Monthly Archives: March 2014

Beating a Dead Copper Network.

Not so long time readers will know that a month ago (exactly, strangely enough) I posted about the issues that a FTTN NBN wouldn’t fix, namely that of the horrendous nature of the copper network that Telstra currently maintains. When I posted it I figured that my almost unusably slow Internet was the byproduct of the incumbent weather and would soon rectify itself, something which had happened in the past. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case at all and after many days of sunshine and no improvement in sight I decided to do the thing I had been regretting: calling up Telstra to get the line investigated.

Uncovered Telstra PitYou can then imagine my elation when I saw that they now have a handy online form for you to fill out instead of calling them. Like a dutiful consumer I filled it out and sent it on its way, not caring about the multiple warnings about getting charged $120 if there was no fault found. The site guaranteed me a response within a week and so I waited for them to respond. Almost like clockwork a response appear from Telstra a week later claiming that the problem had been resolved and inviting me to take a survey about my experience. If my problem hadn’t been fixed, it said, I could say so on the survey and they’d continue investigating the issue.

Of course the fault hadn’t been fixed as no one had contacted me since lodging the fault so it was obvious that they hadn’t done any troubleshooting at all, that was just the system automatically closing out a ticket that had no action on it. I replied to the survey in kind, outlining the issues I was experiencing and the troubleshooting steps I had taken to fix it. I received a call back a day later from an agent who was going to handle my case who was very understanding of the situation I was in. However the earliest he could send out a technician was a month away although he promised he’d get that moved up.

I never heard back from him after a couple call backs where he told me he couldn’t do anything for me (even though he promised to keep me updated). Luckily the technician did arrive on the scheduled date although at 8AM rather than the agreed time of after 5pm. Upon inspection of my outlet he asked if I was able to get a connection at all as the line was essentially unusable by his diagnostic tools. After a quick trip to the pit he came back with an assessment that shouldn’t shock anyone but should make you lose all faith in the state of Telstra’s copper network.

Essentially the pit had been uncovered for quite some time, much like the above picture, with the terminals exposed to the elements. Another technician had been by recently though as they had put a temporary cover the terminals to protect it however this had to have been done after my terminal had degraded. A simple rewiring job fixed the issue but the pit still remains uncovered although, hopefully, the terminals are now protected from the elements so that it won’t happen again in the future.

The issue here is that I know this isn’t exactly uncommon as I’ve managed to pass multiple pits in my travellings around Canberra that are in a similar state. To get speeds higher than what I get right now would mean that a lot of remediation to the copper network would need to be done and no where in the government’s NBN plan does it stipulate that happening. This makes their promise of getting higher speeds to everyone cheaper and faster hollow as the infrastructure they’re relying on to provide it simply isn’t capable of delivering the required outcomes. I could go on but I feel like I’ve said my peace about this a dozen times over already. I just wanted to highlight the amount of rigmarole I had to go through to get a single connection fixed which, when multiplied by an entire nation, shows how infeasible a FTTN NBN really is.

Thief: Subtly Only Gets You So Far.

The gold standard for stealth game play has, and probably always will be, the original Thief series. It wasn’t that it was one of the first games to get stealth mechanics right, I believe that title belongs to the Metal Gear series (even though I’ve never played any of them), more that the blend of mechanics, cues and emphasis on finesse rather than force made the series stand out amongst its peers. It’s been a very long time between drinks for the series though with the last title, Thief: Deadly Shadows, being released almost a decade ago. The latest instalment, Thief, is an attempt to reboot the series for a modern audience something which may be at odds at the long time fans of the master thief Garret

Thief Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

After taking a job from Basso, Garrett’s only friend and contact for all this nefarious and underworldly, you find yourself atop a glorious manor accompanied by your former apprentice Erin. However something doesn’t feel right about this particular job as you witness something strange, an otherworldly ritual that shakes the very world. You’re just about to pull out when Erin, who was watching the ritual from on top of a glass dome, falls. You try to save her but it’s too late and she falls down right into the middle of the ritual, disappearing from sight. Suddenly it’s a year later and you have no recollection of what has happened.

Thief certainly impresses graphically as all the environments pack in an incredible amount of detail, something which is key to the core game play mechanics. There’s atmospheric and lighting effects everywhere which can turn some of the most dull environments into wonderful screenshot bait. Having said all that I feel like it could’ve been better as whilst they’re definitely on the upper end of the scale there are some sections where it’s obvious that sacrifices had to be made for the large number of platforms that were targeted. This did mean that I rarely had any performance issues but I’m usually happy to sacrifice that for a little more eye candy.

Thief Review Screenshot Wallpaper Many Avenues of Attack

Unsurprisingly Thief is a stealth game, one where the objective of your current quest can be completed in a variety of different ways. The tools you have at your disposal are wide and varied, ranging from tools that will help keep you concealed to weapons of massive destruction. There’s also two different upgrade systems that allow you to tailor Garrett’s abilities to your play style of choice allowing you to become the master of the shadows or a brutal predator that lurks around every corner. Indeed whilst Thief’s pedigree is in stealthy game play either play style seems viable, even a mix of both if either one of them starts to wear on you.

In terms of retaining the trademark feel that all Thief games have this latest instalment does it quite well. Whilst the environments aren’t exactly massive open world sandboxes like Assassin’s Creed there’s enough back alleys, secret pathways and rooms with tantalizingly locked doors to make the maps feel a lot bigger than they actually are. Thief certainly rewards players who take the time to go over everything with a fine tooth comb which I’m sure a lot of players will find rewarding. On the flip side it never feels like this is a necessary part of the game as you’ll find more than enough resources to keep you going if you just meander off the beaten trail once in a while. Whilst this might annoy the purists the inclusion of a custom difficulty mode turns this optional but rewarding task into a necessity, something which should keep them at bay.

Thief Review Screenshot Wallpaper Why Is There Always a Log

The combat in Thief is understandably lacklustre, mostly because it’s obvious that out and out fighting isn’t the game’s preferred way of completing objectives. This is in stark contrast to other similar stealth games of recent memory (most notably Dishonored) where both paths were somewhat viable. You’ve still got the choice of killing or knocking people out to achieve your objective but should you find yourself discovered there’s really no way to get yourself out of that situation without finding a nearby hidey hole. I don’t necessarily count this against Thief as out and out combat is not what the series, nor the genre itself, is usually about. The option is there but its a blunt instrument in comparison to all the other tools you have at your disposal.

The stealth, on the other hand, is quite marvelous. With the highly detailed maps peppered with vents, corridors and passageways it’s guaranteed that every obstacle you encounter has multiple ways to bypass it. Indeed every time I found myself struggling with a particular section it was always because I wasn’t noticing the alternate path that was right before me, opening up options I didn’t know I had previously. There are some situations where trade offs have to be made though which can lead to some frustration but realistically it’s just about making the choice that’s right for your particular playstyle.

Thief Review Screenshot Wallpaper Locking Picking

The game is well executed for the most part with no major bugs or glitches to report however the control scheme does feel a little bit awkward. Using the lean out ability can be a real exercise in frustration, especially if you wanted to pick something up from a chest or box instead of peeking around it. The same can be said for cancelling things, which can be right click or another key, leading to some heat of the moment confusion. Additionally dropping off a rope can’t be done with space if there’s no nearby ledge and instead must be done with X. It just feels like the interface lacks consistency and makes the more routine parts of the game harder than they need to be. This is somewhat excusable in survival horror games but it’s also one of the reasons that I have a tendency to dislike that genre.

Thief’s story is decidedly middle of the road sharing some similar threads to those of previous instalments in the series (secret society conspiracies laced with bits of magic) but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it. The initial build up in the opening scenes is far too short for us to have any emotional investment in the main characters and seems to rely on our previous experiences with the series to derive most of its impact. It simply doesn’t work as the vast majority of people playing this game haven’t been involved with the Thief series for the better part of a decade and much of the detail is lost to the ages. I’m a firm believer that a good story can make up for nearly any shortcomings that a game might have but unfortunately for Thief that isn’t the case and it’s lucky that it’s so strong mechanically.

Thief Review Screenshot Wallpaper Where To From Here

F or a series that hasn’t seen a release in 10 years Thief delivers a solid game play experience, modernizing many mechanics without incurring the usual penalty of simplifying them too greatly for mass adoption. Thief doesn’t rely heavily on its pedigree in order to deliver a good experience, being able to create its own distinct identity through it’s well executed game mechanics. Unfortunately the story is the giant black mark on an otherwise highly polished experience, leaving this and many other reviewers wanting. Still it’s hard for me to recommend against playing Thief as it really is a solid game, just don’t play it for the story.

Rating: 7.8/10

Thief is available right now on PC, Xbox360, XboxOne, PlayStation3 and PlayStation4 right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.995, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC on the Thief difficulty with 11 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.

COSMOS: A Classic Revisited.

Carl Sagan was a great man. A long time advocate for the sciences he inspired a generation of new scientists with his influence, from the simple things like his lectures at Cornell to the wondrous television program called Cosmos. As someone who only fully came to the world of scientific thinking later in life I was completely unaware of his works until some years ago and was surprised at how well Cosmos stood the test of time. Since then however things what were mearly theories have matured into scientific facts and boundless new ideas have been created. Thus it was time for a new generation to be inspired by the wonders of science and none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson has taken up the task of doing so.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBTd9–9VMI

Whilst the first episode is somewhat light on in the science department it serves as a basis from which the rest of the series will build upon. It pays homage to Carl Sagan’s legacy whilst not being bound by it, creating its own identity that’s distinct from that of the original works. I’d highly recommend you follow it as it will not only be amazing watching but it will also serve as the first steps you can take towards getting a deeper understanding of the universe we exist in.

Will Open Compute Ever Trickle Down?

When Facebook first announced the Open Compute Project it was a very exciting prospect for people like me. Ever since virtualization became the defacto standard for servers in the data center hardware density became the prime the name of the game. Client after client I worked for was always seeking out ways to reduce their server fleet’s footprint, both by consolidating through virtualization and by taking advantage of technology like blade servers. However whilst the past half decade has seen a phenomenal increase the amount of computing power available, and thus an increase in density, there hasn’t been another blade revelation. That was until Facebook went open kimono on their data center strategies.

Open Compute Project LogoThe designs proposed by the Open Compute Project are pretty radical if you’re used to traditional computer hardware, primarily because they’re so minimalistic and the fact that they expect a 12.5V DC input rather than the usual 240/120VAC that’s typical of all modern data centers. Other than that they look very similar to your typical blade server and indeed the first revisions appeared to get densities that were pretty comparable. The savings at scale were pretty tremendous however as you could gain a lot of efficiency by not running a power supply in every server and their simple design meant their cooling aspects were greatly improved. Apart from Facebook though I wasn’t aware of any other big providers utilizing ideas like this until Microsoft announced today that it was joining the project and was contributing its own designs to the effort.

On the surface they look pretty similar to the current Open Compute standards although the big differences seem to come from the chassis.Instead of doing away with a power supply completely (like the current Open Compute servers advocate) it instead has a dedicated power supply in the base of the chassis for all the servers. Whilst I can’t find any details on it I’d expect this would mean that it could operate in a traditional data center with a VAC power feed rather than requiring the more specialized 12.5V DC. At the same time the density that they can achieve with their cloud servers is absolutely phenomenal, being able to cram 96 of them in a standard rack. For comparison the densest blade system I’ve ever supplied would top out at 64 servers and most wouldn’t go past 48.

This then begs the question: when we will start to see server systems like this trickle down to the enterprise and consumer market? Whilst we rarely have the requirements for the scales at which these servers are typically used I can guarantee there’s a market for servers of this nature as enterprises continue on their never ending quest for higher densities and better efficiency. Indeed this feels like it would be advantageous for some of the larger server manufacturers to pursue since if these large companies are investing in developing their own hardware platforms it shows that there’s a niche they haven’t yet filled.

Indeed if the system can also accommodate non-compute blades (like the Microsoft one shows with the JBOD expansion) such ideas would go toe to toe with system-in-a-box solutions like the CISCO UCS which, to my surprise, quickly pushed its way to the #2 spot for x86 blade servers last year. Of course there are already similar systems on the market from others but in order to draw people away from that platform other manufacturers are going to have to offer something more and I think the answer to that lies within the Open Compute designs.

If I’m honest I think that the real answer to the question posited in the title of this blog is no. Whilst it would be possible for anyone working at Facebook and Microsoft levels of scale to engage in something like this unless a big manufacturer gets on board Open Compute based solutions just won’t be feasible for the clients I service. It’s a shame because I think there’s some definite merits to the platform, something which is validated by Microsoft joining the project.

You Keep Using the Word Sceptic, I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means.

There was no defining point in my life where I became a sceptic. More it was a gradual realisation that my preferred way of interacting with the world was questioning my observations and those of others, seeking out evidence to support or refute claims as they came my way. Eventually the wider sceptic movement began in earnest and I readily found myself identifying with them, reveling in the discussions that they brought forth. Thus the term sceptic became something of a positive term, one I could use to relate to like minded individuals. However those holding opinions that run contrary to the sceptical mindset have sought to take advantage of the good will the term brings with it.

No It Fucking Doesn't

The first to attempt to usurp the moniker for their own means were the climate change deniers, using the term to say that they were sceptical of the science at hand. Now that might have flown decades ago when our knowledge of the climate wasn’t as mature as it is today but the fact is that being a sceptic about this particular issue puts you against the vast majority of the scientific community. So in order for you to be a sceptic (and not just flat out wrong) you’d have to have some pretty substantial evidence that either runs contrary to the current scientific narrative or you simply believe the majority of the science community has it wrong. If you had the former then the wider scientific community would consider it in due process (as they have innumerable times before) and the latter is a faith argument, once which rapidly falls apart if you believe in anything else with a scientific base (like, I don’t know, computers maybe?).

The most recent judas to bring themselves into the “sceptic” community is the Australian Vaccination Network who, after numerous claims about their horrendously misleading name, have renamed themselves to the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics (sic) Network. The AVSN has long prided themselves on taking a reasonable approach to vaccinations, indeed even right now they have an article on their front page titled “Make an informed vaccination choice” (although it’s bereft of any actual information apart from the number of vaccinations kids will receive), so the title would seem fitting. However they have demonstrated time and time again that they are in fact not the scientific body they claim to be and do nothing to educate parents about vaccines and their effects on children.

I’ve had a go at them multiple times in the past for their absolutely unscientific stances on the effects of vaccines on children and their support of the conscientious objector exemption. Every time I make a post that mentions them I often receive multiple tirades about how wrong I was but without any evidence to back it up. I would then helpfully provide fully peer reviewed studies to substantiate my claims only to receive vitriol in return. Whilst I’m always hesitant to judge a following based on the actions of a few noisy individuals the problem is obviously not just limited to those few and anyone thinking they’re somehow promoting scientific thinking by denying a large body of evidence with nothing to back them up is causing far more harm than any benefit they claim.

So whilst this name change is hilarious it’s also symptomatic of a larger issue of people usurping the goodwill attached to the sceptic term. Far be it from me to be the final authority on what words mean what to everyone but I simply can’t stand people who pretend to ascribe to an ideal and do anything but. The now Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network is a prime example of this, touting themselves as an informative, scientific organisation that only has parents’ interests at heart. They do not and the sooner the organisation ceases to exist, or at least exert a discernable force on anyone’s decisions, the better.

Banished: Life is Hard, The World Uncaring, Yet I Continue On.

City building games are a lot like open world and sand box titles, as whilst they might contain some form of over-arching narrative much of the true story of the game emerges from your interaction with it. I’ve avoided the truly open ended games for the most part, primarily due to their seemingly endless beta states, but that’s not to say I haven’t been intrigued by the stories they generate, far from it. Thus when the tales of people’s experiences with Banished started to percolate through the Internet I was intrigued as the punishing mechanics led many to give up in frustration, only to come crawling back the next day. I feel much the same way and the lack of a pre-determined win condition only made it worse.

Banished Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Exiled from your home town you find yourself in charge of a group of villagers who need to make a new life for themselves. You start with little more than a pile of resources, somewhere to store them and a desire to not die in the first winter that will come soon enough. Over time however the challenge shifts from simply surviving to keeping your town functioning, making everyone happy and ensuring they have everything they need to keep subsisting. The longer you play the more intricate and delicate the equation you need to balance becomes as a mistake in one area can have effects that ripple far beyond where you think they did and, if you’re not well prepared, devastate your town.

Like most games which have a tendency to generate a lot of on-screen elements as they drag on Banished’s visuals are a relatively simple affair although they do look particularly nice when zoomed all the way out. Many of the buildings have a very similar look and feel about them, even though there is a bit of variation in the house models to break it up a bit, which can lead to some confusion when your town is tightly packed with numerous structures. It’s relatively easy to remember where you placed important buildings though and often you won’t need to hunt around for them anyway. That being said there does seem to be some notable slowdown when you’re scrolling around, even in the early stages when there’s not much on screen. This may be due to my preference to playing on 5x speed, however, although I neglected to test that out.

Banished Review Screenshot Wallpaper Small Beginnings

Banished is a city building game, one not unlike Anno 2070 where you’re on a never-ending quest to find more resources in order to grow your population so you can…get more resources. Compared to other city building games that come with tech trees and other intricately layered mechanics Banished is actually quite simple, mechanically speaking. You can essentially sum it up as needing to provide life’s basics to a group of people (food/water/shelter) and doing so in a way that allows the town to grow and prosper. Typically this revolves around finding ways to overcome particular resource shortages with the most forgiving of which just prevents your town from getting bigger whilst the worst could see everyone dead within a few short years.

In the beginning you’re focused on 2 primary resources: food and firewood. Building enough houses usually doesn’t take you too long however getting up a store of firewood and establishing a renewable food supply is one thing that’s likely to kill your town in its first winter if done too late. There are several methods to getting this done although my favorite was by far the quad placement of a forester, herbalist, hunter and gatherer which provided a bevy of resources that kept coming in continually. After a while however you begin to notice that the amount of resources required to build other buildings, the ones that will enable you to do more things, can’t simply be gathered anymore and you start needing more people to accomplish certain tasks.


Banished Review Screenshot Wallpaper Farms

This then pushes you towards the dangers of increasing your population at a rate that you can’t currently sustain, quickly showing any flaws you have in your city planning. Typically the first hurdle you’ll face is food as the surplus you generated over all those years starts to quickly evaporate. Then, not too long after, your workers complain of their tools breaking and they start to become inefficient at performing their assigned tasks. Considering one of these tasks is making more tools this can have devastating consequences down the line, wiping out a good chunk of your population because it was all predicated on things getting done in a certain time frame. Once you’re past those initial hurdles though the problems you’ll face become much subtler and can easily go unnoticed for decades of in game time.

Indeed my first town that made it past the 20 year mark, which suffered all of the problems I described above, seemed to be struggling to make use of the vast resources I had put before them. No matter how many more people were born I just couldn’t seem to provide enough of everything for them, the parable of Sisyphus running through my head. A quick bit of research showed that my entire town was uneducated and thus would be incredibly inefficient at performing any of their tasks. Including a school now wouldn’t solve the problem for years to come and, with an aging population and a declining birth rate, it was unlikely that would even save my poor town. Sadly I closed that game file and started again.

Banished Review Screenshot Wallpaper Uneducated Retards

What followed has been a mildly successful town, reaching 300+ citizens in under 50 years with a surplus of food at almost all times with maximum happiness and a mostly educated population. The same problems propped up again of course however this time around I was able to head them off before they became too much of an issue. However new problems arose simply from the size of the population I was now dealing with and small decisions or events, placing a house in the wrong spot or a teacher dying, had effects that I couldn’t fathom. There are solutions of course but these are the sorts of things that you just don’t think about when you’re starting out and solving them can sometimes be more costly than just living with it.

For the most part Banished avoids some of the more major issues that have plagued other city building games however there still seems to be times when things go awfully wrong for no apparent reason. The screenshots above shows one of my population (one of many, unfortunately) taking a trip down to the bottom right corner of the map for no particular reason. This wouldn’t be an issue, tyipcally, however many of the people who embarked on this trip would come back cold, hungry or simply die on the way. Additionally whilst you’re able to dictate a number of people to a job you have no control on who does what job, sometimes leaving you with people travelling long distances to do work. You can fix this by removing all your workers and re-assigning them every so often but it feels like a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist.

Banished Review Screenshot Wallpaper PROGRESS

I was really surprised by Banished as when I first looked at it I figured it would be a couple hours of fun figuring everything out and that’d be it. However the initial simplicity belies the greater complexity that lies underneath everything, something which is only revealed to you the longer you play Banished. It has its flaws and once you get past a certain stage there’s a definite feeling of “playing the waiting game” so you can progress to the next stage but it’s hard to fault Banished for that when it managed to draw me away for so long. You’ll definitely need to enjoy the city building genre to really appreciate Banished but that’s about the only barrier to entry I can think of.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Banished is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total game time was approximately 15 hours with 17% of the achievements unlocked.

The Barking Dog Experiment.

I was watching one of the latest Mythbusters episodes recently when I noticed a strange phenomenon that looked oddly familiar. The experiment in question was testing the myth that a gun won’t fire in space (I.E. a perfect vacuum) something which Hollywood has a troubled past with. Whilst the answer was somewhat obvious before they began (hint: the answer, and the reasons behind it, are the same if you fired it underwater) the result was very impressive. Unfortunately I can’t find a direct link to the video however their high speed footage was nearly identical to what the Barking Dog experiment looks like, as shown in this video:

Seeing everything in slow motion is extremely interesting because it clearly shows how the sound is produced along with the characteristic light show. The flame front bouncing off the fuel saturated area pushes out the air above it, creating the sound, and as it approaches the bottom the time between those pulses rapidly decreases changing the tone of the resultant sound. In the Mythbusters episode you could see a lot of similarities although because it wasn’t an open ended system (due to the use of a vacuum) the sound produced was more of a descending low tone as the gas created by the bullet diffused and the shock wave ricocheted around.

VAMP: Flying High in Venus’ Atmosphere.

It’s almost scary how similar Earth and Venus are in some respects. We’re roughly the same size, with Earth edging Venus out by 300KMs in diameter, and consequently roughly the same mass as well. The similarities end when you start looking further however with Venus being the hottest planet in our solar system due to its runaway greenhouse effect, it’s atmosphere a choking combination of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur. If there was ever a warning about the devastating potential about greenhouse gases it is our celestial sister Venus, but in that chaos lies an abundance of scientific data that could help us better understand ourselves and, hopefully, avoid the same fate.

Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform VAMPStudying Venus’ atmosphere isn’t an easy task however as those extreme conditions have meant that the longest our probes have managed to survive down there is a couple hours. We can still do a lot of good work with satellites and spectral analysis but there’s really no substitute for actually being in the atmosphere for an extended period of time. Strangely enough whilst Venus’ atmosphere might be one of the most unforgiving in our solar system its composition, made up primarily of heavy than air elements, provides an unique opportunity that an atmospheric study craft could take advantage of. A concept craft that does just this is called the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) by Northrop Grumman.

The VAMP is part airship, part traditional aircraft which would spend the majority of its life high in Venus’ atmosphere. To do this the VAMP craft is extremely light, on the order of 500kgs, but it has a wingspan that exceeds that of a Boeing 737. The craft itself would be inflatable, allowing VAMP to cruise at altitudes between 55KM and 70KM above Venus’ surface. It can do this because of the incredible density of Venus’ atmosphere which makes even regular breathable air from Earth a powerful lifting gas. The only limit to its lifespan in the Venusian atmosphere would be its power source and since it could take advantage of the freely available sun a platform like VAMP could run for an incredibly long time.

The concept is actually a rework of another one that was designed to fly through the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, a mission many have wanted to undertake since the Huygens probe landed there a decade ago. The challenges of flying an aircraft there are far greater than that of Venus, primarily due to the much thinner atmosphere and huge drop in solar radiation to take advantage of. It would still be doable of course, however the mission profile you’d have to go with would have to be much less ambitious and the time frames much shorter. Still it surprises me that the concept didn’t go the other way around as putting balloons in Venus’ atmosphere has always been a concept that many wanted to explore.

Northrop Grumman appears to be quite serious about the VAMP project as they outlined many objectives they wanted to achieve for it back in 2013. I can’t seem to find much more on it unfortunately which means it’s likely still in the concept phase, hoping for a mission profile to come along that suits it. Considering how many incredible envelope pushing missions we’ve had of late I don’t think something like VAMP is too far out of left field, especially considering that it’s based on already proven technologies. Still it doesn’t seem like it will be too long before we have a plane soaring through another world’s atmosphere, another science fiction dream becoming a reality.

NVIDIA’s G-SYNC is the Business.

If there’s one thing that I can’t stand in any game it’s visual tearing and stuttering. This is the main reason why I play all my games with v-sync on as whilst I, like any gamer, enjoy the higher frame rates that come with turning it off it’s not long before I’m turning it back on again after the visual tearing wreaks havoc on my visual experience. Unfortunately this has the downside of requiring me to over-spec my machine to ensure 60 FPS at all times (something which I do anyway, but it doesn’t last forever) or lowering the visual quality of the game, something which no one wants. It’s been an issue for so long that I had given up on a fix for it although there was some hope with a 120Hz monitor. As it turns out there is hope and its name is G-SYNC.

ASUS Monitor with NVIDIA G-SyncThe technology comes by way of NVIDIA and it’s a revolutionary way of having the GPU and your monitor work in tandem to remove tearing and stuttering. Traditionally when you’re operating a monitor like I am your graphics card has to wait for the monitor’s refresh interval every time it wants to write a frame to it. In a highly variable frame rate game (which is anything that’s graphically intensive) this leads to stuttering where repeated frames give the appearance of the game freezing up. Flipping v-sync off leads to the other problem where the GPU can write frames to the monitor whenever it wants. This means that a new frame can start being written halfway through a scan cycle which, if there’s even a skerrick of motion, leads to the frames being out of alignment causing visual tears. G-SYNC allows the GPU to dictate when the monitor should refresh, eliminating both these issues as every frame is synced perfectly.

For me this is basically monitor nirvana as it gives me the advantages of running v-sync without any of the drawbacks. Better still all the monitors that support G-SYNC also run up to 144Hz, something which was going to be a requirement for my next monitor purchase. The only drawback that I see currently is that all these high refresh rate monitors are TN panels which aren’t as great when compared to the shiny new IPS panels that have been flooding the market recently. Honestly though I’m more than willing to trade off the massive resolution and better colour reproduction for solving my main visual gripe that’s plagued me for the better part of 20 years.

Unfortunately your options for getting a G-SYNC capable monitor right now are fairly limited. Whilst there are a good number of monitors that were recently announced as supporting G-SYNC none of them have become commercially available yet, with all of them scheduled for release in Q2 2014. You can, if you’re so inclined, purchase an ASUS VG248QE and then hit up NVIDIA directly for a G-SYNC upgrade kit (currently out of stock) and upgrade your monitor yourself but it will require you to crack it open in order to do so. There are places that will do this for you though but they too are out of stock. Still for something like this I’m more than willing to wait and, hopefully, it will mean that other components of my new computer build will come down a touch, enough to justify the extra expenditure on these new fangled monitors.

Windows 8.1 With Bing: The First (Legal) Free Version of Windows?

As a poor student the last thing I wanted to pay for was software. Whilst the choice to pirate a base operating system is always questionable, it’s the foundation on which all your computing activities rely, it was either pay the high license cost or find an alternative. I’ve since found numerous, legitimate alternatives of course (thank you BizSpark) but not everyone is able to take advantage of them. Thus for many the choice to upgrade their copy of Windows typically comes with the purchase of a new computer, something which doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I believe that this is one factor that’s affected the Windows 8/8.1 adoption rates and it seems Microsoft might be willing to try something radical to change it.

Windows 8.1 With Bing wzor.netRumours have been making the rounds that Microsoft is potentially going to offer a low cost (or completely free) version of their operating system dubbed Windows 8.1 with Bing. Details as to what is and isn’t included are still somewhat scant but it seems like it will be a full version without any major strings attached. There’s even musings around some of Microsoft core applications, like Office, to be bundled in with the new version of Windows 8.1. This wouldn’t be unusual (they already do it with Office Core for the Surface) however it’s those consumer applications where Microsoft draws a lot of its revenue in this particular market segment so their inclusion would mean the revenue would have to be made up somewhere else.

Many are toting this release as being targeted mostly at Windows 7 users who are staving off making the switch to Windows 8. In terms of barriers to entry they are by far the lowest although they’re also the ones who have the least to gain from the upgrade. Depending on the timing of the release though this could also be a boon to those XP laggards who run out of support in just over a month. The transition from XP to Windows 8 is much more stark however, both in terms of technology and user experience, but there are numerous things Microsoft could do in order to smooth it over.

Whilst I like the idea there’s still the looming question of how Microsoft would monetize something like this as releasing something for free and making up the revenue elsewhere isn’t really their standard business model (at least not with Windows itself). The “With Bing” moniker seems to suggest that they’ll be relying heavily on browser based revenue, possibly by restricting users to only being able to use Internet Explorer. They’ve got into hot water for doing similar things in the past although they’d likely be able to argue that they no longer hold a monopoly on Internet connected devices like they once did. Regardless it will be interesting to see what the strategy is as the mere rumour of something like this is new territory for Microsoft.

It’s clear that Microsoft doesn’t want Windows 7 to become the next XP and is doing everything they can to make it attractive to get users to make the switch. They’re facing an uphill battle as there’s still a good 30% of Windows users who are still on XP, ones who are unlikely to change even in the face of imminent end of life. A free upgrade might be enough to coax some users across however Microsoft needs to start selling the transition from any of their previous version as a seamless affair, something that anyone can do on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Even then there will still be holdouts but at least it’d go a long way to pushing the other versions’ market share down into the single digits.