Monthly Archives: November 2014

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Atlas Unchained.

The Call of Duty franchise is strangely polarizing among gamers. For some it’s one of the most abhorrent examples of what the current games industry is, with yearly product cycles and numerous DLCs coupled with lowest common denominator game play. For others they’re something else, an equivalent to the popcorn titles that grace the cinemas, to be enjoyed for the spectacle that they provide and nothing more. I most certainly fall into the latter camp as I enjoy the titles for what they are and am usually done with them before the first DLC drops. The latest instalment, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, ramps up the ludicrous by taking us to the near future where technology is so advanced it begins to look like magic.

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The year is 2054 and you are Private Jack Mitchell of the United States Marine Corps. Your first mission is to support South Korea as their brothers from the North have finally decided to make good on their endless tirade of threats. During the fighting however one of your brothers in arms is struck down and a piece of flying debris severs your arm. Several days later at his funeral you’re approached by his father, Jonathan Irons, CEO of Atlas Corporation, the worlds most powerful military contractor. He offers you a second chance, to get back into action and to right all the wrongs that led to the deaths of people like his son. Equipped with the latest military grade prosthetic arm you follow his lead into battle but it soon becomes clear that Irons’ goals are far more ambitious than you could have known.

In it’s default state Advanced Warfare, to put it bluntly, looks like absolute garbage. I’m not exactly sure why but it seemed to assume I was running it on the computing equivalent of a dry potato and dialled the graphics all the way down to its barest minimums. Now my machine is by no means cutting edge but it’s been able to handle every other Call of Duty title at near maximum settings without hassle. Tweaking everything upwards however brought back the level of graphics I had come to expect from such high budget titles without the performance hit I was dreading based on the initial settings it had chosen for me. Whilst there were fewer stop and gawk moments than previous titles (mostly due to the insane amount of action going on) it’s still a rather good looking game, a big achievement considering how many platforms it was released on.

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare Screenshot Wallpaper South Korea

Advanced Warfare’s plays pretty much how you’d expect it to, given its Call of Duty lineage, however it’s the first in a long time to introduce a core mechanic that shakes up their traditional corridor shooter game play. For the most part you’ll still be running through tight urban environments, laying waste to the enemy du jour, however now you’re equipped with an Exosuit that bestows upon you certain abilities like being able to double jump or regenerate health. The near future setting has also allowed first time Call of Duty developer Sledgehammer Games a great deal of freedom in designing the weapons, some of which are pure science fiction goodness.  All this, combined with a couple new interesting mechanics, makes Advanced Warfare a far more varied and interesting game to play than its Call of Duty moniker might first lead you to think.

Combat is, as always, smooth, refined and incredibly fast paced. It’s great to see that Sledgehammer Games was able to replicate the essence of what keeps people coming back to the Call of Duty franchise with their first title as it could’ve easily gone the other way. For the most part combat is challenging enough, punishing you for mistakes whilst rewarding you for good play, however some of the larger battle scenes suffer from an overzealous AI who will pin you, and only you, from every angle. This can lead to some frustrating sections where you have to carefully plod your way through, even though the scene seemingly wants you to run out guns blazing. This may be a function of me playing on the second hardest difficulty but still, sniper accurate AIs using SMGs at long range doesn’t make sense no matter what way you slice it.

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare Screenshot Wallpaper Kevin Spacey

The exosuit is by far the stand out mechanic for Advanced Warfare as it’s almost a free license for the developers to give you any kind of power for a specific situation. This includes the rudimentary things like slowing down time and regenerating health to more ludicrous items like cloaking  and an unlimited grappling hook. These abilities also allow for many of the maps to be more open than they have been in other Call of Duty titles, allowing you some more control over how combat plays out. Unfortunately you’re never given control over how your exosuit is configured which is a bit of a shame since there are some abilities I’d favour more over others. There is a rudimentary upgrade system for the single player campaign which can turn you into a rather broken super solider if you invest your points well.

I didn’t get much of a chance to sit down with the multiplayer side however it does appear that Advance Warfare makes a return to the smaller, tighter maps that were favoured in previous Call of Duty titles.This means that the spammy, rushy game style that I like to play is viable once again and even with the default classes I found myself being pretty effective, something which usually isn’t the case. However the handful of games I played often suffered from lag, spikes and rubber banding which made it far more frustrating to play than what it should have been. I’m not sure if this is a function of the number of players or just some incredible bad luck but it seemed if there was one laggy person we’d all end up suffering.

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare Screenshot Wallpaper Multiplayer

Advanced Warfare, whilst being a highly polished game in most respects, still has a few rough edges that I hope will be smoothed over in Sledgehammer Games’ next release in the franchise. I had numerous occasions where enemies were able to shoot through walls, a frustrating thing to happen when you get behind cover only to die to a hail of gunfire that shouldn’t be able to hit you. The sound engine also seems to struggle when you change between headphones and speakers, even when you change it from within the game. Whilst these are issues you can work around they still add a layer of frustration that shouldn’t be in a big budget title like this but I’ll give Sledgehammer Games a pass since this is technically their 1.0 release.

The story of Advanced Warfare is your pretty typical Call of Duty shtick, light on the details and back story but makes up for it in spades with action and explosions. After the first hour it’s pretty easy to figure out where everything is going but with high calibre talent like Kevin Spacey on board it’s hard not to get drawn into it regardless. So whilst you might not have the emotional investment in the characters to warrant the kind of reaction the writers were going for it’s still enough to drive the game forward.

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare Screenshot Wallpaper Atlas Down

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was a gamble that has paid off for both the franchise and Sledgehammer games, demonstrating that they’re able to replicate all the things that make this series great. The combat is fluid, fast paced and satisfying, expanding on the traditional corridor shooter with additional mechanics that are pure, and awesome, science fiction. It may be let down somewhat by its story and rough edges but overall it slots beautifully into the franchise. This should hopefully then flow on to the rest of the Call of Duty titles as they’ll now have an extended development time frame, something which can only lead to bigger and better things. For lovers of fast paced corridor shooters you really can’t go past the Call of Duty series and Advanced Warfare, I’m glad to say, is another great instalment.

Rating: 8.75/10

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne for $89.95, $99.95, $109.95, $99.95 and$109.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours played and 49% of the achievements unlocked.

10 Years in the Making: Rosetta’s Philae Lander Touches Down.

Comets are relics of an era that has long since passed. They formed in the same accretion disk that gave birth to our Earth, Sun and the rest of the solar system but managed to avoid being subsumed into a larger celestial body. This, along with the amazing show they put on whenever they come close to the Sun, makes them objects of particular interest to star gazers and scientists alike. However few craft have studied them as their highly elliptical orbits make it incredibly difficult to do anything more than a flyby. That is, of course, unless you’re the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft which just made history by deploying its Philae lander to the surface of the Churyumov–Gerasimenko 67P comet.

Rosetta Philae Lander

Many would have heard about the Rosetta craft recently as it was the first craft to ever enter an orbit around a comet which was achieved back in August. However few would know that it’s been on that journey for over 10 years as the Rosetta craft was launched in March of 2004. Since then it’s been slowly making it’s way to rendezvous with 67P, using multiple gravity assists to give it the velocity it needed to match the comet’s speed. Once it arrived at the comet it began imaging its surface in incredible detail, searching for a landing site for it’s attached Philae lander. In the early hours of this morning the Philae lander detacted from its parent craft and began its descent down to the surface and shortly after we received confirmation that it had touched down successfully.

It’s not all good news unfortunately as whilst the telemetry indicates that the lander did make it to the surface the anchoring harpoons that are on it’s feet did not fire. This causes two problems, the first (and most troubling) of these is that the lander is not securely fixed to the comet’s surface. In the minuscule gravity of the comet the lander weighs about 1 gram, meaning any out gassing from the comet could flip the craft over, or worse, send it tumbling out into space. Additionally those harpoons also contained instruments for measuring surface density, a lesser issue but still a blow to the project all the same. The ESA is currently investigating the reasons behind this and might refire them to ensure that the lander doesn’t get blow away.

Firing the harpoons again is risky but the people behind the Rosetta program have never been one to shy away from potentially mission ending decisions. Back in 2007 they scheduled an incredibly low altitude pass by Mars, a mere 250KM above its surface, in order to correct its trajectory to be closer to 67P. The trouble with this though was Rosetta couldn’t use its solar panels during this manoeuvre due to it being in the shadow of Mars, forcing it to power down for the duration. The batteries on the craft were not designed with this purpose in mind however and so this trajectory correction was dubbed The Billion Euro Gamble which, thankfully, paid off.

Rosetta and Philae both carry with them a host of tools designed to analyse the make up of the 67P comet including spectrometers, thermal imagers and radio/microwave based devices. The original spacecraft design was far more ambitious, including such things a sample return mission ala Hayabusa, however whilst it might not be as lofty a mission as it once was it’s still highly capable of giving us a detailed picture of what makes up this comet. This will then give us incredible insight into the early stages of our solar system and how it evolved into what it is today.

Hopefully the harpoon issues will get sorted out in short order and the Philae lander can continue its work without the possibility of it getting blown out into the depths of space. Rosetta’s mission is slated to continue through to the end of next year, just after 67P buzzes passed us on its journey back out to the edges of our solar system. Like all good space missions there’s potential for it to go even longer and here’s hoping that Rosetta and Philae will continue to deliver long past their used by date.

Violence in All Media, Including Games, Does Not Lead to Real World Violence.

There’s no doubt that the media we consume has an effect on us, the entire advertising and marketing industry is built upon that premise, however just how big that impact can be has always been a subject of debate. Most notably the last few decades have been littered with debate around how much of an impact violent media has on us and whether it’s responsible for some heinous acts committed by those who have consumed it. In the world of video games there’s been dozens of lab controlled studies done that shows consumption of violent games leads towards more aggressive behaviour but the link to actual acts of violence could not be drawn. Now researchers from Stetson University have delved into the issue and there doesn’t appear to be a relationship between the two at all.

Frustration vred bærbar gal irriteret

The study, which was a retrospective analysis of reports of violence and the availability of violent media, was broken down into two parts. The first part of the study focused on homicide rates and violence in movies between 1920 and 2005 using independent data sources. The second then focused on incidents of violence in video games using the ESRB ratings from 1996 to 2011 and correlated them with rates of youth violence over the same period. Both periods of study found no strong correlation between violence in media and acts of actual violence, except for a brief period in the early 90s (although the trend quickly swung back the other way, indicating the result was likely unrelated).

Violent video games are often used as an outlet for those looking for something to blame but often the relationship between them and the act of violence is completely backwards. It’s not that violent video games are causing people to commit these acts, instead those who are likely to commit these acts are also likely to engage in other violent media. Had the reverse been true then there would have been a distinct correlation between the availability of violent media and acts of real world violence but, as the study shows, there’s simply no relationship between them at all.

Hopefully now the conversation will shift from video games causing violence (or other antisocial behaviours) to a more nuanced discussion around the influences games can have on our attitudes, behaviours and thought processes. There’s no doubt that we’re shaped by the media we consume however the effects are likely much more subtle than most people would like to think they are. Once these more subtle influences are understood we can then work towards curtailing any negative aspects that they might have rather than using a particular medium as a scapegoat for deplorable behaviour.

The Modular Phone Idea is Still Alive in Project Ara.

There’s two distinct schools of thought when it comes to the modular smartphone idea. The first is that it’s the way phones were meant to be made, giving users the ability to customize every aspect of their device and reducing e-waste at the same time. The other flips that idea on its head, stating that the idea is infeasible due to the limitations inherent in a modular platform and reliance on manufacturers to build components specifically for the platform. Since I tend towards the latter I thought that Project Ara, Google’s (nee Motorola’s) attempt at the idea, would likely never see the light of day but as it turns out the platform is very real and they even have a working prototype.

Project Ara PrototypeThe essence of the idea hasn’t changed much since Motorola first talked about it at the end of last year, being a more restrained version of the Phonebloks idea. The layout is the same as the original design prototypes, giving you space on the back of the unit for about 7 modular units and space on the front for a large screen and a speaker attachment. However they also showed off a new, slim version which has space for fewer modules but is a much sleeker unit overall. Google also mentioned that they were working on a phablet design as well which was interesting considering that the current prototype unit was looking to be almost phablet sized. The whole unit, dubbed Spiral 1, was fully functional including module removal and swapping so the idea has definitely come a long way since it’s initial inception late last year.

There are a few things that stand out about the device in its current form, primarily the way in which some of the blocks don’t conform to the same dimensions as other ones. Most notably you can see this with the blood oxygen sensor they have sticking out of the top however you’ll also notice that the battery module is about twice the height of anything else. This highlights one of the bigger issues with modular design as much of the heft in modern phones is due to the increasingly large batteries they carry with them. The limited space of the modular blocks means that either the batteries have significantly reduced capacity or have to be bigger than the other modules, neither of which is a particularly desirable attribute.

In fact the more the I think about Project Ara the more I feel it’s oriented towards those looking to develop hardware for mobile platforms than it is for actual phone users. Being able to develop your specific functionality without having to worry about the rest of the platform frees up a significant amount of time which can then be spent on getting said functionality into other phones. In that regards Project Ara is amazing however that same flexibility is likely what will turn many consumers off such a device. Sure, having a phone tailored to your exact specifications has a certain allure, but I can’t help but feel that that market is vanishingly small.

It will be interesting to see how the Project Ara platform progresses as they have hinted that there’s a much better prototype floating around (called Spiral 2) which they’re looking to release to hardware developers in the near future. Whilst having a proof of concept is great there’s still a lot of questions around module development, available functionality and, above all, the usability of the system when its complete. It’s looking like a full consumer version likely isn’t due out until late next year or early 2016 so we’re going to have to wait a while to see what the fully fledged modular smartphone will look like.

 

 

Much Ado About Toxic Members of a Community.

The rather unfortunate view that’s been ascribed to the gaming community of late is that we’re filled with people who love nothing more than to make other people’s lives hell. As I and many others will attest to this is most certainly not the case in the wider community however like other groups with extremist members it’s all too easy to tar us all with the same brush. Still like those other groups simply putting distance between us and them doesn’t seem to be enough and we’re routinely called upon to fix the issue. The problem, as I see it, is that we really have no mechanisms at our disposal to deal with such toxic members of our community, especially in a world where there are no barriers to communication.

Internet Trolls

The Internet has always been a conduit for voices that would otherwise not have been heard, for better or for worse. Any mildly public figure has likely received an undue amount of unwanted attention, from the mildly inconvenient to the down right hateful. It used to be considered par for the course with stardom on the Internet as it was guaranteed whatever you were doing would piss someone off on the other side of the globe, triggering a tirade which no other communication medium in the past would support. However recent events are escalating beyond the point of simple words which boggles my mind as to who would think such behaviour would be acceptable. It’s far beyond the point of harmless fun, this is the stuff people should be going to jail for.

We, as the quiet majority of the gaming community, are honestly powerless to stop people from committing acts like this. Within the games we play there are often mechanisms we use to deal with toxic members of the community but in the wider world (which lacks such controls) as a group have no real method to contain, control or punish these kind of people. We can distance ourselves, shame those who misrepresent us and possibly even get companies on our side but if someone wants to do something deplorable, like they have been doing as of late, we’re unable to act until it’s far too late.

TotalBiscuit posed the idea that we, as the moderate majority, should “freeze out” these individuals so that the greater conversation can be maintained without the hate that’s come along with it. Whilst I agree with the idea in principle I fail to see what mechanism we have at our disposal to enact such a course of action. It’s not like I have an answer to this, indeed I’m keen to hear everyone’s ideas on just what we can do in this situation, but if the idea was so simple to execute then we would’ve done it long before anyone had the opportunity to taint the gamer moniker with their extremist bullshit. The titles, hashtags and whatever else has came out of these recent events might not be irrevocably tainted but the solution for cleansing them is still a problem that has yet to reveal itself to us.

I guess what I’m getting at is if we want to have this conversation whilst dealing with the shit that seems to have hung itself onto the cause we, as a community, have to figure out what we need to do to deal with it. Sure, there are dozens of soundbite ideas out there that sound great in principle, but until someone shows me an execution that is even the least bit effective I’m still at loss as to what we can do. I think there are some great conversations here, including those on feminism, journalistic ethics and games as an inclusive medium, however they’re all clouded by hate and generalisations, their arguments lost in a sea of vitriol and bullshit. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to our particular patch either so once we start to find some ideas that work then, hopefully, debates on the Internet can be had without anyone getting a SWAT team showing up at their door.

Dreamfall Chapters: Book One: The Balance has Shifted.

I can remember 8 years ago when Dreamfall first came out and my collective group of friends all talking about playing it. This was just when my love of cinematic styled games was starting to bloom with titles like Fahrenheit only just having graced the shelves. However I was told with no uncertainty that if I was going to play Dreamfall I had to play its predecessor, The Longest Journey, before I could dive into it. Considering that game is some 40 hours long (or more, depending on how long you got stuck on the rubber duck puzzle) it would be no small investment but suffice to say I’m glad I did. After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign Red Thread Games is finally continuing the story of Zoe Castillo and her journey to save two worlds from the impending darkness.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Betrayed by a mother she only just found out was still alive Zoe has been trapped in the story time, a place which exists between the twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia. Her body lies motionless in the real world, hooked up to a machine that ensures she stays alive but makes no attempt to bring her back. She has found purpose in this world however, saving those who’ve become trapped in their dreams by the Dream Machines by guiding them back to the light and warning them of their danger. This is not what was intended for her however as the darkness that threatens to engulf both worlds still spreads even in her absence. It is time for Zoe to make a return to the real world and to return to her journey.

Dreamfall Chapters looks decidedly previous gen in terms of graphics as it lacks much of the graphical fidelity of its current gen brethren. Primarily this is a function of its use of Unity and cross-platform ambitions which limit the amount of eye candy you can use. However that being said it’s far from an ugly game, with lovely expansive environments that are just brimming with details. It’s definitely best played with an expansive view (both figuratively and literally) as the bigger picture is so much more than the sum of its constituent parts.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Storytime

Dreamfall Chapters takes inspiration from the Telltale style of story based games, stripping away all but the essential mechanics and instead placing a heavy focus on the story and player agency. You’ll be following the stories of 2 individuals, the first being Zoe Castillo, the main protagonist from the first Dreamfall game and Kian Alvane, another one of the main characters from the previous title. Dreamfall Chapters retains its adventure game roots, giving you all manner of puzzles to solve in order to progress the story, however it now also includes choices, both major and minor, that will affect the outcome of story. It’s a formula that’s worked well for Telltale for the past and to their credit Red Thread Games have managed to take the essence of it and make it their own.

In terms of game play this first instalment (Dreamfall Chapters is now an episodic game) feels a lot like an extended tutorial coupled with a reintroduction to all the characters, worlds and stories that exist within them. A lot of the mechanics you’ll encounter, like shining a light on things to reveal something that can’t be seen otherwise, are mostly things you’ll only encounter once in the game but are obviously being set up for use again later down the track. You’ll be able to pick up the vast majority of them without too much hassle especially if you’re a long time adventure game player. There are a few puzzles which feel like they’re an homage to the ridiculous puzzles of yore (the pillow on a broom is one example of this) however for the most part you likely won’t find yourself stuck at one point for an inordinate amount of time.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Path Before Us

The dialogue choice system is probably Dreamfall Chapter’s stand out feature as it’s leaps and bounds above what’s in most other story-first games. Instead of being given a bunch of options to choose from with just a small blurb to go on you’re instead treated to the inner monologue of the character as if they’re making that decision. This has two benefits, the first being that you’ll always be sure that the decision you make is in line with what you choose. Secondly you can get a feel for how Zoe thinks her decision will pan out which can sometimes change your mind on how you want a particular situation to play out. On the flip side however this does require you to go through the options fully before making a decision as the dialogue that follows is usually brief and provides no further insight that what can be gleaned from listening to their musings prior.

Mechanically the game is pretty much bang on with performance being great and not a crash to be seen throughout my playtime. However the look to select system feels a little wonky, often requiring you to shift your character and camera around multiple times in order to be able to interact with something. This can be rather frustrating when you notice something pop up (a little eye indicates you can interact with something) only to have it disappear the second you stop to try and click on it. It’s not something that will prevent you from progressing within Dreamfall Chapters, but it does feel like it happens more than it should.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper A Disturbance in Arcadia

Dreamfall Chapters does a good job of setting up the world that the rest of the game will take place in, reintroducing many of the characters from the previous games and filling in their stories of the past year that Zoe’s been out of action. Whilst the majority of the story is exposed to you directly there’s a fair amount of detail crammed into Zoe’s journal which can be a little bit of a chore to read through. Given the time between the previous game and this one though it almost feels like it’d be worthwhile playing through it again as some of the larger story elements rely heavily on the back story that was built back then. Indeed Dreamfall Chapters isn’t designed for those who are just becoming familiar with the franchise as it leans heavily on what came before it.

In terms of the story of this instalment it’s clear that the primary focus was on setting up the initial world that the following chapters will build upon. Considering the wealth of background that’s available in 2 other games they can somewhat get a free pass for not developing the characters much however if you’re looking for the story of Dreamfall Chapters to go places quickly you’ll unfortunately be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong though, there’s a lot to love in here, you’re just not going to be cemented to your seat from the second you click play.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Stark

Dreamfall Chapters fills a hole that’s long been in many gamer’s hearts, continuing the story of Zoe Castillo that felt like it was cut abruptly short at the end of the previous game. It might not have next generation graphics or play as smoothly as some other adventurers other there however it makes up for it with one of the best dialogue systems I have seen in recent times. It will be interesting to see how the player choices pan out in the greater story as they’re making a big deal about player agency and I hopeful that they will be able to deliver on it. Dreamfall Chapters really is only for fans of the series but should your interest be piqued I would heartily recommend making the investment to play through its predecessors.

Rating: 8.75/10

Dreamfall Chapters is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 86% of the achievements unlocked. The writer was a backer of the Dreamfall Chapters Kickstarter at the $500 level.

Praising Effort, Process is Better Than Praising Ability.

For much of my childhood people told me I was smart. Things that frustrated other kids, like maths, seemed to come easy to me and this led to many people praising my ability. I never felt particularly smart, I mean there were dozens of other kids who were far more talented than I was, but at that age it’s hard to deny the opinions of adults, especially the ones who raised you. This led to an unfortunate misconception that stayed with me until after I left university: the idea that my abilities were fixed and that anything I found hard or difficult was simply beyond my ability. It’s only been since then, some 8 years or so, that I learnt that any skill or problem is within my capability, should I be willing to put the effort in.

Child with learning difficulties

It’s a theme that will likely echo among many of my generation as we grew up with parents who were told that positive reinforcement was the way to make your child succeed in the world. It’s only now, after decades of positive reinforcement failing to produce the outcomes it decried, we’re beginning to realise the folly of our ways. Much of the criticism of our generation focuses on this aspect, that we’re too spoilt, too demanding when compared to previous generations. If there’s one good thing to come out of this however it’s that research has shown that the praising a child’s ability isn’t the way to go, you should praise them for the process they go through.

Indeed once I realised that things like skills, abilities and intelligence were primarily a function of the effort and process you went through to develop them I was suddenly greeted with a world of achievable goals rather than roadblocks. At the same time I grew to appreciate those at the peak of their abilities as I knew the amount of effort they had put in to develop those skills which allowed them to excel. Previously I would have simply dismissed them as being lucky, winning the genetic lottery that gave them all the tools they needed to excel in their field whilst I languished in the background.

It’s not a silver bullet however as the research shows the same issues with positive reinforcement arise if process praise is given too often. The nuances are also unknown at this point, like how often you should give praise and in what fashion, but these research does show that giving process praise in moderation has long lasting benefits. I’d be interested to see how well this translates into adults as well since my experience has been vastly positive once I made the link between effort and results. I can’t see it holding true for everyone, as most things don’t in this regard, but if it generally holds then I can definitely see a ton of benefits from it being implemented.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Crashes.

Putting things into space isn’t an easy thing to do. The amount of energy required to reach orbital speeds means that we really only have one option available to us: strapping whatever it is to a giant barrel of explosives and setting light to it. Whilst the science of this is now well understood it doesn’t mean that we’re immune from mistakes, especially those which arise from the inherently complex systems that these rockets have become. Indeed just last week we saw the even a long time space contractor, one with numerous launches under its belt, can suffer a catastrophic accident without any indication that things were going to go wrong. Unfortunately tragedy has struck another private space venture with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashing, killing one of the test pilots.

NTSB_Go-Team_inspects_a_tail_section_of_VSS_Enterprise

This unfortunately isn’t the first tragedy to befall this project. Back in 2007, shortly after their X-prize winning journey and subsequent partnership with Virgin, Scaled Composites had a fatal accident that killed 3 of their engineers. Whilst this wasn’t a flight accident, it was a catastrophic failure of the nitrous oxide tank that the ship uses, it did make many people question just how safe this kind of craft could be made. To their credit the subsequent 7 years were incident free with the prototype undergoing numerous tests both in the air and back down on the ground. Last week however that streak was broken when the VSS Enterprise broke up over the desert in California, killing one of the pilots and destroying the craft.

Initial reports centred on the fact that SpaceShipTwo was testing a new fuel mixture which could have potentially exploded causing the craft to fail. For a motor like the one in SpaceShipTwo, namely a hybrid rocket engine, this is highly unlikely as the fuel doesn’t have the same capability to combust explosively as its liquid cousins do. Had the changes been with the oxidizer or tank design then I’d be more inclined to blame them for failure. Indeed current reports have shown that the motor has been found fully intact at the crash site, indicating that a mid air explosion was not the cause of the crash.

Investigators are now focusing on the events leading up to the crash, including the possibility that the wings were unlocked too early into their flight. SpaceShipTwo has an unique system for its re-entry, it’s wings fold up in a process called feathering that ensures it comes back down belly-first. Engaging this system is a 2 stage process, requiring the pilots to first unlock the wings and then engage the feathering process. Initial reports have suggested that the wings were unlocked during powered ascent although it’s still too early to say if that was the cause of the crash or not.

To his credit Richard Branson has committed himself to the project even in the face of this disaster which means we’ll still be seeing SpaceShipTwo make flights into space sometime in the future. This will definitely set them back but I’m sure that the new versions of the ship will ensure that an event of this nature cannot happen again. It’s an unfortunate reminder that things like this still carry some form of risk with them and those who dare to be on the frontiers like this really are risking their lives for our greater good.

New Atomic Clock Almost Too Precise to be Useful.

Time is a strange beast. As far as we know it always appears to go forward although strange things start to occur in the presence of gravity. Indeed if you synchronized two atomic clocks together then took one of them on a trip around the world with you by the time you got back they’d be wildly out of sync, more than they ever could be through normal drift. This is part of Einstein’s theory of general relativity where time appears to speed up or slow down due to the differing effects of gravity on the two objects which results in time dilation. This effect, whilst so vanishingly small as to be inconsequential in day to day life, becomes a real problem when you want to tell super accurate time, to the point where a new atomic clock might be worthless for telling the time.

Sr-lattice-optical-atomi-clock_optMost atomic clocks in the world use a caesium atom to tell time as they transition between two states with an exact and measurable frequency. This allows them to keep time with incredible precision, to the point of not losing even a second of time over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Such accurate time keeping is what has allowed us to develop things like GPS where accurate time keeping allows us to pinpoint locations with amazing accuracy (well, when it’s not fuzzed). However a new type of atomic clock takes accuracy to a whole new level, being able to keep time on the scale of billions of years with pinpoint precision.

The Strontium Optical Atomic Clock comes from researchers working at the University of Colorado and can hold perfect time for 5 billion years. It works by suspending strontium atoms in a framework of lasers and then giving them a slight jolt, sending the atoms oscillating at a highly predictable rate. This allows the researchers to keep time to an incredibly precise level, so precise in fact that minor perturbations in gravity fields have a profound impact on how fast it ticks. As it turns out Earth is somewhat of a gravitational minefield thanks to the tectonic plates under its surface.

You see the further away you are from the Earth’s core the weaker its gravitational pull is and thus time passes just a little bit faster the further away you get. For us humans the difference is imperceptible, fractions of a fraction second that would barely register even if you found yourself floating billions of kilometres away in almost true 0g. However for a time instrument as sensitive as the one the researchers created minor changes in the Earth’s makeup greatly influence its tick rate, making accurate time keeping an incredibly difficult job. Indeed the researchers say that these clocks are likely to only be able to truly useful once we put one in space, far beyond the heavy gravitic influences that are found here on Earth.

It’s amazing that we have the ability to create something like this which throws all our understanding and perceptions around such a common and supposedly well understood phenomenon into question. That, for me, is the true heart of science, uncovering just how much we don’t know about something and then hunting down answers wherever they may lie. Sure, often we’ll end up having more questions when we come out of the end of it but that’s just a function of the vastness of the universe we live in, one that’s filled with ceaseless wonders that we’re yet to discover.

 

Windows XP Finally Meeting its End.

For the longest time, far too long in my opinion, XP had been the beast that couldn’t be slayed. The numerous releases of Windows after it never seemed to make much more than a slight dent in its usage stats and it reigned as the most used operating system worldwide for an astonishing 10 years after its initial release. It finally lost its crown to Windows 7 back in October of 2011 but it still managed to hold on a market share that dwarfed many of its competitors. It’s decline was slow though, much slower than an operating system which was fast approaching end of life should have been. However last quarter saw it drop an amazing 6% in total usage, finally dropping it below the combined usage of Windows 8 and 8.1.

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The reasons behind this drop are wide and varied but it finally appears that people are starting to take Microsoft’s warnings that their product is no longer supported seriously and are looking for upgrades. Surprisingly though the vast majority of people transitioning away from the aging operating system aren’t going for Windows 7, they’re going straight to Windows 8.1. This isn’t to say that 8.1 is eating away at 7’s market share however, it’s up about half a percent in the same time frame, and the upgrade path is likely due to the fact that Microsoft has ceased selling OEM copies of Windows 7. Most of those new licenses do come with downgrade rights however though I’m sure few people actually use them.

If XP’s current downward trend continues along this path then it’s likely to hit the low single digit usage figures sometime around the middle of next year. On the surface this would appear to be a good thing for Microsoft as it means that the majority of their user base will be on a far more modern platform. However at the same time the decline might just be a little too swift for people to consider upgrading to Windows 10 which isn’t expected to be RTM until late next year. Considering the take up performance of Windows 8 and 8.1 this could be something of a concern for Microsoft although there is another potential avenue: Windows 7 users.

The last time Microsoft has a disastrous release like Windows 8 the next version of Windows to take the majority of the market share was 7, a decade after the original had released. Whilst it’s easy to argue that this time will be different (like everyone does) a repeat performance of that nature would see Windows 7 being the dominant platform all the way up until 2019. Certainly this is something that Microsoft wants to avoid so it will be interesting to see how fast Windows 10 gets picked up and which segments of Microsoft’s business it will cannibalize. Should it be primarily Windows 7 based then I’d say everything would be rosy for them, however if it’s all Windows 8/8.1 then we could be seeing history repeat itself.

Microsoft is on the cusp of either reinventing itself with Windows 10 or being doomed to forever repeat the cycle which consumers have forced them into. To Microsoft’s credit they have been trying their best to break out of this mould however it’s hard to argue with the demands of the consumer and there’s only so much they can do before they lose their customer’s faith completely. The next year will be very telling for how the Microsoft of the future will look and how much of history will repeat itself.