Monthly Archives: August 2009

Aion: Tower of Eternity (or Nalafang Gets His Wings).

After lamenting the behavoir of nProtect’s Gameguard that comes bundled with Aion I got wind that the final closed beta event was taking place this weekend, and my next shot to have a look at this game would come on the 22nd of September. Being an impatient person I decided to give it a go. My experience shows the devastating faults that plague Aion’s choice of anti-cheat mechanism but once you get past that, the game is in fact quite a fulfilling experience. So much so that I have in fact pre-ordered the collector’s edition, although I must admit I’m a sucker for these as the Age of Conan and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning collector’s edition boxes now line my bookshelf.

I wish I could say that the install process was painless and was merely a minor speed bump in the Aion experience. It wasn’t and whilst I can understand that a beta operating system is the last thing you’d want to support it did leave a rather sour taste in my mouth when I spent a good 4 hours troubleshooting the cryptic errors GameGuard threw at me. In the end I grabbed a spare hard drive and installed Vista on it, which thankfully worked without incident. I’m sure once Windows 7 becomes official they’ll actually support it but the lack of official knowledge and almost disdainful look they take on people who dare try to run their game on a “beta” operating system is quite frustrating.

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The first thing that sucks you in with Aion is the absolute beauty that is the CryENGINE. The visuals are stunning with the world filled with wonderful artwork and vibrant colour palette that is sure to anger many a Diablo II noir fans. The character customization screen is incredibly detailed which does make for some very comical results. This is the first game I’ve played where you’ve been able to drastically alter your character’s height and I chose to be of the taller persuasion. I didn’t really notice it until I saw someone who was little over half my height, something that you never really see in other MMOs where everyone is the same bar some facial features. You can also alter many of your other character’s aspects like arm, torso and leg size, hair style, facial construction and so on. Probably the most amusing thing you can do in this creator is independently modify you character’s appearance, say giving them incredibly bulky arms with a tiny chest and small legs. Here’s just a small example of the character creator gone horribly wrong.

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Combat for the most part in Aion is your standard MMO affair. As Yahtzee Croshaw so succinctly put it you are really just whacking on each other until one of you falls down. The skill chains part is an attempt to spice up the combat and does a decent job of keeping you entertained through the button mashes. I must admit my favourite combat system so far was Age of Conan’s as it kept you focused on the game but Aion does bring something slightly different to the tired repetition of button mashing. I’m sure at higher levels there is a bit more variety however.

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In order to alleviate some of the grind from questing Aion includes a “locate” feature for quest givers, items and mobs. Some quests lack this (usually the “fetch me my lost shovel” type) but the majority of them allow you to find where you need to go without too much hassle. Whilst it a little lacking when compared to something like WAR and AoC’s quest systems it is still better than say World of Warcrafts. The inventory system in Aion could use some improvement as the only way to expand your inventory is by talking to a “Cube Artisan”, who can add 9 slots for a certain cost. This wouldn’t be a problem except there’s no way to ask a guard where a cube artisan might be, so you have to forage them out yourself.

This brings me to one of my “on the fence” points that I have about Aion: there’s no real tutorial system. After creating your character there’s a short movie setting up your back story and then you’re plonked in a field with little direction of what you need to do. Seasoned MMORPGers won’t have any trouble however it’s not the big things like combat and questing that need explaining it’s the little nuances that set the game apart. Something like the rest skill which is akin to eating and drinking in WoW is never explained to you, and caused my first hour or so to be much more laborious than it should have been. A couple quick pointers in the right direction could make the first tiny steps through Aion that much more pleasurable.

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Up until level 10 you’re still just a run of the mill human trying to make your way through the world. However upon reaching level 9 or so you get sent on a couple missions to ascend to a Daeva. This is when you get to specialise your class from you base type to one of two choices. My character was a Warrior and had the choice of a Gladiator (a melee DPS) or Templar (tank) from which I chose the Templar. This instantly grants you more skills and the ability to fly, something which Aion has made a great deal of noise about when marketing the game. Your graduation to Daeva is marked with a cut scene as are many of the quests scattered through Aion. It’s a great addition to the game as it helps to break up the grind especially after a couple hours of play. My only gripe about them is some feel like rushed additions and don’t add much if you read the quest text, but ones like the Daeva ceremony are quite spectacular.

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Overall Aion provides a very pleasurable gaming experience that does not try to remake things that work well and innovates in those unexplored areas. Whilst my experience was limited to only the first 12 levels or so I still got a taste of what Aion has to offer and I’m keenly awaiting the full release so I can experience the PvPvE content that NCsoft has alluded to. The storyline grabs you in and is heavily centered around your character and whilst the Harry Potter-esque “everyone knows you’re special except you” is a little cliched, it does help to make you feel important in the world of Aion.

Aion will be released on the 23rd of September 2009 in Australia with a special 48 hour head start for those who preorder the game. It’s also available on Steam for US$49.99 and comes with one months game time, which is decent value and I’d highly reccomend giving it a go. Of course as with any MMO it will suck all the life out of you, but where would the fun be if it didn’t? 😉

P.S. I’ve updated the comments system to now have formatting available and also, you can edit your own comments for 5 minutes after they’ve been published so you can catch spelling mistakes and what not. Also if you register you can edit your comments for much longer!

Population Sustainability.

There comes a time in every bloggers life when the people who comment on topics provide the inspiration for future posts. For me this day has come from an interesting tangent brought about by one my more recent posts on Australia’s property market. The underlying ideal behind a lot of property investors is that people will always need a place to live and that we’re always going to have more and more people in the world so it becomes a very secure investment. This then begs the question, how long can continued population growth continue before we can’t sustain it?

What we should first look at is the historic population trend for us humans:

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It’s an interesting graph mathematically as it combines several different behaviours. The first is for all intents and purposes a steady state function. All the way up to approximately 1000BC the human population did not undergo much growth at all and for the most part was steady. Around 1000BC to 900AD we can see a typical steady, linear growth function where the population increases basically at a set rate every year. After 1000AD it starts to get really interesting and demonstrates an exponential growth function that rockets up unimaginably high. Generating a line of best fit for this data (mathematical note: I’m using data from 0 to 2000 so the equation is simpler) gives something along the lines of y = 110.53e0.1048x where y is the population, x is the year and e is the mathematical constant. Using this to map future populations is a tad scary, take a look in the Wolfram Alpha for a taste.

The graph shows what happens when technology significantly improves life and thus allows people to live longer and have more children. Things like the invention of agriculture, the industrial revolution and the baby boom following world war 2 represent those significant changes in the population. It’s also interesting to note that they also correlate succintly with the change in mathematical behaviour of the graph from constant to linear to exponential. As anyone with a scientific bent will tell you exponential growth can’t last and will eventually end once a limitation in resources is reached.

Now before I go into a bit of philosophical hand waving about the world’s population I want to get a definition clear that is wildly misrepresented. Third world countries refers to a political affiliation, not a level of development. The term is used today to describe countries that are more aptly described as developing nations and is often used as a call to sympathy for them.

The world as it stands today could easily support the current population with a decent standard of living. Predominately the issue seems to stem from our inability to provide life’s essentials to certain countries, namely those ones who are still developing.  There will come a time when even the western world won’t be able to provide enough food for its people and this is when the populations will have to plateau. Current thinking is this will happen sometime around 2050 with the world’s population hitting a staggering 9 billion. However this idea is rooted in today’s ideals and technology and as we’ve seen in the past revolutions in technology enabled the human race to expand at rates that no one thought was possible before. A classic example of this was the horse manure crisis of 1984, where planning authorities predicted that all the streets of London would be buried in 9 feet of manure. Of course this did not happen thanks to a technological breakthrough and the potential is there for this to happen with us humans.

My personal view on the matter is that whilst exponential growth is unsustainable the human race as a whole has a lot of potential to overcome these issues. Unfortunately history has shown that until the problem becomes critical not much will be done to avoid it, as we’ve seen with things like alternatives to fossil fuels. The good news is that a lot of the framework is already in place and proven to be able to cope with a much larger population, we will just have to encourage our governments to bolster sustainable practices and put pressure on other governments who don’t.

I’ve tried to steer clear of squarely blaming political issues as the cause of all the problems that third world countries face as it is only my opinion and I haven’t been able to find substantial evidence to back it up. So instead I want to put it to you my readers: what are the causes of the issues that developing nations face? Is it their tyrannical governments? Or does it stem from inherit environmental problems?

We as a species are quite capable of sustaining our current population with a good standard of living. What is stopping us from accomplishing this?

Update: Slight rephrasing of the question. As my intrepid fellow blogger Andrew Carr points out this issue isn’t as simple as I might have first thought.

Curse You DRM! (or How to Make a Grown Gamer Cry).

For over 20 years I have been a gamer. I can still remember fondly the days when my Dad first sat me down in front of our new computer and showed me how to fire up Captain Comic from the DOS prompt. I’ve then watched as the wonderful world of games grew from a hidden away world only for the socially inept of the world to the multi-billion dollar industry that it has become. So when the game companies who I’ve stuck with through thick and thin decide that the best way to combat piracy is by slapping DRM on something I feel a little hurt. It’s like an old friend telling you he can’t see you anymore because of his new girlfriend, you just can’t accept it.

I will admit that the majority of my gaming life was spent DRM free. Sure there were the license codes and some games requiring me to have the CD in the drive (which was easily defeated by spinning up something like Daemon Tools) but that was usually a one time thing, and it never really interfered with the normal operation of my machine or the gaming experience. In 2004 however I was greeted with my first ever in-your-face DRM, Steam. Back when it was first announced Steam was going to be a revolutionary way for developers to deliver games to consumers. At the time I was still outside an area that was capable of getting broadband Internet and this proved to be quite a problem for it. After spending about an hour installing Half Life 2 I was then greeted with having to create an account to play it. Fair enough I thought and plugged away at the sign up process. After this I was then greeted by Steam telling me that there was an update available. My attempts to stop it were futile and I could not shift the game into offline mode until it had updated. The result was me feeling cheated as I had paid good money for a hard copy so I could play it that day. Instead I was given a several hour delay on top of the install and sign up time. I didn’t trust steam for many years after that.

Another 4 years by before I would have my next run in with a DRM system. After years of hype I was excited to see Will Wright’s new creation Spore hit the shelves. I had been fooling around with the Creature Creator for a week or so before with my house mate and we were looking forward to creating and messing with our creations. Everything seemed to be fine until my housemates computer started having random issues, caused in part to SecuROM. I began to have issues as well after I began developing again, as SecuROM begins to throw a fit when debuggers are present. After spending $80 on a game and having it run rampant through my system I was a little miffed, and I haven’t installed the game since.

Just a few weeks ago I was intrigued to see a new game pop up on Steam, Aion. I’m a total sucker for eye candy in games and the initial once over I did of it looked promising. After searching around for a while I found out that it uses GameGuard as an anti-cheat system which in itself is not a bad idea (I come from the old days of Punkbuster, and I had no issue with them). However the behaviour of the program is squarely in root kit territory with it installing a device driver and remaining even after the game is uninstalled. The list of programs it messes with contains many programs that I use and are not intended in anyway to cheat, but if I choose to install this game they will either break or cause the game to crash.

It’s really sad for someone like me who has enough disposable income that a $50 game can come under a weekly “consumables” budget I have but I’ll stop dead in my tracks if they decide I need to be treated like a criminal in order to play their game. I’ve been eyeing it off Aion for a while and the promise that GameGuard breaks on Windows 7 (with a homegrown fix for it) has me leaning towards giving it a go. But had the Aion developers chosen not to include this software I would’ve already been a paying customer, and it’s sad that their sale to me is going to rely on using what amounts to beta software.

So game developers have a think about the market you’re delivering to. No longer are we the young gamers struggling to eek out a living (in fact the average age of gamers in Australia is 30), we’re mature adults who can afford to spend up on games. Treating us like criminals and cheats just costs you sales and does nothing to prevent either. It’s sad that the first thing I check when a new game is released is what DRM it uses not a game play video or similar.

And that folks is how you make a grown gamer cry.

Australian Property’s Reaction to the Financial Crisis.

The last 6 months have been a real roller coaster ride for pretty much everyone financially, even more so for the people like myself who have tried to buck the trend and continue investing during these times. Whilst the majority of the hyperbole has died down over the past couple months there’s still a strong feeling of doom and gloom from a lot of people. This is despite signs that the property market, which was everyone’s favourite punching bag, is on the mend and the unemployment rates whilst increasing are not as bad as was predicted. This then begs the question: is there still potential for Australia to suffer a major hit to it’s property markets?

Ever since this crisis was thrust upon us by the collapse of the sub-prime market in America the outlook has been that Australia would soon follow suit with our property prices plummeting anywhere from a reasonable amount of 5% all the way up to 50%. The gap in speculation should show that no one really has a definitive idea of where the Australian property market will be going and depending on what data you use you will get a different story. The first problem that most of these predictions make is translating the problems that the American sub-prime market had and translating them to Australia. It’s really not that simple.

Let’s step back from the current crisis for a moment to study what lead to the economic crisis over in America. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the fallout from the sub-prime mortgage market. In essence this refers to the practice of lending to individuals who do not meet prime lending criteria and as such have a much high chance of defaulting on their loans. With the helping of insurance companies like AIG banks were able to repackage these liabilities as mortgage backed securities which then allowed them to put these high risk loans back on their books as assets. Banks are typically allowed to lend out more money than they have, and the repackaging of these loans means that they could then re-lend that money out to someone else. You can now see that when one of these loans went belly up it would have a much bigger effect than it would previously. Due to the way the loans were written at the time most of the home owners were on honeymoon rates for the first 2~5 years. After that they reverted to a much higher rate, of which most of them could not afford. What you then had was a lot of loans all defaulting at the same time, which brought the banks and insurance giants to their knees.

I can not stress enough how different this is to Australia. What the American banks were suffering from was a lack of capitalization, I.E. they didn’t have enough real assets under them to back up the money they were lending out. Banks in Australia do not suffer from this and can not perform the kind of magic accounting that the American banks did due to the much more strict regulation they have to comply with. Lending criteria in Australia is also much more strict than what America had prior to its collapse and was tightened significantly after the crisis hit (I got loans before and after the crisis hit, and the second time around was far more stressful than the first).

The next couple facts I generally see is that house prices are unaffordable and the current increases are merely due to a boost in the first home owner’s grant. Whilst I’m not going to argue that Australian property is cheap it’s definitely not as bad as some and with interest rates so low now renters are usually better off buying a house if they have the savings for it. The next 12 months will show us how the market is going as I will admit the figures are somewhat distorted by the FHOG extension.

At the heart of the doom and gloomers is a desire for more affordable housing for everyone and their idea of reducing house prices is for the market to crash so that everyone can jump in. With 70% of the houses in Australia being owned by the people that occupy them (with 50% of those having no mortgage) there’s not really a lot of pressure on the market to sell. The only sector of the market that stands to make a great loss, and as such would have motive to sell quickly and below market, are the investors. With only 30% of the market at real financial risk it stands to reason that the property market won’t be suffering too much price wise, but there are some other factors to consider.

When people can’t sell a property for what they want/need there’s few options left for them: refinance or rent it out. With the tight lending market currently you’re not going to see many banks offering favourable deals so many will choose to rent it out. What you will then see is a glut of rental properties which will put a downward pressure on rents, which we have already seen. This will continue for a few years until America and the worst hit countries find their feet again which, in my view, will lead to a short to medium term stagnation in property prices. In real terms this means a decrease in property prices in line with inflation over the same period, or about 3% annually. There will be no crash but housing will become more affordable.

The government on the other hand could easily make housing more affordable by releasing more land and pumping more cash into base infrastructure to get the new land releases fully serviced. One of my good friends just recently finished building a house in a new suburb in Canberra for which he purchased the land almost 3 years ago. This kind of delay in new housing puts an upward pressure on established buildings and is one of the many causes of the affordability problem. Right now would be the perfect time to speed up development of new areas as the market is primed for a influx of affordable properties.

So overall I don’t believe that the markets will suffer as much as the doom and gloomers believe. Whilst the potential is there for properties to come down in value there’s several key factors that are missing and without them a decrease in real value is all that aspiring home owners can hope for. As I’ve said previously though property is a long term investment and any hit that it might take now will be recovered in the years to come.

Times are tough, but not as tough as some would have you believe.

Power in Space.

One thing that’s always a big issue for any project in space is how you’re going to power whatever you’re sending up there. As it turns out the methods that we use to generate power up in space are extremely varied and in fact many of them paved the way for technologies we now use back here on earth. However there are still some advances to be made and if we are to return to the moon and beyond there will have to be a breaking down of some old barriers in order to enable us to go further into space.

Many of the initial space craft that were sent up just had your traditional chemical batteries in them. For the most part these worked well, and since they had been around for such a long time they were a proven technology (something that is critical in any space endeavour). As time went on and missions became much more ambitious NASA moved from batteries to fuel cells and were the first to fly these in a space craft on their Gemini missions. Fuel cells are advantageous because not only do they produce power, but typically a decent amount of heat and water as well. In fact they are still used to power the space shuttle and will typically produce around 500 litres of water on whilst in space. This is invaluable as that’s 500Kg less water they have to bring with them and 500Kg more they can take into orbit.

Satellites are another matter entirely. Since they don’t need any of those bothersome human things like water and heat fuel cells aren’t the right choice for them and the majority of artificial satellites in orbit around earth and our nearby neighbours use good old fashioned solar power. At the distance we are from the sun the available power is somewhere in the order of 1400W/m² but that drops off dramatically as we reach further out into the solar system. In fact the amount of power available past mars is so little compared to where we are that there is only one mission currently scheduled to Jupiter that uses solar panels called Juno.

So what do we use when we want to explore the deep reaches of space? The current technology used in most missions is called a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) which in essence uses heat from decaying radioactive material to provide heat and electricity. In the past they’ve coped a lot of flack for using these as environmental groups lament the potential for damaging the environment and spreading nuclear material across the earth. NASA has done extensive research on the matter but still runs up against endless red tape whenever they try to use one. The usefulness of these devices really can’t be overstated as they’ve given us such missions such as Voyager 1, which has been going strong for over 30 years and is slated to last for at least another 15. This kind of technology is going to form the basis of any mission that attempts to leave our solar system.

NASA has begun to make inroads into producing small nuclear reactors that would be used to power a moon base. For any kind of long duration time in space us humans need quite a lot more power than our robotic counterparts and we won’t be able to use RTGs to satisfy this requirement. Whilst I do understand some of the environmental concerns if I was going to trust anyone sending nuclear material into space it would be NASA, as they have a long track record of getting hazardous materials out of our atmosphere without incident. Unfortunately the environmentalists haven’t seen it that way, and continually put up roadblocks which inhibit progress.

Eventually though I’m sure we will be able to power our space based devices using nuclear power without the worry and red tape that we have now. As time goes by NASA and other space agencies will prove that the technology is sound after repeated launches and the controversy will be nothing but a memory. It is then we can start to look further out into our solar system, and hopefully, beyond.

Scepticism, Liberty and Cognitive Dissonance.

I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a libertarian when it comes to matters of politics and personal freedoms. I strongly believe that for the most part the government or any large establishment generally has no right to poke around in my private affairs unless I’ve explicitly allowed them to first. That or there’s a potential for me to do harm to others through my actions. There’s also this other part of me that can’t stand misinformation like what we see coming from the anti-vaccination movements that seemed to have popped up everywhere. However more recently I’ve been dealing with a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the rising sceptic movement and their dealings with religious folk.

Whilst I’ve been struggling with the idea for a while this video I saw yesterday caused the dissonance I had felt previously to rise up again:

There’s also this post for a little bit more background on the matter.

First off let me say that if I was walking into that creationist museum I’d probably be doing the same thing as their group was doing. When it first opened I saw some of the pictures online I can’t say I didn’t make fun of them (this one is particularly amusing) and I probably would have been laughing the whole way through. Walking into a creationist museum wearing a Dawkins t-shirt was probably stirring the pot a little bit but I’ll concede that they could have reacted in a much more dignified way. But this is where everything starts to get all murky for me as the libertarian and sceptic in me start to duke it out.

The museum itself really isn’t doing any damage to anyone nor impinging on the freedoms of those who visit it. The funding to build the museum came from Answers in Gensis a non-profit organisation who makes do mostly on donations and for all intents and purposes are a transparent organisation. People giving money to them know what they will do with it and there seems to be no ill intent from them. In fact I had never heard of the organisation prior to this date (I somehow missed it in the first press releases) so they can’t be too bad.

Sceptics would probably argue however that the museum itself is a tool to spread misinformation. Now whilst the museum title is a little misleading you’d have to be relatively naive to be able to blast past the fact that this place is firmly rooted in Young Earth Creationists ideals. As such something that states its goals so plainly before everyone can hardly be classified as a tool of misinformation. It would be like saying the National Air and Space Museum is nothing but a tool of the aviation industry, it’s not quite like that.

I guess the problem I have here is that when some sceptics come up against people don’t believe in science is that on the surface they appear to be fighting for fact based reasoning but once you get down to it, they’re just zealots for another cause. I’ve come to realise that sometimes you can never convince someone of your viewpoint and that it is better to just lay out the facts as you see them and then leave it at that. At least that way you’ve had your say, they’ve had theirs and you can all agree to walk away from it. If either of you have a compelling argument it will stick in your opponents mind and you might end up with another ally rather than someone who dismisses your ideas as petty zealotry.

Religion does have its place and I came to accept that many years ago. Destroying people’s faith is not something I’ve seen help a lot of people but if they are presented with some facts and they decide to do some research on their own then that is the true power of an idea. Ravenously campaigning against people’s faith does nothing but strengthen their resolve and the best method of defense is to their the facts stand up for themselves.

Maybe I’m just a pacifist at heart.

Money Money Everywhere But Not A Cent To Spend.

I’m often asked about what’s the best way for people to invest their hard earned dollars so they can have their money work for them. I’d love to say I’ve coached people to make their fortunes out of the stock market or property investments but that’s just not the case. Typically I get as far as asking what their end goal is for investing and never hearing back from them. So today I want to give everyone some ideas and a bit of a framework so that you can go out into the wild blue yonder of investing and make proper decisions about what you want to achieve.

After many long night shifts working at one of my last jobs I ended up stumbling across a few good sources of investment information. The forums are filled with hundreds of people who are either looking to invest or are already well on their way to their financial goals. I spent many of the long 12pm to 7am drag reading through all the articles and asking all sorts of silly questions until I finally came to the conclusion that I needed to approach this just like any other project. The first step is to scope out your requirements.

So what’s the end goal for investing? For myself it’s to build up an asset base that will eventually replace my income and will also give me a lot of leverage so I can maximise my return. A lot of the time people tell me “I just want to be rich” but what that lacks is a real end point where you can call success. I’ve seen people often get too frustrated at not seeing any results early on and giving up on the investing game completely, that’s why it’s important to know your goals and set milestones so you can track your progress.

Let’s take a generic example that’s based off what I want to achieve:

  • Time frame: 5~10 years
  • Risk profile: low to medium.
  • Goal: passive income of approximately $150,000/year (in today’s dollars)
  • Chosen investment vehicle: property for asset base, managed funds or high yield shares for revenue

So the first thing you need to decide is how long you want to be in the game before you achieve your goal as this affects what investment vehicle you should choose. Property is a medium to long term with shares, managed funds, etc are more geared to short to medium term investments. However there’s exceptions with both these rules so you can make a quick buck with property (usually done through “flipping“) and there are many shares which mimic property trends (bank stocks are a good example of this).

Once you’ve decided your investment term the next thing to decide is how much risk you’re willing to take on. Risk is a complicated term especially when it comes to managed funds as it doesn’t mean exactly what most people think it means. For example, a lot of revenue geared managed funds (basically high interest savings accounts) classify risk as the potential for them not to make the targeted yield, whereas risk in direct share purchases is more aptly described as the potential for the stock to lose its value. A general rule of thumb is investments like shares and managed funds are medium to high risk with property being in the low risk area. Again there are exceptions to these rules (as we’ve seen recently) but you can usually guage risk by the return or yield the investment offers. The higher the return, the more likely it’s a risky investment.

Now for the juicy part, where do you want to be at the end of all this? Do you want to replace your income so you don’t have to work? Are you building a nest egg for retirement? Do you have your eye on a Bugatti Veyron and can’t get the finance with your current assets? This is the idea that will drive you through your investment and will be the base of your financial plan.

So for someone like me who is risk adverse, in it for the long game and is looking to leverage as much as he can property was the best investment for me. Once I’ve got my asset base up I’ll be shuffling money into managed funds or similar to get my revenue up, as property is a great leverage tool but not the best for revenue generation. Depending on your situation many of the other options out there might be the best thing for you. So, as always, have a look around at the vast options and use the 3 basic ideas I’ve described here and you’ll be well on your way to financial freedom.

This post does not constitute financial advice and is provided as is with no guarantees, warranties or support. Seek professional advice from a registered financial advisor before undertaking any investment decision.

Life on Other Planets.

Whilst the vastness of space can not be underestimated, as I wrote about yesterday, there is still a lot for us to see out there. If we are to take a blind stab in the dark as to how many stars there are out there we end up with numbers in the ranges of 1024 or 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 (1 septillion) give or take a few hundred billion. Now consider how many of those stars would have planets or solar systems around them. This is where we start to imagine what that big number means for life in the universe.

Before we delve into the wonderful world of potential alien species I want to take you back to 1992. Before this day we could only speculate about solar systems outside our own. For us it would appear obvious that other stars out there had planet systems like our own considering the sheer number of potential stars out there. Even if the chance of generating a system like ours was a 1 in 1 trillion chance there would still be a million of them around. However we’d never actually proved that there were any planets outside our solar system, that was until Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail discovered PSR B1257+12B (romantic I know) the first ever planet to be detected outside our solar system. It was a brilliant discovery at the time as up until then claiming the discovery of a planet was at the very edge of our capability. Several years later with improvements in technology and detection methods many more were discovered, with 358 being totalled to date.

Out of these 74 of them belong to multiple star systems, or approximately 20% of the observations so far. It’s a long stretch to say that 20% of all stars are hosts to multiple planet systems but we could assume 50% (to be generous) or greater are capable of hosting 1 or more planets. This leaves us with approximately 1 trillion potential candidates for planet formation in the universe with 20% of those having multiple chances. If this is sounding familiar to you then you already know I’m describing the drake equation, which attempts to predict the number of civilisations that we might be able to make contact with. So far the most common result of that equation is around 10, meaning just within our own galaxy there are 10 other species we would be capable of making contact with. Slight tweaks of the variables either way swing it wildly, and shows just how little we know for certain when it comes to estimating things like this.

The other side of this is the Fermi paradox which stipulates that despite the evidence to the contrary we haven’t actually managed to find signs of life through either contact or observation. Even our current list of exoplanets doesn’t have one on it that would be capable of supporting life as we know it (although that’s due to selection bias of the methods more than anything else). As the old saying goes absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so we’re stuck at this point until we find some new data that points us in the right direction.

More interestingly is the potential for life within our own solar system. Take a look at Mars and Venus, two very similar planets to Earth that have very different fates. Mars on the one hand was too small to hold onto whatever atmosphere it had at the beginning and the lack of a magnetic field left it to fall prey to the solar winds. However studies have shown that Mars was once home to vast oceans and as such would have had most of the ingredients for supporting life. Since we haven’t found any signs of life yet it’s possible that there was something missing, and as such life never progressed. It is also possible that life died out as the planet’s protective barriers were withered away, but we’ll need to find something like a fossil before that’s even a possible past for Mars.

Venus on the other hand is something of a warning as to what can happen to a planet when it suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. As far as we can tell Venus was very similar to Earth when they both first formed however strong volcanic activity has turned the planet into a hothouse, smothering it in clouds of sulphur and carbon dioxide. This has lead to a surface temperature above 400 degrees putting the chances of life there squarely at 0. This effect also stops us from making extended observations on Venus, so the possibility of it supporting life in the past is hard even to estimate. Curiously as well Venus has what we call a retrograde rotation, meaning that it spins in the opposite direction to every other planet in the solar system. As to why this happened we’re still not sure (and it seems the astrology cranks love harping on about it) although the best guess seems to be a combination of tidal locking forces and solar heating of Venus’ atmosphere.

Taking all of this into consideration you really get a feel for how unique and fragile life is. However, as our planet has shown, the conditions are right millions of different forms of life can prosper. I can not wait for the day when we discover another planet capable of supporting life and I hope that it’s not too far away.

Space: Vast, Complex and Invisible.

For hundreds of years we humans have been staring off into the vastness of space for varying reasons. Initially man looked at the stars for mythical and spiritual purposes, hoping to derive meaning from what they saw up in the sky that they could then apply to their lives. As time went on we began to discover that the sky could be used as an extraordinarily accurate navigation tool that was used for hundreds of years. Even today celestial navigation is still used by modern technology to guide craft that venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere, a tribute to how useful gazing towards the heavens is.

Perhaps the most interesting part about our constant star gazing is that the more we discover the more we find out we don’t know. The following pie chart shows just how what we can see from Earth makes up a small part of the universe:

DarkMatterPie

In essence the visible universe accounts for a mere 4% of what exists with the remaining 96% being made up primarily of dark matter and dark energy. This idea that the visible universe is so small, even when you consider something like VY Canis Majoris, is something that still amazes me even today.

Consider dark matter, something that we’ve never directly observed. If you take a look around the universe you would begin to notice some strange behaviour that you couldn’t explain if the universe was exactly as we see it. Some of the best examples are effects like gravitational lensing where light coming to us appears to be bent around another object. In the case of a dark matter object we can’t actually see the object doing the bending. Whilst this would traditionally lead to a review of classical physics models (and indeed it has) observational evidence like the bullet cluster are giving strength to the dark matter model of the universe.

Even more curious is the concept of dark energy. As far as we can tell the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. For this to occur there has to be some form of energy fueling the process and so far it is best explained using dark energy. By its definition dark energy exerts an outward pressure on the universe which is arguably weak, but it is constant throughout the universe. Current models show that previously gravity was overcoming the outward pressure that dark energy was applying to the universe. However as the force that gravity can exert does not increase as the volume of space increases eventually the force of dark energy took over, and caused the acceleration of expansion.

And herein lies the fun of science. We’re constantly finding out how our view of the universe is incomplete and needs to be updated and changed. We’re only really just finding solid data for dark matter (the bullet cluster analysis is barely 3 years old) and dark energy was coined just over a decade ago. One of my most favourite sayings from all my science teachings was :

The most interesting discoveries aren’t usually eureka moments, they’re more along the lines of “That’s not supposed to happen…”

So after millena of gazing up at the stars the biggest mystery about them turns out to be something that we can’t see. Isn’t that just so awesome? It’s like the universe watching us and waiting until we think we have everything figured out and then throwing us a giant curveball.

Maybe I just like it when secrets play hard to get 😉

Business Intelligence, Green Computing and Virtualization.

On the surface the world of IT seems to heavily focused on the Internet and the current social networking revolution. I’ve ranted and raved about social networking  before but what most people will miss out on are the trends that go on behind the scenes of these web giants. I’m sure all my technically inclined readers will see the above title and groan (as I did when they were first thrust upon me) but there is an interesting story behind each of the buzz terms.

Virtualization is a word that has become a household name in all IT shops. The concept is simple, take one large piece of hardware and carve it up into smaller pieces so that you can get more out of it than if you used it as one big one. My first encounter with this kind of software was for running Linux machines at home for my university projects. I was lucky enough to begin my system administrator career just as virtualization began making headways into large corporate environments and the little experience I had translated into my foot in the door for many large virtualization projects.

Arguably the most successful proprietor of virtualization would be VMware who started way back in 1998 and released their first product a year later. They were my first foray into the world of virtualization and were the ones that I and many others have built our IT careers off of. Many other players have joined the market since then all of them bringing something unique to the market. In essence virtualization enables IT based companies the ability to rapidly expand their business by leveraging their current investments.

Green computing is something I’ve mentioned in the past and is interesting to note that it was probably the next big after virtualization to rock the IT infrastructure world. With people virtualizing and consolidating their resources many found their IT environments using the majority of their resources. This in turn meant that these machines were working harder and using more electricity and cooling. Along comes the green initiative with people looking to cash in on companies who are trying to improve their corporate image and goodwill by taking up a green initiative. Due in part to the economic downturn you won’t hear many people talking up the green-ness of their IT centre anymore, although power usage reduction through technology like blade servers is something that quite a lot of shops are looking at to save costs.

The next big idea that I see coming along is that of business intelligence. I’ve begun noticing that over the past few years end user’s trust in their IT departments has been increasing. As anecdotal as this is the last 2 places that I worked in were initially distrusted by their end users. As time went by I could see the change in the perception in the business areas that I was interacting with as instead of telling me what they wanted they asked what the best solution would be. The business minded amongst us would recognise this as a step up in the capability maturity of the organisation which shifts end user’s expectations away from IT as a utility and more to a service.

Once such abstraction takes place however it is hard for business units to realise the value that IT is providing to the organisation as a whole. Enter the business intelligence solutions that perform detailed metrics on an environment in order to give business minded people the right information in order to make judgements about the direction of their IT environment. As more and more environments mature in their capability these kinds of intelligence solutions are going to become critical if IT is required to justify its existence, just as if it was a profit center.

And yes I know you could play buzzword bingo with this post, but I’ll forgive you if you do 😛