The one review per week deadline I’ve set myself is both a blessing and a curse. I have certainly broadened my gaming horizons considerably since I first started doing it having played many titles I would’ve otherwise let slip by the wayside. Unfortunately it also means that I usually pass on titles that require a heavy time investment as I simply can’t do them justice. However there are exceptions and Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game who’s predecessors I’ve played (and loved) in the past, is one I certainly couldn’t pass up. So, after shirking off all my other responsibilities for the past week I’ve managed to work my way through Bioware’s latest RPG, and I’m incredibly glad I did.
It has been one year since the events of Dragon Age 2 and the world, still reeling from the last blight and the turmoil in Kirkwall, is set to face another threat. The sky has been rendered asunder in a massive explosion that destroyed the Chantry’s most sacred of temples with you, bearing and strange green mark on your hand, being the only one to survive it. Whilst many want you to be put to the axe immediately Seeker Cassandra steadies their hands in the hopes that you will be able to close the breach between this world and the fade. To do this she invokes the right of the Inquisition, severing ties from the Templars and Chantry to form a new order to close the breach and seek its cause.
At first I thought Inquisition was running on some kind of supercharged Unreal engine, due to the way it used specularity, however it turns out that it’s powered by none other than the Frostbite 3 engine, the same one that’s behind the beautiful graphics of the Battlefield series. Compared to its predecessors Inquisition is definitely a major step forward with everything taking on a new sense of scale and detail. Surprisingly this doesn’t come with it’s usual associated cost of stuttering frame rates, something I was quite impressed with. It may not be Skyrim-modded-to-the-nines beautiful but it’s definitely a game that would be best played on a current generation hardware.
The sheer breadth of Inquisition is something that’s hard to understate, something which is wholly a product of the previous instalment in this series being panned for its limited nature. The core of the game still remains the same, it’s a Bioware RPG that has a heavy focus on the story and your role within it, but surrounding that are numerous quests, challenges and other activities that I’m sure adds up to well over 100 hours worth of play time. Layered on top of all of this is the War Room, a birds eye view map of Orlais and Ferelden that allows you to send your advisors on missions to gain influence, rewards or to unlock further missions for you to pursue. It shows that Bioware has listened to the feedback regarding how narrow Dragon Age 2 felt in comparison to its other RPG titles, even if they may have overcompensated to the point of impacting other things (more on that later).
Combat feels like an evolutionary improvement of what was done in Dragon Age 2, keeping the same action-RPG focus whilst attempting to add in other mechanics to make the traditional RPG style more accessible. Instead of the traditional pause mode Inquisition instead gives you a Tactical Camera which allows you to look around the entire combat field and assign actions to your party. It’s not a requirement to use it however as the behaviour system for your companions is back in and, thankfully, is coupled with a much more competent AI that’s able to recognize its new abilities and when it should and shouldn’t use them. Probably the most notable change is though is that the healing system has been completely revamped with no character class having a native healing ability and the number of healing potions given to your party fixed at a certain amount. What this all adds up to is a combat system that’s far more streamlined, lending the focus more to the action than the minutia.
This also means that the strategies you’ll use in Inquisition are going to be far different than any other RPG out there. Instead of ensuring you have the holy trinity set up you’re far more focused on controlling combat, setting up combos and making sure you use other survivability options so you don’t churn through your potion stash too quickly. My party make up usually consisted of a 2H warrior (me), dual wield rogue (Sera), control mage (Dorian) and a frontline tank (Blackwall). The combinations of control from the mage and tank warrior meant that both Sera and I were able to set up extremely devastating combos, some that could drop an entire group of enemies in just a couple hits. There were a couple issues with survivability, especially with mechanics that would drop half your health bar in one hit (not giving them a chance to us a potion) but for the most part once I got past the first 5 hours or so I felt essentially untouchable.
Indeed those first 5 or so hours are probably the most difficult and probably worst paced of the game. Now some of the issues I encountered with not being at the right level might have had something to do with my “go for the story missions first” play style, however once I was over that initial hump whenever I needed to level myself up I didn’t feel like I was struggling to find missions to fill the gap. I think this is probably due to the differences between say, level 3 and 6, being far more drastic than the differences between later levels as I certainly didn’t feel that the later levels made as much of an impact as the first 10 or so did. What was a bit of a chore sometimes was the grind to get power so I could unlock the next set of missions but again this was probably due to me attempting to smash out the storyline rather than meander about.
The crafting system has been shaken up considerably allowing you to create all sorts of highly customized armour and weapons to suit your needs. There’s 3 top level categories of materials (cloth, leather and metal) which have dozens of different types and levels beneath them. This is what allows you to craft armour and weapons with varying characteristics although you’ll likely find you don’t have enough of a particular type to craft the perfect item, even if you’re the stereotypical RPG kleptomaniac. This will then lead you on a hunting expedition for the resources you require something which doesn’t take too long but can feel a little bit grindy if you’re going for the premium materials. However the result can be well worth the grind as I carried my first craft sword through numerous levels.
The war table is an interesting addition, taking its cues from other non-player mission systems like those found in say Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Most of the benefits you’ll gain from sending your advisors on missions aren’t exactly game breaking but every so often you’ll stumble onto something that can make a decent difference in how your game plays out. There does come a time when you’ll run out of the long duration missions however, which puts you in the rather unenviable position of either travelling back to the war room every 15 minutes or simply letting them slide until you next return. Overall I think it’s a good way to keep the story going whilst adding in another avenue to build back story for the world but I probably wouldn’t miss it if it was gone.
This massive amount of content within the game, whilst impressive, has come with an unfortunate cost. As it stands right now the game is riddled with numerous bugs, some of the innocuous and fun, others game breaking or terribly annoying. Many people, myself included, experience random crashes to desktop with no discernible pattern. Others experience weird things like their characters voice changing from male to female or, and this one is particularly frustrating for someone like me who invests an inordinate amount of time recreating himself within the game, change from one voice type to the other. My originally deep voiced character changed to the higher pitched British actor half way through the game, a bug that currently has no fix in sight. This frustration is only compounded by the interface often forgetting that I had a mouse, refusing to respond to any input from it until I ALT + TAB out and back in again.
Whilst I initially wrote this off as a typical Bioware RPG, which have a reputation for doing this, it became hard to make excuses for them the further I got into Inquisition. Sure, it’s clear that they took the feedback about Dragon Age 2 to heart, however at the same time it’s obvious that they sacrificed on polish in order to jam as much content in as they could. Whilst I understand that patching issues, especially the number which are evident within Inquisition, takes time we’re now a week past launch and there’s no patch in sight to fix some of the more glaring issues with the game. Inquisition is still a fantastic game, it’s just held back from where it should be because of these problems.
The incredible scale of Inquisition extends to its story with nearly every aspect of the world getting the full Bioware backstory treatment. Most if it is unfortunately hidden behind giant walls of text that you’ll have to wade through, however for your companions and major story NPCs they will gladly regale you with troves of information about the world and their place within it. At the same time there’s not an incredible amount of reliance on the previous titles to provide context on the events that are occurring, something which I think many of us will be grateful for given the fact that it’s been over 3 years since we last ventured into the Dragon Age world. Truly Inquisition is one of the shining examples of a game that puts a great emphasis on its story and the world which it exists in.
As to the tale of the Inquisition itself there are numerous moments I could point to (which I won’t, since they’re spoilerific) where the story really shines. It’s a classic hero’s journey, building you up from someone who was in the wrong place and the right time to a leader who inspires all those around him to achieve great things. There are a few moments which stick out in my mind brilliantly where I felt part of something much larger than myself, a notable achievement that few games have managed to replicate. The over-arching story does a great job of making you feel like you’re building towards something greater however the final pay off felt a little anti-climatic. I think this is probably because other games make the penultimate fight feel like you’re going up against insurmountable odds whereas in Inquisition I had cornered my prey and was simply there to deal the final blow. That’s just my impression however, something that may be tied into the fact that I was literally unstoppable at the end.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a rare example of a sequel surpassing its predecessors, bring a sense of scale and depth that’s rare to see in any game. All the elements that made the original Dragon Age great are there, from the combat to the story to the ancillary elements around them, and the summation of those parts is so much greater than they would be individually. This greatness is however dulled by the numerous issues that plague the game, ranging from the annoying to the down right game breaking. However, despite that, it’s a hard game to put down as everything else about it draws you back in, taunting you to play just one more mission or to follow the end of that quest chain. Suffice to say I think Dragon Age: Inquisition is by far the strongest instalment in the series and it will only get better once Bioware starts patching it.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $89.95, $99.95, $109.95, $99.95 and $109.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours of play time and 48% of the achievements unlocked.
When you think of scientific telescopes there’s usually only 2 different types that come to mind. The ones down here on terra firma, with their giant white domes covering their precious mirrors, and the ones up in space like the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. Each of these has is set of benefits and drawbacks, like the ground based ones having massive mirrors and the space based ones not having to deal with our atmosphere. However there’s potential for a telescope that straddles the boundaries of these two types of telescopes, one that’s far above the Earth’s surface but also doesn’t require the heavy energy investment of an orbital craft. Indeed NASA has flown craft like these in the past and they’re now looking to airships to fly the next generation of such telescopes.
Ground based telescopes suffer from 2 major drawbacks related to the atmosphere. The first is the aberrations caused by the shifting atmosphere, the same thing that causes the stars to twinkle at night, which makes precise measurements incredibly difficult. The second is that the atmosphere is great at absorbing a lot of the frequencies of light, specifically infrared, something which we can’t really overcome with special optics or filters. Putting a telescope in space negates these problems but brings with it a whole other set of challenges which is precisely why NASA is looking to develop a sub-orbital telescope concept using an airship as the platform.
NASA has constructed platforms like this in the past, the most notable one of which is SOFIA, an infrared observatory that’s built into the back of a Boeing 747. At its cruising altitude it’s able to see 85% of the total infrared light coming to Earth a considerable amount more than any ground based telescope will be able to see. The primary limit to SOFIA is its endurance time which is around eight hours or so although its capability to be pretty much anywhere in the world does make it incredibly flexible in the operations it can perform. The airship design that NASA is looking to pursue would address this limitation whilst providing some other benefits.
Airships, whilst not being as mobile as their winged cousins, have the advantage of being able to stay aloft in a location for extended periods of time that aircraft simply aren’t capable of doing. For an observatory this provides several advantages such as being able to do longer exposures on targets as well as being able to take advantage of higher bandwidth downlinks to their base sites. There are several engineering challenges that will need to be solved before a viable aircraft will materialize, but it’s certainly within the realms of possibility.
Pending funding of the idea NASA will be funding it X-prize style, looking for designs (and I assume workable craft) that can carry a small or large payload up into the atmosphere. Such programs have proved to be highly successful in the past and I’m sure we’ll see some pretty interesting craft come out of it. Considering that SOFIA is slated to be shut down due to budgetary concerns sometime next year a viable alternative needs to be sought so they don’t introduce more holes in their capabilities. Of course getting an airship with a telescope up in the air before that happens isn’t going to be likely but the sooner the process is started the better.
It’s really hard to have anything but admiration for Stuxnet. It was the first piece of software that could be clearly defined as a weapon, one with a very specific purpose in mind that used all manner of tricks to accomplish its task. Since its discovery there hasn’t been another piece of software that’s come close to it in terms of capability although there’s always rumours and speculation of what might be coming next. Regin, discovered by Symantec, has been infecting computers since at least 2008 and is the next candidate for the cyber-weapon title and whilst its mode of operation is more clandestine (and thus, a little more boring) it’s more what it’s not that interests me most.
Unlike Stuxnet, and most other malware you’ll encounter these days, Regin is designed to infect a single target with no further mechanism to spread itself. This is interesting because most run of the mill malware wants to get itself onto as many machines as possible, furthering the chances that it’d pick up something of value. Malware of this nature, one that we haven’t identified a specific infection vector for, means that it’s purpose is far more targeted and was likely developed with specific targets in mind. Indeed the architecture of the software, which is highly modular in nature, indicates that Regin is deployed against a very specific subset of targets rather than allowing it to roam free and find targets of interest.
Regin has the ability to load up various different modules depending on what its command and control servers tell it to do. The functions range from interchangeable communication methods (one of which includes the incredibly insidious idea of encoding data within ping packets) to modules designed to target specific pieces of software. It’s quite possible that the list Symantec has created isn’t exhaustive either as Regin attempts to leave very little data at rest. Indeed Symantec hasn’t been able to recover any of the data captured by this particular bit of malware, indicating that captured data is likely not stored for long, if at all.
Due to its non-worm nature the range of targets that Regin has infected gives a pretty good indication as to what it’s intended purpose is. The two largest groups of targets were individuals or telecommunications backbones, indicating that its purpose is likely information gathering on a large scale. The location of of infections indicates that this piece of software was likely western in origin as the primary targets were Russia and Saudi Arabia with very few targets within western countries. It’s unlikely that this tool was developed for a specific operation due to its modular nature however, so I don’t believe there’s any relationship between different infections apart from them using the same framework.
Just like Stuxnet I’m sure we won’t know the full story of Regin for some time to come as software of this nature is incredibly adept at hiding its true purpose. Whilst its capabilities appear to be rather run of the mill the way in which it achieves this is very impressive. More interesting though is it’s non-worm nature which, whilst it may have prevented its detection for some time, hints heavily to its true purpose and origin. I’m really looking forward to further analysis of this particular piece of software as it gives us a rare insight into the world of clandestine cyber warfare operations.
There are some things you just don’t think about until they’re shown to you. Most people don’t think twice about why the same side of the moon always faces us, it’s either just coincidence or divine intervention, but when you learn it’s a relatively simple aspect of gravity (tidal locking) you find yourself asking where else such things might occur. Likewise I had never really thought about why rivers tend to twist and turn, thinking that it was most likely because there were things in the water’s way that it was just getting around, but as it turns out there’s a very clear explanation for why they bend, even without objects being in their way:
Understanding these fundamental principles is what allows us to look at other places in the universe and draw conclusions about what they might have been like billions of years in the past. We’ve long speculated that Mars was once host to oceans and rivers not unlike our own based on ideas like this; their snake like remnants still being visible long after the water has departed. Hopefully one day we’ll find the ever elusive underground reservoirs of water on Mars and maybe, just maybe, find evidence of life that may have once played a role in shaping those long forgotten rivers.
I’d like to say that I’ve never run ads on my blog out of a principled stance against them but the reality is I just wouldn’t make enough out of them to justify their existence. Sure this blog does cost me a non-zero sum to maintain but it’s never been much of a burden and I wouldn’t feel right compromising the (now) good look of the website just to make a few bucks on the side. This hasn’t stopped me from wondering how I would go about making my living as a blogger, although unfortunately pretty much every road leads back to advertising. However that model might be set to change with one of Google’s latest products: Contributor.
The idea behind it is simple: you select a monthly amount you want to contribute to the sites you frequent and for sites participating in the Contributor program you’ll see no ads from Google AdSense. It’s a slight tweak on the idea of services like Flattr with a much lower barrier to adoption since most people have a Google account already and most sites run AdSense in some form. You also don’t have to specify how much goes to each site you visit, Google handles that by counting up the pageviews and dividing up your monthly contribution accordingly. In a world where AdBlock Plus has become one of the most installed browser extensions this could be a way for publishers to claw back a little revenue and, of course, for Google to bump up its revenue.
This isn’t Google’s first foray into crowd funding publishers as just a few months ago they released Fan Funding for YouTube channels. That was mostly a reaction to other crowd funding services like Patreon and Subbable whereas Contributor feels like a more fully thought out solution, one that has some real potential to generate revenue for content creators. Hopefully Google will be scaling the program into a more general solution as times goes on as I can imagine a simple “pay $3 to disable all AdSense ads” kind of service would see an incredibly large adoption rate.
On the flip side though I’m wondering how many people would convert away from blocking ads completely to using Contributor or a similar service. I know those AdBlock sensing scripts that put up guilt trip ads (like DotaCinema’s Don’t Make Sven Cry one) are pretty effective in making me whitelist certain sites, but going the next step to actually paying money is a leap I’m not sure I’d make. I know it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things, $36/year is a pittance for most people browsing the Internet, but it’s still a barrier. That being said it’s a lower barrier than any of the other options available, however.
I think Contributor will be a positive thing for both publishers and consumers in the long run, it’ll just depend on how willing people are to fork over a couple bucks a month and how much of that makes its way back to the sites it supports. You’ll still need a decent sized audience to make a living off it but at least you’d have another tool at your disposal to have them support what you do. Meanwhile I and all the other aspiring small time bloggers will continue to fantasize about what it would be like to get paid for what we do, even though we know it’ll never happen.
But it could…couldn’t it? 😉
I have something of a love/hate relationship with 4X style games. Usually at the beginning I hate them, the complicated web of variables that needs to be balanced properly usually irritates me to no end, especially when I figure out I’ve backed myself into a corner. Whilst that might make put them down initially there’s always that voice at the back of my head that tells me I should try again because this time, it says, you’ll get the balance right. And so the cycle goes until I look at the clock and its 1am…2 days later. The Civilization series has long set the benchmark for the 4X genre and with its latest instalment, Civilization: Beyond Earth, it seems set to keeping setting the standard by which all others will be judged.
Earth lies a ravaged husk of its former self. 600 years into the future humanity made a terrible error, The Great Mistake, that is slowly rendering the planet unliveable. Thus all the great nations of the world put their resources behind a desperate plan: they’d send their best and brightest across the galaxy to find new worlds, to start fresh and save humanity from its certain death. It is now up to you, dear traveller, to restart humanity on worlds that are not of our own. Will you remake humanity in it’s own image? Or will you craft a new kind of civilization, free from the bonds of its past? The world is yours to craft.
Having not played Civilization V it’s hard for me to comment on how the graphics compare to its predecessor although perusing through some screenshots shows that there’s been some improvements, not least of which comes from the form of a better UI. Like most 4X games Beyond Earth tends towards a more simple graphical style mostly because the screen ends up littered with hundreds of objects in no short order, able to bring even a respectably specced machine to its knees. That being said it’s not an ugly game, especially when you’re zoomed out, indeed it’s probably the best looking 4X game I’ve played.
Like all other Civilization games Beyond Earth has a bewildering amount of things to do. It’s enough that, at first glance, you almost feel like you need to read a novel to make sure you know what you’re doing before you click the start button. However, just like other games in this genre, the best thing to do is to simply plonk yourself down and attempt to hammer your way through it, figuring out how each different mechanic works. There’s a semi-helpful AI who’ll pipe up every so often to let you know when something’s happening or there’s a mechanic that needs explaining, which helps a little bit, but the larger overall strategy is still left entirely up to you. With so many options available to you, along with the routine 6+ hour per game play time, you have a recipe for an incredibly addictive game.
Unlike Civilization games of years past Beyond Earth allows you to craft your own history by making a few choices. Your opponents are no longer historical figures, instead they’re representatives of the various factions of Earth that have been sent to settle this planet. The tech tree that we’re familiar with is gone, replaced with a tech web that sprawls out in numerous directions, opening up several different paths to unlocking technology. Beyond Earth also brings with it a system called affinity which sets the overall tone for how your settlement behaves in this new world. With technology trading removed it’s nigh on impossible to research everything in one sitting, ensuring that Beyond Earth will keep you coming back for several more play throughs.
Perhaps the most fundamental thing to understand in Beyond Earth is what all the resources are, what they’re used for and how you can generate the required amount of them in order to unlock the things you want. In my first game I heavily prioritized science which, unfortunately, meant I quickly found myself in an energy hole from which there was little escape. The second time around however I figured out that building out certain resources first were far more advantageous, as was the low hanging fruit in the tech tree. Indeed Beyond Earth, like most 4X games, rewards players for planning out a strategy and then executing it, rather than rushing for the best technology first and hoping your opponent doesn’t get there sooner.
One of the things that I don’t think was explained terribly well was trade. It’s a completely optional thing to engage in, however it quickly becomes one of the largest sources of resources that you’ll have access to. Indeed my energy-first strategy often allowed me to fully kit out a new colony with a trade depot and 2 convoys the second it came online, dramatically increasing its capabilities and growth rate. There are downsides to trade, of course, like your convoy getting eaten by native fauna or picked off by an angry neighbour but trade still seems mightily powerful when compared to the alternatives.
I’m not sure if it was the difficulty setting I was playing on but the AI seems to have some strange quirks when it comes to reacting to what they perceive as a threat. My blue neighbour, who was my biggest trading partner by far, declared war on me twice for nothing I could clearly discern apart from maybe my huge stockpile of energy. The thing is though that they needed me far more than I needed them so the second they broke all trade with me they lost all means to produce additional units. It didn’t take long for me to whittle them down and get a juicy peace treaty as a result but it still felt like the AI should’ve understood the situation it was getting itself into, rather than attempting to bully me with its puny force.
There’s also a few rough edges here and there, like you can see in the first few screenshots in this review. For the most part the innocuous, just seeming to be glitches in certain parts of code that either fail to display something or display it more times than it needs to, but it happened often enough that it did become a little irritating. Since I was coming into this game a little late I usually expect these little rough edges to be gone by the time I get to it so it was a little disappointing to see. That being said the rest of the game runs perfectly so it’s a very small mark on an otherwise smooth experience.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is yet another great example of why Sid Meier’s series is considered the best in the 4X genre. The staggering amount of mechanics, playstyles and strategies that the game puts before you means that there’s always something new to discover or try out, providing nigh on endless hours of entertainment. Like all of the previous Civilization titles it demands a heavy investment of time in order to get the most out of it but should you commit the experience that you’re rewarded with is simply unmatched within its genre. It’s not a perfect experience, lacking a good introduction and having a few rough edges, but it’s still a solid overall experience, one that’s sure to delight Civilization fans all over.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is available on PC right now for $49.99. Total game time was approximately 8 hours with 20% of the achievements unlocked.
The age of the Internet has broke down the barriers that once existed between Australia and the rest of the world. We’re keenly aware that there are vast numbers of products and services available overseas that we want to take advantage of but either can’t, because they don’t want to bring it to us, or won’t because it’s far too expensive. We’re a resourceful bunch though and whilst companies will try their darnedest to make us pay the dreaded Australia Tax we’ll find a way around it, legitimately or otherwise. Probably the most popular of services like this is Netflix which, even though it’s not available here, attracts some 200,000 subscribers here in Australia. That number could soon rocket skywards as Netflix has finally announced that they’ll be coming to our shores early next year.
Australia will be the 16th country to receive the Netflix service, 7 years after they originally launched in the USA. Whilst there’s been demand for them to come Australia for some time now the critical mass of semi-legitimate users, plus the maturity of the cloud infrastructure they will need to deliver it here (Netflix uses AWS), has finally reached a point where an actual presence is warranted. Details are scant on exactly what they’ll be offering in Australia but looking at the other 14 non-US countries to get Netflix we can get a pretty good idea of what to expect when they finally hit the go live button for the Australian service.
For starters the full catalogue of shows that the USA service has will likely not be available to Netflix Australia subscribers. Whilst original content, like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, will be available the content deals inked by rights holders with other companies in Australia will unfortunately take precedent over Netflix. This doesn’t mean that this won’t change over time as it’s highly likely that rights holders will look to move onto Netflix as old contracts expire but it might put a damper on the initial uptake rate. Considering that there are numerous services to change your Netflix region to get the full catalogue though I’m sure the restriction won’t have too much of an effect.
The DVD service probably won’t be making it here either, although I don’t think anyone really cares about that anyway.
Probably the biggest issue that Netflix will face coming to Australia is the dismal state of the Internet infrastructure here. Whilst most of us have enough speed to support some level of streaming the numbers of us that can do anything above 720p is a much more limited market. As long time readers will know I have little faith in the MTM NBN to provide the speeds required to support services like Netflix so I don’t think this is a problem that will be going away any time soon. Well, unless everyone realises their mistake at the next election.
Overall this is good news for Australia as it has the potential to break the iron grip that many of the pay TV providers have on the content that Australians want. It might not be the service that many are lusting after for but over time I can see Netflix becoming the dominant content platform in Australia. Hopefully other content providers will follow suit not long after this and Australia will finally get all the services it’s been lusting after for far too long. Maybe then people will realise the benefits of a properly implemented FTTP NBN and I’ll finally be able to stop ranting about it.
The Outer Space Treaty, which has been signed and ratified by over a hundred countries, declares that space should be a peaceful domain, free of weapons and violence. There are numerous reasons for this however the most critical of these is avoiding the horrendous plague that is Kessler syndrome, the point at which our near earth orbits are so littered with space junk that launching anything becomes next to impossible. At the same time however the lack of an overt weapons capability in space leads to all sorts of whacky theories about military operations in space, fuelled by the lack of public data on classified missions. The latest of which is the mysterious Kosmos-2499 satellite which some are theorizing is Russia’s latest anti-satellite weapon.
Kosmos-2499 attracted the attention of numerous conspiracy theorists due to it’s semi-mysterious launch. Quite often classified payloads are launched alongside regular ones in order to hide their true nature and this was the case with Kosmos-2499, launching with 3 other communications satellites (Kosmos-2496~2498). It was initially tracked as space debris since the official launch manifest only listed 3 payloads, however shortly after Roscosmos confirmed that 4 satellites were launched on that particular rocket. This makes it an interesting, although not particularly unusual, launch but its behaviour following launch is what really got the crazies whipped up.
It changed it’s orbit.
Satellites don’t typically change their orbit very much so when one does it often becomes a target of interest for stargazers. The X-37B is probably the most notable example of a satellite that was able to do this which was also a military craft although it’s orbit meant that, should it have any anti-satellite capabilities, it wouldn’t have the opportunity to use them. Kosmos-2499 is in a similar position however it was in a position to rendezvous with 2 pieces of space debris, namely the remnants of a previous launch vehicle and it’s own booster. This has then led to a flurry of speculation that Kosmos-2499 has satellite-killing capabilities ranging from things like a pellet gun to grappling arms that can detach solar panels. All things considered I think that’s a pretty unlikely scenario and the satellite’s purpose is likely a lot more mundane.
The other satellites launched alongside Kosmos-2499 were pretty small in stature, coming in at about 250kg each. It’s then highly likely that Kosmos-2499 doesn’t exceed this by much and so the capabilities that they can integrate into it a pretty limited. Also when you consider that it’s likely carrying with it a ton of propellant in order to complete these orbital transitions, including the approaches, then you’re even further limited in what kind of payload you can bring along for the ride. Most likely then Kosmos-2499 is a platform for Russia to test close approaches to other objects on orbit (I’d hazard a guess in an automated fashion) with a view to integrate such technology into future projects.
Whilst I sometimes enjoy letting the conspiracy nut part of my brain run amok on these things the truth of the matter is usually far more mundane than we’d think it to be. Doing things in space is awfully difficult and building in radical capabilities like the ones people are talking about really isn’t that feasible, or even sensible. Indeed the best counters to a military presence in space are most often ground based things that can be done far cheaper and with a lot less hassle than trying to create some kind of satellite killing space robot. Kosmos-2499 might be a bit mysterious but I doubt it’s purpose is that exotic.
All life as we know it has one basic need: water. The amount of water required to sustain life is a highly variable thing, from creatures that live out their whole lives in our oceans to others who can survive for months at a time without a single drop of water. However it would be short sighted of us to think that water was the be all and end all of all life in our universe as such broad assumptions have rarely panned out to be true under sustained scrutiny. That does leave us with the rather puzzling question of what environments and factors are required to give rise to life, something we don’t have a good answer to since we haven’t yet created life ourselves. We can study how some of the known biological processes function in other environments and whether that might be a viable place for life to arise.
Researchers at the Washington State University have been investigating the possibility of fluids that could potentially take the place of water in life on other planets. Water has a lot of properties that make it conducive to producing life (as we know it) like dissolving minerals, forming bonds and so on. The theory goes that should a liquid have similar properties to that of water then, potentially, an environment rich in said substance could give rise to life that uses that liquid as its base rather than water. Of course finding something with those exact properties is a tricky endeavour but these researchers may have stumbled onto an unlikely candidate.
Most people are familiar with the triple point of substances, the point where a slight change in pressure or temperature can change it from any of its one three states (solid, liquid, gas) instantly. Above there however there’s another transition called the supercritical point where the properties of the gaseous and liquid phases of the substance converge producing a supercritical fluid. For carbon dioxide this results in a substance that behaves like a gas with the density of its liquid form, a rather peculiar state of matter. It’s this form of carbon dioxide that the researchers believe could replace water as the fluid of life elsewhere, potentially life that’s even more efficient than what we find here.
Specifically they looked at how enzymes behaved in supercritical CO2 and found that they were far more stable than the same ones that they had residing in water. Additionally the enzymes became far more selective about the molecules that they bound to, making the overall process far more efficient than it otherwise would have been. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this was that they found organisms were highly tolerant of this kind of fluid as several bacteria and their enzymes were found to be present in the fluid. Whilst this isn’t definitive proof for life being able to use supercritical CO2 as a replacement for water it does lend credence to the idea that life could arise in places where water is absent.
Of course whether that life would look like anything we’d recognise is something that we won’t really know for a long time to come. An atmosphere of supercritical C02 would likely be an extremely hostile place to our kind of life, more akin to Venus than our comfortable Earth, making exploration quite difficult. Still this idea greatly expands our concept of what life might be and what might give rise to it, something which has had an incredibly inward view for far too long. I have little doubt that one day we’ll find life not as we know it, I’m just not sure if we’ll know it when we see it.
Microsoft isn’t a company you’d associate with open source. Indeed if you wound back the clock 10 years or so you’d find a company that was outright hostile to the idea, often going to great lengths to ensure open source projects that competed with their offerings would never see the light of day. The Microsoft of today is vastly different, contributing to dozens of open sourced projects and working hard with partner organisations to develop their presence in the ecosystem. For the most part however this has usually been done with an integration view towards their proprietary products which isn’t exactly in-line with the open source ethos. That may be set to change however as Microsoft will be fully open sourcing its .NET framework, the building blocks of all Microsoft applications.
For the uninitiated Microsoft .NET is a development framework that’s been around since the Windows XP days that exposed a consistent set of capabilities which applications could make use of. Essentially this meant that developing a .NET application meant you could guarantee it would work on any computer running that framework, something which wasn’t entirely a given before its inception. It’s since then grown substantially in capability, allowing developers to create some very capable programs using nothing more than the functionality built directly into Windows. Indeed it was so successful in accomplishing its aims that there was already a project going to make it work on non-Windows platforms, dubbed Mono, and it is with them that Microsoft is seeking to release a full open source implementation of the .NET framework.
Whilst this still falls in line with Microsoft’s open source strategy of “things to get people onto the Microsoft platform” it does open up a lot of opportunities for software to be freed from the Microsoft platform. The .NET framework underpins a lot of applications that run on Windows, some that only run on Windows, and an implementation of that framework on another platform could quickly elevate them to cross platform status. Sure, the work to translate them would still likely be non-trivial, however it’ll be a damn sight easier with a full implementation available, possibly enough to tempt some companies to make the investment.
One particularly exciting application of an open sourced .NET framework is games which, traditionally, have an extremely high opportunity cost when porting between platforms. Whilst everything about games development on Windows isn’t strictly .NET there are a lot of .NET based frameworks out there that will be readily portable to new platforms once the open sourcing is complete. I’m not expecting miracles, of course, but it does mean that the future of cross-platform releases is looking a whole bunch brighter than it was just a week ago.
This is probably one of Microsoft’s longest bets in a while as it’s going to be years before the .NET framework sees any kind of solid adoption among the non-Windows crowd. However this does drastically increase the potential of C# and .NET to become the cross platform framework of favour with developers, especially considering the large .NET developer community that already exists today. It’s going to be an area that many of us will be watching with keen interest as it’s yet another signal that Microsoft isn’t the company it used to be, a likely never will be again in the future.