World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenro Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor: This is Madness, Garrosh!

Logging into my World of Warcraft account is always a mix of feelings for me. On the one hand I have so many great memories, forging friendships with people and just enjoying the enormous amount of content that was on offer. It wasn’t all roses however and thinking back (and looking at some of the screenshots) it’s painfully obvious just how much growing up I needed to do. Today World of Warcraft is no longer a major part of my life, instead it’s something that I enjoy from time to time, reveling in the Warcraft world and trying my hand at the latest raids. Indeed the World of Warcraft of today feels like it’s catered towards people like me and the improvements in Warlords of Draenor continue that theme.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenro Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Garrosh Hellscream’s thirst for power has no bounds which culminated in him releasing the Sha of Pride upon the lands of Pandaria. This led to the Horde and Alliance joining forces to overthrow him in the Siege of Orgrimmar which eventually led to his capture. However before he could be sent to trial he was rescued by a bronze dragon, Kairozdormu, who shared in his ambition for power and control. The dragon then sent him back in time to before the orcs drank the blood of Mannoroth, preventing the blood curse. He then united the disparate clans under the banner of the Iron Horde and set out to conquer all of Draenor. It is up to you, dear champion, to stop this madness before it unwrites the history of the world and Garrosh’s madness spreads beyond the lands of Draenor.

Warlords of Draenor feels about the same from a graphical point of view, mostly due to the short difference in time between this expansion and it’s predecessor, however they did make some noticeable improvements to the base character models. It’s a welcome change as those models, whilst looking great in 2004, had started to show their age 10 years on. Apart from that though everything is at about the same level although it seems like the default draw distance has been ramped up significantly (with little impact to performance, I might add). Still it’s hard to get tired of Blizzard’s trademark style with the vibrant colours and wonderful stylization.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenro Review Screenshot Wallpaper Pretty Mushrooms

Much of the core gameplay remains the same as it did from previous expansions with the classes remaining largely the same with a few tweaks and balance changes. Warlords of Draenor continues on the quality of life improvements that came as part of Cataclysm, ensuring that everything from questing to running dungeons is simple and free of frustrations. The biggest change is the inclusion of the Garrison, your own private town in which you’ll have a multitude of buildings and resources that you can use to craft items or sell on the auction house. The Garrison also brings with it followers which are NPCs that you can send on various missions to level them up, acquire loot and provide resources for your garrison. Overall long time World of Warcraft players will feel instantly at home with Warlords of Draenor and be incredibly thankful for the improvements that Blizzard has made.

Unlike previous expansions, where upon logging in I was greeted with action bars missing numerous skills and dozens of alerts on what I should be doing, Warlords of Draenor kept the character classes largely the same. I’m speaking from the point of view of my paladin, of course, although my cursory look at other classes seems to show they underwent about the same amount of changes as use paladins did. This meant that I was able to get into the game much quicker than I have been able to previously, my muscle memory (and keybinds) still carrying over from my last stint in WoW early last year. It’s both a good and a bad thing as whilst I’d lament having to figure out how to play my character again it is kind of satisfying when I feel like I’ve mastered it again. Still, I’ll take quality of life over many other things these days.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenro Review Screenshot Wallpaper Rise Husband

The Garrison is by far my favourite improvement in Warlords of Draenor as it takes away so many of the things that made playing World of Warcraft feel like a chore rather than a game. You have your very own mine, herb garden and fishing pond which you can plunder on a daily basis for resources. You get to select a handful of buildings which do various things, some of which enable you to do things like craft items without having the profession. It also serves as an alternative route to gearing up your character as there are several different buildings which can provide raid quality gear. It also comes with its own currency, Garrison Resources, which whilst primarily aimed at buying buildings and sending followers on missions, can serve as an alternative means to acquiring resources and other things. For the semi-casual players like myself who can’t dedicate a good portion of their lives to the game anymore the Garrison serves as a way of levelling the playing field, although the hard core still have ways of getting ahead.

The flip side of this though means that, should you have the resources to power yourself ahead, you likely won’t be able to. Nearly all of the resources required to craft high end gear or grant you access to epic gear avenues are on strict timers that can’t be rushed. Thus the time your account is active is a far bigger player in how far you’ll progress your character than time you spend in the game, at least for us filthy casuals. For someone like me who sometimes finds himself with a decent chunk of time on his hands to thrash things out like this it’s a little frustrating, but at least it means that I don’t feel compelled to spend that amount of time every day trying to advance my character.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenro Review Screenshot Wallpaper Nagrand at Night

I deliberately avoided playing the game at launch as I was sure that, even 10 years down the line, Blizzard would still be unable to deal with the onslaught that is an expansion release. For the most part my experience has been extremely pleasant with nary a queue to speak of unless I try to login between 8pm and 9pm. Even then the queue, which I’ve seen reach 1000, is usually done and dusted within 15 minutes so no issue there. There are still some quests which bug out or have incorrect minimap icons, which can be highly frustrating at the time, however out of the hundreds I completed I could probably count the number of broken ones on both hands. By this point though it’s somewhat cliche to praise Blizzard for their ability to deliver a polished product as that’s their MO for every single title they’ve released in the last 2 decades.

The story of Warlords of Draenor is an interesting one, although as someone who skipped the later parts of Mists of Pandaria I did have to do a little reading to catch up on just what the hell was going on. Like most Blizzard games the world has an exceptional amount of detail however it peters out quite quickly once you’re not talking to any of the main characters. The main story is quite interesting however although there just wasn’t quite enough to draw me into it. Then again this isn’t exactly a story-first kind of game so I wasn’t exactly looking for it either. Overall I’d say the story was serviceable, just lacking in an emotional hook to draw me in.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenro Review Screenshot Wallpaper Garrison

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor demonstrates how well Blizzard knows their subscribers, vastly improving your quality of life when playing through their signature MMORPG. Players returning from a long time break will find the game familiar enough to get a running start but different enough that they don’t feel like they’re playing the same game from a couple years ago. The Garrison is the stand out improvement of this expansion, introducing dozens of new game elements whilst removing much of the grind that is common to MMORPGs. I have yet to set foot in a heroic or the recently opened up LFR for Highmaul however, something which I’m sure will keep me going over the next few months. In closing I feel that Warlords of Draenor is a solid improvement on the World of Warcraft title, one that even decade long players like myself can readily enjoy.

Rating: 9.0/10

World of Warcarft: Warlords of Draenor is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total game time was approximately 33 hours reaching level 100 and iLvl 617.

Super Cereal.

Looking at the ingredients labels on food can be both an insightful and frightening affair. I’ve long been in a habit of doing it and I always find it fun to research some of the more esoteric ingredients, well that is right up until I find out where some of them come from. It’s the old adage of not finding out how the sausage is made, although in reality you should probably consider that with all things that you put in your body. Still when I watched the following video I was honestly surprised to see the outcome, as I didn’t think the effect of extracting iron from cereal would be so dramatic:

The first half of the video explores the idea that there’s elemental iron within cereal which can then be attracted by a magnet. Whilst this is true to some degree, the iron within the cereal will feel an attraction to a magnet, you can actually perform the exact same experiment with cereal that is bereft of any elemental iron content. This is because water is a diamagnetic material which is a fancy way of saying that in response to a magnetic field it will create its own inverse field in response. For the cereal and magnet experiment this means the water actually divots around the magnetic field which the piece of cereal then falls into. The iron in the cereal helps this process along of course, but it’s not the only force at play here.

However the extraction of the iron from the cereal was pretty astonishing, especially considering just how simple it was to do. Trying to extract other elements from the cereal would prove a much harder endeavour which is why I think an experiment like this is such a powerful visual aid. You’re literally seeing the iron being pulled from the food you eat which, in turn, makes you think about all the other things that are listed on the ingredients label. It might not be a particularly pretty picture that you end up with, but at least you’ll be far more aware.

I wish I knew about these kinds of science experiments when I was a kid!

AMD Logo Official

The One Horse Race That is CPUs.

Roll back the clock a decade or so and the competition for what kind of processor ended up in your PC was at a fever pitch with industry heavyweights Intel and AMD going blow for blow. The choice of CPU, at least for me and my enthusiast brethren, almost always came down to what was fastest but the lines were often blurry enough that brand loyalty was worth more than a few FPS here or there. For the longest time I was an AMD fan, sticking stalwartly to their CPUs which provided me with the same amount of grunt as their Intel brethren for a fraction of the cost. However over time the gap between what an AMD CPU could provide and what Intel offered was too wide to ignore, and it’s only been getting wider since then.

AMD Logo Official

The rift is seen in adoption rates across all products that make use of modern CPUs with Intel dominating nearly any sector that you find them in. When Intel first retook the crown all those years ago the reasons were clear, Intel just performed well enough to justify the cost, however as time went on it seemed like AMD was willing to let that gap continue to grow. Indeed if you look at them from a pure technology basis they’re stuck about 2 generations behind where Intel is today with the vast majority of their products being produced on a 28nm process, with Intel’s latest release coming out on 14nm. Whilst they pulled a major coup in winning over all of the 3 major consoles that success has had much onflow to the rest of the business. Indeed since they’ll be producing the exact same chips for the next 5+ years for those consoles they can’t really do much with them anyway and I doubt they’d invest in a new foundry process unless Microsoft or Sony asked them nicely.

What this has translated into is a monopoly by default, one where Intel maintains it’s massive market share without having to worry about any upstarts rocking their boat. Thankfully the demands of the industry are pressure enough to keep them innovating at the rapid pace they set way back when AMD was still biting at their heels but there’s a dangerously real chance that they could just end up doing the opposite. It’s a little unfair to put the burden on AMD to keep Intel honest however it’s hard to think of another company who has the required pedigree and experience to be the major competition to their platform.

The industry is looking towards ARM as being the big competition for Intel’s x86 platform although, honestly, they’re really not in the same market. Sure nearly every phone under the sun is now powered by some variant of the ARM architecture however when it comes to consumer or enterprise compute you’d be struggling to find anything that runs on it. There is going to have to be an extremely compelling reason for everyone to want to translate to that platform and, as it stands right now, mobile and low power are the only places where it really fits. For ARM to really start eating Intel’s lunch it’d need to make some serious inroads into those spaces, something which I don’t see happening for decades at least.

There is some light in the form of Kaveri however it’s less than stellar performance when compared to Intel’s less tightly coupled solution does leave a lot to be desired. At a high level the architecture does feel like the future of all computing, well excluding radical paradigm shifts like HP’s The Machine (which is still vaporware at this point),  but until it equals the performance of discreet components it’s not going anywhere fast. I get the feeling that if AMD had kept up with Intel’s die shrinks Kaveri would be looking a lot more attractive than it is currently, but who knows what it might have cost them to get to that stage.

In any other industry you’d see this kind of situation as one that was ripe for disruption however the capital intensive nature, plus an industry leader who isn’t resting on their laurels, means that there are few who can hold a candle to Intel. The net positive out of all of this is that we as consumers aren’t suffering however we’ve all seen what happens when a company remains at the top for far too long. Hopefully the numerous different sectors which Intel is currently competing in will be enough to offset their monopolistic nature in the CPU market but that doesn’t mean more competition in that space isn’t welcome.

interstellar.black_.hole_

Interstellar Brings Hard SciFi Mainstream.

As I hope is blatantly obvious by now I’m very much a fan of the sci-fi genre. It started out as a fascination with the future, with all the tech wizardry that it promises us, however it’s long since grown into a full fascination with the world of science and what plausible futures could arise from it. Thus, whilst I enjoy a good story in its own right, sci-fi movies and other media are a great opportunity to explore scientific principles and I love to see how they’re used as plot devices. Of course the narrative will often take precedence over the laws of the universe and whilst I can appreciate a departure for the sake of plot I have my limits, like Gravity’s take on how orbital mechanics work. However there’s been quite the hubbub around the science behind Interstellar and I finally managed to catch it over the weekend.

interstellar.black_.hole_In terms of basic science Interstellar gets top marks for getting so many things right. Things like travel time between planets in the solar system, gravitational lensing of light around objects that have heavy gravity or spacetime warping properties and the handling of relativity all line up with my (admittedly limited but I’d hazard a guess better than average) understanding of how those principles work. The black hole itself was absolutely stunning with the interaction of the accretion disc with the strong gravitational lensing, something which now seems so obvious, giving us a new perspective on what these monsters would actually look like out in space.

The robots are also one of my favourite aspects of Interstellar as they go from being what appears to be some kind of clunky, cumbersome relic of the pre-blight era they’re in fact highly capable machines. The designs are incredibly interesting too as whilst many movies would’ve gone for the stereotypical humanoid Interstellar instead opts for a HAL-9000esque monolith. It’s hard to discount that their personalities play a big part in this too, especially with all the humour around their programmable emotional settings.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

There are numerous liberties taken with certain mechanics however, all which are somewhat forgivable since they’re in aid of the plot. The small craft which are quite capable of achieving orbital velocities would have to have some kind of advanced engine that doesn’t rely on propellant and has the required thrust and specific impulse to achieve such feats. This is somewhat hinted at the start when the craft they use to get to Saturn makes it there in 2 years (I’d assume without any gravitational assists) however it’s still something that bears mentioning. It’s mostly only because if they had technology like that then it’d be quite easy to get a lot of people into space, potentially making that habitat they were working on viable without needing the secret “gravity” source.

As with all movies that like to play around with the notion of time things start to get a little hand-wavy once you start mucking with the timelines. Once Cooper’s character is stuck in the tesseract he’s essentially creating a paradox since he wouldn’t be there without the manipulations he caused, yet he is already aware of them when he’s making them. The one way to rationalize this away is to eliminate the prospect of free will within that world and so Cooper was compelled to do that no matter what happened. Otherwise he could, say, send the quantum data to someone else through another method, rendering the whole mission moot (but then introducing yet another) paradox to contend with. Indeed whilst this later part of the movie is a great piece of cinema it’s riddled with scientific problems, one that likely needs a novel to explain them away.

One thing that does irritate me about films of this nature is that they usually follow the format of “everythings going ok for a bit until things go all Event Horizon on you”.  I get that this is playing into the fragility of the human condition, where our survival instinct makes us do things we otherwise wouldn’t, however it does feel like the trope has been done to death. There’s multitudes of other avenues to pursue to provide that kind of tension without relying on humans going postal, but it seems human fallibility is still the route of choice. Then again hard sci-fi is a hard sell without a relatable human element, which I guess is the reason we keep seeing it.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar despite the last sections wandering into extreme hand-waving territory. The scientific basis which it begins from flows through the entire movie, providing a great backdrop for the rest of the movie to build on. I’m looking forward to seeing a breakdown of how all of the strictly-not-scientific elements were developed as there’s a lot of questions I’d like to see answers to. In the same vein though I’m also completely ok not knowing as the discussion my wife and I had afterwards were just as interesting as watching the movie itself. Definitely a must see for all sci-fi fans out there.

 

Orion Exploration Flight Test

NASA’s Orion Takes Flight.

Since before the Shuttle’s retirement back in 2011 NASA has been looking towards building the next generation of craft that will take humans into space. This initially began with the incredibly ambitious Ares program which was set to create a series of rockets that would be capable of delivering humans to any place within our solar system. That program was cancelled in 2010 by President Obama and replaced with a more achievable vision, one that NASA could accommodate within its meagre budget. However not all the work that was done on that program was lost and the Orion capsule, originally intended to ride an Ares-I into space, made its maiden flight last week signalling a new era for NASA.

Orion Exploration Flight Test

The profile for this mission is a fairly standard affair, serving as a shakedown of all the onboard systems and the launch stack as a whole. In terms of orbital duration it was a very short mission, lasting only 2 orbits, however that orbit allowed them to gather some key data on how the capsule will cope with deep space conditions. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the craft as the mission was meant to launch the day before however a few technical issues, mostly to do with the rockets, saw NASA miss the initial launch window. However the second time around they faced no such issues and with the wind playing nice Orion blasted off for its twice around the world voyage.

When I first read about the mission I was curious as to why it was launching into such an unusual orbit. To put it in perspective the apogee (the point of the orbit furthest away from the earth) was some 5,800KM which is an order of magnitude higher than anything else in low Earth orbit. As it turns out this was done deliberately to fling the Orion capsule through the lower Van Allen belt. These belts are areas of potentially damaging radiation, something which all intersolar craft must pass through on their journey to other planets in our solar system. Since Orion is slated to carry humans through here NASA needs to know how it copes with this potential hazard and, if there are any issues, begin working on a solution.

The launch system which propelled the Orion capsule into orbit was a Delta-IV Heavy which currently holds the crown for the amount of payload that can be delivered to low Earth orbit. It will be the first and last time that we’ll be seeing Orion riding this rocket as the next flight, slated for launch towards the end of 2018, will be the Space Launch System. This is the launch system that replaced the Ares series of rockets when Obama cancelled the Constellation program and will be capable of delivering double the payload of the Delta-IV Heavy. It’s going to need that extra power too as the next Orion mission is an uncrewed circumlunar mission, something NASA hasn’t done in almost 5 decades.

It’s great to see progress from NASA, especially when it comes to its human launch capabilities. The Shuttle was an iconic craft but it simply wasn’t the greatest way to get people into space. The Orion however is shaping up to be the craft that might finally pull NASA out of the rut it’s found itself in ever since the Apollo missions ended. We’re still a while off from seeing people make a return to space on the back of a NASA branded rocket but it’s now a matter of when, and not if, it will happen.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Game of Thrones: Iron From Ice.

You’d have to be willfully ignorant to not have come across the massive sensation that is Game of Thrones. I have to admit that I’m one of those people who only discovered it through the TV show, much at the behest of many of my friends who’ve urged me to read George R. R. Martin’s epic works. Still it’s easy to see just how detailed the world he created is with deep and complex political landscapes that stretch back over countless years. It was interesting then to hear that Telltale Games would be doing a title within the franchise as whilst they certainly have the pedigree to bring a story to life the world of Westeros isn’t exact their modus operandi. Indeed their entry into this gritty and uncaring world seems to signal that Telltale wants to begin rising above its current station, and that it has the skills to do so.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

MINOR GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS BELOW

The Forresters have been the bastions of the Ironwood forests for countless generations and loyal to the Starks for just as long. That loyalty is what led them to be in attendance for the horror that was The Red Wedding where many of their men met their fates. You are Gared Tuttle, squire to Lord Gregor Forrester, who managed to escape the violence in order to carry a message from your lord back to the house of Forrester. Unfortunately the tragedy that befell you at The Red Wedding has also spread to everywhere else and now the house which you have long been loyal to is under threat. Can you fight your way out of this? Or will you use the more delicate hand to beguile your enemies and have them fall on their own swords?

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Telltale has a very distinctive style when it comes to the games they create, favoring the heavy bordering and solid colours that are typical of their graphic novel inspired works. This has been reworked somewhat for Game of Thrones, dumping the cartoony look and instead aspiring more towards realism than any of their other games have done previously. This has also come with an upgrade in visuals in almost all regards although the semi-stiff animations and less-than-stellar attempts at depth of field do leave a little bit to be desired. Still it’s hard not recognise that this is most definitely a big step up for Telltale games and potentially signals towards them feeling comfortable enough to experiment with the format they’ve perfected.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper Ironrath

The signature Telltale style makes a return in Game of Thrones, putting aside most traditional game mechanics in favour of focusing on developing the story and the characters within it. The majority of action sequences play out as a series of quicktime events, throwing up keys to press or mouse movements to make in order to get through a section. The heart of their style is, as always, the dialog system which includes a breadth of options that will shape the game in numerous ways depending on which one you select. Unlike previous Telltale games however Game of Thrones jumps between several different characters, mimicking the format of its source material. All in all there’s nothing too revolutionary about the game itself which isn’t surprising since this is a Telltale title.

Indeed Telltale is probably one of the few game developers out there who are able to get away with doing this since the innovation comes from their ability to tell a good story rather than develop new and novel game mechanics. For story-first titles it’s often better to err on the side of simplicity as too many mechanics, or just a couple poorly constructed ones, quickly distract from the story. This is what titles like Always Sometimes Monsters got wrong, thinking that a variety of different mechanics was necessary in order to keep the player engaged. Nothing could be farther from the truth, so long as the story that you’re telling is engaging enough.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper Before Cersei

Depending on what your current level of involvement is with the Game of Thrones franchise the story will likely mean a different many things to you although it does tend to assume you’re coming from the TV series rather than just the books. The story begins at the end of the third season and is slated to continue through until the end of the fifth. This means that, unless you’re up to that part in the series, there’s potential for bigger events to be spoiled and pivotal characters that have just recently appeared in the series likely won’t make a great deal of sense to you. Thus to properly experience the story you’d best be placed to catch up to the end of the third season. Who are we kidding though, you’ve already watched it twice.

The story itself is quite engaging, following a thread that’s apparently present in the books but yet to be explored in the series, retaining many of the qualities that made Game of Thrones so popular in the first place. The story isn’t written by George R. R. Martin himself though, rather he sent along his personal assistant Ty Corey Franck (a successful writer in his own right) to be a story consultant with Telltale. Since this is just the first episode there was still a lot of worldbuilding to be done so it wasn’t the most gripping story yet, however many of the events that have taken place are setting the scene for much grander things to come. I definitely have high hopes for Telltale’s version of Game of Thrones and I’m interested to see where they take it.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Council is Empty

Game of Thrones is another excellent story-first title from Telltale games, taking the essence of what made their style so popular and maturing it to match the gritty world that George R. R. Martin had created. The graphics are the most notable departure from the Telltale style, ramping it up to a more realistic style whilst still retaining the same feel. However the core of what make their games great, their skill with storytelling, is very much the same and the world of Westeros provides a great canvas for them to paint a new story. Overall for fans of Telltale or the Games of Thrones franchise this title will be certain to delight and is most certainly worth the price of admission.

Rating: 9/10

Game of Thrones is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.

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.