Monthly Archives: August 2010

Blogger? Well Sir, I Guess I am.

A couple weeks ago I was out and about on a Friday night, having birthday drinks with my brother-in-law-in-law (we both married into the same family, so I guess that’s the right term). Although I’ve met quite a few of his friends before there were a few there that I hadn’t and of course he did the introductions. He started with my name but instead of leaving it there he also mentioned, before anything else, that I was a blogger and the topics that I write about. This was the first time that I had been introduced to anyone in the real world as a blogger and I must say it was both startling and thrilling all at the same time.

For starters I’d never really used the term to apply to myself instead identifying myself by what I do as my day job (IT guy or, if pushed, virtualization specialist) and then usually mentioning that I blog during the week about things that interest me. Blogger in my mind conjures up an image of someone who does this thing at the very least semi-seriously with either the passion to write about something they love or they’re in it for the money. As I’ve mentioned a few times before this blog began more out of a necessity to chronicle my misadventures in joining the grass roots political movement No Clean Feed. However after writing on a few things that interested me and having people say how much they liked them I made it part of my weekday ritual to post about something, sometimes to my detriment.

With the 2 year anniversary of this blog fast approaching it really goes without saying that yes I am in fact a blogger, even if I don’t identify myself as one. Whilst this blog has always been somewhat of a side project it’s still taken up a good chunk of my time over the past 2 years and anyone will tell you that if this site is down I just can’t do much else until its back online again. It’s also works as a great talking point for all the like minded individuals that I may meet in my travels with the added thrill of competition when you start comparing metrics just for the hell of it.

I guess why I shied away from the blogger title for so long was because I’m not really a part of any of the blogger communities. I mean I’ve got quite a few blogging friendsbut they’re all people I know in real life, not ones I made through blogging. Honestly this kind of behaviour is pretty typical of me as whilst I love to dive deep into many subjects I often don’t get involved with the communities that much, mostly because I already spend quite a bit of my time doing other things (which are right now Starcraft 2 and programming). That’s not to say that I don’t want to be a part of them, far from it, it’s probably more that I don’t feel like I’ve got anything of worth to add to the community. At least nothing that I’m not already doing with this blog.

There’s also the scatterbrained approach to my subject interests which makes slotting into a blogging community rather irksome. I write about many things that interest me but I try to do it in a way that would be a least semi-interesting to the wider world. Although the numbers really do speak for themselves with my most popular posts being my game and product reviews, an article about the Internet filter and an aptly timed and titled critique of the iPad. Indeed if I’m honest those are probably some of the most enjoyable posts I’ve written and I’m glad that people enjoy reading them. It does break my heart sometimes when an article I feel really proud of doesn’t generate any responses but it’s part and parcel of any endeavour. All that pain is forgotten in a heartbeat when something I write garners just a single response, either online or in real life.

Does this mean I’ll be introducing myself to people as a blogger from now on? Probably when I’m in like minded company but still I find it hard to say that I am a blogger when its more of a hobby than anything else. I do enjoy the writing and exposure that it grants me and realistically a good chunk of my identity can be traced back to my writings on this site but still I’m just a regular IT guy who takes the time to write to no one in particular almost every day. Maybe one day I’ll take a title like social media extraordinaire when a large group of people start hanging on my every word but until then I guess I’ll settle on saying that I’m a part time blogger.

Yeah, that seems to work 😉

When All You Have is Twitter, All Your Problems Look Like Tweets.

The old saying goes that when you have a hammer all your problems look like nails. I first heard this saying quite late in my life, during a university lecture with one of my more inspired professors. He used it after describing one of his former classes who, enamoured with the latest and greatest chip from Motorola, sought to use it to solve every assignment they were given no matter how much shoehorning it took. The example is counter to all the proper engineering principles you should be taught in university as you should first gather requirements to solve your problem and then find a solution, never the other way around. This also implies a level of critical thinking when tackling any problem rather than rushing in head first in an attempt to solve the problem.

In my career however the opposite has proven to be true more often than it should be. Working on the supply side of the equation whenever a customer came to me with a problem I could do nothing but suggest our product as a solution, lest I gain the ire of my supervisors. Jumping the fence to the other side (where I’ve spent the vast majority of my career) many “skilled” system administrators have one technology they know well and will never stray from that path. Depending on how much sway they have with the decision makers you can end up in quite the mess when all your problems are only half solved by an inappropriate product. Just ask anyone who’s tried to implement SAP or maintain Lotus Notes.

The same can be said for social networking tools. The serivce of choice today is Facebook whether you like it or not as they have the most users and therefore has the highest potential usefulness out of any the applications out there. For many people then Facebook is the medium with with they will communicate with the outside world and those be damned who don’t check their feed regularly to keep up to date with them. In essence Facebook has become their hammer to all their online problems and whilst it does a good job at solving quite a few problems it’s not the be all and end all of social based tools.

As of right now I’d consider myself an active user of at least 4 (well 5 if you include this blog) different social tools that all serve very different purposes. The first is of course Facebook which I use primarily for things that concern my direct social circle. Sharing pictures, video and anything else with friends and family is so much easier when I can just tell them to look at my wall rather than trying to explain how to view them elsewhere (even the gallery on this blog was far too confusing for many of my family). The second is Twitter which I find perfect for putting out those short updates that used to constitute my Facebook status updates. The difference is that anything I put on Twitter I want to be public whereas Facebook status updates aren’t usuallyfor general viewing. Of course I have the two interlinked but that’s purely for convenience sake, since not all of my friends have a Twitter account, nor do the majority that do actually use it.

The last two are Foursquare and YouTube. Now neither of these tools have a good chunk of my social circle in them but they both still solve a particular problem, even if it isn’t that big of a deal. Foursquare was (and still is really) a curiosity, something I got into after hearing gobs about about it and wondering what the hell all the fuss is about. Realistically all I was doing with it was appeasing my inner hipster that craves to be in on something before it gets cool and my use of Foursquare reflects that. YouTube on the other hand is something that I’ve come to appreciate after diving into the community a little more and getting a feel for the whole thing operates. In the future I’ll be using it to chronicle my various adventures overseas and product demos for my up and coming products, something it appears to be aptly suited for.

Every one of these tools I’ve described has some overlap with each other but for the most part none of the overlap is their core focus. Facebook could quite easily replace YouTube as a platform for disseminating videos amongst the wider public but it just not as good as YouTube. I could use Twitter to distribute pictures to my friends (and I do from time to time) but without Facebook integration most of them would go completely unnoticed. Each of these tools has a very specific purpose in mind and that’s why I’ll continue to use most of them.

This idea that a specific tool designed to solve a certain problem is what drove me to create Geon in the first place. Being able to go to a location and find out what’s going on there whether by viewing the information available or asking someone in the area isn’t solved by any of the currently available tools. Sure there are similar products (and one that if you didn’t know any better would swear was in fact Geon built by someone else) but they all go about it in a way that I don’t believe actually addresses the issue. Thus I have resigned myself to build the hammer to hit this particular nail, and in that hopefully build something of worth for everyone else.

Does this mean I think everyone should be using a raft of different services to do everything? Hell no. For the most part tools that accomplish several things work quite well for those who don’t have the time nor want to use other more appropriate for the task at hand. Thankfully this usually means that they just use Facebook which has done a good job of levelling out the learning curve on new features. Still for those of us who have specific use cases in mind there are tools available that will accomplish our goals much more efficiently, rather than bashing our heads against our platform of choice to get it to work the way we want it.

Be Good to Your Salespeople.

My very first ever job was working for the Australian electronics chain called Dick Smith Electronics which I started at the tender age of 14. I got the job in a very serendipitous encounter as after being told that I was no longer allowed to spend my parent’s money (blowing a good $600 on a new computer) we had spent a day driving around to all the various first job places and handing in applications. For one reason or another I wanted to head over to DSE to look or buy something and the sign out the front said they were taking applications. My mother, managing to bypass the incredible amount of teenage angst and my then self defeatist attitude, encouraged me to apply. A couple months later saw me starting my first day of a job that would last 6 years making me the longest serving member at my shop, outliving 5 bosses and countless workmates.

In my time there I had my share of great and not-so-great encounters with various customers. After the first year or so of being a under-confident teenager working in a grown up world I started to come into my own as a technology obsessed geek who knew far too much about all the products in his store. It worked well for the store I was in as we would of attract those people looking for the forms of esoterica that we sold, mostly electronic components. I did my best to learn enough to get by when people asked for certain components and eventually became quite knowledgeable thanks to learning by immersion. That still didn’t stop some people for getting frustrated at me for not knowing something and this is where I started to take offense.

I thought I was pretty damn good at my job, especially after being there for 3 years. Customer complaints about my service were few and far between with only a single formal complaint ever being lodged. I also developed a reputation for being “that electronics guy at the Fyshwick store” who other stores would send problem customers to in order to get their problems solved. Sure there were times when I didn’t know something but realistically I was a teenager working in an electronics chain and I could hardly be expected to be an electronics engineer ready to solve every problem. That didn’t stop some customers from blowing their tops at me for not knowing a certain specification or refusing to design a circuit for them and that led me to develop a simple rule that I’ve applied in every shopping expedition I’ve been on.

It’s simply “be good to your salesperson”.

Working in retail is a pretty laborious job. You’re standing for a good portion of the day, have to deal with all sorts of people with varying levels of understanding of what they want and are expected to be an expert on everything in the store. Sure it’s by no means hard especially if you’ve got a modicum of interesting in the things you’re selling but as with any public facing position it seems like there’s a subset of society that’s out to make your life a living hell. Especially when you try to enforce a company policy that doesn’t seem all that fair but our hands are tied. We’re there to provide a service to you and most of us are good people trying to do a job. You don’t make that any easier if you come in with an attitude.

So whenever I’m out to buy something I’m usually pretty nice to the people serving me. You’d be surprised how far a little kindness can go with these people, especially if you’re coming in at a busy time of the year. The more the salesperson likes you the more likely you are to get a good deal too, as we don’t feel as bad giving discounts to genuinely nice people. Of course I also have a pretty strict rule of if they’re an ass to me I immediately walk away from the store as there’s no point favouring those who won’t return a little common courtesy.

If you’re involved in any form of sales, whether on the selling or receiving end, it pays to be an honest and genuine person with those on the other side of the fence. If you don’t think the retail stores don’t know enough to help you out then stick to online stores since you’ll get a better price, won’t have to deal with other people and won’t bother those poor staff who don’t know as much as you. However if you’re looking for a little bit of product knowledge and maybe want to have a play with a product before buying it remember, be good to those serving you and I’m sure they’ll respond in kind.

This is The Space Age.

Even though I only discovered a real driving passion for space a couple years ago I’ve always been fascinated with the night sky and the beauty that it holds. I spent many nights out on my parents farm just staring up at the sky that was littered with stars and punctuated by our celestial sister, the moon. Being an avid science fiction fan for as long as I can remember the thought of journeying into space was always something I dreamed about, hoping one day to visit alien worlds and maybe one day venturing to other stars.

My real passion was sparked by the idea that sometime very soon anyone who wanted to could travel to the final frontier. Suddenly my boyhood dreams of floating weightlessly out in the cold void of space were no longer a thing of fantasy, they were tangibly real. I spent hours upon hours researching the technology wanting to know every detail of how they did it. I found myself lost in a world that I had ignored for so long, a place where science fiction was becoming science fact right before my eyes. I then resolved myself to becoming a part of this anyway I could and all my actions since then have been focused towards supporting my end goal of escaping the earth’s gravity well.

However I never once thought that anything short of a large enterprise would be able to accomplish such a task that first inspired me down this path. The idea wasn’t foreign to me though as I’d always held the somewhat romantic idea of building my own spacecraft to get into orbit. I squarely place all the blame for this idea on my first ever encounter with Star Trek, which was in the form of the movie First Contact. Still it seems some people were far more inspired than I was by similar ideas and they’ve gone ahead and built their own spaceship:

Copenhagen Suborbital’s HEAT rocket and Tycho Brahe capsule ready to launch. Credit: Copenhagen Suborbital
It’s something like the movie “Astronaut Farmer,” but this is for real. And it’s in Danish. Copenhagen Suborbitals,headed by Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, hope to launch the world’s first amateur-built rocket for human spacetravel. As of this writing, the launch countdown clock on the Copenhagen Suborbitals’ website reads 7 days and 12 hours, which would put the launch on August 30 at about 1300 GMT. This upcoming flight will be an unmanned test flight, but if all goes well, Madsen hopes to be inside the single-passenger capsule named Tycho Brahe for a manned flight in the near future. They have a sea-launch site on the Baltic Sea near Bornholm, Denmark, and their HEAT 1-X rocket is ready to go.

The team has been building their rocket since about 2004. Copenhagen Suborbitals is a non-profitendeavor, based entirely on sponsors and volunteers. Their mission: launch a human being into space. If they are successful, Denmark would become only the fourth nation to send a human into space. But this project is completely private – no national funds have been used. “We are working fulltime to develop a series of suborbital space vehicles – designed to pave the way for manned space flighton a micro size spacecraft,” said Madsen and von Bengtson on their website.

It’s this kind of endeavour that just leaves me gobsmacked at the ingenuity and dedication that we humans are capable of. Running the entire operation on donations and volunteer time would make you think that such a project would never get the legs needed to actually design, build and test a rocket capable of carrying someone into space. They’ve done what I had considered to be firmly out of the reach of the everyman but their work shows that we’ve really transitioned into the space age, where those with the drive to do so can build their very own space ship.

The craft itself is something to marvel at. Looking like a tiny version of many of the larger launch systems available they take the interesting option of having the single passenger of the craft standing up. All human carrying spacecraft to date have had their passengers sitting down or laying supine. This is because the forces acting on you as you launch can be quite hefty and the human body can take a lot more force when it’s strapped down than when you’re standing up. However for Copenhagen Suborbitals the choice to have the passenger stand up means the rocket can be quite a lot slimmer. This does mean that the thrust of the rocket had to be scaled back so that the forces on the passenger were reduced, but they’ll still be pulling a hefty 4Gs.

For propulsion they use a hybrid rocket motorsimilar to the ones found in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. These are arguably the defacto choice for cheap and small space endeavours as they have many of the characteristics of more expensive engines (restartable, throttling) at a fraction of the cost. Copenhagen’s engine differs from Virgins in that its oxidizer is liquid oxygen rather than nitrous oxide which is interesting as LOX requires cryogenic storage, far more complicated than N20. Still LOX would provide a better specific impulse so the choice was probably made for performance reasons (I can’t seem to find the reasoning behind the switch on their site).

With the launch scheduled for just a few days from now I can’t wait to see how this rocket performs and I wish them all the best in the first full test. It’s projects like these that reaffirm my passion for space and inspire me to chase my dreams, however ambitious they may seem. With such talented people working on these problems and solving them in such interesting and varied ways I know we’re already well into the space age and the next decade will only see things get better.

Damn it’s a good time to be alive 😀

Ah, I Love The Smell of Competition in The Morning.

I don’t think I’ve gone a few weeks without having to catch my heart in my throat when I see a new web service that closely resembles Geon. A year ago I had the confidence that no one was doing anything like what I was thinking of and as such the target audience I was going after was all mine. More recently though there have been a few services that began to encroach on my territory but for the most part they were far enough away that I could write them off as filling a different niche. This morning however saw a product come out that is basically identical to the core concept of Geon’s idea of “What’s going on there?” so you’d think I’d be sitting here wringing my hands with worry.

The thing is though I’m chomping at the bit to beat them at their own game.

This isn’t the first time a location based communication app has managed to cross my path. The first such one was called BlockChalk, an interesting idea about leaving messages around your block for other people to find. They appear to be quite mature as well, their iPhone app is solid and they even have an API that’s pretty open. I initially stumbled across them in my first search for data feeds that had geo meta data in them and almost lost it when I started browsing the service. Still they’ve been around for a while and they didn’t appear to be garnering a lot of trafficor media attention nor did they have some of the capabilities that I was planning to integrate into Geon. They’re on my watch list (especially considering the talent they’ve managed to rake in) but in reality they just proved that there was a market for something like what I was developing, always a good sign.

This morning however saw the launch of a new application called Qilroy and I’ll be damned if these guys aren’t right up my alley:

Qilroy, a Qualcomm Service Labs-incubated project, launches today as a platform that groups tweets and other status updates by location. Like “calling a payphone at the mall,”Qilroy introduces a concept called peer-to-place communication, which enables multi-platform conversations to take place from anywhere in the world.The name is a Qualcomm take-off of “Kilroy Was Hereand the service lets users share their location with others and also see a visual of all the conversations happening around any location. Users can type in any zip code or place like “The Eiffel Tower” or “Athens, Greece” for instance and interact through the Qilroy platform, Facebook or Twitter with anyone in that location who is sending open updates from Twitter, Foursquare or Gowalla.

Aggregating information feeds based on location? Allowing users to post messages to a location? Yep either this is a case of finding independent inspiration or someone has been reading my blog over the past couple years and implemented the idea quicker than I could. I’m tending towards the former though as the service shares many core principles that I’ve discussed on this blog previously but there are several differences that separate us. Most notably they’re looking a lot like Twitter, opting to farm out the additional services (like picture hosting) to others in order to keep their service simple. They’ve also made the smart move of letting you start conversations through other mediums in Qilroy which will break down the initial barrier of getting a user to install yet another application. I’d say it’s a decent attempt at the location based communication idea (despite its launch day woes) and I can see people using it.

But don’t think that means I’m giving up on Geon. In fact this has made me more convinced than ever that I’m onto something, and that it’s the best out of the lot.

I’ve been keeping the latest version of Geon on the down low for a while now, alluding to the fact that I had completely dumped the last design (there’s a picture of it somewhere on this site, see if you can find it!) and codebase in favour of revamping it with a focus on the core idea of finding out what’s going on at a certain location. It’s come along quite well with many features that I’d put off for a long time now in the application and functioning as expected. In fact the web client is almost complete at a core level meaning that I’ll be working on the iPhone application in the next week or so with a private beta to follow shortly after. All I really want to say at this point is that whilst I may have solid competition in the form of BlockChalk and Qilroy I know can beat them at their own game. Their presence confirms that my idea has a tangible market and that only motivates me to do more.

So my competitors, even though I know you probably won’t see this post until long after I’ve launched my application hear this: I’m gunning for you. I might not be the best developer, best business manager or best anything out there but I’m determined to build this product that’s been rattling around in my head for almost two years. Anyone who knows me will tell you that if I’m determined to get something done it will happen, by hook or by crook and I’ll be damned if anyone other than me becomes the king of this location space.

Game on.

Starcraft 2: I Soar on the Wings of Liberty.

What can I say about Starcraft that hasn’t already been said? The game was released over a decade ago and is still the definitive standard for what a real time strategy game should be. I can remember my times with it fondly, playing through the campaign as it was laid out before me, savouring every mission and becoming wholly engrossed in the story. Years later I would return to the game to play it online with a friend of mine, my first taste of real competitive online gaming. I became hooked on custom maps, playing everything from RPGs to the first versions of tower defense. As the years went on Starcraft remained on my hard drive and nearly every LAN I would attend saw it copied around and played for at least a couple games. Truly Starcraft was the game that just would not die and it’s sequel has been the talk of my friends for the past couple weeks. Its legacy is undeniable and a lesser game development company would struggle to keep to meet such expectations. Blizzard however is not one to disappoint.

Starcraft 2 takes place 4 years after the events of Starcraft: Broodwar. You play as Jim Raynor, former Vulture pilot turned revolutionary after his former leader Arcturus Mengsk wiped out an entire planet using the Zerg. The plot initially focuses around Raynor’s desire to overthrow Mengsk, who he now believes to be worse than the confederate leaders that came before him. This sets the scene for the initial set of missions as you set about building your army by gathering resources, completing missions for credits and finding new units with which to proceed forward. Each mission is given to you by one of your crew mates and they serve to build the characters as the story progresses.

The mission delivery format is completely different from the usual affair you might be familiar with in the RTS genre. Whilst most would simply limit you to certain units until after a number of missions were complete Starcraft 2 instead gives you the opportunity to choose which units you receive next as well as the upgrades that they receive. This can be both a blessing and a curse as some missions are trivialized by certain units whilst others require a certain unit to be able to complete some objectives. Additionally the game includes a Zerg and Protoss research tree which you can unlock by finding items or killing a particular unit during a mission. The upgrades unlocked from this tree are game altering and depending on your choices can make the difference between a mission being a breeze and it being nigh on impossible.

The upgrade and non-linear missions ensures that everyone’s play through of Starcraft 2 will be quite different, ensuring that even if you only play the campaign you’ll have a good few replays before the game is done. Whilst there’s always a strategy that trivilizes a mission the infinite amount of possibilities for completing an objective had lead to quite a few entertaining stories with my Starcraft playing friends. I think most of my missions past a certain point can be summed up by the quote: “Siege tanks are like violence, if they don’t solve the problem use more”.

Starcraft 2’s non-combat experience really draws the game together. Whilst you only have 4 places to visit most of the time the interactions between they never seem to get stale as their landscape changes as you progress through the campaign. The interactions with various members of your crew between missions helps to flesh out the characters and their motivations and nearly all of the decision moments in the game were influenced by these short bits of dialogue with my crew members. There’s nothing to lose by not interacting with them but if you’re a lore sponge like myself you’ll be clicking on every crew member after every mission, eagerly awaiting what they have to hear.

All of this would be for naught if the game play itself was nothing special. In the beginning the differences between Starcraft 2 and its predecessor are almost all graphical which is no small feat in itself. Each and every map is deliciously detailed in true Blizzard fashion, using every polygon to create a stylized but highly engrossing world. All the controls you’re familiar with from Starcraft work as expected in the sequel with many augmentations to make handling large groups of units far easier. All the units and buildings will be instantly recognizable as well with the new units and augmentations giving you enough variety to feel like you’re playing Starcraft but not one that’s just a revamp of its predecessor.

What really seals the deal for the single player campaign of Starcraft 2 is the absolute uniqueness of every mission. Throughout the 26 missions that you’ll play through each of them has something different that will force you to rethink the usual “build big army, attack move to enemy” strategy that got you through other RTSs. From avoiding a rising lava tide to robbing a train to preventing (or not) Terran colonies from being purged by the Protoss you’ll always be trying to figure out the optimal strategy for taking out your opponent. Taking the last mission as a great example of this the list of strategies I have for finishing it are probably the most varied of any game I’ve seen before. It really is a testament to Blizzard’s ability to build a complex and intriguing game.

I initially lamented the idea of including achievements in the game as I viewed them as just something that “has to be done” these days, rather than something that enhanced game play. For most games this still rings true with many achievements being quite pointless and merely serve to try and increase the replayability of the title. Whilst achievements weren’t my foucs whilst playing through the missions initially I’ve found myself going back to get the achievements simply because they make you a better player for doing them. Many of them require careful force management or using carefully planned out strategies to accomplish the goal. I’m still under half of the achievements done but I can see myself coming back to finish them off for a long time to come as a single mission can be done inside 30 mins.

If there’s one thing we can attribute the original Starcraft’s longevitiy to it’s the multiplayer. Blizzard spent years tweaking and refining the multiplayer and it shows as it was one of the few games that anyone could call truly balanced. Starcraft 2 is no exception as whilst I’ve only just dipped my toes into the revamped I quickly lost 4 hours on a saturday night playing 10 matches with one of my long timefriends. The party system and new socially focused interface made connecting with fellow Starcraft players extremely easy. Whilst I lament that they’ve removed LAN play I can see the reasoning behind it since the interface is so heavily integrated with Still they’ve thought of nearly everything from keeping the last 10 replays (since you never always remember to save the ones you need to) to make getting into a match no harder than a couple clicks and waiting for the match to begin.

What really binds this entire game together though is the story that Blizzard has masterfully crafted into an epic tale of redemption, love and loss. Each and every character is exteremely believable, all having their own motivations for being involved with Raynor’s quest. The interactions between the characters are real and there’s distinct growth for all of the major players as the story unfolds. I can’t really talk about it much more without spoiling any points that I feel you must experience on your own but rest assured Blizzards reputation of telling great stories with amazing games is not let down by the first installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.

I must also commend Blizzard for their 3D artists and animators. I’m a stickler for motion capture as the technology is at a point where it shouldn’t be hard to get it right. Starcraft 2 stanmds out as an example of not only getting it right but doing it so well that I didn’t even notice how well it was done until I took a step back to analyze it critically. The movements of the characters and units are fluid and most importantly they get the lip syncing spot on with the dialogue. After the disaster that was Alan Wake’suse of motion capture I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Blizzard’s work. Additionally the full cinematic sequences are tear inducingly good with the attention to detail surpassing that of what I’ve come to expect even from 3D film production houses. I don’t think I’d be able to contain myself should Blizzard ever state they were going to make a full length movie of any of their franchises.

Starcraft 2 is one of those shining examples of a game where everything about it stands out as an example of how things ought to be done. The story and gameplay make for an extremely enjoyable single player experience that will provide you many hours of enjoyment even after you’ve completed it once. The multiplayer just plain works and once you’ve had your first taste of victory you’ll never be able to look at the shortcut on your desktop again without thinking about diving in for “one quick match”. Overall I can’t recommend the game enough for those who enjoyed the first Starcraft and wholeheartedly recommend anyone who considers themselves a gamer to play the game through at least once. 12 years is a long time to go between releasing a game but Blizzard has managed to make something that justifies the long wait and I can’t wait to see the next installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.

Rating: 9.9/10

Starcraft 2 is available right now exclusively on PC for $79. Game was played on the Hard difficulty for all missions with approximately 30% of the achievements acquired in the first playthrough and around 18 hours of play time.

Facebook Places Might Just Change My Mind.

So I’ve got a thing for information that’s got some location meta data, that’s no secret. You’d then think that I’d be drooling over all these hot location based applications that are constantly popping up all over the place but for the most part I’m indifferent to them. That’s not to say I don’t know about them, I probably know more about them than what’s considered healthy, just that I can’t seem to find a use for them no matter how hard I try. I’ve been on Foursquare for quite a while now and whilst I have a few friends on it there’s not enough of them to make the service useful nor interesting, especially when most of them only check-in when they see me doing it.

I mulled this over recently with an old friend of mine who’s also been on the service for a while and he echoed my sentiments. Whilst Foursquare might be growing users in other locations its popularity here made it something of a non-event, even amongst those who were inclined to try something like that out. We both agreed that if more people were using something like Foursquare its utility would increase dramatically but couldn’t see it happening any time soon. The idea of Facebook doing something in this space had been around for a while but with no word from them on what they were doing (apart from outside speculation) I put it all down to rumour milling.

That was until just recently when Facebook released their Places application.

Now whilst the service isn’t available here in Australia yet there’s been enough coverage of it in the news to get a good idea about what it actually entails. For the most part it’s the barebones features of all the popular location applications, just good old fashioned check-ins. The only  innovative part that Facebook deserves credit is for being able to check-in friends with you which, whilst sure to draw the ire of your more private friends, helps to reduce the real anti-social part of checking in. Apart from that you wouldn’t be far off the mark from calling this Foursquare without any of the game aspects, except for the fact that it’s more appealing than its predecessors.

The biggest hurdle to overcome with any new social application is one of a critical mass of users¹ and Facebook Places solves this by having all my friends as potential users of the application. I’ve had a tough time trying to convince other people to use yet another social app at the best of times but rarely have I heard about a new feature on Facebook before one of my social circle is using it. The check-in a friend feature also means that I can basically goad them into using it by tagging them when we’re doing something together and if they don’t appear in the check-in I know that they’d rather not participate. It’s quite an unobtrusive way of getting people into the check-in mindset.

I’m interested in seeing where they take the application from here. Facebook have shown that they want to be more active in the location space but don’t seem to be too interested in trying to dominate it. I say this because at their launch event they had all the big location players there with them to talk about the future of location now that Facebook was getting involved. Realistically it looks like Facebook is taking aim at being the platform for check-ins and letting others do the hard work of innovating around it. Mostly this is because they want to own the check-in data which will make them more valuable to their advertisers and investors. They’re also transferring the risk of developing check-in based applications to third parties and you can bet your bottom dollar that if any of them make a killer feature that Facebook has to have they’ll be knocking at their door, cheques in hand.

 I might not see more of my friends venturing out into the fringe world of social applications but I’m sure I’ll have a few of them checking in as the feature makes its way down under. Facebook has demonstrated yet again that the big players aim to be the platform of the Internet and the small players are the ones that innovate around them. As the service expands I can see it becoming the defacto place for place information, fulfilling that vision of a grand central database someone had not so long ago.

¹You could also argue that something that has utility can also drive adoption as much as critical user mass does. I’d agree with that since the only reason I got into Twitter was to join this blog to Facebook and the social part came a long time later. A great example of an application that’s popular because of its utility first is Evernote although its recent popularity could easily be attributed social factors.

Terraforming Mars.

If there’s one idea that will never die it’s that of turning one of our sister planets into a habitable world to call our own. My head has been filled with the possibilities thanks mostly to me finally sitting down to watch Cowboy Bebopafter being told to do so for almost 10 years. However long before I discovered my passion for space exploration I’ve always wondered about the possibility of transforming a world into the lush paradise that we now call Earth. It may surprise you to learn that the science of terraforming a world is quite solid, although it does require feats of engineering on the scales the likes of which we have never seen. Still over the past couple years I’ve developed a theory about how we could go about terraforming one of our sister planets, Mars, into a lively vibrant world.

Mars was once a place not too unlike earth. Studies have shown that vast oceans once covered a great deal of the planet’s surface and that it had an atmosphere much thicker than the one it has today. However Mars is much smaller than our earth and is also quite a distance further away from the sun. Consequently Mars’ atmosphere was stripped away by solar winds and the core of the planet cooled very quickly further accelerating the planet’s geological death. Today all that remains are vast deserts of rust and a tenuous layer of carbon dioxide but that doesn’t mean the planet is beyond saving.

Now whilst Mars wasn’t able to hold onto its original atmosphere that doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of doing so. On a human timescale the atmospheric loss due to solar wind erosion would be quite minimal on the order of 100 tons per day. When the total mass required to give Mars a livable atmosphere is on the order of 7.2 x 1017Kgsuch a loss would take many millennia to have any effect. The issue is of course how we get such enormous amounts of matter up into the martian atmosphere, and this is where things start to get a little dreamy eyed.

In my view comets are the answer to this question. Many of them are large balls of water ice with many other compounds and gasses trapped inside them. Additionally many of them are quite large in mass, on a similar order of magnitude to that of the gas required to make the martian atmosphere livable. Using a small space craft acting as a gravity tugwould allow us to steer some of the comets of our solar system on a collision course with that of Mars. The most optimal solution would be to get the comets into orbit around the red planet and slowly de-orbit them so that the majority of their composition ends up in the upper atmosphere however this requires a lot more energy to achieve. There is the possibility that some may already be on course for such a collision (like Phobos and Demios appear to have been) but the best hope to get such materials onto the planet is to smash it right into Mars.

Over time the materials would sublimate and begin replenishing the martian atmosphere. Eventually, with enough materials bombarding the planet, it would develop a climate and greenhouse effect. In order to ensure that the atmosphere was livable there would have to be a much higher amount of greenhouse gases to make sure that the reduced heat from the sun was more efficiently captured. Most comets contain decent amounts of methane which would help greatly with this process. Additionally the water ice from the comets would form the beginnings of large bodies of water which would be used to form the beginnings of an ecosphere.

One of the largest problems that the planet would face after this would be the intense amounts of radiation that Mars recieves. Whilst the new atmosphere would provide a bit of protection the vast majority would still get through. My solution would be in the form of small magnetic field generators to protect areas that will play host to the various seed lifeforms used to continue the terraforming. This is much more realistic than the proposition of restarting Mars’ core which requires unfathomable amounts of energy. Such generators could be powered by photovoltaics or small nuclear reactors with many of the raw materials being mined on site.

The next step is to seed the planet with simple forms of life which would be the building blocks for larger beings like ourselves. Many plants have shown incredible resilience to extreme environments like lichens and certain types of moss. Additionally the soil of Mars has shown to have ideal properties for growing fleshy plants such as asparagus which could form the basis of a sustainable on planet food source for an initial colony. In the more “tropical” parts of Mars it might even be possible to use something like Kudzu who’s less desirable properties here on earth make it a perfect candidate for creating a sustainable biosphere on the red planet.

Realistically such a process would likely take something on the order of centuries to complete as the various different stages would require some time to reach equilibrium. However each stage of the process is theoretically possible and some steps (like gravity tugging comets and local magnetic field generators) could be implemented with today’s technology. Mars makes a prime candidate because the environment there, whilst harsh, is quite a lot tamer than the other alternatives like Venus. Whilst I’m sure that something like this won’t get off the ground in our lifetimes I can already see the beginnings of the technology that makes this all possible and I know that one day, whether by desire or necessity, humanity will attempt this mega engineering feat.

Image used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported from user Ittizon Wikipedia.

3D Cinematography is Still an Art.

I can still remember my first 3D experience in a cinema, it was almost a decade ago now when I was in Tokyo Disneyland. My then only recently acquainted friend and I were in deep teenage angst about our current predicament having exhausted most of fun out of the place in a few hours, with our stay not scheduled to end any time soon. Having heard about this 3D show called Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! (don’t judge me) I dragged him along to try and past at least some of the time we had remaining. The show itself was quite a spectacle with the floor being able to move around and many other real world effects to augment the 3D. The actual movie itself was pretty dull and the 3D effect, whilst impressive at the time, really didn’t do a lot for the movie. My memory may have been sullied by the fact I wasn’t feeling too good that day but it was several years before I went out of my way to encounter 3D again.

My mind was changed when I saw James Cameron’s Avatar. Whilst I had troubles with the gear at the cinema it still didn’t detract from the experience. There were a few obvious “we’re doing this to remind the audience that they’re watching 3D” but for the most part the effect enhanced the story and greatly increased the immersion I felt. After seeing the movie I became somewhat obsessed with the technology behind such a feat, researching the different methods and finding out just how such a movie was made. I went as far to say that our next TV purchased had to be 3D, because really anyone serious about cinema would have to have it.

I think I underestimated just how wrong the world could get 3D. Just like the initial buzz that surrounded 3D movies that came out almost a decade ago nearly every recent major theatrical release has had the option of being viewed in 3D. Worse even are some films that have restarted filming just to start using 3D, wasting months of effort. I can kind of understand when it’s a completely CGI film and the 3D option is just another day or two of rendering time (well, probably more than that) although the effect is debatable as most 3D films tend to have a flat focus. The fact is that whilst 3D has been around for a while filming for it is still in the realms of “black art” and very few have mastered the technique.

Cameron managed to do quite well in Avatar as his dedication to bringing 3D into the mainstream had given him extensive experience in using the technology. Two of his mostly unknown documentaries were shot using 3D many years before Avatar graced the silver screen. Many of the directors who are now scrambling to use 3D for their movies have no such experience and as such the results have been quite underwhelming. The fact is that since regular cinema has been around for well over a century many of the nuts and bolts of it have been worked out. 3D on the other hand poses a whole new set of challenges to overcome and getting the basics right is still mostly art.

Sure there’s still an element of art to regular cinema as well (note I’m not talking about the plot or anything that both 3D and regular cinema share) but with such a rich history to draw on it’s a far simpler task to create a certain feel with traditional cinematography than with 3D. Notably whilst you still have depth of field in regular cinema when venturing into 3D it becomes a whole different ball game as you’re manipulating the end user’s DOF rather than just the camera’s. Additionally the use of things that jump out of the screen, whilst a cute reminder that we’re watching 3D, can easily serve to break audiences out of the movie. With 3D being so young all these variables that haven’t got a well defined sweet spot can easily swing a decent movie to a 3D disaster, something which I’m sure we’re all familiar with.

Until the industry learns that 3D is a tool with which to enhance story telling and not just something that “has to be done” we’ll continue to see films that incorporate the technology just because they feel they have to. Hopefully the 3D fad won’t last much longer and it will then be left to the experts to define and curate their art which will flow on to future works. Whilst I haven’t changed my mind about getting a 3D TV (it seems I won’t really have a choice soon anyway) I more than likely won’t be buying 3D media for quite some time. Not until the industry and technology matures at least.

The Data Authenticity of Geo-Social Networks.

The last couple weeks have seen me make some pretty amazing progress with the new version of Geon. I’ve settled on a name for the service, managed to get a 4 letter TLD to host it under and the Silverlight client has seen a massive redesign that drove a complete rework of the underlying API. It’s been quite a learning experience and I’ve encountered quite a few problems along the way that have served to give me some insight into the issues that the big guys probably had when they were first starting out. Whilst the system currently only has a user of one (well 3, the Anonymous user, myself and a friend’s identity I stole to test out some features) I still got to thinking about the authenticity of my data and how I was going to manage that.

I first encountered this when I was coding up the login system for Geon. Originally it was based around the built in Windows Communication Framework Authentication Servicewhich, whilst being a down right pain to get working initially, provided all the necessary security for my web application without me having to think about how it got the job done. Unfortunately though this wouldn’t work too well when I moved away from the .NET platform, namely to either Android or the iPhone, as they don’t have any libraries that support this. So as part of my complete client redesign I thought it best to not rely on anything that I couldn’t use on my other platforms and that meant building the Silverlight client as if it was a mobile phone.

In all seriousness I would’ve been completely lost if I hadn’t stumbled upon Tim Greenfield’s blog, specifically this postwhich outlined the core ideas for implementing a secure login system that uses RIA services. After doing some rough designs and mulling the idea in my head for a couple weeks I got a working implementation of it a couple weeks ago, allowing a user to login without having to rely on the built in Microsoft frameworks. Initially everything was looking good and I went ahead coding up the other parts of the application thinking that my bare bones implementation would suffice for the use cases I had in mind.

However after a while I began to think about how easy it would have been to a nefarious (or just plain curious) user to be able to wreck untold havok on my system. You see the login function needed 4 parameters: the user name, password, IP address and whether or not this session should be remembered next time the user visits the page. The IP address was for security as if someone manages to get your session ID they could theoretically use that to hijack your session and do all sorts of mean things with your account. In my implementation the IP address was passed up as part of the request which meant that anyone looking to perform a session hijack would simply have to pass up the valid IP for that session and I’d be none the wiser. Realising that it would be an issue I implemented server side IP detection which would make it quite a lot harder to get the magic combination session ID and IP address correct, making my service just that more secure.

This got me thinking about the authenticity of the data which I was going to be collecting from my users. I’m not putting any limitations on where people can post but I’m going to be flagging people as “out of area” when they’re posting or responding to something that’s not near their current location. However since I want to make the API open I have to make the co-ordinates part of the update request which will unfortunately open it up to the possibility of people faking their location. Not that there would be a whole lot to gain from doing so but if my feed reader has taught me anything recently its that the geo-social networking space is constantly grappling with this issue and there’s really no good solution for it.

There seems to be two schools of thought on the idea of data authenticity when it comes to the location space. The Foursquare approach is one of mostly indifference as whilst they have a cheater code to deal with people trying to get that elusive mayor title they seem to have no problem with those who check-in where their friends are or if you create a fake venuefor others to check in to. I’m not surprised at their reaction as both of those kinds of behaviour mean people are using their service and are finding new, inventive ways of using it which could potentially translate into new features for their service. The second is of strict “no fakery here” policy that Gowalla has taken with their 6 commandmentsof their API. Whilst they’re still opening themselves open to abuse the no tolerance policy on it suggests that they value data integrity much higher than Foursquare. Clamping down on fake check-ins would mean that their data is more reliable and thus more valuable than Foursquare’s but that comes down to what you’re using it for, or who you’re selling it to.

Personally I’m in favour of the Gowalla route but only because there’s little value in faking location data in my application. Sure there are potential scenarios where it might be useful but since I’m not placing any restrictions (only identifying out of area people) I can’t really see why anyone would want to do it. That might change when I put in the social game mechanics in  and I actually get some users on the service but that’s a bridge I’ll cross when I come to it. Right now the most important thing is trying to get it out the damn door.

I’m hoping that will be soon as once I get the core in I get to buy a Macbook Pro to code on, yay! 😀