Monthly Archives: August 2013

Papers, Please: Arstotzka Welcomes You.

I’ll have to be honest when I say that when a game comes at me out of no where I have a tendency to shoot them down. All those hours spent shuffling through the Steam store looking for games to review has shown me some pretty oddball titles and after a couple not-so-great experiences I’ve come to cast a skeptical eye in their direction. Just because a game tries something new or different doesn’t necessarily make it good and whilst I (and many others) might deride the generic indie 8bit styled platformer puzzler which has become the norm these days developers of such titles do seem to have better hit rates. Still after a boozy night I, along with a close mate, watched a good hour long Let’s Play of Papers, Please and I can say this unique game gets a lot of things right, especially when it comes to forming a compelling narrative.

Papers Please Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Congratulations, the screen reads, the October labor lottery is complete. Your name was pulled. For immediate placement report to the Ministry of Admission at the Grestin Border Checkpoint. An apartment will be provided for you and your family in East Grestin, expect a class 8 dwelling. With that you’re thrown into your new job as an admissions officer for the border to Arstotzka with little more than a handbook to guide you through all the rules, regulations and potential threats that might cross your path. Whilst these rules appear to be easy to apply at first they become increasingly blurry as you learn more about the people coming through the border and the greater geopolitical landscape.

Papers, Please has that familiar pixelart style reminiscent of old adventure games. It makes use of a decidedly dreary color palette done obviously to create that oppressive Soviet-esque feeling that permeates throughout the game. One thing that really stuck with me in the game was some of the foley for the various things you do, just routine things like stamping and moving paper around, I’m not sure exactly why it did although it could be that with everything else being so dark and drab those sounds seemed so much more joyful than they really were. That’s probably the only thing that marks the game as being from this generation as otherwise it wouldn’t be out of place was it released 15~20 years ago.

Papers Please Screenshot Wallpaper Your Old Friend

The basic premise of Papers, Please couldn’t be anymore boring: you’re a border agent charged with verifying documents before granting people access to your country(indeed my wife asked me if I was “Playing DMV” when she first saw me fire this game up), Arstotzka. Essentially this entails taking the documents given to you by immigrants, checking them over for errors and then, based on the evidence you have in front of you, deciding on whether or not to let them in. In the beginning it’s rather simple as you’re only required to verify obvious things like the dates being current and the details on various documents matching each other but as time goes on the rules start to get rather complicated and there’s all manner of things that could be wrong that you probably won’t notice the first time around.

Indeed thanks to watching an hour or so of someone else playing Papers, Please I was able to breeze through the first couple days without much of a hassle. That started to change however as other documents started being added to the mix as any additional document was always a chance for something to be out of line. Worst still is that when you’re introduced to a new mechanic, such as seals potentially being forged, you’ll instinctively scrutinize that aspect very closely in the beginning (and the game will usually throw you an example of the new rule as the first immigrant of the day to test you out) which will lead to you missing things in other areas. I can’t tell you how many times I let someone through only to find out that I’d missed something as obvious as their gender not being correct, giving me a citation.

Papers Please Screenshot Wallpaper Killer Sideburns

Of course this would be a rather hollow exercise if you didn’t have some kind of motivator pushing you to cycle through as many of these as you could and Papers, Please gives you one that works beautifully but is also incredibly dark. You’re the sole income provider for your family, tasked with paying the rent and providing them with heat and food. For each applicant you process successfully you’ll receive 5 dollars and in order to keep your family happy you’ll need to process at least 10 of them a day. That sounds easy right? Well you have a time limit and when that clock starts flashing you start wondering if you’ve done enough and that’s when you start making mistakes. Of course there are opportunities for you to supplement this income should your moral compass be flexible enough to accommodate it.

This is where Papers, Please starts to shine as whilst the mechanics are solid enough to carry it on its own (there’s a reason why the developer included an Endless mode) the narrative that drives it is by far some of the most compelling and depressing that I’ve encountered in a long time. Whilst the choices seem arbitrary initially, like whether or not to admit someone based on what another person has said, you’ll quickly find out that your actions have consequences with many of them not being a simple case of if I do X now Y will happen later. Indeed even if you try your hardest to avoid any kind of conflict you’re likely going to find yourself being pushed into a corner where you’ll have to make a choice that you don’t entirely agree with but will have to do if you want to keep on playing.

Papers Please Screenshot Wallpaper Discrepancy Detected

PLOT SPOILERS AHOY!!!

When I first started playing Papers, Please I decided that I’d be a by the book kind of guy, ruthlessly applying the rules as they were given to me so that there was no conceivable way I could get into trouble with anyone. This works, for a while, until I got into the uneasy position with The Order where they gave me a truckload of cash. Of course being by the book I denied the second agent from getting in and of course a couple days later I find myself in jail. No worries I thought, just let him through and then I can go back to being the guy I wanted to be, and so I did but that was just the beginning of my moral compass turning south as from that point I started to make more and more compromises until I got to the point where I was just doing everything I could to survive and that’s when things started to get really hairy.

I found myself weighing up bribes and how many violations I had remaining for the day to see what I could get away with in order to make the maximum amount of profit. Whilst I tried to keep myself as moral as I could, like hanging onto a watch for a guy when he said he’d be back for it with all the required paperwork, if there was an opportunity for me to make money I’d take it. This reached a fever pitch when I was told I’d be audited soon as I knew that’d be the end of me so suddenly my objective of just surviving turned into a no holds barred approach to get me and as much of my family out of there as soon as I could. Thinking back over it I’m really quite surprised how quickly I changed from being a cold, uncaring border agent to someone who’d do anything as long as the price was right, even though I couldn’t point you to a time when everything changed.

My god, is that how it happens for people doing this in the real world? I don’t even want to think about that…

YARRRR PLOT SPOILERS OVER!!!

Papers Please Screenshot Wallpaper Arrested

Papers, Please is a true gem of a game, one that could have easily been considered a top notch title based on either its core mechanics or its driving narrative. The combination of both produces an intoxicating game that draws you into its dark world and refuses to let go, forcing you to rethink how you’re playing it and to question your moral compass, whichever way it points. I could go on but honestly its a game where your experience with it will be quite unique as you navigate your way through the moral hazards, political traps and unrelenting drudgery that is the world of Papers, Please.

Rating: 9.25/10

Papers, Please is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 5 hours with 23% of the achievements unlocked. Glory to Arstotzka.

Moon Sand (Contains No Actual Moon).

I’m sure I’m not alone in being someone who loves playing around in the sand at a beach even though I’m pushing 30. My friends and I always seem to end up building some kind of sand castle whenever we all make our way down there even though we usually have no intention of doing so. There’s probably some nostalgia at work there, I mean almost everyone has great memories of playing the sand as a child, but I’ve also been told it’s actually quite therapeutic something a cursory stroll through Wikipedia appears to verify. However bringing the beach with you is usually frowned upon (What do you mean I can’t make sand castles on the carpet??) but it seems like there’s a pretty awesome substitute in the form of Moon Sand.

It’s a pretty awesome substance, one that’s been around for some time from what I can gather, as it emulates the properties of wet sand pretty well without requiring water. I haven’t been able to track down the exact polymer that they use (confusingly the hydrophobic sand I blogged about also carries the name moon sand) but it seems a workable substitute can be made with good old fashioned corn starch. That does require water however which leads me to believe that the polymer they use has some non-Newtonian properties to it as that’s exactly what you get when you mix corn starch and water. If I could find the exact polymer they’re using (searching for non-toxic non-Newtonian polymers didn’t give me any viable leads) so if you happen to know what it is I’d be keen to hear from you.

One of the interesting points that came up in my research to this is people wondering whether or not this would be anything like real moon sand. Strangely enough the surface of the moon is coated in a layer of what you could classify as sand but it’s formed quite differently and it’s called regolith. Sand on earth is made by rock being slowly eroded away, typically by some form of moving water. Regolith on the other hand has rather violent origins with its primary mode of creation being through impacts on the surface by meteors. That’s why you don’t have regolith on earth as the amount of impacts required to generate it simply don’t happen (thankfully) due to our atmosphere. The moon on the other hand isn’t so lucky and gets bombarded constantly with generates the layer of dust upon it.

However that regolith isn’t composed of worn particles like sand is, instead the base structures are typically jagged and this actually became an issue with the early sample return missions to the moon. Those jagged particles stick to everything they and actually punctured the vacuum membrane on the sample return jars, contaminating them. More interesting still is that regolith appears to be highly reactive as Armstrong and Aldrin (and many other astronauts) reported smelling gunpowder after completing their moon walks something that wasn’t reported by scientists studying the samples back home. Moon Sand by comparison is quite inert and not at all abrasive.

Now I just need an excuse to buy some of this. I mean it’d be completely normal for a near 30 year old to do this, right?

Microsoft’s Surface RT: It’s Nice, But…

Just like any new tech gadget I’ve been ogling tablets for quite some time. Now I’m sure there will be a few who are quick to point out that I said long ago that an ultrabook fills the same niche, at least for me, but that didn’t stop me from lusting after them for one reason or another. I’d held off on buying one for a long time though as the price for something I would only have a couple uses for was far too high, even if I was going to use it for game reviews, so for a long time I simply wondered at what could be. Well whilst I was at TechEd North America the opportunity to snag a Windows Surface RT came up for the low price of $99 and I, being able to ignore the fiscal conservative in me and relent into my tech lust, happily handed over my credit card so I could take one home with me.

IMG_3901

It’s quite a solid device with a noticeable amount of heft in it despite its rather slim figure. Of particular note is the built in kick stand which allows you to sit the Surface upright, something which I’ve heard others wish for with their tablets. It’s clear that the Surface as been designed to be used primarily in landscape mode which is in opposition to most other tablets that utilize the portrait view. For someone like me who’s been a laptop user for a long time this didn’t bother me too much but I can see how it’d be somewhat irritating if you were coming from another platform as it’d be just another thing you’d have to get used to. Other than that it seems to be your pretty standard tablet affair with a few tweaks to give it a more PC feel.

The specifications of it are pretty decent boasting a WXGA (1366 x 768) 16:9 screen powered by a NVIDIA Tegra3 with 2GB RAM behind it. I’ve got the 64GB model which reports 53GB available and 42GB free which was something of a contentious point for many as they weren’t getting what they paid for (although at $99 I wasn’t going to complain). It’s enough that when using it I never noticed any stutter or slow down even when I was playing some of the more graphically intense games on it. I didn’t really try any heavy productivity stuff on it because I much prefer my desktop for work of that nature but I get the feeling it could handle 90% of the tasks I could throw at it. The battery life also appears to be relatively decent although I have had a couple times where it mysteriously came up on 0 charge although that might have been due to my fiddling with the power settings (more on why I did that later).

Since I’ve been a Windows 8 user for a while the RT interface on the Surface wasn’t much of a shock to me although I was a little miffed that I couldn’t run some of my chosen applications, even in desktop mode, notably Google Chrome. That being said applications that have been designed for the Metro interface are usually pretty good, indeed the OneNote app and Cocktail Flow are good examples of this, however the variety of applications available is unfortunately low. This is made up for a little by the fact that the browser on the Surface is far more usable than the one on Windows Phone 7 enabling many of the web apps to work fine. I hope for Microsoft’s sake this changes soon as the dearth of applications on the Surface really limits its appeal.

The keyboard that came with the Surface gets a special mention because of just how horrid it is. Whilst it does a good job of being a protective cover, one that does have a rather satisfying click as the magnets snap in, it’s absolutely horrendous as an input device, akin to typing on a furry piece of cardboard. Since there’s no feedback it’s quite hard to type fast on it and worse still it seems to miss key presses every so often. Probably the worst part about it is that if your surface locks itself with it attached and then you remove it you will then have no way to unlock your device until you re-attach it, even if you’ve set a PIN code up. I’ve heard that the touch cover is a lot better but since it was going for $100 at the time I wasn’t too keen on purchasing it.

The Surface does do a good job of filling the particular niche I had for it, which was mainly watching videos and using it to remote into my servers, but past that I haven’t found myself using it that much. Indeed the problem seems to be that the Surface, at least the non-pro version, is stuck halfway between being a true tablet and a laptop as many of its features are still computer-centric. This means that potential customers on either side of the equation will probably feel like they’re missing something which I think is one of the main reasons that the Surface has struggled to get much market share. The Pro seems to be much closer to being a laptop, enough so that the people I talked to at TechEd seemed pretty happy with their purchase. Whether that translates into Microsoft refocusing their strategy with the Surface remains to be seen, however.

The Surface is a decent little device, having the capabilities you’ve come to expect from a tablet whilst still having that Microsoft Windows feel about it. It’s let down by the lack of applications and dissonance it suffers from being stuck between the PC and tablet worlds, something that can’t be easily remedied by a software fix. The touch cover is also quite atrocious and should be avoided at all costs, even if you’re just going to use it as a cover. For the price I got it for I think it was worth the money however getting it at retail is another story and unless you’re running a completely Microsoft house already I’d struggle to recommend it over an ultrabook or similarly portable computing device.

Hyperloop: Another Solid Musk Design.

Ever since Elon Musk uttered the words Hyperloop in the middle of last year the tech world has been abuzz with speculation as to what it might actually be. Whilst it was known to be some kind of tube based transportation system the amount of specifics given out were incredibly slim which, of course, led to an incredible amount of hype over it. If anyone else had said something like this it would be easy to dismiss them but Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, seems to have a knack for bringing seemingly crazy ideas to life. After a year of anticipation, teasing and rampant speculation Musk finally released the first iteration of his Hyperloop design and it’s quite impressive.

Hyperloop Conceptual Design So it seems that the best speculators out there have got the design mostly right, it’s a low pressure tube system that could conceivably work both above and under ground and utilizes linear accelerators (I.E. railguns) to get them up to the required speed. The really interesting part of it however is the pod design as they’re what makes the whole system viable. You see in an a column of air like that contained within a hyperloop you’ll eventually end up pushing the entire column of air in front of you, not so great if you want to achieve high speeds. Hyperloop overcomes this by mounting an intake at the front that drives a compressor, effectively shunting all that air out of the way. At the same time the air being taken in is used to power the air bearings at the bottom of the craft.Additionally the pods get reboosted every 70 miles by linear actuators, reducing the power capacity required to power the compressors during travel.

What is quite impressive is the rather low power requirements for the passenger only version of the capsule needing only 100KW to keep it trucking along. That’s comparable to a typical 2 door hatchback engine which, as anyone who’s driven in one can attest to, struggles under the weight of 4+ passengers and cargo. However the combination of a low pressure environment, leading face intake and air bearings seems to be enough to reduce the total power requirements for staying at high subsonic levels dramatically. The variant with a vehicle compartment seems to up the power requirements dramatically however, requiring some 285KW to accomplish the same task.

The Hyperloop design also includes a whole bunch of other little innovations that make it quite appealing. Whilst it might be able to be done underground I can imagine doing so would be rather costly as digging tunnels is never cheap. However the above ground design looks like it could accomplish the same goal without requiring massive amounts of construction, even less than that of your typical highway. This is due to its monorail like construction utilizing pillars to elevate it above the ground. Such a system could then run along side established highways and any detours easily accommodated. The top surface of it could then have solar panels mounted on it providing the majority of the energy required to power the system making Hyperloop a very environmentally friendly transportation system.

Of course it’s still very much a theoretical system, albeit a thoroughly thought out it. Whilst I doubt it’ll end up replacing the high speed train link that Musk wants it to (even though he claims it would be cheaper and faster) once there’s a demonstration link up I can see people taking it very seriously. Heck we’ve been talking about high speed rail in Australia for decades and it’s always been killed because of the cost. Hyperloop could be the solution to that and we could finally get that MEL-CBR-SYD-BNE link everyone’s been wanting and not have the project go down in flames long before ground gets broken.

And yes I want that for almost entirely selfish reasons, flying to Sydney is almost not worth the effort 😉

The Memristor is Almost Ready For Prime Time.

With the amount of NVRAM that’s used these days the amount of innovation in the sector has been comparatively little. For the most part the advances have come from the traditional avenues, die shrinks and new gate technologies, with the biggest advance in 3D construction only happening last week. There’s been musings about other kinds of technology for a long time like memristors which had their first patent granted back in 2007 and were supposed to making their way into our hands late last year, but that never eventuated. However news comes today of a new memory startup that’s promising a lot of things and whilst they don’t say it directly it looks like they might be one of the first to market with memristor based products.

Crossbar-Simple-CMOS-Integration-080213

Crossbar is a new company that’s been working in stealth for some time on a new type of memory product which, surprisingly, isn’t anything particularly revolutionary. It’s called Resistive RAM (RRAM) and a little research shows that there’s been companies working on this idea as far back as 2009. It’s based around a fairly interesting phenomena whereby a dielectric, an electric insulator, can be made to conduct through the application of high voltage. This forms a filament of low resistance which can then be reset, breaking the connection, and then set again using another high voltage jolt. This idea lends itself well to applications in memory as the two states translate perfectly to binary and if the specifications are anything to go by the performance that will come out of them should be quite spectacular.

If this is sounding familiar then you’re probably already familiar with the idea of memristors. These are the 4th fundamental component of electronic circuits that were postulated back in 1971 by Leon Chua and were made real by HP in 2007. In a basic sense their resistance is a function of the current following through them and when the current is removed that resistance is remembered, hence their name. As you can see this describes the function of RRAM pretty well and there is a solid argument to be made that all RRAM technologies are in fact memristors. Thus whilst it’s pretty spectacular that a start up has managed to perfect this technology to the point of producing it on a production fab it’s actually technology that’s been brewing for quite some time and one that everyone in the tech world is excited about.

Crossbar’s secret sauce could likely come from their fabrication process as they claim that the way they create their substrate means that they should be able to stack them, much in the same way that Samsung can now do with their VNAND. Now this is exciting because previously HP alluded to the fact that memristor based storage could be made much more dense than NAND, several orders of magnitude more dense to be precise, and considering the density gains Samsung got with their 3D chips a layered memristor device’s storage capacity could be astronomical. Indeed Crossbar claims this much with up to 1TB for a standard chip that could be stacked multiple times, enabling terabytes on a single chip. That puts good old fashioned spinning rust disks on notice as they just couldn’t compete, even when it comes to archival storage. Of course the end price will be a big factor in this but that kind of storage potential could drive the cost per GB through the floor.

So the next couple months are going to be quite interesting as we have Samsung, the undisputed king of NAND, already in the throws of producing some of the most dense storage available with Crossbar (and multiple other companies) readying memristor technology for the masses. In the short term I give the advantage to Samsung as they’ve got the capital and global reach to get their products out to anyone that wants them. However if memristor based products can do even half of what they’re claimed to be capable of they could quickly start eating Samsung’s lunch and I can’t imagine it’d be too long before they either bought the biggest players in the field or developed the technology themselves. Regardless of how this all plays out the storage market is heading for a shake up, one that can’t come quick enough in my opinion.

 

Rise of the Triad: A Testament to How Far We’ve Come.

Among the older gamer generation (which I count myself in) there’s a rather perverse train of thought that seems to permeate the gaming zeitgeist. Typically it centers around how the games of old were done so much better than the games of today. Not in terms of graphics of course, no one can win that argument, more around the game play mechanics that managed to do more with less and the big focus on the story and the single player experience. You only need to look at the bevy of retro games that have made their way onto the scene in the last couple years to see proof of this as it shows that much of the gaming populace, now with an average age approaching 40, yearns for titles from that time. Rise of the Triad was one such title that made quite the impression on the gamers from its time and I, being one of them, was very interested to see what direction they’d take this revamp in.

Rise of the Triad Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You’re part of a special unit called H.U.N.T (High-risk United Nations Task force) called in to investigate cult activity on the San Nicholas island. As your team descends on the island you discover that they’re operating from an old monastery. However before you can get much closer you’re spotted by the cult, who strangely look a lot like Nazis, and your boat, your only way of getting off the island, is destroyed in the resulting conflict. You’re left with only one choice then: stop the cult before it can achieve its plans of destroying Los Angeles using any means necessary.

Graphically ROTT does a pretty good job of evoking the feeling that it’s from the past as it looks quite dated when you compare it to any other titles. Indeed thinking about it more it reminds me a lot of Duke Nukem Forever which I said looked dated as well, 2 years ago. Now I’m sure there are those who will argue that this is part of its schtick, and I’m willing to let them have that point, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that it feels like its been released 5 years late. This does mean that it’ll probably run well on anything, my 2 year old machine could run it with everything turned up to ludicrous, which would seem to be a requirement as the game hinges on fast paced action.

Rise of the Triad Screenshot Wallpaper Character Select

You’re given the choice between 5 different characters each with their own unique set of attributes. Thing is the variation between them only extends to movement speed, accuracy and total damage they can take. This was pretty cool back in 1995 but when we’ve been given numerous games that provided unique game experiences with each different character class it feels kind of pointless to choose between them. You can then guess that I went for the average stat guy as it felt like anything else would just end up putting more of a limitation on me more than anything else.

The game itself is styled as a classic FPS, essentially being a direct port of the original ROTT into modern times. You start off with a single pistol with unlimited ammunition and are then sent off to make your way from one end of the level to the other. Along the way there will be various weapons, health packs and power ups scattered everywhere and it will be up to you to decide whether it will best to use them at that point in time or not. Of course in true old school FPS fashion there are also secret areas hidden everywhere with bonuses ranging from the mundane to the insane and at the end of it all you’ll be given a star rating so you can compare your scores with everyone else. It was this style of game that gave rise to the FPS of today so just how does it stack up against them?

Rise of the Triad Screenshot Wallpaper Stuck in a Hole

Well for starters it definitely replicates that retro feeling by being quite buggy and suffering from several bad design decisions that can end up ruining your experience. The screenshot above is from one of the earlier sections where the level designers had obviously intended for you to throw a switch, which is outside this room, prior to be able to get into it. Now since this game encourages you to try and get into places that don’t seem accessible I, of course, found my way into it without throwing said switch. Thus the elevator pads you can see just below my gun weren’t active meaning there was no way for me to get out apart from restarting from the checkpoint. At the same time it’s obvious that much of this entire encounter was based off that switch and not throwing it actually made the whole thing a lot easier so I just did that and avoided falling in the pits.

Now I’m all for games that encourage exploration, indeed I quite enjoy most of them, however should you encourage this behavior you also have to expect where the player might end up. This particular one I felt was pretty obvious as it was literally 2 jumps to get to it and I’d discovered previous secret areas by doing almost exactly the same thing. However it’s clear that this one was unintended and I’m sure if I’d bothered to spend longer with the game I could find more examples of it.

Rise of the Triad Screenshot Wallpaper God Mode Clip Bug

This screenshot demonstrates yet another great bug that can only be fixed by reloading as when you get the god mode buff the game gets a little glitchy when it comes to clipping. So these spike pounder things, which kill you instantly if you don’t have god mode, will trap you inside them. Now it might look like you can get out through that crack but believe me, you can’t and since the god mode hand replaces your weapon you can’t even kill yourself afterwards. Considering how I couldn’t figure out how it happened the first couple times (since I was spamming god mode projectiles) it became rather frustrating to the point where I just stopped playing it.

There are some positives to ROTT as it really is a modern version of the classic style of FPS games so the fast paced action and ludicrous weaponry are quite fun when everything is going smoothly. The boss fight, the only one I could force myself to get to at least, was pretty interesting although it does lose points for using 1 hit kill mechanics which then punt you back to the beginning. Strangely enough the most effective weapon against him is your machine gun which is able to bring him down a lot faster than any of the other weapons hidden about the place. That’s about as far as it goes unfortunately as for every positive point I can come up with about ROTT I can think of many more negative ones that just ruined the whole experience.

Rise of the Triad Screenshot Wallpaper This is as far as I wanted to go

ROTT really is a tribute to the old style of FPS games which unfortunately brings all the issues they suffered from along with it. Whilst the fast paced action and ludicrous combat might be enjoyable for some it won’t be long before they encounter a game breaking glitch or poor level design that necessitates reloading the last checkpoint. This is not to mention the larger game issues of it crashing and corrupting my save game at one point, a sure fire way to end up on my never-play-again list. It’s quite possible that these teething issues will be fixed in future patches but in its current state I really can’t recommend ROTT at all unless you really thought the game style of yore was truly better. Hopefully this could serve as your wake up call as the FPS genre has come a long way in the past 20 years and ROTT ignoring it all hasn’t resulted in a game experience I’d call good.

Rating: 5.0/10

Rise of the Triad is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total game time was approximately 3 hours with 15% of the achievements unlocked.

Computer Sorting Algorithms – Visualized.

The way I explain learning to code is that it’s akin to trying to learn another language, one that helps you communicate with computers. It should come as little surprise that much of terminology in linguistics and programming shared (syntax, language, context, etc.) which can help ease people into it, especially if they’ve learnt another language in the past. However I’ve always found the best tools to be visual as its one thing to explain a system you built to someone and it’s another thing to show how it operates and links together. Visualizing algorithms can be quite tricky however although one intrepid person has taken it upon themselves to give sorting algorithms, being one of the fundamental yet readily misunderstood programming paradigms, a visual representation, and it’s glorious.

Whilst this isn’t a particularly scientific way of demonstrating which algorithms are the best (they’ve all been designed to run for roughly the same amount of time and you can see that the number of integers they have to sort varies wildly) it does give you a pretty amazing visual view of how each of the sorting algorithms operate. You can see the patterns of their sorting behavior quite easily and the iterations they go through at each step to sort the array. Probably the most fun I got out of it was reading up on Bogosort afterwards as I couldn’t really tell what it was trying to accomplish by looking at it and the subsequent explanation is a great testament to all the things you shouldn’t do while programming. As a programmer that kind of absurdity is hilarious, unless you see it in production code of course.

Samsung Starts Producing V-NAND, Massive SSDs Not Far Off.

I’ve been in the market for a new PC for a little while now so occasionally I’ll indulge myself in a little hypothetical system building so I can figure out how much I want to spend (lots) and what kind of computer I’ll get out of it (a super fast one). One of the points that got me unstuck was the fact that whilst I can get semi-decent performance out of my RAID10 set which stores most of my stuff it’s no where near the performance of my SSD that holds the OS and my regularly used applications. Easy, I thought, I’ll just RAID together some SSDs and get the performance I want with enough space to hold all my games and other miscellany. Thing is though SSDs don’t like to be in RAID sets (thanks to TRIM not working with it) unless its RAID0 and I’m not terribly keen on halving the MTBF just so I can get some additional space. No what I need is a bigger drive and it looks like Samsung is ready to deliver on that.

V-NAND-04-0

That little chip is the key to realizing bigger SSDs (among other things). It’s a new type of flash memory called V-NAND based on a new gate technology called CTF and Samsung has just started mass production of them.

What’s really quite groovy about this new kind of NAND chip is that unlike all other computer chips which are planar in nature, I.E. all the transistors lie on a single plane, V-NAND (as you can likely guess) is actually a vertical stack of planar chips. This allows for incredible densities inside a single chip with this first generation clocking in at a whopping 128GB. Putting that in perspective the drive that I’m currently using has the same capacity as that single chip which means that if I replaced its memory with this new V-NAND I’d  be looking at a 1TB drive. For tech heads like me even hearing that it was theoretically possible to do something like that would make us weak at the knees but these are chips that you can start buying today.

Apparently this isn’t their most dense chip either as their new 3D NAND tech allows them to go up to 24 layers high. I can’t seem to find a reference that states just how many layers are in this current chip so I’m not sure how dense we’re talking here but it seems like this will be the first chip among many and I doubt they’ll stop at 24.

As if all that wasn’t enough Samsung is also touting higher reliability, from anywhere between 2x to 10x, as well as at least double the write performance of traditional NAND packages. All SSDs are at the point where the differences in write/read speeds are almost invisible to the end user so that may be moot for many but for system builders it’s an amazing leap forward. Considering we can already get some pretty amazing IOPS from the SSDs available today doubling that just means we can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less hardware and that’s always a good thing. Whether those claims hold up in the real world will have to be seen however but there’s a pretty close relationship between data density and increased throughput.

Unfortunately whilst these chips are hitting mass production today I couldn’t find any hint of which partners are creating drives based around them or if Samsung was working on one themselves. They’ve been releasing some pretty decent SSDs recently, indeed they were the ones I was eyeing off for my next potential system, so I can’t imagine they’d be too far off given that they have all the expertise to create one. Indeed they just recently released the gigantic 1.6TB SSD that uses the new PCIe interface NVMe to deliver some pretty impressive speeds so I wouldn’t be surprised if their next drive comes out on that platform using this new V-NAND.

It’s developments like this that are a testament to the fact that Moore’s Law will keep on keeping on long despite the numerous doubters ringing its death bell. With this kind of technology in mind its easy to imagine it being applied elsewhere, increasing density in other areas like CPU dies and volatile memory. Of course porting such technology is non-trivial but I’d hazard a guess that all the chip manufacturers worldwide are chomping at the bit to get in on this and I’m sure Samsung will be more than happy to license the patents to them.

For a princely sum, of course 😉

 

Tesla Plays With The Big Boys and Wins.

Elon Musk is quite the business magnate. Long time readers will know that he’s the CEO of SpaceX the current darling of the private space industry which has done as much innovation in a decade as others have done in half a century. However that’s not Musk’s only endeavor having started out by working in the payments industry, famously being PayPal’s largest stock holder when it was eventually acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion. That allowed him to create 2 companies of his own: SpaceX and Tesla Motors whilst being heavily involved in a third, SolarCity. The success of all these companies can’t be denied but it wasn’t always all roses for all these companies, especially Tesla, and indeed Musk himself.

Model S

Building a car manufacturer, especially one that eschews the traditional internal combustion engine for full electric, is fraught with risk and requires massive amounts of capital to pull off. Whilst Tesla’s end goal has been affordable electric cars for everyone it didn’t start off trying to service this market, instead focusing on building a high performance electric roadster that had a very limited production run. Of course this also drew skepticism from potential investors as they couldn’t be sure that Tesla would be anything more than a niche sports car producer and so many steered clear. However Musk was undeterred and in 2008 announced the Model S and hinted towards further models that would use the same power train, effectively creating a platform for the rest of Tesla’s fleet.

To say that the rest of the world was skeptical that they could pull this off would be putting it lightly. Indeed even though they managed to secure a $451.8 million dollar loan from the Department of Energy to help set them up investors still continued to short their stock heavily, to the point where it was one of the most shorted stocks on the NASDAQ. Some went as far as to say that Tesla was only profitable due to the American tax payers, words which would soon be served right back to them with a serve of humble pie when Tesla paid the loan back in full at the start of this year, 9 years before it was due. Since then Tesla’s stocks have continued to climb and it’s not just because people are looking for a pump ‘n’ dump.

The Tesla Model S won car of the year from Motor Trends and Automobile Magazine last year rocketing it from being a toy for the technical/green crowd to being a well known brand. Whilst it’s still not in the realm of the everyman with the base model still being some $65,000 it has still proved to be quite a popular car snagging 8% of the luxury car market in the USA. To put that into perspective that means the Model S has beaten the sales of both the BMW 7 series and the Audi A8, cars which have a pretty loyal following and have been around for decades. They’re only just beginning to ramp up production as well with the current 400 or so produced per week expected to double by years end making them one of the largest producers of purely electric vehicles.

Tesla has not only shown that fully electrical vehicles are possible today they’re also, in fact, great business too. Whilst the investors might be skeptical other car companies aren’t with the number of EVs available exploding as each manufacturer tries to carve out their own section of this market. Most of them are focusing on the low end now however and it’s highly likely that Tesla will eat their lunch when the eventual $30,000 model debuts sometime in the future. Still the more competition in this space the better as it means the products we get as consumers get that much better and, of course, cheaper.

Now all we have to do is hope that the Australia Tax doesn’t hit the Model S as that’d put the kibosh on my enthusiasm a little bit.

JAXA’s HTV-4 Launches With Talking Robot Aboard.

Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) has been quite the little workhorse for the International Space Station, delivering some of the most valuable payloads to the floating space lab to date. I covered its maiden voyage all those years ago praising the craft’s capability to deliver standard payload racks in the absence of the Space Shuttle. Since then it’s gone on to do exactly that with the next 2 flights of the HTV delivering important cargo like Gradient Heating Furnace (used to create large, high quality crystals in microgravity) and the Aquatic Habitat which has allowed astronauts to study how fish live and breed over multiple generations in space. This weekend past saw the HTV launch for the 4th time from Yoshinobu Launch Complex at Tanegashima for a planed 35 day mission to the ISS.

I hadn’t covered any of the subsequent launches of the HTV, mostly because I didn’t find anything particularly interesting to write about them at the time, but looking over them I’m starting to regret my decision. In the 4 years since the HTV’s first launch every iteration of the craft has seen numerous improvements from routine things like improving the communications and avionics packages right through to improving the craft itself to be more lightweight. More interesting still is that JAXA has big plans for future iterations of the HTV, adding in the capability to return cargo to Earth (something that only the Soyuz and SpaceX Dragon are currrently capable of) by 2018 and, impressively, a crewed version that would be very similar to the Soyuz in terms of payload. The more ways we have of getting into space the better and I can’t think of a better craft to use as a base than the HTV for shipping humans up there.

However the HTV’s future isn’t what the space community is all abuzz about with this particular launch, it’s about the curious payload of a little robot called Kirobo. It’s a 34cm tall humanoid robot that’s been designed to communicate with its fellow human astronauts as well as people back on the ground. It’s equipped with voice and face recognition and can recognize emotions of the person its speaking to. It’s essentially designed to further investigate human-robot interactions, something that could prove to be pivotal in long haul flights to our nearest celestial neighbors. The ISS is no stranger to robot visitors either as they’ve been home to Robonaut 2 since early 2011 however it was more geared towards being a telepresence robot that could assist the crew with EVAs that required dexterous movement.

Alongside that plucky little robot companion will be 5.4 tonnes of other cargo for the ISS including support equipment for Kirobo, some cryogenic equipment and spare parts for the ISS itself. Interestingly there will also be 4 CubeSats brought along with it, two of which are ArduSats which are based off the Arduino development boards. Pico Dragon is a Vietnamese creation which will collect space and environment data as well as being a test bed for future satellite communication systems. TechEdSat, which as far as I can tell has no association with the Microsft TechEd brand, is designed to evaluate Space Plug-and-Play Avionics for the San Jose State University. They’re interesting because these usually tag along on other commercial flights and are deployed prior to the main payload although this isn’t the first time the ISS has launched CubeSats for others.

Organisations like JAXA give me a lot of hope for humanity’s space faring future as not only have they delivered a service routinely over the past 4 years they’ve pushed the envelope of their capability each time. The news that we could be seeing crewed vehicles from them within 10 years is incredibly exciting and the HTV will be a welcome addition to the growing family of launch services. They might not be as sexy as SpaceX but they’re doing a service that no one else can do and that’s something that we’ve got to appreciate.