Monthly Archives: May 2012

Marketers, PR Reps and Anyone Wanting to Promote (or Sell) Something: Read This Before You Email Me.

I’m under no delusions that I’m some kind of highfalutin blogger who’s under constant bombardment by corporate suitors looking to peddle their wares through my site. I have however been privy to some things that I wouldn’t have had a chance at otherwise had I not kept on writing for all these years so I’m somewhat familiar with the usual process of how an initial email will turn into something concrete. However it appears that there’s a lot of people out there, some of them possibly genuine, who have no idea how to contact even low end bloggers like myself in order to get some coverage. Today I’m going to lay my cards on the table and detail the response you’ll get should you ignore them.

Firstly I have a public email address that I published on this site with the primary intention of giving people an easy access avenue to me should they want to chat, comment or approach me for some kind of business related venture. It was also something of an experiment to see just how much spam I’d get through it and for the record it’s basically none (current queue is 71, all handled well by Gmail). You can feel free to email me at that address with whatever it is you want to talk to me about and I’m pretty much guaranteed to respond to it within 24 hours. If you don’t get a response it’s likely you’ve violated one of my cardinal rules, ones that if broken I’ll at best ignore you and at worst make sure I waste as much of your time as possible.

For starters you need to address me in the email, not Admin or webmaster or TheRefinedGeek or whatever your spam program uses, just me. That’s my initial sniff test to filter for carpet bomb emails but I’ve also simply deleted other emails which were possibly genuine just based on the fact that they couldn’t take the 2 extra seconds to find the About page and find my actual name. To date everyone I’ve had a successful blogging relationship with has managed to find my name without issue so if you can do the same you’re guaranteed to not get thrown into the trash along with all the other spammers.

Most importantly, and pay attention here because violating this rule will get you on the “waste this sucker’s time” list, you have to actually understand what this blog is and how you might fit into its overall picture. It seems that after I put the magical words “guest post” into my long time friend’s Call of Duty review people think it’s open slather for writing something on here. I’m am most certainly open to people writing guest posts on here but I’ve turned every single unsolicited one down so far simply because they want to write something that’s just not what this blog is about, nor I think my current audience would find particularly interesting. What this says to me is that you’ve done some kind of Google search for blogs that have posts with a title containing the words “Guest Post” and then emailed them hoping you could peddle your wares to. Just read 2 weeks worth of posts here and you’ll figure out if the article you have in mind is a good fit for here and then ask yourself why you want it here and not on your own personal blog.

These rules aren’t particularly rigorous so if you’re a real person looking to make a connection or a blogger looking for a place to show your writing to a wider audience you’ll have no problem complying with them. The spammers and idiots however will continue to trip them up, usually failing at the first “say my name, bitch” step. I might not be a bigshot blogger but I have standards and respect for the work I do and if my standards are too high for you then I’m sure you can find a home among all the other spammy blogs that will welcome you with open arms.

Budget 2012-2013: We’ve Got a Surplus…And?

Ah it’s budget time in Australia and like all the budgets before it everyone was hanging their hopes that X program would get some funding or Y scheme would see the changes that were so “desperately needed”. I always wonder why certain interest groups get so upset when their particular interest isn’t catered to, I mean if the government has made any announcements or commitments to them then you can hardly be disappointed that they didn’t come through. For the most part though there’s usually one or two stand out issues that everyone was waiting to see what the government would say on them and this year the question was whether or not Wayne Swan could deliver a surplus he promised all those years ago.

From what I’ve read there’s nothing particularly shocking or controversial about the budget, it’s all fairly routine stuff. There are some interesting points though like the government’s plan to cut 1.2% of the public service force with a third of that coming from the Australian Tax Office. It’s a small decrease but most years see the public service swell rather than diminish. With that small of a cut I believe that for the most part it will simply be attrition that will see those numbers decline rather than people getting fired, although for the organisations facing a bigger cut like the ATO I’m wondering just where the cuts will be made (especially considering they’re getting an additional $378 million in funding).

There’s also some major cash injection the low to middle class battlers of Australia. For starters there’s a tripling of the tax free threshold from $6,000 to $18,000 a good boost for those low income earners. People on welfare payments will also receive a bi-annual boost that’s due to begin in March next year further helping the unemployed and no/low income earners. Families have also seen a boost in the form of the SchoolKid bonus and an increase to the Family Tax Benefit A. These moves have been labelled as a vote buying maneuver and I tend to agree with that point of view as I’ve been told in the past that many Australian middle class households effectively pay little to no tax, but I’ve struggled to find any evidence supporting this viewpoint.

The big question that everyone was asking before the budget was released was whether or not the Labor government could make good on its promise of returning the budget to surplus in this fiscal year. With the current budget projections we’re looking at a surplus of $2.5 billion by the middle of next year. It’s a rather slim surplus, something on the order of fractions of a percent of total GDP but it’s there none the less. It’s a rather big deal as Swan will be the first Labor treasurer to deliver a surplus since Paul Keating back in the 1989/1990 budget. Personally I don’t really get what the hoopla is all about as whilst its nice to a have a surplus it’s not exactly a bad thing when a government runs a debt.

I’m your kind of standard Keynesian kind of guy when it comes to economic policies. Running a deficit isn’t a bad thing so long as the government is doing so for a reason and has the capability to pay off portions of it once the need for the deficit has alleviated. The current eurozone crisis is an example of how deficit spending can go woefully wrong but Australia isn’t as poorly managed fiscally and the debt we’ve been running wasn’t really that large and we were more than capable of paying it back. Hell take a look at Japan who’s debt is over 220% of its GDP but do you hear any about them having debt issues like Spain, Greece and Italy? Not in the slightest and that’s the reason why a deficit isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I do agree with the idea though that we should run a deficit during the tough times (like the Global Financial Crisis for instance) and should look to remediating it when times are good but I personally don’t think that we should have a surplus for surplus’ sake. Whilst there’s no pressing need right now for the government to spending gobs of cash and thus a surplus is warranted I get the feeling that they’re just doing it so they can say “Hey look we’re in surplus” rather than taking a long term view of where Australia’s financials are heading.

As for me personally? Eh, nothing amazing in the budget for a young-ish married man who’s got a good paying job. All the talk of them scrapping things like negative gearing and what not did have me worried for a little while but realistically I can’t see any government going after that particular tax break unless something is really dire. Returning to surplus will appease some of the more fiscally conservative voters and the splashes for families will help Labor build their approval rating, something that they’re desperately in need of right now. Everything else isn’t really that exciting, but that could just be me becoming cynical in my late 20s 😉

Anthropogenic Climate Change: There’s Really No Debate.

It was about 2 weeks ago when I was driving home from work when Triple J’s current affairs program Hack came on the radio. The topic of the day was climate change and it caught my ear not because I’m terribly involved in the movement (although I have blogged around it on 4 separate occasions in the past) but because it was leading up to a program I had seen advertised on the ABC called I Can Change Your Mind on Climate. The show pits Anna Rose, a noted environmental activist, against well noted (and much derided here on this blog) former senator Nick Minchin, a climate change skeptic/denier. The program was to focus on them travelling the world and meeting with experts from their side of the argument, in the hopes to swing them to one side or the other.

The idea intrigued me as whilst I was once a person who could be at best described as a climate change agnostic (I didn’t have enough information to sway me to either side) actual research into the phenomena showed that the evidence was unequivocally for it happening and that us humans were to blame for it. Thus I wasn’t so interested in Anna Rose’s side of the argument as I’m already sold on that, but I was intrigued to see what kind of experts Nick Minchin could dredge up to support his claims. Unfortunately due to work commitments I didn’t catch the show but from what I’ve heard neither gave any ground and objectively Minchin did more harm than good by the experts he chose.

That would’ve been the end of it but the show came up in conversation yesterday. To my surprise it was met with much derision even though I thought that it was for the most part bad for Minchin and great for everyone else. Their issue wasn’t so much the program but with the format in which it was presented, pitting one side of an argument against the other. Whilst this might appear to be the fair and balanced way (snicker) of discussing the material at hand it is in fact portraying a situation that simply doesn’t exist.

The one that there are 2 legitimate sides to this argument.

Anyone who’s not familiar with the current state of climate science watching such a program would believe that there’s still an ongoing debate on whether or not climate change is man made. Scientifically speaking this is far from the truth as 97% of scientists surveyed (of a total of 489) support that view point. Of the 3% that don’t agree with that view point most of them were not in an area related to climate research which takes the overall percentage of climate scientists who believe climate change is man made much closer to the 100% mark. The current debate is around what the impact will be and its severity, but with shows like the former you’d still think that the scientists are out on whether or not we’re at the center of this environmental problem.

This is the problem with representing opposing views with equal standing to a public that only gets its information from a single source. It’s highly unlikely that someone undecided on climate change would come away from such a program thinking that they needed to research it more. Instead such programs would either reinforce currently held beliefs (whether for good or bad) or simply leave them in the agnostic state they were in to begin with. It may be time for the government to go on an climate change denier campaign in much the same way as they’ve done for smoking as there’s just as much scientific evidence to support both.

Realistically I know I’m preaching to the choir here but posts like these (my piece on the anti-vaccination movement being one of them) seems to attract the kinds of crazies that I’m hoping will do a double take and think about their current position. I know that it’s a hard sell for those guys, most will just dismiss this post outright, but if I can get through to some I’ll consider it a success.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP: Clever In Some Regards, Painful In Others.

I’m something of a sucker for pixel art games. It’s probably the nostalgia factor that does it for me, harking back to a time when it was my brother and I eagerly hammering away at the latest game we’d got usually after an intense begging and pleading session with our parents. At the same time I think the medium has evolved past what it was back then as it used to be the only way in which you could do graphics for games. Today it’s more a tool of choice as decent level graphics is well within the reach of even the smallest independent studios. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is yet another independent release that has chosen the pixel art route for their point and click action adventure, one that I had heard much about but only got around to playing last weekend.

You are only known as The Scythian, a stranger to the lands who’s been sent to accomplish a woeful errand. What that errand is and your motivation for doing so is left up to the imagination and the first session of Sword and Sworcery instead focuses on teaching you the basics of the game and setting up the few NPCs you’ll meet along the way. They’re rather unimaginatively named Girl (a Girl), Logfella (a guy who cuts logs) and Dogfella (a dog). Your first mission sees you summit the Mingi Taw (a local mountain) and retrieve a book known as the Megatome, a powerful spell book. From there you continue on your woeful errand following the will of the almighty cursor god.

The artwork of Sword and Sworcery is a curious blend of good old fashioned pixel art highlighted with more modern artistic effects. The modern aspects fit in well though being used mostly as emphasis in order to portray something in a certain way. Additionally any UI elements including things like the overlays and title screens are done in a non-pixel art way giving the seemingly retro game a modern feel when played. I’m no pixel art purist so the blending of the new and old styles of computer art work well and don’t seem to be at odds with each other like I thought they would be at first glance.

Much like Botanicula before it Sword and Sworcery has put a lot of effort into the music and foley that backs the core game play. The starting scenes serve as a kind of audio test to make sure that your sound system is working correctly as whilst none of the puzzles really require sound you’re missing out if you don’t have it on. For me though it was the music more than the foley this time around that did it for me as the music felt original whilst the foley felt like it might have come from a stock sounds library. Still it’s not like they’re terrible, just that the music was the standout of the two audio aspects of the game.

The core of Sword and Sworcery is a good old fashioned point and click adventure with a heavy aspect on exploration. Sword and Sworcery actively encourages you to click around the screen to figure things out and after a while also has you swiping around the place to see if things will react. As a seasoned gamer I find it somewhat interesting that players have to be told to explore, it feels like second nature especially to someone who grew up on such titles, but I can see how this game would be frustrating to someone who had never encountered the genre before. This was perhaps more likely for Sword and Sworcery as its initial release was on the iPad, home to the casual gamer who’s usually not terribly familiar with traditional game conventions.

The puzzles are, for the most part, pretty straight forward and can usually be uncovered through clicking and swiping around wildly should the answer not hit you immediately. Unlike its point and click ancestors Sword and Sworcery isn’t a game that relies on you finding all the required items and then rifling through them in order to find which one unlocks the next section, which I was very grateful for. There are definitely more innovative ways to make puzzles rather than throwing out all the pieces randomly and having you attempt to find which piece goes where at what time and Sword and Sworcery does so in a way that’s both fun and challenging, for most of the time at least.

Whilst I was able to get through most of the puzzles without too many dramas there were a couple occasions where I got stuck. Now this wasn’t the usual thing of not completing a certain puzzle (this was the dark moon trigon part if you’re interested) but after breezing through all the puzzles I was then left wondering where to go next. After clicking around everywhere I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where to go and it wasn’t until I randomly clicked on a little ledge by accident did I find how to progress further. I’m fine with hiding puzzles in plain sight but if a player has been stuck on something for more than 10 minutes it usually means the puzzle logic isn’t entirely clear as the developer thinks it is. I’m also willing to admit that I’m just thick and couldn’t see the clues but as far as I could tell it wouldn’t be obvious to most (and judging by the Steam stats on the game I’m one of the very few, 7% of people in fact, to have actually finished the entire game).

Combat is a very simplistic affair, something that’s a trait of adventure games everywhere. If you don’t go stray too far from the predetermined course that the game has plotted for you it’s unlikely that you’ll see combat more than 5 or so times throughout your play through. However when I misinterpreted what one of the NPCs said I was treated to quite a few of the combat encounters as I struggled to get back on course. This wouldn’t have been so bad had the combat encounters not been near identical, serving as just a time waster rather than an actual challenge.

The same can be said for the boss fights as whilst they’re all slightly different they are for the most part the same. You’ll do the same Zelda: Ocarina of Time style tennis match with each trigon until they decide you need to do it again but faster this time. After that its the same series of quick time events (bar 1 which is unique to that boss fight, the only real difference in any of the fights) making sure that you press your shield at the right time whilst swiping away anything that gets close. The whole thing would’ve been made a lot more pleasurable if the game had mentioned that you could press and hold the shield to regen health, something that wasn’t revealed to me until I was out of health replenishing mushrooms and had to start the boss fight on 1 star of health.

I could forgive all these quibbles should the story have been interesting but I just couldn’t get into it. One of the biggest aspects of the game is that it has built in Twitter integration, allowing you to tweet any section of dialog. This means that all lines are less than 140 characters and I felt the dialog suffered because of this. It also didn’t help that it swung wildly between tongue-in-cheek style humor and actual meaty dialog, ostensibly because the humorous parts were meant for Twitter whilst the other sections weren’t. I felt the Tweeting thing was clever at first but later on it became painfully aware that it wasn’t a novel way of integrating social media it was just another way to market the game, one that was paid for by a terrible story.

All together Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery felt like it had equal parts good to bad. The final 15 minutes or so were quite enjoyable, probably the most enjoyable of the game, but it was preceded by several hours of samey combat, puzzles that were not satisfying and a story that felt like it was built as a marketing engine rather than an actual story. I really wanted to like Sword and Sworcery, I really did but the glaring faults (not least of which was the “wait 2 weeks to get the next trigon bullshit”) distracted from it so heavily that I can’t really recommend you go ahead and buy it, unless you’re a die hard point and click fan with a support the indies streak.

Rating: 5.0/10

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery is available right now on iOS and PC for $5.49 and $7.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 3.2 hours of total play time and 64% of the achievements unlocked. I also managed to get the #honest achievement with cheating as well, just don’t set your clock back until you finish the game.

Galaxy S3 Announced: Samsung Focusing Heavily on Software.

It wasn’t long ago that I got nerd chills from the speculative specifications of Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S3. I think that was mostly due to the micro arc oxidation video that someone had linked to when it was speculated that the case would be some form of ceramic. The specifications were also none too shabby either although I was curious as to how Samsung was going to squeeze in such a massive display yet still keep the trim and taught design philosophy that has been a signature of the Galaxy series. After a torrent of leaks, rabid speculation and uncertainty about the actual announcement date Samsung has finally announced the Galaxy S3 at the Mobile Unpacked event in London.

I’ll have to be honest at first glance I wasn’t really thrilled with the design of the new Galaxy S3. I mean it’s not exactly ugly, the minimalistic  front panel is in essence the same as nearly all its predecessors, but the softer, more rounded edges are a step away from the much sharper corners of its predecessor. The glossy back plate is also something I’m not entirely in love with either as the textured back of the S2 is something I’ve come to appreciate after using it for an extended period of time. Apart from those two complaints though I’ve got a feeling it will be a very nice handset to use, being only slightly thicker than the S2 (8.6mm vs 8.49mm) with another half an inch of screen size that boasts a much higher resolution.

Spec wise the Galaxy S3 is a pretty large jump up from the S2 in nearly every aspect. The dual core 1.2GHz Exynos processor has been replaced with a quad core 1.4GHz giving the S3 an incredible amount of computing power. The graphics card stays the same in name only as whilst Samsung isn’t releasing anything official on it yet some early benchmarks show that its easily beating out its predecessor by a wide margin and even takes the top spot in a number of tests. The most noticeable improvement though is of course the giant Super AMOLED screen that’s 4.8 inches across and is packing a resolution of 1280 x 720 (720p). Strangely though the RAM and cameras both remain the same as the predecessor so I’m guessing both of them classified as good enough and weren’t in need of any physical improvements.

Whilst the hardware is impressive it’s quite obvious that it was not the major focus of Samsung’s announcement; that honor belongs to the software.

The Galaxy S3 comes loaded with Android 4.0.4 that’s been modified with Samsung’s usual TouchWiz interface. Now I was a fan of that in the beginning, it definitely eased my transition into the Android world coming from an iPhone, but the stock ICS experience is very good so Samsung has their work cut out for them when it comes to improving on that. From what I’ve seen so far they’ve deviated heavily from the stock interface I assume mostly to enable the additional features they’ve integrated but I’ll guess I should wait and see them for myself before I pass judgement on them.

From a usability perspective Samsung has added in a few features that will make the phone much more user friendly. “Smart Stay” will recognize when you’re looking at the phone and adjust the brightness accordingly. This is similar to the auto-dimming feature on other phones but this goes a step further by looking for your face so it knows when you’ve put the phone down. Samsung has also duplicated Apple’s Siri in what they’re calling “S Voice” but has gone deeper with the platform integration, enabling you to do things like say “snooze” to delay an alarm. Finally “Smart Alert” (everything of theirs is smart apparently) will recognize when you’ve missed a call and have picked up the phone since, vibrating and putting the alerts front and center.

Samsung is also trying to make sharing between S3’s and other devices easier through their S Beam app which builds on the Android Beam present in ICS. In essence its a high speed data transfer program that works between Galaxy S3 handsets, utilizing both WiFi and NFC to get some pretty decent speeds (5MB/s from what Samsung tells us). Their AllShare Cast and AllShare Play features are also quite interesting allowing S3 owners to share video simultaneously between them or even wirelessly transmit their screen (usually a game) to say the lounge room TV. Whether those two features will prove useful however is something I’m not entirely sure about, but it is a rather novel little feature to include with the new handset.

Is this handset enough to tempt current S2 owners to pony up for the latest handset? Hard to say, I’m still only 9 months into owning mine and whilst I do have a serious amount of nerd lust for the specs of the S3 I’m not 100% sold on it yet. The heavy focus on the software is probably what is making me hesitant as whilst I found TouchWiz to be great for an iPhone user coming across to Android land I’ve since fallen in love with the stock ICS experience. I have no doubt that the people over xda-developers will eventually make a ROM that contains the best of both worlds so I can have my cake and eat it too but then again I’m not your typical Samsung user. In that regard then I think that the S3 will have more than enough to tempt current owners across, and I’m probably just talking tough right now in order to keep up some blog cred 😉

The Sound of a Shuttle Launch.

It’s getting close to 2 years ago now that I was waiting in Orlando desperately hoping that I’d get to see the Space Shuttle Discovery launch in person, only to have it ripped away from me. I take solace in the fact that it was one of the longest launch delays in the Shuttle’s long history and whilst I didn’t get to go and see it when it did launch all those months later I did watch the online stream and my heart was renewed. Ever since then I’ve wanted to know what the experience would have been like and today it looks like I got my wish.

An enterprising  YouTube user has set out to accomplish just that, and it’s magnificent:

Playing it back on my meagre Logitech speakers was impressive enough so I can only imagine how it will go with a proper sound system. I’ve scared the cat enough today with just the first play through so I’ll probably lay off it for a little bit but suffice to say it’s an impressive recreation of what it would be like to be at a shuttle launch. I certainly got nerd chills listening to it.

A $500,000 Bet on BitCoin.

It’s no secret that I’m somewhat bearish when it comes to BitCoins. Fundamentally I think the idea is sound as cryptocurrencies have the potential to revolutionize the currency and exchange industry in the same way the Internet did for the communications. The current implementation though is plagued with non-technical problems mostly due to how easy it is to influence the price with transaction volumes that aren’t particularly large. Transaction volume has been increasing however and when this is coupled with conversion stability we will have the potential for cryptocurrencies to move out of the tech niche they’re in and become a fully fledged means for transferring wealth around the world.

Getting BitCoin to work then relies on making it a desirable currency to use in place of more traditional means. For the most part people have focused on using it either as an add-on to their existing business (we now accept BitCoins!) or creating a new business from scratch based solely around the idea of using BitCoins. If I’m honest the latter feels like people seeing BitCoins as an opener to their 4 Hour Work Week style businesses which, especially if their only distinction from the competition is accepting BitCoins, don’t do too well in today’s aggressive market place.

Apart from these types of businesses and the ancillary ones that surround every currency (exchanges, banks, gambling sites, etc.) I hadn’t really seen much innovation in the BitCoin space right up until I read an article about CoinLab.

CoinLab is in essence a library for game developers that allows users to generate in game currency in exchange for using their idle compute power to mine BitCoins on the network. The idea is that oing this will net the companies much more dollars per user than advertising or micro-transaction due to the seamless nature of it and the tendency for people to do almost anything to get something for free. The idea isn’t particularly new, there have been many products that have paid users to use their extra computing power, but the integration with BitCoins certainly is. The question then becomes how sustainable such a business model is and going off the fact that CoinLab just netted $500,000 from investors to prove the idea would lead you believe that there’s some merit to this idea.

The last few months have been rather good for BitCoin with the price being stable at around $5. Additionally the transaction volume has remained relatively steady showing that there’s base level demand for the currency that can be depended on. This works in CoinLab’s favour as a business model that was viable during the speculative bubble last year would not be long for this work, but at a stable and predictable rate of conversion you’re far more likely to hit on a sustainable business rather than a flash in the pan. What’s working against them however is the increasing difficulty built into the system which will make generating new coins harder over time.

This is somewhat counteracted  by increasing user numbers which gives you more compute power and thus more chance at getting coins, but it’s the difference between the two that will be the deciding factor in how far the business can scale. The end game for such a company would eventually be a transaction processing house using their legions of computers as a big exchange network and taking transaction fees instead of mining but whether that’s sustainable or not is a question I don’t yet have the answer to. It will be very interesting to see where CoinLab goes with this and I hope they’re as open with their figures as the rest of the BitCoin industry has been thus far.

BitCoins are definitely a catalyst for new kinds of innovation in an industry that’s typically been glacially slow to integrate with new technologies. Startups like CoinLab are doing the hard yards to make cryptocurrencies viable for everyone else by increasing the base transaction volume so the price isn’t as susceptible to wild manipulation like it was in the past. I may still be bearish on the BitCoin idea but many of my initial complaints are starting to be overcome through innovative uses that I hadn’t once thought of. I’ll be watching developments in this area keenly and who knows, I might even dive into it myself.