re not dependent on each other, meaning that each new puzzle is self contained and does not require any backtracking. There is a couple times where you can miss an important clue which will get you stuck (hint: make sure you look at all the filing cabinets carefully) but other than that you should be able to work things out eventually. My favourite by far was the blocks puzzle but I won’t say much more lest I spoil the fun.

Homesick Review Screenshot Wallpaper Home Sweet Home

Whilst the game is extremely pretty it does suffer from a few areas that could’ve used a little bit more polish. For some reason there are certain places where I’d get a lot of slowdown, usually when turning past a corner in some of the first rooms. There’s a couple other places where this happens too which leads me to believe there’s some unoptimized geometry hiding somewhere. There’s also a couple glitches that require a game restart to overcome, like an issue (which was said to be fixed but still happened for me) where holding a certain item would overwrite your entire inventory. Thankfully I didn’t lose too much progress but it was still a frustrating experience.

The story of Homesick is what you make of it as for the vast majority of the game you really have no clue about anything. Once you unlock the ability to decipher the riddles you can go back through the entire game and read everything which does give you a good sense of the world before your time in it. With games like these, ones where much of the story is locked behind globs of text hidden everywhere, I find it hard to get emotionally invested in the story and Homesick was no exception. I do admit that when I started to slowly unravel the code of the world I was a little excited but that wasn’t enough to drive me to slowly walk back through everything just so I could read some things.

Homesick Review Screenshot Wallpaper Am I Free

Homesick is a stunner of a game with graphics that will remain unchallenged by the indie scene for a long time. Once you dig beneath the surface though what remains is your typical walking simulator game, with all the requisite puzzles and hidden pieces of text to flesh out the world. Whilst it’s worth playing for the graphics alone I really can’t say that there was much more that drew me in, mostly due to my resistance to reading large walls of text after I’ve slowly trotted my way through everything. Still I’m sure fans of this genre will find a lot to love and would not hesitate to recommend it to all the indie fans out there.

Rating: 7/10

Homesick is available on PC right now $14.99. Total play time was approximately 2 hours.