The Tiniest Electric Train.

I’ve never really been one for trains, neither those that serve as public transport or their diminutive brethren that grace the basements of many, but the technology behind some of them is quite impressive. Indeed you can’t go past the Shinkansen of Japan, trains that are so fast that they regularly compete with airlines for the same passengers and have recently achieved astonishing speeds. However beneath all the technical wizardry that powers those impressive machines lies some incredibly simple physical principles, ones that can be replicated with some copper wire, a couple magnets and a battery:

The way it works is incredibly simple. The “car” of the train is made up of a couple high-strength magnets that are oriented in the same direction, ensuring that their magnetic fields flow in the same direction. Then when the car is placed onto the track  of coiled wire they help complete a circuit with the coil of wire around it. This then creates a magnetic field around the car and the resultant force between it and the permanent magnets results in a force that’s vectored forward. However the time it will be able to do this is limited however as the creation of the magnetic field consumes power from the battery. Most estimates online have the run time somewhere around 30 minutes or so from a typical alkaline AA battery.

Indeed one interesting thing about this train is that it relies on the high internal resistance of regular alkaline batteries to function properly. You see a typical battery has what amounts to a current limiter inside it, preventing anything from drawing current too fast from it. If they used say a NiCd style battery, which has an incredibly low internal resistance, I can see the results being either much more spectacular (like the car flying around the track) or catastrophic (like the battery overheating and the wire melting). Actually now I’m kinda curious about what would actually happen.

Now where’s that old battery charger of mine…

DNA Helix

DNA Can Survive in Space, Re-Entry into Atmosphere.

There’s a few competing theories around how life came to be on our planet. One of them is the theory of abiogenesis, the idea that the building blocks of life assembled themselves from the primordial soup of the Earth to eventually give rise to life as we know it today. As an origin for all life it makes sense as it had to come from somewhere although whether or not it was how life came to be here is still up for question. Indeed the competing theory for how life originated here comes in the form of panspermia, the notion that our world was somehow seeded with life from planets elsewhere. Whilst it’s likely impossible to prove either of these theories they do lead to some interesting  areas of scientific research, the latter of which just bore some interesting fruit.

DNA HelixOne of the biggest questions with the idea of panspermia is whether or not the building blocks of life could survive in the harsh climate of space. We have known for some time that simple forms of life are able to tolerate the conditions of space for what seems like an eternity but given the time frames involved it’s far more likely that their genetic components would be the only things that would survive the long journey through space. Whether or not DNA could survive some of the most harsh conditions, like plunging back into the Earth’s atmosphere at re-entry speeds, is a question that researchers at the University of Zurich attempted to answer.

The results are quite intriguing, showing that the DNA molecules (which were applied to the outside of the craft with no shielding to speak of) was still viable upon returning to Earth. Whilst it’s far from a long duration spaceflight, the TEXUS launch system is a sub-orbital platform, it does show that DNA is very resilient to the harsh conditions experienced in space, lending credence to the idea that our Earth may have been seeded with genetic material of alien origin. Just how that material would have ended up finding it’s way here though is another question entirely, although it is an interesting one.

Genetic material lacks the capability to launch itself into space and so the only way it finds its way off a planet (bar ours) is to hitch a ride on a cataclysmic event. Large asteroids that impact a planet shoot up all manner of ejecta, some with enough energy to escape their planet’s gravity entirely. It’s a rare event, to be sure, however it’s happened often enough that we’ve got numerous bits of Mars scattered on Earth’s surface and likely bits of other planets that we don’t yet know about. If just a few of these kinds of asteroids hit Earth at the right time our origins of life might lie far beyond our own planet, or possible even our own galaxy.

It never ceases to amaze me just how resilient the building blocks of life are, being able to survive the harshest conditions and still remain viable. This then leads onto us finding life in all sorts of weird places, ones where you’d think it’d be impossible for anything to survive. I honestly can’t wait for the day when we find life on another planet, even if its microbes, as it will tell us so much about who we are and where we came from.

 

Please No Clip Art

Microsoft Kills Clip Art, Looks to a Less Gaudy Future.

If there’s one thing that turn an otherwise professional looking document into a piece of horrifying garbage it’s clip art. Back in the days when graphics on computers were a still a nascent field, one populated with people with little artistic style, they were the go-to source for images to convey a message. Today however, with clip art’s failure to modernize in any way (mostly due to the users who desperately cling to it’s disgustingly iconic style) it’s become a trademark of documents that have had little to no thought put into them. Microsoft has been aware of this for some time, drastically reducing the amount of clip art present in Office 2010 and moving the entire library online in Office 2013. Now that library no longer contains any clip art at all, now it just points to Bing Images.

Please No Clip Art

As someone who’s had to re-enable access to clip art more times then he’d have liked to I’m glad Microsoft has made this move as whilst it won’t likely see everyone become a graphic designer overnight it will force them to think long and hard about the images they’re putting into their documents. The limited set of images provided as part of clip art usually meant people would try to shoehorn multiple images together in order to convey what they were after, rather than attempting create something in Visio or just searching through the Internet. Opening it up to the Bing Image search engine, which by default filters to images which have the appropriate Creative Commons licensing, is obviously done in a hope that more people will use the service although whether they will or not remains to be seen.

However what’s really interesting about this is what it says about where Microsoft is looking to go in the near term when it comes to its Office line of products. Most people wouldn’t know it but Microsoft has been heavily investing in developing Office to be a much more modern set of documentation tools, retaining their trademark backwards compatibility whilst making it far more easier to make documents that are clean, professional and, above all, usable. The reason why most people wouldn’t know about it is that their latest product, Sway, isn’t yet part of the traditional Office product suite but with Microsoft’s push to get everyone on Office 365 I can’t see that being the case for too long.

Sway is essentially a replacement for PowerPoint, yet another Microsoft product that’s been lauded for it’s gaudy design principles and gross overuse in certain situations. However instead of focusing just on slides and text it’s designed to be far more interactive and inter-operable, able to gather data from numerous different sources and present it in a format that’s far more pleasing than any PowerPoint presentation I’ve seen. Unfortunately it’s still in closed beta for the time being so I can’t give you my impressions with it (I’ve been on the waiting list for some time now) but suffice to say if Sway is the future of Microsoft’s Office products than the ugly history of clip art might end up just being a bad memory.

It’s just more evidence that the Microsoft of today is nothing like the one it was in the past. Microsoft is still a behemoth of a company, one that’s more beholden to it’s users than it’d like to admit, but we’re finally starting to see some forms of innovation from them rather than their old strategy of embrace, extend, extinguish. Whether its users will embrace the new way of doing things or cling to the old (like they continue to do) will be the crux of Microsoft’s strategy going forward but either way it’s an exciting time if you’re a Microsoft junkie like myself.

Firefly Alpha

Firefly Space Systems’ Novel Approach to Rocketry.

If there’s one thing we can’t have enough of it’s different companies providing access to space. Whilst much of the progress in the private space industry might be attributable to a couple companies they will need some healthy competition in order to keep them in check, lest they fall into the same traps that their old space predecessors did. Indeed many of these new space companies that are cropping up are pursuing technologies that others have let slip by the wayside, some of which deserve thorough investigation. Firefly Space Systems, founded at the beginning of this year by a former SpaceX engineer, is the latest company to try its hand at providing access to space and it’s doing so in a very novel way.

Firefly Alpha

Shown above is the concept for their Firefly Alpha which employs several novel technologies that you likely won’t have seen on any other craft before. For starters much of the launch body will be made of composite materials, similar to that of other private space start up Rocket Lab. The engines on the bottom are also noteworthy as they’re arranged as a plug-type aerospike, an engine type that’s been built (and tested) by numerous parties in the past but has never been used in a production craft before. The design also incorporates an autogenous (self pressurizing) fuel system, something which has the potential to make the craft far more efficient than other designs. All in all the design is quite impressive as the trade-offs it makes are radically different to those of more traditional rocket designs.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the composite designs perform as whilst the idea has been somewhat validated by Rocket Lab there’s yet to be a full sized rocket launch using it. Should the idea scale up to the levels that both Firefly and Rocket Lab require then there’s a lot of potential for their systems to be far more efficient than their more traditional brethren, although I’m sure there’s some trade offs that will have to be made. What they are and whether or not they’re worth it is something I can’t really determine (I am not a rocket scientist) but I’d doubt the drawbacks would be that severe considering 2 independent companies are pursuing it.

I’ve always been a fan of the aerospike design, mostly because the pure torodial ones look like something out of science fiction, but I know the reason why they’ve never made their way into a production craft. They’re a jack-of-all trades deal, maintaining approximately the same efficiency under all circumstances whilst not really excelling in any one of them. Traditional rocket design accommodated this by using different types of engines during different stages, something which has worked pretty well for pretty much all launch platforms. The question that Firefly will have to answer is whether the trade off of better efficiency closer to sea level (something all current rocket engines struggle with) outweighs the reduced efficiency in a vacuum when compared to the bell type engines. I’m sure the modelling they’ve done tells them yes but nothing beats real data when it comes to rocketry.

The real secret sauce of their design might be in the self-pressurizing fuel tanks, something which I’m not sure I’ve seen in any other rocket design before. In traditional rockets as the fuel is depleted it’s replaced by a pressurized gas so that the pressure within the tank remains constant. This means that you have to carry that gas and its associated systems with you, reducing your overall payload capacity. Firefly’s system instead uses it’s own fuel, in this case methane, which is routed around the aerospike to cool it (a common technique) and then pumped back into the fuel chamber as a gas. Then once all the fuel is spent the gas can also be used to provide a last bit of thrust, something the inert gas style models can’t readily achieve. If it works the way they say it does there’s quite a lot of potential for this plucky rocket as that little bit of extra efficiency could be enough to offset all their other trade offs.

All in all I like Firefly’s rocket design as it incorporates both novel design decisions as well as trade offs that most traditional rocket companies don’t make. The overall system could end up being vastly more efficient than its individual components, something which I don’t think many other launch companies consider when looking at these technologies in isolation. Whether it will all come together is something we’ll be waiting a while for though as this nascent company likely won’t be launching anything for a couple years. Still I’m eager to see what they can accomplish as we can never have too many people tackling the issue of getting access to space.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Dragon Age: Inquisition: The World is Breaking.

The one review per week deadline I’ve set myself is both a blessing and a curse. I have certainly broadened my gaming horizons considerably since I first started doing it having played many titles I would’ve otherwise let slip by the wayside. Unfortunately it also means that I usually pass on titles that require a heavy time investment as I simply can’t do them justice. However there are exceptions and Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game who’s predecessors I’ve played (and loved) in the past, is one I certainly couldn’t pass up. So, after shirking off all my other responsibilities for the past week I’ve managed to work my way through Bioware’s latest RPG, and I’m incredibly glad I did.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

It has been one year since the events of Dragon Age 2 and the world, still reeling from the last blight and the turmoil in Kirkwall, is set to face another threat. The sky has been rendered asunder in a massive explosion that destroyed the Chantry’s most sacred of temples with you, bearing and strange green mark on your hand, being the only one to survive it. Whilst many want you to be put to the axe immediately Seeker Cassandra steadies their hands in the hopes that you will be able to close the breach between this world and the fade. To do this she invokes the right of the Inquisition, severing ties from the Templars and Chantry to form a new order to close the breach and seek its cause.

At first I thought Inquisition was running on some kind of supercharged Unreal engine, due to the way it used specularity, however it turns out that it’s powered by none other than the Frostbite 3 engine, the same one that’s behind the beautiful graphics of the Battlefield series. Compared to its predecessors Inquisition is definitely a major step forward with everything taking on a new sense of scale and detail. Surprisingly this doesn’t come with it’s usual associated cost of stuttering frame rates, something I was quite impressed with. It may not be Skyrim-modded-to-the-nines beautiful but it’s definitely a game that would be best played on a current generation hardware.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Pretties

The sheer breadth of Inquisition is something that’s hard to understate, something which is wholly a product of the previous instalment in this series being panned for its limited nature. The core of the game still remains the same, it’s a Bioware RPG that has a heavy focus on the story and your role within it, but surrounding that are numerous quests, challenges and other activities that I’m sure adds up to well over 100 hours worth of play time. Layered on top of all of this is the War Room, a birds eye view map of Orlais and Ferelden that allows you to send your advisors on missions to gain influence, rewards or to unlock further missions for you to pursue. It shows that Bioware has listened to the feedback regarding how narrow Dragon Age 2 felt in comparison to its other RPG titles, even if they may have overcompensated to the point of impacting other things (more on that later).

Combat feels like an evolutionary improvement of what was done in Dragon Age 2, keeping the same action-RPG focus whilst attempting to add in other mechanics to make the traditional RPG style more accessible. Instead of the traditional pause mode Inquisition instead gives you a Tactical Camera which allows you to look around the entire combat field and assign actions to your party. It’s not a requirement to use it however as the behaviour system for your companions is back in and, thankfully, is coupled with a much more competent AI that’s able to recognize its new abilities and when it should and shouldn’t use them. Probably the most notable change is though is that the healing system has been completely revamped with no character class having a native healing ability and the number of healing potions given to your party fixed at a certain amount. What this all adds up to is a combat system that’s far more streamlined, lending the focus more to the action than the minutia.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Combat

This also means that the strategies you’ll use in Inquisition are going to be far different than any other RPG out there. Instead of ensuring you have the holy trinity set up you’re far more focused on controlling combat, setting up combos and making sure you use other survivability options so you don’t churn through your potion stash too quickly. My party make up usually consisted of a 2H warrior (me), dual wield rogue (Sera), control mage (Dorian) and a frontline tank (Blackwall). The combinations of control from the mage and tank warrior meant that both Sera and I were able to set up extremely devastating combos, some that could drop an entire group of enemies in just a couple hits. There were a couple issues with survivability, especially with mechanics that would drop half your health bar in one hit (not giving them a chance to us a potion) but for the most part once I got past the first 5 hours or so I felt essentially untouchable.

Indeed those first 5 or so hours are probably the most difficult and probably worst paced of the game. Now some of the issues I encountered with not being at the right level might have had something to do with my “go for the story missions first” play style, however once I was over that initial hump whenever I needed to level myself up I didn’t feel like I was struggling to find missions to fill the gap. I think this is probably due to the differences between say, level 3 and 6, being far more drastic than the differences between later levels as I certainly didn’t feel that the later levels made as much of an impact as the first 10 or so did. What was a bit of a chore sometimes was the grind to get power so I could unlock the next set of missions but again this was probably due to me attempting to smash out the storyline rather than meander about.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Closing Rifts

The crafting system has been shaken up considerably allowing you to create all sorts of highly customized armour and weapons to suit your needs. There’s 3 top level categories of materials (cloth, leather and metal) which have dozens of different types and levels beneath them. This is what allows you to craft armour and weapons with varying characteristics although you’ll likely find you don’t have enough of a particular type to craft the perfect item, even if you’re the stereotypical RPG kleptomaniac. This will then lead you on a hunting expedition for the resources you require something which doesn’t take too long but can feel a little bit grindy if you’re going for the premium materials. However the result can be well worth the grind as I carried my first craft sword through numerous levels.

The war table is an interesting addition, taking its cues from other non-player mission systems like those found in say Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Most of the benefits you’ll gain from sending your advisors on missions aren’t exactly game breaking but every so often you’ll stumble onto something that can make a decent difference in how your game plays out. There does come a time when you’ll run out of the long duration missions however, which puts you in the rather unenviable position of either travelling back to the war room every 15 minutes or simply letting them slide until you next return. Overall I think it’s a good way to keep the story going whilst adding in another avenue to build back story for the world but I probably wouldn’t miss it if it was gone.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Dialog

This massive amount of content within the game, whilst impressive, has come with an unfortunate cost. As it stands right now the game is riddled with numerous bugs, some of the innocuous and fun, others game breaking or terribly annoying. Many people, myself included, experience random crashes to desktop with no discernible pattern. Others experience weird things like their characters voice changing from male to female or, and this one is particularly frustrating for someone like me who invests an inordinate amount of time recreating himself within the game, change from one voice type to the other. My originally deep voiced character changed to the higher pitched British actor half way through the game, a bug that currently has no fix in sight. This frustration is only compounded by the interface often forgetting that I had a mouse, refusing to respond to any input from it until I ALT + TAB out and back in again.

Whilst I initially wrote this off as a typical Bioware RPG, which have a reputation for doing this, it became hard to make excuses for them the further I got into Inquisition. Sure, it’s clear that they took the feedback about Dragon Age 2 to heart, however at the same time it’s obvious that they sacrificed on polish in order to jam as much content in as they could. Whilst I understand that patching issues, especially the number which are evident within Inquisition, takes time we’re now a week past launch and there’s no patch in sight to fix some of the more glaring issues with the game. Inquisition is still a fantastic game, it’s just held back from where it should be because of these problems.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper The Fade

The incredible scale of Inquisition extends to its story with nearly every aspect of the world getting the full Bioware backstory treatment. Most if it is unfortunately hidden behind giant walls of text that you’ll have to wade through, however for your companions and major story NPCs they will gladly regale you with troves of information about the world and their place within it. At the same time there’s not an incredible amount of reliance on the previous titles to provide context on the events that are occurring, something which I think many of us will be grateful for given the fact that it’s been over 3 years since we last ventured into the Dragon Age world. Truly Inquisition is one of the shining examples of a game that puts a great emphasis on its story and the world which it exists in.

As to the tale of the Inquisition itself there are numerous moments I could point to (which I won’t, since they’re spoilerific) where the story really shines. It’s a classic hero’s journey, building you up from someone who was in the wrong place and the right time to a leader who inspires all those around him to achieve great things. There are a few moments which stick out in my mind brilliantly where I felt part of something much larger than myself, a notable achievement that few games have managed to replicate. The over-arching story does a great job of making you feel like you’re building towards something greater however the final pay off felt a little anti-climatic. I think this is probably because other games make the penultimate fight feel like you’re going up against insurmountable odds whereas in Inquisition I had cornered my prey and was simply there to deal the final blow. That’s just my impression however, something that may be tied into the fact that I was literally unstoppable at the end.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Only The Begnning

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a rare example of a sequel surpassing its predecessors, bring a sense of scale and depth that’s rare to see in any game. All the elements that made the original Dragon Age great are there, from the combat to the story to the ancillary elements around them, and the summation of those parts is so much greater than they would be individually. This greatness is however dulled by the numerous issues that plague the game, ranging from the annoying to the down right game breaking. However, despite that, it’s a hard game to put down as everything else about it draws you back in, taunting you to play just one more mission or to follow the end of that quest chain. Suffice to say I think Dragon Age: Inquisition is by far the strongest instalment in the series and it will only get better once Bioware starts patching it.

Rating: 9.5/10

Dragon Age: Inquisition is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $89.95, $99.95, $109.95, $99.95 and $109.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours of play time and 48% of the achievements unlocked.

NASA Airship Concept

NASA Looking to Airships for Sub-Orbital Observations.

When you think of scientific telescopes there’s usually only 2 different types that come to mind. The ones down here on terra firma, with their giant white domes covering their precious mirrors, and the ones up in space like the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. Each of these has is set of benefits and drawbacks, like the ground based ones having massive mirrors and the space based ones not having to deal with our atmosphere. However there’s potential for a telescope that straddles the boundaries of these two types of telescopes, one that’s far above the Earth’s surface but also doesn’t require the heavy energy investment of an orbital craft. Indeed NASA has flown craft like these in the past and they’re now looking to airships to fly the next generation of such telescopes.

NASA Airship Concept

Ground based telescopes suffer from 2 major drawbacks related to the atmosphere. The first is the aberrations caused by the shifting atmosphere, the same thing that causes the stars to twinkle at night, which makes precise measurements incredibly difficult. The second is that the atmosphere is great at absorbing a lot of the frequencies of light, specifically infrared, something which we can’t really overcome with special optics or filters. Putting a telescope in space negates these problems but brings with it a whole other set of challenges which is precisely why NASA is looking to develop a sub-orbital telescope concept using an airship as the platform.

NASA has constructed platforms like this in the past, the most notable one of which is SOFIA, an infrared observatory that’s built into the back of a Boeing 747. At its cruising altitude it’s able to see 85% of the total infrared light coming to Earth a considerable amount more than any ground based telescope will be able to see. The primary limit to SOFIA is its endurance time which is around eight hours or so although its capability to be pretty much anywhere in the world does make it incredibly flexible in the operations it can perform. The airship design that NASA is looking to pursue would address this limitation whilst providing some other benefits.

Airships, whilst not being as mobile as their winged cousins, have the advantage of being able to stay aloft in a location for extended periods of time that aircraft simply aren’t capable of doing. For an observatory this provides several advantages such as being able to do longer exposures on targets as well as being able to take advantage of higher bandwidth downlinks to their base sites. There are several engineering challenges that will need to be solved before a viable aircraft will materialize, but it’s certainly within the realms of possibility.

Pending funding of the idea NASA will be funding it X-prize style, looking for designs (and I assume workable craft) that can carry a small or large payload up into the atmosphere. Such programs have proved to be highly successful in the past and I’m sure we’ll see some pretty interesting craft come out of it. Considering that SOFIA is slated to be shut down due to budgetary concerns sometime next year a viable alternative needs to be sought so they don’t introduce more holes in their capabilities. Of course getting an airship with a telescope up in the air before that happens isn’t going to be likely but the sooner the process is started the better.

Regin Architecture

Regin: The Spies’ Stuxnet.

It’s really hard to have anything but admiration for Stuxnet. It was the first piece of software that could be clearly defined as a weapon, one with a very specific purpose in mind that used all manner of tricks to accomplish its task. Since its discovery there hasn’t been another piece of software that’s come close to it in terms of capability although there’s always rumours and speculation of what might be coming next. Regin, discovered by Symantec, has been infecting computers since at least 2008 and is the next candidate for the cyber-weapon title and whilst its mode of operation is more clandestine (and thus, a little more boring) it’s more what it’s not that interests me most.

Regin Architecture

Unlike Stuxnet, and most other malware you’ll encounter these days, Regin is designed to infect a single target with no further mechanism to spread itself. This is interesting because most run of the mill malware wants to get itself onto as many machines as possible, furthering the chances that it’d pick up something of value. Malware of this nature, one that we haven’t identified a specific infection vector for, means that it’s purpose is far more targeted and was likely developed with specific targets in mind. Indeed the architecture of the software, which is highly modular in nature, indicates that Regin is deployed against a very specific subset of targets rather than allowing it to roam free and find targets of interest.

Regin has the ability to load up various different modules depending on what its command and control servers tell it to do. The functions range from interchangeable communication methods (one of which includes the incredibly insidious idea of encoding data within ping packets) to modules designed to target specific pieces of software. It’s quite possible that the list Symantec has created isn’t exhaustive either as Regin attempts to leave very little data at rest. Indeed Symantec hasn’t been able to recover any of the data captured by this particular bit of malware, indicating that captured data is likely not stored for long, if at all.

Due to its non-worm nature the range of targets that Regin has infected gives a pretty good indication as to what it’s intended purpose is. The two largest groups of targets were individuals or telecommunications backbones, indicating that its purpose is likely information gathering on a large scale. The location of of infections indicates that this piece of software was likely western in origin as the primary targets were Russia and Saudi Arabia with very few targets within western countries. It’s unlikely that this tool was developed for a specific operation due to its modular nature however, so I don’t believe there’s any relationship between different infections apart from them using the same framework.

Just like Stuxnet I’m sure we won’t know the full story of Regin for some time to come as software of this nature is incredibly adept at hiding its true purpose. Whilst its capabilities appear to be rather run of the mill the way in which it achieves this is very impressive. More interesting though is it’s non-worm nature which, whilst it may have prevented its detection for some time, hints heavily to its true purpose and origin. I’m really looking forward to further analysis of this particular piece of software as it gives us a rare insight into the world of clandestine cyber warfare operations.

The Simple Science Behind Bendy Rivers.

There are some things you just don’t think about until they’re shown to you. Most people don’t think twice about why the same side of the moon always faces us, it’s either just coincidence or divine intervention, but when you learn it’s a relatively simple aspect of gravity (tidal locking) you find yourself asking where else such things might occur. Likewise I had never really thought about why rivers tend to twist and turn, thinking that it was most likely because there were things in the water’s way that it was just getting around, but as it turns out there’s a very clear explanation for why they bend, even without objects being in their way:

Understanding these fundamental principles is what allows us to look at other places in the universe and draw conclusions about what they might have been like billions of years in the past. We’ve long speculated that Mars was once host to oceans and rivers not unlike our own based on ideas like this; their snake like remnants still being visible long after the water has departed. Hopefully one day we’ll find the ever elusive underground reservoirs of water on Mars and maybe, just maybe, find evidence of life that may have once played a role in shaping those long forgotten rivers.

Google Contributor

Google’s Solution to AdBlock Plus: Contributor.

I’d like to say that I’ve never run ads on my blog out of a principled stance against them but the reality is I just wouldn’t make enough out of them to justify their existence. Sure this blog does cost me a non-zero sum to maintain but it’s never been much of a burden and I wouldn’t feel right compromising the (now) good look of the website just to make a few bucks on the side. This hasn’t stopped me from wondering how I would go about making my living as a blogger, although unfortunately pretty much every road leads back to advertising. However that model might be set to change with one of Google’s latest products: Contributor.

Google Contributor

The idea behind it is simple: you select a monthly amount you want to contribute to the sites you frequent and for sites participating in the Contributor program you’ll see no ads from Google AdSense. It’s a slight tweak on the idea of services like Flattr with a much lower barrier to adoption since most people have a Google account already and most sites run AdSense in some form. You also don’t have to specify how much goes to each site you visit, Google handles that by counting up the pageviews and dividing up your monthly contribution accordingly. In a world where AdBlock Plus has become one of the most installed browser extensions this could be a way for publishers to claw back a little revenue and, of course, for Google to bump up its revenue.

This isn’t Google’s first foray into crowd funding publishers as just a few months ago they released Fan Funding for YouTube channels. That was mostly a reaction to other crowd funding services like Patreon and Subbable whereas Contributor feels like a more fully thought out solution, one that has some real potential to generate revenue for content creators. Hopefully Google will be scaling the program into a more general solution as times goes on as I can imagine a simple “pay $3 to disable all AdSense ads” kind of service would see an incredibly large adoption rate.

On the flip side though I’m wondering how many people would convert away from blocking ads completely to using Contributor or a similar service. I know those AdBlock sensing scripts that put up guilt trip ads (like DotaCinema’s Don’t Make Sven Cry one) are pretty effective in making me whitelist certain sites, but going the next step to actually paying money is a leap I’m not sure I’d make. I know it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things, $36/year is a pittance for most people browsing the Internet, but it’s still a barrier. That being said it’s a lower barrier than any of the other options available, however.

I think Contributor will be a positive thing for both publishers and consumers in the long run, it’ll just depend on how willing people are to fork over a couple bucks a month and how much of that makes its way back to the sites it supports. You’ll still need a decent sized audience to make a living off it but at least you’d have another tool at your disposal to have them support what you do. Meanwhile I and all the other aspiring small time bloggers will continue to fantasize about what it would be like to get paid for what we do, even though we know it’ll never happen.

But it could…couldn’t it? ;)

Civilization Beyond Earth Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Civilization: Beyond Earth: Just…One…More…Turn.

I have something of a love/hate relationship with 4X style games. Usually at the beginning I hate them, the complicated web of variables that needs to be balanced properly usually irritates me to no end, especially when I figure out I’ve backed myself into a corner. Whilst that might make put them down initially there’s always that voice at the back of my head that tells me I should try again because this time, it says, you’ll get the balance right. And so the cycle goes until I look at the clock and its 1am…2 days later. The Civilization series has long set the benchmark for the 4X genre and with its latest instalment, Civilization: Beyond Earth, it seems set to keeping setting the standard by which all others will be judged.

Civilization Beyond Earth Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Earth lies a ravaged husk of its former self. 600 years into the future humanity made a terrible error, The Great Mistake, that is slowly rendering the planet unliveable. Thus all the great nations of the world put their resources behind a desperate plan: they’d send their best and brightest across the galaxy to find new worlds, to start fresh and save humanity from its certain death. It is now up to you, dear traveller, to restart humanity on worlds that are not of our own. Will you remake humanity in it’s own image? Or will you craft a new kind of civilization, free from the bonds of its past? The world is yours to craft.

Having not played Civilization V it’s hard for me to comment on how the graphics compare to its predecessor although perusing through some screenshots shows that there’s been some improvements, not least of which comes from the form of a better UI. Like most 4X games Beyond Earth tends towards a more simple graphical style mostly because the screen ends up littered with hundreds of objects in no short order, able to bring even a respectably specced machine to its knees. That being said it’s not an ugly game, especially when you’re zoomed out, indeed it’s probably the best looking 4X game I’ve played.

Civilization Beyond Earth Screenshot Wallpaper Offer Nothing Get Nothing

Like all other Civilization games Beyond Earth has a bewildering amount of things to do. It’s enough that, at first glance, you almost feel like you need to read a novel to make sure you know what you’re doing before you click the start button. However, just like other games in this genre, the best thing to do is to simply plonk yourself down and attempt to hammer your way through it, figuring out how each different mechanic works. There’s a semi-helpful AI who’ll pipe up every so often to let you know when something’s happening or there’s a mechanic that needs explaining, which helps a little bit, but the larger overall strategy is still left entirely up to you. With so many options available to you, along with the routine 6+ hour per game play time, you have a recipe for an incredibly addictive game.

Unlike Civilization games of years past Beyond Earth allows you to craft your own history by making a few choices. Your opponents are no longer historical figures, instead they’re representatives of the various factions of Earth that have been sent to settle this planet. The tech tree that we’re familiar with is gone, replaced with a tech web that sprawls out in numerous directions, opening up several different paths to unlocking technology. Beyond Earth also brings with it a system called affinity which sets the overall tone for how your settlement behaves in this new world. With technology trading removed it’s nigh on impossible to research everything in one sitting, ensuring that Beyond Earth will keep you coming back for several more play throughs.

Civilization Beyond Earth Screenshot Wallpaper Build 2 Xenonursery Buildings

Perhaps the most fundamental thing to understand in Beyond Earth is what all the resources are, what they’re used for and how you can generate the required amount of them in order to unlock the things you want. In my first game I heavily prioritized science which, unfortunately, meant I quickly found myself in an energy hole from which there was little escape. The second time around however I figured out that building out certain resources first were far more advantageous, as was the low hanging fruit in the tech tree. Indeed Beyond Earth, like most 4X games, rewards players for planning out a strategy and then executing it, rather than rushing for the best  technology first and hoping your opponent doesn’t get there sooner.

One of the things that I don’t think was explained terribly well was trade. It’s a completely optional thing to engage in, however it quickly becomes one of the largest sources of resources that you’ll have access to. Indeed my energy-first strategy often allowed me to fully kit out a new colony with a trade depot and 2 convoys the second it came online, dramatically increasing its capabilities and growth rate. There are downsides to trade, of course, like your convoy getting eaten by native fauna or picked off by an angry neighbour but trade still seems mightily powerful when compared to the alternatives.

Civilization Beyond Earth Screenshot Wallpaper Shits Getting Tight

I’m not sure if it was the difficulty setting I was playing on but the AI seems to have some strange quirks when it comes to reacting to what they perceive as a threat. My blue neighbour, who was my biggest trading partner by far, declared war on me twice for nothing I could clearly discern apart from maybe my huge stockpile of energy. The thing is though that they needed me far more than I needed them so the second they broke all trade with me they lost all means to produce additional units. It didn’t take long for me to whittle them down and get a juicy peace treaty as a result but it still felt like the AI should’ve understood the situation it was getting itself into, rather than attempting to bully me with its puny force.

There’s also a few rough edges here and there, like you can see in the first few screenshots in this review. For the most part the innocuous, just seeming to be glitches in certain parts of code that either fail to display something or display it more times than it needs to, but it happened often enough that it did become a little irritating. Since I was coming into this game a little late I usually expect these little rough edges to be gone by the time I get to it so it was a little disappointing to see. That being said the rest of the game runs perfectly so it’s a very small mark on an otherwise smooth experience.

Civilization Beyond Earth Screenshot Wallpaper Victory

Civilization: Beyond Earth is yet another great example of why Sid Meier’s series is considered the best in the 4X genre. The staggering amount of mechanics, playstyles and strategies that the game puts before you means that there’s always something new to discover or try out, providing nigh on endless hours of entertainment. Like all of the previous Civilization titles it demands a heavy investment of time in order to get the most out of it but should you commit the experience that you’re rewarded with is simply unmatched within its genre. It’s not a perfect experience, lacking a good introduction and having a few rough edges, but it’s still a solid overall experience, one that’s sure to delight Civilization fans all over.

Rating: 8.5/10

Civilization: Beyond Earth is available on PC right now for $49.99. Total game time was approximately 8 hours with 20% of the achievements unlocked.