Monthly Archives: April 2014

An Armchair Scientist’s Mission To Europa.

If there’s any place in our solar system that we’d want to start seriously looking for life it’d be Europa. The dust covered snowball of a moon likely contains a vast subsurface ocean, one that is kept liquid by the giant gravitational forces of its host planet Jupiter. This makes Europa a great candidate for life as we know it as once we find water it’s inevitable that we find life shortly thereafter. The challenge with Europa though is getting to that subsurface ocean to study it as it could be covered in several kilometers of water ice, not something you can simply puncture through. Whilst there are numerous people more qualified than me on this subject, many of them actually working in the aerospace industry, with NASA asking for ideas for a potential mission to Europa I figured I’d throw my 2 cents in.

Europa

So the total budget for the potential mission is a cool $1 billion and whilst that sounds like a lot of money projects that I’d consider simpler than my idea (like say Curiosity which was $2.5 billion) but I think there’s potential to build a platform that could fuel further missions. With that in mind this initial mission is likely only to be a scouting mission, one that will give us the most detailed picture of Europa possible so that the follow up mission can choose the perfect site to land on and commence the search for life in its vast underground ocean. My proposal then is to develop a compact nuclear reactor (not a RTG) to power a scouting craft laden with instruments to analyse the gravitic field and surface of Europa. This craft will be able to find the point at which the surface ice is the thinnest and identify potential landing sites for the second generation craft: a cryobot that will punch through to the ocean below.

Putting a nuclear reactor into space might sound like the plan of a crazed sci-fi nerd but there’s actually been dozens of small prototype reactors launched into space with all of them proving to be safe and reliable. The power capabilities of such a reactor are far beyond that of what a small satellite would usually require however attempting to melt through kilometers of ice will require power of that scale. Thus it would make sense to fund research into developing the power supply first and then validating it on the scouting craft. Then, once that mission is successful, the reactor can be scaled to the appropriate dimensions for the cryobot mission and even used in other deep space programs.

Having such a generous amount of power available also opens up the opportunity to using instruments on the scouting craft which would not be feasible, typically. Things like high-power antennas (which could function as a relay for the follow up mission), radar imagers or bigger and better versions of other instruments. My knowledge on the power requirements of various instruments is limited but I know that even the most advanced RTGs, like the one in Curiosity, produce a measly 125W. Being able to draw on several kilowatts, an order of magnitude more power, seems like it would open up many opportunities that just weren’t possible previously.

I’m probably vastly underestimating how much it would cost to develop such technology, especially in today’s nuclear hostile political environment, but if we’re serious about actually digging under Europa’s surface I don’t see what our other options would be. Melting through giant sheets of ice is no small task and one that has requirements that far surpass anything we have currently. Using that $1 billion mission to set ourselves up for future exploration seems like the best bet especially considering how many other applications a safe, small nuclear reactor would have.

PC Gaming is Back (But Not The Same as Before).

We PC gamers have been in the minority for quite some time now, just over a decade if my memory serves me. Whilst many, including myself, get all nostalgic for the days when the PC was the gaming king, being the de-facto platform for any developer the last decade hasn’t exactly been terrible as a PC gamer. Indeed many of the AAA titles still made the effort to create a PC release, even if it would only account for single digit percentages of their player base. There’s been rumblings about a PC resurgence for some time now, mostly on the backs of the aging previous console generation, but apart from some highly speculative numbers there hasn’t been much more to support this.

That was until today.

Glorious PC Gaming Master Race

DFC Intelligence, a video game and entertainment research/reporting company, recently released a report stating that PC games had overtaken consoles in terms of revenue. Considering that PC games rarely make it into any top sales charts this does seem somewhat counterintuitive but according to DFC much of this revenue is due to an explosion of interest in the MOBA (DOTA2, League of Legends, etc.) genre. Other than that there’s still a healthy mix of your typical kinds of PC games: MMORPG, FPS, RTS, etc. but the resurgence of PC gaming  is almost entirely due to the popularity of MOBA titles. There’s also apparently more overlap between PC and console gamers with the console now being seen more as the secondary system to the PC. All of this bodes well for PC gaming but for long time veterans like myself the PC gaming of today is much different to the one of the past.

Whilst I knew that the MOBA genre had seen a massive amount of growth in recent times, mostly due to League of Legends, I had hardly thought it was enough to push PC revenues past that of consoles. This is mostly likely due to the incredible number of monthly active users that the top 2 MOBAs have with 67 million League of Legends and 6.5 million DOTA2 players respectively. Compare that to say Call of Duty which has 40 million and it’s easy to see why the PC platform would be making a resurgence, especially considering that their free to play nature usually means a reliable revenue stream. Hell I avoid most free to play games like the plague (and even I do play them rarely do I spend any money on them) but DOTA2 has managed to make me part with a decent chunk of cash over the 1600 or so hours I’ve spent with it. I know I’m not unique in this either but it does say something about what the PC platform has become.

Those of us who wished for the second coming of PC were looking for it to become the primary development platform, the one all developers targeted first. Whilst the consolization of PC games has improved significantly (and is likely to get even better now that consoles and PCs share the same underlying architecture) I still think that the trend is unlikely to change any time soon. Whilst the PC as a platform might be bringing in more revenue than consoles it’s primarily limited to a single genre, one that’s already dominated by 2 massive titles. In terms of AAA title development I get the feeling that consoles are still the prime target for developers, at least those who are playing outside of the MOBA space. I’d love to be wrong on this but it really does look like these numbers are skewed by the phenomenon that is League of Legends more than PCs in general.

Still this could be the catalyst required to vault the PC platform back to the top, especially considering how blurry the lines are now between consoles, PCs and even mobile (to some extent). Most of us PC die hards have made our peace with our console brothers but there’s always that lingering desire to want the platform you prefer to be the one on top. Realistically it doesn’t matter as long as you get to play the games you want to play but that competitive spirit that’s instilled in you from the time when you get your first gaming platform is hard to let go.

The Origins of Life Become A Little Bit Clearer.

If you’re a scientifically minded individual then the question of how life arose is a perplexing one. We know a lot about what life requires to survive, water being the key substance to all life on earth, but how it came to be is still the subject of much debate. The theory of abiogenesis, which I personally subscribe to, posits that life arose out of the various chemical processes that were present back when our earth was just a billion years old. Then as life became more complex and organised the processes of evolution pressured by natural selection took over, sculpting life into the innumerable forms we see today. To lend credence to this theory we have to find ways in which biological processes could arise from non-biological constructs and new research has shown us just this.

A hydrothermal vent where life is thought to have had its beginnings, Credit to the Max Planck Institute of Marine Biology for this image https://www.mpi-bremen.de/en/Home.html

Image credit: Max Planck Institute of Marine Biology for this image https://www.mpi-bremen.de/en/Home.html

Research from the university of Cambridge has managed to replicate 2 distinct metabolic pathways using metal ions that would have been present in the oceans of a young earth. The two replicated pathways were glycolysis, the process by which glucose is turned into pyruvate and releases energy to form ATP (the energy transportation mechanism for all our cells) and the pentose phosphate pathway that generates carbon sugars. The process to replicate these metabolic pathways was relatively simple, they had a solution that closely matched what we believe the early oceans of the earth were composed of and added in solutions that were known to be starters for metabolic processes. They were then subjected to conditions you’d find near a hydrothermal vent for 5 hours and the resulting solutions analysed for the resulting products. The results, whilst not being earth shattering, are incredibly intriguing as they lend credence towards certain theories about the evolution of life on earth.

Primarily it points towards early life not being reliant on ribonucleic acid (RNA) as this is currently responsible for creating many of the enzymes that speed many of the complex biological reactions that life makes use of. This research shows that these processes could have arisen by themselves without the need for RNA and could possibly be the building blocks of RNA itself. Whilst this doesn’t exactly tell us how life arose out of the primordial soup that was present on an early earth it does point towards an origin where the complex processes arose out of the primordial soup that once blanketed our earth.

Like most research of this nature whilst the results are impressive more work needs to be done to ascertain just what’s going on. The experiment has recreated the end product from a known starting state however they haven’t shown what the intermediary products are. Knowing these will give us insight into just how similar the current biological processes are to the ones created in the lab, with any discrepancies providing even more opportunity for additional research.

It’s a small step towards understanding the origins of life but a crucial one. The more we understand how life came to be here the more readily we’ll be able to identify other such places in our universe, possibly even those in our cosmic backyard. Our understanding of the origins of life are still in their infancy but we’re creating an ever more clear picture of where our distant ancestors came from.

South Park: The Stick of Truth: Save Us, Sir Douchebag.

I’ve been aware of the many games that have bore the South Park name and nearly always they’ve looked like half-assed attempts to cash in on the brand. Couple this with the game being censored in Australia and media tie in games almost always being tragic meant I wasn’t  in a real hurry to play it. However after weeks of cajoling from my friends who said The Stick of Truth was genuinely good eventually broke me down and I secured myself an uncensored copy from good old DLCompare. I can say that rarely do I go into a game with such low expectations only to have them completely blown away as South Park: The Stick of Truth is a genuinely fun and captivating game.

South Park The Stick of Truth Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Your family has just moved to the quiet mountain town that is South Park , Colorado. The reasons as to why you’ve come there are something of a mystery that neither of parents will let on about and before long they’ve sent you out into the streets to make new friends. The second you stumble outside you cross paths with Butters Stotch who recruits you into their fantasy game of humans vs elves. What starts out as an innocent game however quickly turns into a larger battle between two factions that divides the town’s children as they all clamour to secure the most priceless relic in all the land: The Stick of Truth.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is done in the exact same art style as all the episodes using simple, flash-like graphics with a few embellishments like simple lighting effects here and there. This is in stark contrast to the snippets of the other South Park games that I’ve seen which tended to have their own take on the art style which made them feel like they were set in a universe apart from that of the show. In the Stick of Truth however it feels like you’re playing through an incredibly long episode and this is in no small part due to the religiously faithful art style. I believe this is also the first game where Trey Parker and Matt Stone were directly involved in its creation which definitely comes through in the end product.

South Park The Stick of Truth Review Screenshot Wallpaper Combat

The Stick of Truth takes its inspiration from the classic turn based RPG format including a wide variety of mechanics that will be familiar but with the South Park twist applied to them. In the beginning you’ll choose between 1 of 4 different classes which will determine the primary way in which you’ll do combat. Along the way you’ll defeat enemies, pick up loot and level up your character using 2 different talent systems that unlock different abilities and perks. You’ll also engage in the tried and true puzzle sequences that will require you to use a range of different abilities, some of which you won’t have right away. As someone who’s not usually a fan of this style of game I have to say that The Stick of Truth does an excellent job of bringing all of this together, especially with the excellent writing that South Park is known for.

Your choice of class is from one of the 3 typical archetypes (fighter, mage, thief) and the additional Jew class which appears to be a monk/ranger kind of deal. Which one you choose will greatly vary the way combat usually goes however since all items aren’t class specific it’s completely possible to build a mage as a fighter, a thief as a mage and so on. Of course playing to the class’ strengths will make your job a lot easier but the flexibility is there should you want it. If you’re a min/maxer like myself you will not be disappointed with The Stick of Truth’s progression system as you can create characters that are well broken should you have an eye for which stats stack with which.

South Park The Stick of Truth Review Screenshot Wallpaper Upgrades

Your character will progress in several different ways all of which take inspiration from traditional RPG titles. You’ll gain experience through finishing quests and defeating mobs of enemies, eventually levelling up and giving you access to new abilities and additional points to upgrade them. Making friends, which can be done in numerous ways, gives you access to permanent perks which give subtle but useful buffs to your character. Lastly there’s the loot which, whilst not being completely traditional in the RPG sense (I believe it’s pretty much all pre-determined), provides some of the biggest upgrades to your skills and damage. Your weapons and armor can also be upgraded through the use of patches which can add damage or grant you abilities that aren’t available anywhere else.

As someone who isn’t the biggest fan of turn based games I was surprised at how solid The Stick of Truth’s combat felt. Initially I started off by building my character around the use of a weapon with gross damage (makes your enemies throw up and stops them healing) and a patch that granted me PP whenever I dealt said damage. This allowed me to stunlock pretty much any enemy through the use of roshambo, something which was definitely required when I was facing off enemies that were a lot harder than I’d first anticipated. That strategy stopped working towards the end however as many enemies start becoming immune to tactics like that which is when I switched to a high damage build that allowed me to attack again after killing an enemy. In the end I could hit for 8000+ damage repeatedly, clearing out an entire encounter without the enemy being able to get a single turn.

South Park The Stick of Truth Review Screenshot Wallpaper Al Gore

The Stick of Truth does have some technical and usability issues however, although a lot fewer than I first expected. I had a couple crashes that sent me straight back to the desktop for some inexplicable reason. This wasn’t a massive drama however the checkpointing system is a little weird, seemingly transporting you back to the last save point but not completing resetting the world to that point. So essentially you can be transported back but still have all the loot, even if the enemies are still there. It’s not game breaking, you never get double ups of anything but trash items, but it does make the first 5 minutes after the crash a little confusing. Additionally the junk item screen needs to be reworked with a “Sell All” button or at least made spammable as you’ll have hundreds of dollars worth of trash to sell which will likely take you a couple minutes just to get through.

The story is done true South Park fashion with pretty much every character from the TV show making an appearance throughout the course of the story. Most of the quests are based around the relationships that were developed in the show like City Wok and the Mongolians or Al Gore and ManBearPig. Playing the uncensored version was worth it as well as whilst I struggled to explain what was happening on screen to my wife and her friend who saw me play (yeah Randy is getting violated by aliens, no I don’t think I can explain why) it did make for some funny moments that made me question what kind of human being I am. Still in the end the story is very satisfying both in terms of comedic value and story content, something which few games manage to pull off successfully.

South Park The Stick of Truth Review Screenshot Wallpaper King Douchebag

South Park: The Stick of Truth is a prime example of how games that are based around a non-game IP should be done as it accurately captures the essence of the show whilst remaining a solid experience in its own right. The RPG gameplay is fantastic, taking the tried and true styles that were made famous by the Final Fantasy series and reworking them into the South Park world. The story is witty, funny and satisfying, a true testament to the writing talents of the South Park studios. Honestly I went into this game with the lowest of expectations only to have them completely blown away, something that rarely happens these days. For anyone who’s a fan of this show and feels like an 11 hour, self directed episode would be up their alley then South Park; The Stick of Truth is for you.

Rating: 9.1/10

South Park: The Stick of Truth is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation3 right now for $54.95, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.

Why Targeting Negative Gearing Won’t Solve The Problem.

My generation has been very vocal about the struggle they have with the high cost of property in Australia. The argument is not without merit with our 2 largest cities often ranking in the top 10 most expensive places in the world to live. Indeed in the past I’ve said that Australian property is out of reach for an average person on a single income although I did conclude that this wasn’t representative of how most Australians buy their homes. Still one target that almost always comes up in discussions around housing affordability is that negative gearing isn’t doing anything to help the situation and its abolishment would lead to cheaper housing everywhere. Whilst I’m sure my vested interest in this topic (I have a negatively geared property, soon to be 2) will likely have most tuning out before this paragraph is over I’d urge you to read on as getting rid of negative gearing, or modifying it in a way you think appropriate, won’t bring prices down like you think they would.

Housing Prices

Taken by themselves the numbers around negative gearing do appear to be quite damning. Every year the government doles out about $4 billion worth of tax cuts to people who own negatively geared property, amounting to about 1% of total tax revenue. At the same time data would seem to indicate that  investors almost exclusively target established properties something which is at odds with the arguments that investors fund new property development. All this would seem to add up to a situation where investors are locking up existing property stocks which forces potential buyers out of the market. Whilst I’ll admit that negative gearing is a factor in all this it’s by no means the major contributor and making changes to it will likely not have the effects that many desire.

One proposed changes is to limit the number of properties that can be negatively geared to 1, putting a cap on the number of properties investors can draw benefits from. It sounds good in theory as it would put the kibosh on property barons snapping up large swaths of property however the fact is that the vast majority of property investors in Australia, to the tune of 72.8%, own only a single investment property. They in turn account for just over half the total number of investment properties in Australia. So whilst limiting negative gearing to a single property sounds like a good idea it would only affect half of the investment properties in Australia leaving the rest in the same situation as before.

Limiting negative gearing to new construction is an idea I’m on board with as it will more directly address the issue of housing supply rather than pushing investors away from property as an investment class. The one caveat I’d have to put on top of that would be the curtailing of the land agencies from charging exorbitant amounts for new land releases as that could easily erase any gains made from quarantining negative gearing in this fashion. Indeed if you look at just the land prices here in the nationals capital a small, 400m2 block will usually go for $400,000 meaning that even a modest house built there will cost upwards of $550,000. If you want to attract investors to building new properties then this is most certainly an issue that needs to be addressed prior to quarantining negative gearing.

However all of these ideas are flawed when you consider that there’s a much bigger tax break at work here that’s inflating property prices. As I’ve stated many times in the past Australian housing investors are something of a minority, accounting for around 20% of the housing market. Therefore it’s hard to believe that negative gearing is solely responsible for Australia’s house prices as the majority of the market is because of owner occupiers. What I didn’t mention in that previous post is the tax breaks that owner-occupiers receive in the form of exemptions from capital gains tax. Essentially when you sell your primary place of residence you don’t pay any tax on any gains that property may have made while you owned it which puts a strong upward pressure on prices (people want to maximise gains), enabling them to trade up to bigger and better houses.

That sounds fine in principle but it costs taxpayers a staggering $36 billion a year, 9 times that of negative gearing. You wouldn’t even have to abolish this to see savings far in excess of what getting rid of negative gearing would achieve. Instituting a 50% reduction in the capital gains tax payable (like is done currently with shares) for the sale of your primary place of residence would generate $18 billion a year and put a heavy downward pressure on property prices. Hell you could even apply the new construction only exception to this as well, giving people who build new houses something like 5 years worth of capital gains tax free whilst ensuring everyone else paid up. Of course this solution is a little less palatable since it targets everyone and no just those dirty investors but it would be far more effective.

Many will argue that abolishing negative gearing is a good first step towards solving the problem but in all honesty I don’t feel it will have the impact that it’s advocates think it will. Australian investors, whilst being a factor in housing prices, aren’t the major contributor with that responsibility falling to the Australian dream of owning ever bigger and better homes. Fixing the supply issue is a multi-faceted affair and if you want to attract investor dollars to it the solution has to be much more nuanced than simply removing one piece of legislation. You might not like it, hell I don’t like limiting things to new construction but I’ll agree it would work, but we have to face the fact that targeting Australian property investors likely won’t get us very far.

Lytro’s Illum is the Next Step for Lightfield.

I first wrote about Lytro a while back when they introduced the first consumer grade lightfield camera to the market. It was an exciting development as this kind of technology was out of the reach of pretty much anyone prior to the original Lytro. Still whilst it was interesting from a technological perspective I just couldn’t bring myself to buy one, especially not after I picked up my DSLR again. Ever since then though I hadn’t heard anything further from Lytro, neither new developments nor tales of their demise, so I was left wondering if the Lytro that I envisioned was ever going to eventuate. As it turns out whilst we might not be seeing Lytro sensors in all DSLRs we will be seeing a serious piece of camera kit and it’s quite incredible.

Lytro Illum

Lytro announced the Illum which is their first entry into the upper end of the photography market. It looks very similar to a lot of the mirrorless 4/3rds that are available now although it doesn’t have an interchangeable lens system and lacks a viewfinder of any description. Normally these would be things that would count heavily against it but the specifications of the Illum are, honestly, so incredible that if anyone else had announced them I’d say they were fake. That lens is a 30-250mm F/2.0 thats capable of doing 1:3 macro that’s made up of only 11 elements in 3 groups which sounds downright impossible when you compare it to similar DSLR lenses like the Canon 70-250mm F/2.8 (19 groups with 23 elements). The sensor has also been buffed up considerably tipping the scales at 40 Megarays which gives you a print resolution of approximately 5 megapixels. That’s well below most DSLRs available today but it’s above the crucial 4MP threshold required for a standard sized photograph. The back also sports a 4 inch touchscreen that includes a depth histogram to aide with taking highly refocusable pictures.

Now anyone who’s made the mistake of becoming interested in high end photography gear will look at those specs, mostly the lens, and wonder how a startup like Lytro was able to do something that the big lens makers haven’t been able to accomplish with their decades of experience. Lytro says that their seemingly impossible lens specifications comes from the fact that they’re doing most of what the lens does mechanically in software instead. This drastically cuts down on the element count and enables the lens to do things that you’d usually require multiple, distinct lenses to do. I’m willing to give Lytro the benefit of the doubt here but I’ll have to see one in action before I make a final judgement on just how good it is.

One thing that I find a little strange about the design is the way Lytro believes it will be used. The Illum angled body isn’t done just for aesthetics, instead it’s been designed to be used as if you’re shooting at hip level rather than at eye level. Whilst any photographer will tell you that one of the fastest ways to grow is to stop shooting everything at eye level shooting at hip level has its own set of limitations and I’m not sure that designing a camera around that idea is completely sound. Again this is something I’d want to see in action first before laying down judgement but it’s something that feels it’s different just for the sake of it.

The low final resolution is also likely to be something that will hinder adoption among more serious photography enthusiasts. Whilst you’ll be able to print the traditional photo size anything larger than that starts to become problematic. This probably isn’t a problem for those who are just viewing them digitally, which more and more people are doing these days, but it does mean that the Illum is probably one step short for the professional and likely a little too expensive for the intrigued amateur looking to move up from their phone camera. The original Lytro was in a similar market position though and was obviously successful enough for Lytro to continue development so there’s probably a market for it that I’m just not seeing.

All this being said I’d really love to get my hands on one of the Illums to see just what its capable of and whether the output from it is enough for me to ditch my DSLR for certain things. The lens on the Illum is what intrigues me the most as its capabilities are just incredible and I really want to see how it compares to similar offerings from the long standing DSLR companies. We don’t have to wait long though as the Illum is scheduled to hit the streets on July 15th for a cool $1499 and whilst I probably won’t shell out for one immediately I’d certainly be interested in borrowing one to give it the once over.

The Sorry State of America’s Science Education.

It’s easy to forget that the whole world doesn’t share your view of it. With the vast trove of information that is the Internet it’s become incredibly easy to surround yourself in an echo chamber of like-minded people, lulling you into the idea that you’re part of the majority. Once you’ve been in there long enough it’s easy to dismiss dissenting viewpoints as outliers, ones that shouldn’t have an effect on your perfect worldview. Of course if you have a rational mindset you’ll eventually come to learn that the world is quite unlike any echo chamber claims it to be and the reality can sometimes be quite sickening. Indeed I’ve fallen prey to it many times but none was as shocking to me as the current state of the population of the USA’s science education.

AP-GfK POLL 2014

The table above is taken from the AP/GFK poll which was conducted between March 20-24 of this year with a total number of respondents being just over 1000. The margin of error for the study is +/- 3.4% at the 95% confidence level which shows that the figures portrayed above are very close to the actual state of opinion in the USA on these matters. As you can see whilst some of the bigger issues have wide spread support, like smoking causing cancer and that mental illness is a medical condition, the bottom half starts to get really murky. The thing about all those statements however is that they’re solid scientific facts so there’s really no debate about whether or not they’re correct. Indeed many of these things are what should be part of a typical American education which brings me onto the next point.

In the same report there’s a table labelled PPEDCUAT. (4 category) which shows the breakdown of the education levels of the respondents. Now I don’t know what I was expecting but 89% say that they have a high school education or higher which, I would hope, covers off the majority of the topics in the lower support brackets. What this tells me is that either the high school education doesn’t cover these topics, which I don’t believe is the case, or people are rejecting these arguments for one reason or another. Whilst I can hazard a guess as to why I’m sure you can figure out at least one or two factors that would be having a negative impact on those scores.

I’d be interested to see how this compares to other countries as whilst I’d love to believe that Australia is the bastion of rational thinking I know that’s not strictly the case. In any case this shows just how important science outreach programs are as this survey shows just how much work there is left to be done. Hopefully over time those numbers will all trend in the upwards direction, showing that the general public’s interest in science is increasing. It definitely feels like that is the case when you compare it to say a decade ago but as these numbers show there’s always room to improve.

Strike Vector: It’s Missing One Thing, People.

My interest in multiplayer only games seems to have increased along with my access to stable, fast Internet. Way back when I first started out trying to play Team Fortress Classic on my 56K modem I’d find myself struggling, unable to compete with the low ping bastards who could react before I could. Sure the high ping only servers helped somewhat but it was clear that the experience was far below that when I was on LAN with friends or at a big convention. Now that I can have a similar experience from home I’ve found myself enjoying these kinds of games more and more but I’ve also got great respect for games that can make an online only game enjoyable with high latency. Strike Vector is one such game which manages to accomplish this which is admirable, especially because it feels like that was unintentional.

Strike Vector Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Strike Vector has no single-player campaign or any story to speak of, it’s simply an online only multiplayer game where you’ll play the same familiar game modes (deathmatch, capture the flag, point domination, etc.) you’ve played in many other FPSs, except this time you’re in a ship called a Vector. Your ship has 2 primary modes of operation: Jet mode where you’ll fly fast in one direction and stationary mode which transforms your Vector into a highly accurate gunning platform to take down your enemies. Both modes have their uses and you’ll need to use both if you want to succeed in any of the game modes.

Like most fast paced games Strike Vector’s visuals are a little light on, favouring simplicity for most things so that the game runs smoothly at all times. This isn’t to say it’s a dull looking game, the screenshot below is a testament to how good it can look, but you’re not going to spend a lot of time gawking at the vast scenery unless you like getting sniped repeatedly. The range of different environments you’ll play in too adds tremendously to Strike Vector’s replayability as they range from wide open spaces where attacks can come from anywhere to tight corridors that force you into head on head battles. Indeed this was probably what sold me on Strike Vector initially as the videos of the gameplay coupled with the better than average visuals piqued my interest.

Strike Vector Review Screenshot Wallpaper Flying Into The Abyss

The combat in  Strike Vector is extremely fast paced with almost instant respawn times that ensures you’re never out of action for long. The game modes are what you’d expect from any run of the mill FPS which have then been reworked for 3D space combat. There’s also elements of Quake and Unreal Tournament blended allowing you to pick up buffs that will dramatically alter combat in your favour. Couple this with a customization system that encompasses your gaming archetype (sniper, rusher, etc.) as well as the look of your Vector and you’ve got a recipe for a game with quite a bit of depth to it, one that invites you to adapt to the situation at hand by trying new things out.

Unlike similar titles however Strike Vector gives you access to all the available weapons, modifiers and special abilities from the first game you play. For a game like Strike Vector I think this is to it’s benefit as it gives you a level playing field, allowing new users to experiment with various combinations to see what works for them. It also helps that the build of whoever blows you up is shown to you on the death screen so you can duplicate it if you think it’s overpowered. Whilst I don’t believe any one particular build is completely broken there are combinations that are simply just not worth pursuing (swarm missiles and the LMG to an extent) as there are other, similar weapons which do a better job.

Strike Vector Review Screenshot Wallpaper Customizations

What’s not unlocked for you however is the ability to customize the look of your ship. It won’t take you long to unlock a bevy of additional decals, parts and all sorts of other things that you can use to change the look of your ship something which will likely drive many to play for hours on end. Chassis parts, the bits that actually make up your ship, come by less often however and it’ll likely take you a while to unlock a fully different ship model. Still mixed parts don’t look horrible together (as my ship above shows) so it’s not a big deal. It would be nice to have a progression indicator to see what I’d be unlocking next though as I wasn’t able to find any indication of what was coming when.

So the game is solid however there’s just one nagging issue that’s likely to kill the game for anyone looking to buy it: no one else is playing it. Now this could be due to me be an Australian playing at Australian times but I’ve never seen more than 20 people online at any one time. Sure that might be enough to keep a game or two going but they’re usually on the USA servers where my ping is a staggering 200+. As I alluded to earlier Strike Vector manages to handle this somewhat well due to its design (homing rockets are a godsend) but there were many times when a server depopulated leaving just me and another player duking it out. That might be fun for some but when one of you is on 50 ping and the other 200 it becomes an exercise in frustration. This is even after the recent 50% sale which you’d expect to have increase numbers significantly.

Strike Vector Review Screenshot Wallpaper TOP SCORE

Strike Vector is a great take on the traditional multiplayer FPS, combining elements from all the classics and presenting them in a new format that’s quick to pick up but incredibly difficult to master. The initial level playing field and very latency forgiving mechanics make Strike Vector fun to play even when you’re at the end of a high ping connection. However the lack of a large enough player base is likely to be its downfall as it’s nigh on impossible to find a game in your region and you’ll often find yourself being one of a handful of players on the server once the map changes. It’s a game I can see a bunch of friends having a lot of fun with but past that Strike Vector is going to need a lot more players to make it worthwhile.

Rating: 8/10

Strike Vector is available on PC right now for $12.49  (for the next 15 hours). Total play time was approximately 3 hours.

The Simple Beauty of Magnetic Fields.

Magnetic fields permeate our entire existence. The Earth’s molten iron core generates a gigantic magnetic field that shields us from the harsh solar winds that our Sun blows forth and, when it momentarily fails, generates the beautiful aurora seen at the more extreme latitudes. They’re also behind some of the greatest technological advances in modern times from things like the humble hard drive that’s in the vast majority of computer systems to the first television screens that were driven by cathode ray tubes.Visualizing a magnetic field is somewhat difficult though as whilst may things react to them they don’t really show you their beautiful field lines. Ferrofluids however are one material that showcases them quite distinctly and they’re quite beautiful:

You can actually purchase both of the sculptures in the video from here and whilst they would make an awesome little art piece on their own I think they’d also be a great little educational tool. Magnets and iron fillings get you part of the way but ferrofluids like this give you a much better view of how the fields interact with each. Most importantly they show them in 3D space, something that’s incredibly hard to grasp when you demonstrate magnetic fields the old fashioned way.

Now if only someone would chuck one inside an MRI machine, I’m sure that’d make for quite a display.

NHMRC Rules Homeopathy “Useless For Human Health”.

You might not think it from reading this blog but I’ve actually been an advocate for some types of complementary medicine in the past. Predominantly this has been related to osteopathy which helped me tremendously with some back issues I had, especially when used in conjunction with more traditional physiotherapy. However that’s where my belief in them ends as whilst many practitioners would have you believe that their treatments can be effective for things other than what they’re directly influencing the science just isn’t there to support it. Indeed even the practitioners I use don’t believe that which is the reason I keep going back to them.

Homeopathic Pills With Not Much In ThemOne of my favourite dead horses to beat in this area is homeopathy, the practice of diluting something that causes the symptoms you’re experiencing in water to the point where none of that substance could remain. It’s practitioners then theorize that the water retains some “memory” of it which you body then recognises and somehow manifests a cure for ailments. Homeopathy has been scientifically proven to be no more effective than a placebo in numerous clinical trials yet it’s still a booming industry seeing on the order of $10 million worth of sales in Australia every year. You’d think that without any solid grounds for efficacy it wouldn’t be long for this world but it’s practitioners are an incredibly stubborn bunch.

Thankfully though the government commissioned the National Health and Medical Research Council to do a report on the efficacy of homeopathy for some 68 different clinical conditions and the results are, unsurprisingly, for the negative. The research was commissioned as part of a larger body of work concerning the government’s 30% rebate on complementary therapies which currently includes things like homeopathy. It’s quite possible that this will lead to the exclusion of such therapies from the rebate scheme, something which I wholly support. This won’t stop them from being sold though, they just won’t be subsidised as a complementary form of medicine.

On the flip side though I’m of the mind that people are more than welcome to put whatever they want in their bodies so long as they don’t harm anyone else. This research makes it clear that homeopathy can not treat clinical conditions and so anyone who advocates it as such is, in my mind, actively doing harm to that person. If you’re taking a homeopathic remedy for “general health reasons” and it seems to be working for you great, but consider that your experience is more than likely due to the nature of you thinking it was going to work rather than some magical properties of water that defies all scientific evidence to the contrary. In that case for it to work for someone else they too have to believe that and if they do they’ll likely find it without your help.