Ori and the Blind Forest Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Ori and the Blind Forest: The Night I Set The Sky on Fire.

Puzzle-platformers are the corridor shooter of the indie scene; they are the genre that nearly everyone attempts in their quest to become the next big thing. This means that, for the most part, original ideas are few and far between and often those that are truly unique fall flat on their executions in one way or another. It’s rare that any of these style of games executes all elements well, especially for indie developers who usually have to make sacrifices in one element to support another. Ori and the Blind Forest however makes no such trade offs with every aspect of the game setting a new standard for what the tried and true puzzle-platformer genre can deliver.

Ori and the Blind Forest Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Ori is the child of the Spirit Tree, the great entity that provides life to the forest of Nibel. However one day Ori was ripped from the safe arms of the Spirit Tree during a storm and was lost deep in the forest. Thankfully though Naru, a creature of the forest, found Ori and raised it as her own, teaching her to gather apples and build bridges. Then one night the Spirit Tree set the skies on fire, hoping to find its long lost child and have them return home. Those cries went unanswered and the forest began to wither, the elements that supported it no longer being nourished by the spirit tree. Ori now wanders the forest alone, seeking out the Spirit Tree in the hopes of restoring the forest.

Ori and the Blind Forest is exceptionally beautiful with an amazing combination of 2D and 3D artwork that seamlessly blends together. The lavish use of glow and lighting effects elevates what would otherwise be a flat environment to a whole new level, giving Ori this kind of dream-like aesthetic that’s simply a joy to behold. Combine this with the absolutely amazing soundtrack and sound design and you have a game that’s, put simply, one of the best looking and sounding games I’ve played in a very long time. My only regret is that I didn’t play it on my new gaming PC (I was on holiday with the family and had my now aging ultrabook with me) as this beauty comes at a cost, although it was still readily playable.

Ori and the Blind Forest Review Screenshot Wallpaper First Steps

At a gameplay level Ori and the Blind Forest is a puzzle-platformer with a host of additional mechanics thrown in that help differentiate it from this now crowded genre. Sure you’ll still be jumping from platform to platform a lot, trying to figure out how to use each of the abilities you have in order to get the next section, however interspersed with that are combat sections, resource decisions and a myriad of areas to explore that will reward you in many ways. This is then all backed by a three tree talent systems that’s broken down into combat, utility and new abilities that allow you to customize Ori to fit your preferred playstyle. All of these elements are blended seamlessly together so you won’t be slammed with a wall of possibilities the second you start the game. Suffice to say it’s a comprehensive list of features, something you don’t often see in indie titles.

The platforming is done exceptionally well, something I’m loathed to admit given how many times I failed on various platforming sections throughout the game. It starts off being very forgiving, with jumps being short and the punishment light, however it slowly escalates to the point where each jump needs to be almost perfectly executed in order to make them and failure will result in you going back to your last checkpoint (which you have to create yourself). For the most part everything works as advertised however there’s a few, let’s call them quirks, of how things work which can catch you out if you forget them. The one notable example I can think of is if you glide, then climb, then jump again (this all requires you holding the shift key down) you won’t then automatically glide again, something which will often result in your untimely demise.

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The puzzles follow the platforming pretty closely, starting off straightforward and routine in order to introduce the mechanic du’jour and slowly ramping up the difficulty as you progress through a section. You likely won’t find yourself stuck on any one of them for too long however the time it takes you to actually solve them may vary a bit depending on how good your twitch reflexes are. Still apart from one particular section I didn’t feel like the puzzles were overly difficult or unduly punishing to the player and should you invest most of your points in one of the particular talent trees I’m sure the vast majority of the puzzles would’ve been a lot easier.

The talent tree and character progression system is also well designed giving you the choice of three different branches to choose from each of which has a specific set of benefits associated with it. It’s gated slightly in terms of further upgrades often requiring a campaign unlock to progress past them however this is more to encourage you to spend your points in the various branches rather than hoarding them for when you get that particular unlock. Indeed the levels come often enough that even after you unlock the next stage you won’t be waiting long to get that ability you’ve been lusting after and, should really want to powerlevel your abilities, there’s hidden ability point orbs all over the map to help you get across the line.

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It’s not often that I can say that a game has a near-flawless execution as it’s quite hard to avoid some form of niggling issue or strange quirk but Ori and the Blind Forest has managed to attain that level of polish over its four year development cycle. Indeed apart from the one platforming quirk I mentioned earlier there’s really no other technical fault to speak of however there is one particular section of the game (the final “boss” section) which I take issue with. The instant-death punishment that sends you all the way back to the start of the section, coupled with an extremely short time to gauge what the next section requires you to do, means that you’ll likely end up dying repeatedly to things that you could simply have no way knowing were coming. It is perhaps the only black mark I will count against this otherwise exceptional game but it’s sections like that which have made me stop playing games completely in the past.

Bringing this all together is the absolutely brilliant story which, whilst simplistic, is delivered in such a beautiful way that it instantly draws you in and refuses to let go until the ultimate conclusion. I can’t remember a time when a game made me care about the main characters so quickly and then made me empathize even further with characters I either hated or found annoying. The finale is incredibly satisfying to, closing the story out and avoiding the temptation of leaving it open ended for a potential sequel. The fact that I’ve teared up several times recalling the various plot points as I write this review is a testament to the effect it had on me as it really is quite a beautiful story.

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Ori and the Blind Forest is the game to which all puzzle-platformers will now be compared as it executes near-flawlessly in every aspect. The graphics and artwork are simply stunning with the dreamlike aesthetic providing an amazing backdrop for the beautiful soundtrack and foley work. The core game mechanics are rock solid, requiring you to push your own limits if you want to succeed and progress to the next stage. These characteristics would make it a great game in its own right but the story that binds everything together is what elevates this from being a great game technically to an exemplary title that will be used as the reference point from here on out. I could gush more but honestly you’ll be better served to stop reading now and grabbing yourself a copy of this absolutely brilliant game.

Rating: 9.75/10

Ori and the Blind Forest is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with approximately 8 hours of total playtime.

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Mars Hides Glaciers in Plain Sight.

We’ve known for a long time now that Mars once contained vast reservoirs of water and that even in its apparently dry state there was indications of water still hiding in various places. The search for water on Mars is a twofold with the two main objectives being finding environments suitable to life and secondly for potential use by future manned missions. Whilst we’ve succeed in confirming that yes, water once covered Mars and it still exists there today, we’re still finding out just how extensive the reservoirs are. As it turns out Mars may be flush with more water than we first expected and it’s been right under our noses this entire time.

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The surface of Mars is a barren wasteland, covered in the same monotonous coloring that gives it that signature red tinge. The poles are the exception to this, harboring large water ice caps that get blanketed with a layer of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) in the winter. The reason for this is that due to the low pressure of Mars’ atmosphere exposed water anywhere else on the planet simply subliminates, turning straight from ice to water vapor before being swept away by Mars’ turbulent winds. However new research from the University of Copenhagen has revealed that water ice has managed to survive in other places around Mars and has done so in great quantities.

As it turns out many of the geological features we’ve observed on Mars that we’ve assumed to simply be mountains or hills are in fact dust covered glaciers which pepper the martian surface near the poles. This thick layer of dust has protected them from Mars’ atmosphere, preventing the ice from sublimation away. This dust also makes them appear like any other geological feature that you’d find on Mars’ surface instead of the towering walls of ice that we’re used to seeing here on Earth. The researchers were able to determine that these were water ice glaciers by using radar measurements from the numerous spacecraft we have orbiting the red planet and how they’re flowing under their protective dust blankets.

The amount of ice that these glaciers contain is quite staggering, enough that if it was spread out over the surface of Mars it would blanket it in a layer 1.1m thick. Such giant reservoirs provide huge opportunities for both exploration and scientific purposes and potentially paves a way for a sustainable human settlement. Whilst liquid water is always the most viable place to look for life we’ve found dozens of examples of microbial life living in some pretty harsh conditions and these glaciers might be a great place to start looking. That and water is one of the main components in several types of rocket fuel, something we’ll need if we want to do multiple return missions to Mars.

It’s incredible to note that our view of Mars has changed so drastically over the past couple decades, going from a barren wasteland that could never have housed life to a viable candidate, flush with water reserves everywhere. This latest discovery just goes to show that we can’t simply rely on visual data alone as even a well studied planet like Mars can still hide things from us and can do it in plain sight. The next step is to dig beneath Mars’ thick dust blanket to peer into these glaciers and, potentially, find something wriggling down there.

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The New Battery Tech Conundrum.

The batteries in our portable devices never seem to be big enough, in fact in some cases they seem to be getting worse. Gone are the days when forgetting to charge your phone for days at a time wasn’t an issue and you’ll be lucky to get a full day’s worth of use out of your laptop before it starts screaming to be plugged back into the wall. The cold hard fact of the matter is that storing electrical energy in a portable fashion is hard as energy density is often a function of surface area, meaning those lovely slim smartphones you love are at odds with increasing their battery life. Of course there are always improvements to be made however many breakthroughs in one aspect or another usually come at the cost of something else.

saupload_775px_supercapacitors_chart.svgTake for instance the latest announcement to come out of Stanford University which shows a battery that can be fully charged in under a minute and, if its creators are to be believed, replace the current battery tech that powers all our modern devices. Their battery is based on a technology called aluminium ion which works in a very similar way to the current lithium ion technology that’s behind most rechargeable devices. It’s hard to deny the list of advantages that their battery tech has: cheaper components, safer operation and, of course the fast charging times, however those advantages start to look a lot less appealing when you see the two disadvantages that they currently have to work past.

The voltage and energy density.

As the battery tech stands now the usable voltage the battery is able to put out is around 2 volts which is about half the voltage that most devices currently use. Sure you could get around this by using various tricks (DC step up converter, batteries in series, etc.) however these all reduce the efficiency of your battery and add complexity to the device you put them in. Thus if these kinds of batteries are going to be used as drop in replacements for the current lithium ion tech they’re going to have to work out how to up the voltage significantly without impacting heavily on the other aspects that make it desirable.

The latter problem is the more difficult one and is something that all new battery technology struggles with. With any battery tech you’re usually balancing quite a few factors in order to make the best tradeoffs for your particular use case however one of the most typical is between charge times and the amount of power you can store. In general the quicker your battery can charge the less dense it is energywise, meaning that fast charge time comes at the cost of usable life once it’s off the charger. Indeed this is exactly the issue that the new aluminium ion battery is struggling with as its current power density does not match that of lithium ion.

Now this isn’t to say that the idea is worthless, more that when you hear about these amazing kinds of batteries or supercapacitors (different kind of technology, but they’re an energy storage medium all the same) that have some kind of revolutionary property your first reaction should be to ask what the trade offs were. There’s a reason why sealed lead acid, nickel metal hydride and other seemingly ancient battery technologies are still used the world over; they’re perfect at doing the job they’ve found themselves in. Whilst charging your phone in a minute might be a great thing on paper if that came with a battery life that was a mere 20% of its long charging competitors I’m sure most people would choose the latter. Hopefully the researchers can overcome their current drawbacks to make something truly revolutionary but I’ll stay skeptical until proven otherwise.

 

Learning Stuff

Slow Learner? You Might Be Thinking Too Hard.

Back in my school days I thought that skill was an innate thing, a quality that you were born with that was basically immutable. Thus things like study and practice always confused me as I felt that I’d either get something or I wouldn’t which is probably why my academic performance back then was so varied. Today however I don’t believe anyone is below mastering a skill, all that is required is that you put the required amount of time and (properly focused) practice in and you’ll eventually make your way there. Innate ability still counts for something though as there are things you’re likely to find much easier than others and some people are even just better in general at learning new skills. Funnily enough that latter group of people likely has an attribute that you wouldn’t first associate with that skill: lower overall brain activity.

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Research out of the University of California – Santa Barbara has shown that people who are most adept at learning new tasks actually show a lower overall brain activity level than their slow learning counterparts. The study used a fMRI machine to study the subject’s brains whilst they were learning a new task over the course of several weeks and instead of looking at a specific region of the brain the researchers focused on “community structures”. These are essentially groups of nodes within the brain that are densely interconnected with each other and are likely in heavy communication. Over the course of the study the researchers could identify which of these community structures remained in communication and those that didn’t whilst measuring the subject’s mastery of the new skill they were learning.

What the researchers found is that people who were more adept at mastering the skill showed a rapid decrease in the overall brain activity used whilst completing the task. For the slower learners many of the regions, namely things like the visual and motor cortexs, remained far more active for a longer period, showing that they were more actively engaged in the learning process. As we learn skills much of the process of actually doing that skill gets offloaded, becoming an automatic part of what we do rather than being a conscious effort. So for the slow learners these parts of the brain remained active for far longer which could, in theory, mean that they were getting in the way of making the process automatic.

For me personally I can definitely attest to this being the case, especially with something like learning a second language. Anyone who’s learnt a different language will tell you that you go through a stage of translating things into your native language in your head first before re-translating them back into the target language, something that you simply can’t do if you want to be fluent. Eventually you end up developing your “brain” in that language which doesn’t require you to do that interim translation and everything becomes far more automatic. How long it takes you to get to that stage though varies wildly, although the distance from your native language (in terms of grammatical structure, syntax and script) is usually the primary factor.

It will be interesting to see if this research leads to some developmental techniques that allow us to essentially quieten down parts of our brain in order to aid the learning process. Right now all we know is that some people’s brains begin the switch off period quicker than others and whatever is causing that is the key to accelerating learning. Whether or not that can be triggered by mental exercises or drugs is something we probably won’t know for a while but it’s definitely an area of exciting research possibilities.

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Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number: Good Times Never Last.

Ever since we (sort of) won the battle for a R18+ rating for games us adult gamers have been hoping that the games, which are clearly not for children, would make their way to us under that banner. However we’ve quickly run up against the classification definition several times already with many titles receiving the dreaded NC rating, preventing them from being sold within our borders. Whilst there’s healthy debate to be had on a case by case basis any gamer will tell you that they were expecting the NC rating to never be seen again and all titles would be available to us. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is the latest victim to get the dreaded NC rating although I was able to snag a copy anyway, even though the developer had told us Australians to just pirate it.

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Hotline Miami 2 follows several different story lines, each of which crisscrosses through one another at various points. You start off as a member of the masked vigilante group who spend their nights finding scumbags and other lowlifes to make examples of. Then you’ll be whirled back to Vietnam, thrown in deep behind enemy lines and left to die, unless you can gun your way out of there. You’ll even spend time as the son of a gang lord, looking to re-establish his father’s reputation and drive those filthy Colombians out of your territory. Holding this all together is an unnamed author trying to piece it all together, searching for the single thread that connects all these events. There is only one thing they share however: the brutality of the violence committed.

This much anticipated sequel retains the original’s Grand Theft Auto style although with a lot more fidelity than its predecessors had. Hotline Miami felt like it was made alongside the game it imitated however Hotline Miami 2 feels more like the modern pixelart titles we’ve come to love, embracing the styling but putting a layer of modern polish on it. This can be most readily seen in the intermission sections, where there’s obviously been a lot more care taken to developing the rolling backgrounds and effects that are layered on top. This also comes hand in hand with an amazing soundtrack, which includes many of my favourite synthwave/retro pop bands like Mitch Murder, that goes along perfectly with the bloody action on screen.

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In terms of core game play not much has changed in the sequel retaining the top down, beat ’em up style that made the original so intriguing. Gone is the linear progression system where you’d unlock new masks that you can use with any mission, instead now you unlock masks for certain “fans” and weapons for others. The variety now comes from the different characters you’ll be playing which either have a choice of 3 different things or simply have some abilities natively. Whilst I’m sure this was done to encourage players to branch out a little bit (I have to admit to stick to “lethal doors” for pretty much all of the original game) it does feel a whole bunch more restrictive, especially when some of the characters are a lot more fun to play than others.

The combat is a mix of brutal, twitch based game play that requires you to think and act fast and more methodical, pragmatic approaches that require you to sit back and learn the level before charging in head first. The driving music and incredibly satisfying noises you get when hoeing through a whole level of enemies pushes you towards the reckless end of the spectrum constantly which makes the more slow and methodical sections feel a little out of place. Indeed those levels are by far the most difficult as it typically takes several perfectly placed manurers in order to get to the next section. Then, if you weren’t paying attention, you can make that next section incredibly difficult for yourself, as I managed to do several times over.

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Still there’s very much a sense of most (I’ll come back to this in a second) of your mistakes being your fault rather than the game punishing you so there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in figuring out how to best approach something. Over the course of the game you’ll start to figure out how long certain enemies wait before shooting, how far away they’ll hear gunshots and why your bullets don’t seem to hit someone when you first open the door (hint: you’re shooting the door). Unfortunately however there are numerous aspects of the game that simply can’t be overcome by skill and this can lead to some rather frustrating experiences.

To start off with most enemies can shoot you before you can see them, even if you’re using the “look” thing. This goes both ways, allowing you to shoot some enemies before you can see them, however it means that sometimes when you’re walking down a hallway you haven’t been to yet you’ll die to stray gunshots you won’t know were coming. There’s also numerous enemies which either don’t react consistently or are essentially coin tosses as to whether you die to them or not which can make an otherwise perfect run fall completely on its face. Indeed whilst I’m happy to admit that a lot of my failures were due to me simply doing retarded things there were more than a handful where I’d get most of the way through a level before getting rail roaded by something I felt I had no control over.

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However the biggest flaw in Hotline Miami’s second coming is by far the level lengths which have increased dramatically in most cases. For most games this would be a good thing, allowing you to really immerse yourself in the game world and soak in all the detail. With a game like Hotline Miami 2 however it just becomes exhausting as you have to slog through stage after stage in order to get to the end. Indeed this style of game which seems to hinge on being frantic, by-the-second style action suffers tremendously when its drawn out over a 30+ minute period, something which will routinely happen to anyone who’s not godlike with twitch based games like this.

The story remains one of Hotline Miami’s strong points and, whilst I enjoyed it, it’s hard for me to say whether or not I fully understood it on my single play through. In fact the most easily understood sections, for me at least, were the psychedelic episodes that a few of the characters endured whilst the broader plot points seemed to have eluded me.  There’s ties back to the original (or at least I think there are as some of the faces look awfully familiar) which I would say much the same about. I guess where I’m going with this is Hotline Miami 2 has a story that requires multiple sittings to fully understand but is more than passable on a single play through.

Hotline Miami 2  Wrong Number Review Screenshot Wallpaper Good Times Never Last

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number brings back the brutal top down beat ’em up that became an instant classic 2 years ago and does so with renewed vigour. The art and sound has been ramped up significantly with the pixelart looking oh-so-good and the list of artists on the soundtrack swelling significantly. The combat has remained largely the same with a few tweaks here and there to encourage players to branch out of their comfort zones. However it’s marred by some mechanics that feel unduly fair and significantly increased level length that, rather than feel engrossing, just end up being exhausting slogs. Overall Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is still great at what it does and if you were a fan of the original you’ll be right at home with its sequel.

Rating: 8/10

Hotline Miami 2 is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Vita right now for $14.99 on all platforms. Total play time was 7 hours with 31% of the achievements unlocked.

Self Drilling Seeds.

There’s an interesting area of research that’s dubbed biomimicry which is dedicated to looking at nature and figuring out how we can use the solutions it has developed in other areas. Evolution, which has been chugging away in the background for millions of years, has come up with some pretty solid solutions and so investigating them for potential uses seems like a great catalyst for innovation. However there are times when we see things in nature that you can’t help but feel like nature was looking at us and replicated something that we had developed. That’s what I felt when I saw this video of an erodium seed drilling itself into the ground:

As you can probably guess the secret to this seed’s ability to work its way into the ground comes from the long tendril at the top (referred to as an awn). This awn coils itself up when conditions are dry, waiting for a change. Then when the humidity begins to increase the awn begins to unfurl, slowly spinning the seed in a drilling motion. The video you see above is a sped up process with water being added at regular intervals to demonstrate how the process works.

The evolutionary advantage that this seed has developed allows it to germinate in soils that would otherwise be inhospitable to them. The drilling motion allows the seed head to penetrate the ground with much more ease, allowing it to break through coarse soils that would have otherwise proved impenetrable. How this adaptation would have developed is beyond me but suffice to say this is what led to the erodium species of plants dominating otherwise hostile areas like rockeries or alpines.

Up until I saw that video I thought things like drilling were a distinctly human invention, something we had discovered through our experimentation with inclined planes. However like many things it turns out there are fundamental principles which aren’t beyond nature’s ability to replicate, it just needs the right situation and a lot of time for it to occur. I’m sure the more I dig (pun intended) the more examples I could find of this but I’m sure that each example I found would amaze me just as much as this did.

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Netflix Global is Commendable, Ultimately Doomed.

After many years and hundreds of thousands of illegitimate users being on their service Netflix has finally arrived in Australia, much to the delight of Australian’s everywhere. In the short time it’s been available Netflix has already managed to account for 15% of all of iiNet’s traffic a sure sign that many people have wanted their service for some time. However, as expected, the content catalogue is a small subset of what’s available overseas leading many to keep their VPNs and over circumventions in order to get access to the same content people overseas get. On the surface that would appear to be a big issue for Netflix, given the pressure they’ve been under in the past to shut down dirty VPN users, however the CEO of Netflix (Reed Hastings) has revealed that they’re a small issue and his focus is squarely on converting long term pirates to legitimate customers.

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In the interview (which is well worth a read in its entirety) Hastings says that VPN users are “a small little asterisk compared to piracy”, and further goes on to say that they’re users who are willing to pay for content but can’t for some reason. The solution to that problem he says for Netflix to “get global” and remove the incentive to use a VPN with their service. Essentially this would boil down to making the whole catalogue available to all users of their service, regardless of their location around the world. Whilst this idea is highly commendable, and demonstrates Hasting’s understanding of how media consumption has changed in the digital age, it’s ultimately doomed to failure given the challenge that they’re up against.

Netflix’s main issue with their catalogue isn’t the ability to deliver it, that’s been a solved issue for them ever since they switched from mailing DVDs to streaming services, it’s always been securing the rights deals to distribute content in certain areas. This is why their current catalogue in Australia is so paltry when compared to the one in the USA as Netflix, lacking a presence in Australia for so long, has been usurped by other distribution partners like Fox. Indeed Netflix even sold the rights to distribution for their flagship series House of Cards to Fox (through Sony) for the first two seasons, although that seems to have been time limited to coincide with their Australian launch.

Therein lies the rub; Netflix’s catalogue can only grow as fast as it can secure rights to distribute content in the countries that it has a presence in. In order to make their catalogue truly global they’d have to secure rights for every show in every region, something I’m sure they’re attempting to do but will run up against the rights holder empires that have cemented themselves in an old-world business model. They could, in theory, make global licensing rights a condition of any show being on their service however most popular shows are either backed by big production houses with distribution rights already in place or the fee required to do so would be so high that Netflix would be unlikely to sign up for it.

Netflix does have the advantage of being the biggest single provider of content across the globe, giving them a little clout in negotiating these content deals, however they’re running up against an empire that’s been extremely resistant to change for the better part of 100 years. They’ve definitely been at the forefront of changing how consumers want their media delivered to them however the lumbering giants that give them the content are steadfast in defending their regionally based business models. I’d honestly love to be proved wrong on this (although I’d still hold onto my VPN for other reasons) but I honestly can’t see a global Netflix in our future.

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Roscosmos Commits to New ISS, NASA Doesn’t.

It’s been 17 years since the first part of the International Space Station was launched into orbit and since then it’s become a symbol of humanity’s ability and desire to go further in space. The fact that NASA and Roscosmos have remained cooperative throughout all the tumultuous times that their parent countries have endured speaks to the greater goal that they both seek, along with all of the other participating nations. However, just like any other piece of equipment, the ISS will eventually wear out requiring replacement or significant revamping in order to keep going. The current plans are to keep it going through to 2024 however past that date it’s likely that the ISS will meet its firey end, burning up in a controlled re-entry back to Earth.

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Russia had made its intent clear when this fateful time arrived: it would detach all its current modules and then form its own space station in orbit to continue operations. Such an exercise, whilst possible, would be non-trivial in nature and by Russia’s own accounts would likely only give those modules another 4 years worth of life before the maintenance costs on the aging hardware outstripped any potential benefits. Thus the pressure has been on to start looking towards designing a replacement orbital space station, one that can support humanity’s activities in space for the next few decades.

Roscosmos recently announced that they had committed to building the ISS’s replacement with NASA with the details to be forthcoming. NASA, whilst praising Russia’s commitment to continuing ISS operations to 2024, didn’t speak to a potential future space station. Whilst they didn’t outright deny that NASA and Russia aren’t or won’t be working on a future space station together they have said in the past that they’d hope that the private space industry would be able to provide such capability soon. That’s looking like it will be happening too, given that Bigelow is hoping to ship their BEAM module to the ISS by the end of this year.

There’s every chance that NASA and Roscosmos have been in talks behind the scenes to work on the next generation space station and Russia simply jumped the gun on announcing the collaboration. It does seem a little odd however as their previous announcement of breaking away from the ISS when the deorbit date came was rather…hostile and most expected NASA and Roscosmos to simply part ways at that point. Doing an about face and announcing a collaboration is great news however it just seems odd that NASA wouldn’t say something similar if they were actually doing it. So either Russia’s just really excited to make an announcement or there’s a larger play happening here, but I can’t imagine NASA being guilted into committing to building another ISS.

I’m hopeful that it’s not a lot of hot air as the ISS has proven to be both a valuable science experiment as well as an inspirational icon to spur the next generation to pursue a career beyond the Earth’s surface. We’ve learnt many lessons from building the now football field sized station in orbit and the next one we build can be that much better because of them. That, combined with the numerous benefits that comes from international collaboration on a project of this scale, means that there’s still an incredible amount of value to derive from something like the ISS and I hope Roscosmos’ ambition is based in reality.

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Forgetting Might be an Adaptive Advantage.

Nearly all of us are born with what we’d consider less than ideal memories. We’ll struggle to remember where our keys our, draw a blank on that new coworker’s name and sometimes pause much longer than we’d like to remember a detail that should be front of mind. The idealised pinnacle, the photographic (or more accurately the eidetic) memory, always seems like an elusive goal, something you have to be born with rather than achieve. However it seems that our ability to forget might actually come from an evolutionary adaptation, enabling us to remember the pertinent details that helped us survive whilst suppressing those that might otherwise hinder us.

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The idea isn’t a new one, having existed in some form since at least 1997, but it’s only recently that researchers have had the tools to study the mechanism in action. You see it’s rather difficult to figure out which memories are being forgotten for adaptive reasons, I.E. to improve the survival of the organism, and which ones are simply forgotten due to other factors. The advent of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has allowed researchers to get a better idea of what the brain is doing at any one point, allowing them to set up situations to see what the brain is doing when it’s forgetting something. The results are quite intriguing, demonstrating that at some level forgetting might be an adaptive mechanism.

Back in 2007 researchers at Stanford University investigated the prospect that adaptive forgetting was potentially a mechanism for reducing the amount of brain power required to select the right memories for a particular situation. The hypothesis goes that remembering is an act of selecting a specific memory for a goal related activity. Forgetting then functions as an optimization mechanism, allowing the brain to more easily select the right memories by suppressing competing memories that might not be optimal. The research supported this notion, showing decreased activity in anterior cingulated cortex which is activated when people are weighing choices (like figuring out which memory is relevant).

More recent research into this phenomena, conducted by researchers at various institutes at the University of Birmingham and various institutes in Cambridge, focused on finding out if the active recollection of a specific memory hindered the remembering of others. Essentially this means that the act of remembering a specific memory would come at the cost of other, competing memories which in turn would lead to them being forgotten. They did this by getting subjects to view 144 picture and word associations and were then trained to remember 72 of them (whilst they were inside a fMRI machine). They were then given another set of associations for each word which would serve as the “competitive” memory for the first.

The results showed some interesting findings, some which may sound obvious on first glance. Attempting to recall the second word association led to a detriment in the subject’s ability to recall the first. That might not sound groundbreaking to start off with but subsequent testing showed a progressive detriment to the recollection of competing memories, demonstrating they were being actively repressed. Further to this the researchers found that their subject’s brain activity was lower for trained images than ones that weren’t part of the initial training set, an indication that these memories were being actively suppressed. There was also evidence to suggest that the trained memories showed the most average forgetting as well as increased activity in a region of the brain known to be associated with adaptive forgetting.

Whilst this research might not give you any insight into how to improve your memory it does give us a rare look into how our brain functions and why certain it behaves in ways we believe to be sub-optimal. Potentially in the future there could be treatments available to suppress that mechanism however what ramifications that might have on actual cognition is anyone’s guess. Needless to say though it’s incredibly interesting to find out why our brains do the things we do, even if we wished they did the exact opposite most of the time.

Parallax Review Screenshot Wallpaper I'm Winning!

Parallax: Which Way is Up Again?

Ever since games realised that they were no longer beholden to the Euclidean world we exist in the number of games based around messing with that idea has increased exponentially. The seminal title for this genre is, without a doubt, Portal  which has then spawned a series of spiritual successors that have taken the idea of a non-Euclidean world to its logical extremes. They provide a special kind of challenge as they’re typically not the kind of puzzle game that you can simply bash your head against and get a solution to a problem, instead forcing you to think outside the realm of what would typically be possible. Parallax is the most recent entry into this genre, sporting an extremely minimalistic style and, as expected, mind bending puzzles.

Parallax Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

There’s no story to speak of in Parallax, you’re simply unceremoniously dropped into a stark black and white world with a text box hover over a platform that says “Goal”. From there it’s up to you to figure out how to get to that place, usually through the use of the portals that bridge your current world to that of another where the only thing in common is the portals between them. I guess you could derive some meaning of the journey between two worlds that are inverses of each other, although even I’d struggle to find the imagery to support that one. Suffice to say you’re in a world that doesn’t function like you’d expect it to and you have to find your way to a portal at the end of a puzzle.

I’ve played my fair share of minimalist games in the past but Parallax really takes this to a whole new level. Everything is either one of two colours (which, if you so choose, can be something other than just black and white) lacking any kind of texture or lighting. I’m sure part of this is for aesthetic reasons, which in view isn’t misplaced at all, but it’s also definitely done from a game play perspective as the extremely similar environments do add another level of complexity in figuring out just where the hell you are. This is also what helps the game install down to a paltry 100MB, something I haven’t seen since the good old days of gaming when CDs were just starting to become popular.

Parallax Review Screenshot Wallpaper Where To From Here

As I mentioned in passing before Parallax is a non-Euclidean styled puzzler that has you making your way from point A to point B using all sorts of weird and whacky physics. There’s no combat or enemies to speak of but you’re never far from falling off the edge of the puzzle to your doom or potentially getting zapped by one of the laser traps. The puzzles start off relatively simple, only requiring you to understand which portal to go through and which way to point it, but it quickly raps up to add in relative gravity, timed switches and boosters that launch you great distances. It might not be as complicated as Antichamber but it does a pretty good job of emulating many of the things that made that game great.

The puzzles are for the most part challenging, often requiring you to experiment a little bit in order to figure out what the sequence of events is that is required to get you to your goal. Checking my achievements I managed to get just over half of the puzzles done in the “perfect” amount of moves, most of which I was able to do on either the first or second try. Don’t let that number fool you though, some of these puzzles took upwards of 15 or 20 minutes to solve, and some of them I simply lucked out on figuring out the developer’s logic before getting stuck in a downward spiral of doubt and black and white surfaces. The puzzles towards the end are truly mind boggling with the particular one below completely disorientating me numerous times over, forcing me to find a reference point to try and centre my brain again.

Parallax Review Screenshot Wallpaper Oh So Spinny

Probably my main complaint with Parallax is the amount of back-tracking that many of the puzzles put you through. Quite often you’ll find yourself all the way to the point where you’re flicking that one switch that you need to hit to open up the puzzle only to find yourself having to undo everything you just did in order to access that last door. Sure I get that that can be a challenge at times, especially given how easy it is to lose your bearing in this game, however when you’re doing it for the 5th time in a hour it really starts to grate on you and the pay off just doesn’t feel as good as it could be. Some of them are done well, like the one where the alternate world has numerous boosters all through it and you have to switch the laser gates around to access different sections, but the majority of them are just irritating.

The minimalism also starts to get boring after a certain point. Whilst many lamented the idea of Diablo 3 having such pretty and bright colours it’s hard to argue with the logic: we’re simply not wired to deal with the same kind of monotonous environment time and time again and so visual variety drives engagement. Parallax does a good job of this with the different environments however the stark black and white does make it a rather easy game to put down, as I found myself doing multiple times. Perhaps changing it up every so often ala Lyne could help to alleviate this.

Parallax Review Screenshot Wallpaper I'm Winning!

For those who’ve been seeking a game that bends the rules of physics as well as it bends your brain it’s hard to go past Parallax, a great first entry from Toasty Games. It’s scope might not be as large as the big name titles that have come before it however Parallax manages to an incredible amount with the minimalistic stylings it branded itself with. The puzzles could do with some work however, forcing you to retrace your steps all too often adding tedium where there needn’t be any. The style also gets boring after the 3rd hour or so and, whilst you can change up the colours a bit, it doesn’t go far in alleviating the visual boredom. Suffice to say though I think it’s worth a play, even with those few caveats hanging over its head.

Rating: 7.5/10

Parallax is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 3.9 hours with 69% of the achievements unlocked.