In the past games weren’t a great medium for telling a story. Not so much because of the medium itself, more that the mechanics of creating a story were hidden behind a wall of functions, specifications and programming languages. However the last half decade or so have seen those barriers drop considerably which led to the indie renaissance and the barrage of story-first games made by those who wouldn’t have been able to in ages past. It also led to a rapid maturing of the game scene with the medium now experiencing an influx of new ideas on a scale that it hadn’t before. One of these ideas is to use games not only as a means of entertainment but to also serve the same purpose as storytellings did thousands of years ago, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is one such game, bringing a story of the Iñupiat people of Alaska to life.
We follow the tale of Nuna, an Iñupiat girl who loved to hunt. However her village becomes engulfed in a blizzard that seems to have no end, trapping them all inside, leaving them unable to hunt. Nuna sets out to find the cause of this blizzard in the hopes of stopping it but becomes lost in the drift. However a lone arctic fox finds her and brings with it all the spirits of the world, aiding Nuna in her quest to end the relentless blizzard. She will face many trials and it is only together that Nuna and the fox will be able to survive.
With Unity as its platform Never Alone has the trademark limitations which give all games of this nature its same feel although there has been a lot of work put into other elements to mask many of those limitations. For starters it’s essentially a 2D platformer, the camera and player characters fixed on a single plane, allowing them to put much more detail in narrow viewport. Additionally there’s dozens of weather and lighting effects which help to mask the lack of detail, a clever trick that I’m seeing more Unity developers take advantage of. All this wraps up into a game that has a definitive style about it, making the most of the platform limitations.
In gameplay terms Never Alone sticks to the tried and true platforming trope, putting you through numerous jumping puzzles in order to progress through the story. It incorporates the multi-player mechanic, forcing you to switch between two different characters with different abilities to solve certain puzzles. Whilst it’s completely possible to finish the game as a single player you can also do local co-op with each player taking control of their own character. There are few more minor mechanics thrown in here or there to keep you interested as the game unfolds but for the most part Never Alone sticks pretty well to the platformer genre.
For the most part it’s laid out well, with most sections able to be beaten in a single attempt without too much thought needing to be put in them. There are some challenging puzzles although most of them were mostly figuring out the limitations of how far you could jump or what the appropriate timings were. Other times however my characters would seemingly get stuck in falling animations, fail to latch onto things or get stuck on invisible objects, preventing me from continuing. None of these issues prevented me from finishing the game but things like that tend to take the sheen off otherwise solid titles.
However the biggest issue that Never Alone has is that whilst the core game is good the other aspect of it, the documentary film, doesn’t really gel with it. Sure it’s interesting in and of itself however the way it’s delivered, in sections as you find owls within the main game, means that you have to take yourself out of the game in order to watch it. If you’re like me then you much prefer to play the game as a cohesive whole, rather than jumping between 2 completely different mediums constantly. Unfortunately I don’t have a good solution for this as cross medium things are always fraught with difficulties, especially when one’s fictional and the other factual.
The story of the game however is charming, heartwarming and overall satisfying. In terms of emotional engagement it wasn’t of the same level as some of the other story-first games I’ve played as of late, however it did do a good enough job to make me empathize with the main characters that certain events did have an impact on me. There is a distinct lack of development for the non-main characters however which, whilst being somewhat understandable given the game’s length, means that they’re reduced to stereotypical archetypes. Overall I’d say it’s above average for games as a whole whilst falling short of some of the better examples in the story-first genre.
Never Alone is a great example of games maturing as a medium, its ranks now swelling with stories that, just a few short years ago, could have never been told in this way. Mechanically it’s a solid game, using every trick in the Unity book to elevate the visuals above its station and providing a solid platforming/puzzler experience. However it does lack in polish in some areas which gives the game an overall feel of being above average but still falling short of the greatness some other indie titles have achieved. Still for a game of this nature, one that’s attempting something few have done before, it’s still a solid title.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 80% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since the Dear Esther incident of 2012 I’ve attempted to broaden my horizons in terms of what games I play, mainly to see if I could ever find something to like in games like it. Whilst I’ve often said that I’m willing to forgive a lot of mistakes in a game as long as the story holds up I’ve found even I have my limits, preferring to have some kind of mechanics rather than none at all. That being said I can’t recall having played a pure walking simulator (the genre which these games fall into) ever since Dear Esther. With those painful memories now fading I gave The Old City: Leviathan a walk through and whilst I’ll refrain from dubbing another game with the wooden spoon I’m not sure my opinion of this genre has changed entirely.
The world lies broken around you, the result of the Fall that struck down everyone and everything. Those who remain have split themselves up into factions and, inevitably, declared war upon each other, ravaging the lands even further. However there are those who have decided to exist on the periphery of all things, serving as mediators between the two opposing factions and engaging in a kind of isolationist nature rarely seen before the fall. You inhabit the mind of one of such people however it is broken and the world that you see and hear isn’t always the truth. So begins your quest but where it takes you is your decision.
The Old City has extremely high production values for a title of its nature, fully using the UDK it’s based on to its fullest. Whilst it’s sometimes a little overdone with the fog creeping in everywhere and the just a little over the top bloom it’s hard to detract from the fact that it’s a decidedly pretty game. The environments do end up getting a bit repetitive as you get towards the end as many of the assets are reused several times however there’s enough detail to make sure you won’t get bored before your first play through is over. Overall The Old City gets top marks for bringing impressive visuals to a genre that, in general, let’s them slip to one side.
As the classification of the game might allude to The Old City is a walking simulator which means that the mechanics are stripped back to their bare minimum. You have 2 speeds of walking (with the omission of having an “always sprint” option, unfortunately) and you can jump, not that you’ll need to for anything however. There are however some cleverly hidden mechanics, usually centered around exploring one area and then returning back to another in order to unlock a new section. Other than that however there’s not much more for you to do apart from walk, listen and read everything that’s contained within this world.
What I did find rather interesting was that, whilst The Old City lacks any definitive choices, you are forced to make decisions between two options on occasion, even if you don’t notice it. Mostly this takes the form of different paths which lead off in different directions, some of which you can’t return from. However you’re not going to be able to know that before venturing down a particular path and so the choice of where to go becomes important. This is especially so if you’re trying to get to Solomon’s notes which contain the vast bulk of the story within The Old City. Indeed without them you’re not likely to understand anything of what’s going on, even if you explored everywhere.
Thinking about it more the difference between The Old City and other titles like Dear Esther comes from the fact that the former actually has a structure to it, even if it seems random at first. You’ll often find bits of information that clarify points made earlier or reveal another piece of symbolism which helps you better understand just what’s going on in the world. The randomness of other game’s storytelling means that you don’t have an overall feel for where the story is going and are just left with a bunch of fragments with no continuity. Sure, there are people who enjoy putting those pieces together but, honestly, it just feels like someone trying to be clever through obscurity.
The story of The Old City does a good job of being opaque at the beginning, putting you in a rather thoroughly confusing world that’s seeped in metaphors and terminology that’s completely foreign. Over time however it starts to reveal parts of itself to you, analogous to the journey that one of its characters goes through themselves. However unlike many other titles of its genre The Old City doesn’t neatly wrap up in the end (well, it didn’t for me anyway) so you’ll likely be left with questions of just what the hell happened. It’s a fun thing to think about but not enough to draw me back to play through the same sections again seeking out additional detail. I can see the attraction for others, however.
The Old City: Leviathan is another title in the growing walking simulator genre that combines beautiful graphics and great voice over work into a readily playable title. I’m still not 100% sure on where I sit with it as a game yet, on the one hand I definitely feel that it’s better than others I’ve played before, but on the other I’m still not sure what I truly liked in it. The graphics a great and it didn’t overstay its welcome in terms of play time but there wasn’t enough to draw me back in for a second play through. With that in mind it feels like a middle of the road game for me but that, dear reader, will likely be wildly different for you.
The Old City: Leviathan is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours.
Reducing the cost of getting things into orbit isn’t easy, as the still extremely high cost of getting cargo to orbit can attest. For the most part this is because of the enormous energy requirement for getting things out of Earth’s gravity well and nearly all launch systems today being single use. Thus the areas where there are efficiencies to be gained are somewhat limited, that is unless we start finding novel methods of getting things into orbit. Without question SpaceX is at the forefront of this movement, having designed some of the most efficient rocket engines to date. Their next project is something truly novel, one that could potentially drop the total cost of their launches significantly.
Pictured above is SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone, essentially a giant flat barge that’s capable of holding its position steady in the sea thanks to some onboard thrusters, the same many deployable oil rigs use. At first glance the purpose of such a craft seems unclear as what use could they have for a giant flat surface out in the middle of the ocean? Well as it turns out they’re modifying their current line of Falcon rockets to be able to land on such a barge, allowing the first stage of the rocket to be reused at a later date. In fact they’ve been laying the foundations of this system for some time now, having tested it on their recent ORBCOMM mission this year.
Hitting a bullseye like that, which is some 100m x 30m, coming back from orbit is no simple task. Currently SpaceX is only able to get their landing radius down to an area of 10KM or so, several orders of magnitude higher than what the little platform provides. Even with the platform being able to move and with the new Falcon rockets being given little wings to control the descent SpaceX doesn’t put their chances higher than 50% of getting a successful landing the first time around. Still whilst the opportunity for first time success might be low SpaceX is most definitely up to the challenge and it’ll only be a matter of time before they get it.
The reason why this is such a big deal is that any stage of the rocket that can be recovered and reused drastically reduces the costs of future launches. Many people think that the fuel would likely be the most expensive part of the rocket however that’s not the case, it’s most often all the other components which are the main drivers of cost for these launch systems. Thus if a good percentage of that craft is fully reusable you can avoid incurring that cost on every launch and, potentially, reduce turnaround times as well. All of these lead to a far more efficient program that can drive costs down, something that’s needed if we want to make space more accessible.
It just goes to show how innovative SpaceX is and how lucky the space industry is to have them. A feat like this has never been attempted before and the benefits of such a system would reach far across all space based industries. I honestly can’t wait to see how it goes and, hopefully, see the first automated landing from space onto a sea platform ever.
There’s many ways to look for life on other planets. Most of our efforts currently focus on first finding environments that could sustain life as we know it which is why the search (and subsequent discovery) of water on other celestial bodies is always a cause for celebration. Once we’ve got a target though the search needs to become more nuanced as we have to seek out the clues that life leaves behind or the blocks that build it. For life as we know it one of the first things we can look for is the presence of organic molecules, the essential parts that make up all of life as we know it. One of these such molecules is methane, reknown for being a component in flatulence, something which Curiosity recently detected on Mars.
Methane, and other organic compounds, don’t necessarily require life in order to form however their presence does indicate that there was an environment favourable to life at one point in time. For Mars this was some time ago, on the order of billions of years, and so it’s highly unlikely that any remaining methane is due to microbial activity. However there has to be some local source of methane near Curiosity as it detected a ten fold spike in the amount of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, something which it has never seen before. Additionally Curiosity detected other organic molecules in a rock it drilled into recently, indicating that there was a time when organics must have been prevalent across the entire surface of Mars.
The discovery was made sometime ago however the researchers needed to rule out the possibility that the reading was caused by organics that were trapped in Curiosity’s sensors from Earth. Things like this happen more often than you think as whilst we take every precaution to ensure that there isn’t any contaminations on craft like this it’s inevitable that the sensors, all of which are highly complex machines, end up having stray molecules trapped within them. Because of that however we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying when things came along for the ride and this particular methane spike didn’t originate from Earth.
The organics in the rock are most intriguing however as they tell a story of Mars’ atmosphere that stretches back to the point where it still held liquid water on its surface. The ratio of isotopes in the water (which I talked about yesterday in regards to the discoveries Rosetta has made) indicates that the mineral formed some time after Mars lost much of its water, if we assume that the water on Mars and Earth came from the same place. However the ratio is also radically different to the water in Mars’ atmosphere today indicating that it formed before Mars lost the rest of its surface water. It will be interesting to see how this sample compares to other places around Mars as it will paint a detailed picture of the planet’s surface over time.
It seems like it will be only a matter of time before we find a large source of water on Mars, buried deep beneath the surface somewhere. From there we’ll have an exciting period of analysis to determine if microbial life still thrives on what appears to be a dead planet. Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen any time soon, at least not until we get people there anyway, but with NASA recommitting themselves to such an endeavour it might come sooner than many first thought. Honestly I can’t wait for that to occur as it will shed so much light on how life evolves and, possibly, what it can become.
The origin of Earth’s water is still something of an open debate. The popular theory at the moment is that the primordial Earth was far too hot to contain any form of liquid water, its molten surface still reeling from the cataclysmic events that led to its creation. However others postulate that the water was trapped deep below the surface, only to arise later on as the Earth cooled and an atmosphere developed. It’s an interesting question not only because of how fundamental water is to life but also because we seem to have a lot more of it than any other planet in the solar system. Thus the question of where it came from, and why it’s managed to stick around for so long, is one of continuous scientific enquiry, including such missions as the recently celebrated Rosetta probe.
If we run with the theory that Earth’s water came from some extraplanetary source then the question turns to what the original source might be. Comets seem like a good candidate as they’re primarily water ice by composition and were far more common during the early stages of Earth’s life than they are now. However measurements of isotopes within water of several comets, including Halley, Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp has shown that they are not likely the primary source of water that’s currently on Earth’s surface. The composition of water found on asteroids and other water formed minerals on the Moon seem to indicate that a source closer to home is far more likely which Rosetta’s latest data appears to confirm.
The comet that Rosetta was investigating, the romantically named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, has a ratio of isotopes that is completely different to anything that’s seen on Earth. The reason that this is important is due to it’s orbit as 67P is what we call a Jupiter class comet, a collection of various comets that have orbits that don’t extend far past Jupiter. It was thought that these kinds of comets would have been more likely to have been involved in the creation of Earth’s oceans than comets from further out, due to their proximity. However 67P, with its wildly different composition to Earth (and even other bodies in the same vicinity), lends credence to the idea that comets aren’t the likely source of Earth’s oceans. Indeed it’s far more likely that water and minerals trapped in asteroids are the likely source, based on how similar their composition is.
Now this doesn’t rule out comets completely as there’s potential for further out Kuiper belt class comets to have the composition we’re looking for but it’s looking far more likely that objects from within the asteroid belt are responsible for the oceans we have today. What the mechanism was for them making their way to Earth, whether it was early on in the cataclysmic forming of our solar system or later on when things calmed down, is something that’s still an open question. It’s one we might also have answers to very soon as Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres early next year, the biggest object in the asteroid belt. What Dawn finds there might be the key to unlocking the secrets of our Earth’s oceans and, potentially, the asteroid belt itself.
World of Warcraft might have been my first MMORPG but in the decade that followed I’ve played my fair share of titles in that genre. Few of them have managed to make me come back after the initial play through (indeed I think only EVE Online has) but I’m readily familiar with the idea that my character is a kind of temporal thing. All those hours I put into getting them to max level and then kitting them out with gear will likely all amount to naught when the next expansion comes out. If it didn’t I wouldn’t have much incentive to keep playing as completely maxing out a character would be a one time deal. However if you were to take the reaction to Destiny’s latest DLC it would appear that the majority of its playerbase thinks the opposite, which is strangely out of touch with reality.
I’ll admit that in the beginning Destiny’s loot system was inherently flawed. Things like Legendary engrams turning into green items meant that you had to pray to RNGesus twice in order to get the purples you desired, something which wasn’t fixed until months after launch. The raid was also just as bad as even if you ran it every week there was no guarantee you’d get the drops you needed to make it to level 30. Indeed I never did, despite my vault now being filled with 7 chatterwhite shaders (one for every week I ran it). However I still managed to progress my character in other ways, maxing out all my weapons and completing several of the exotic weapon bounties.
Then the DLC dropped and it seemed like I’d be starting from scratch again.
Except I wasn’t. Sure my exotics weren’t automatically upgraded and the new max level was 32 but I was able to complete all the new content (bar the raid) as my 29 self with my pre-DLC weapons. I even got randomly invited to the new raid with a bunch of guys just because I had everything maxed out and whilst we didn’t get past the second boss it was still awesome to give it a go without having to do anything. Once I got my head around all the new systems available to me it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was a few strange coins, vanguard marks and commendations away from surpassing my previous level cap of 29. In fact I did just that over the weekend and I am now a proud member of the level 31 elite.
By comparison taking my level 90 paladin in World of Warcraft to level 100 took me the better part of 2 weeks and he wasn’t even ready to run the raid at that point. For the last week or so I’ve spent the majority of my time in that game gearing him up (increasing his iLvl which is directly equivalent to the Light level in Destiny) in order to be able to do the new raid. I was finally able to do it late yesterday afternoon after almost a day in game time of doing various dungeons, gathering up the crafting mats and getting lucky on a few drops. In Destiny to accomplish the same feat I didn’t have to do any of that. I simply completed a quest chain, did the weekly runs and spent a small portion of my strange coin haul on upgrading my chestpiece. It was honestly one of the most pleasant levelling up experiences I’ve ever had in a MMORPG.
I’ll forgive anyone who doesn’t recognise Destiny for the MMO that it is being angry that all their playtime has been for naught (well, mostly) but eventually they’ll have to recognise that, yes, you’re playing one and this is what happens. Bungie made the levelling up process pretty painless, so much so that a filthy casual like myself was able to bash his way to 31 in the space of a weekend. It’s not like all that gear I’ve got is automatically useless anyway either, I’m still rocking my Vision of Confluence and Atheon’s Epilogue most of the time since I haven’t found a good replacement and I think that’ll hold for some time to come. The worst part might’ve been spending 14,000 glimmer and 14 strange coins on upgrading my 2 exotics of choice but that’s nothing when glimmer is everywhere and I’ve had 50+ strange coins for weeks.
It’s probably just the loud minority having their voices heard the most in this respect as I’m sure the vast majority of all the players are actually enjoying the new content rather than bitching about it. Indeed I was content to keep my big mouth shut about it after getting some time to sit down with it over the weekend however it seems that the games churnalism sites have latched on to the faux outrage with reckless abandon. In all seriousness I hope that those who are bitching about the DLC put their money where their mouth is and walk away as it’s only a matter of time before the next DLC and I’d rather not have to listen to people whine about all their time being “wasted”.
Logging into my World of Warcraft account is always a mix of feelings for me. On the one hand I have so many great memories, forging friendships with people and just enjoying the enormous amount of content that was on offer. It wasn’t all roses however and thinking back (and looking at some of the screenshots) it’s painfully obvious just how much growing up I needed to do. Today World of Warcraft is no longer a major part of my life, instead it’s something that I enjoy from time to time, reveling in the Warcraft world and trying my hand at the latest raids. Indeed the World of Warcraft of today feels like it’s catered towards people like me and the improvements in Warlords of Draenor continue that theme.
Garrosh Hellscream’s thirst for power has no bounds which culminated in him releasing the Sha of Pride upon the lands of Pandaria. This led to the Horde and Alliance joining forces to overthrow him in the Siege of Orgrimmar which eventually led to his capture. However before he could be sent to trial he was rescued by a bronze dragon, Kairozdormu, who shared in his ambition for power and control. The dragon then sent him back in time to before the orcs drank the blood of Mannoroth, preventing the blood curse. He then united the disparate clans under the banner of the Iron Horde and set out to conquer all of Draenor. It is up to you, dear champion, to stop this madness before it unwrites the history of the world and Garrosh’s madness spreads beyond the lands of Draenor.
Warlords of Draenor feels about the same from a graphical point of view, mostly due to the short difference in time between this expansion and it’s predecessor, however they did make some noticeable improvements to the base character models. It’s a welcome change as those models, whilst looking great in 2004, had started to show their age 10 years on. Apart from that though everything is at about the same level although it seems like the default draw distance has been ramped up significantly (with little impact to performance, I might add). Still it’s hard to get tired of Blizzard’s trademark style with the vibrant colours and wonderful stylization.
Much of the core gameplay remains the same as it did from previous expansions with the classes remaining largely the same with a few tweaks and balance changes. Warlords of Draenor continues on the quality of life improvements that came as part of Cataclysm, ensuring that everything from questing to running dungeons is simple and free of frustrations. The biggest change is the inclusion of the Garrison, your own private town in which you’ll have a multitude of buildings and resources that you can use to craft items or sell on the auction house. The Garrison also brings with it followers which are NPCs that you can send on various missions to level them up, acquire loot and provide resources for your garrison. Overall long time World of Warcraft players will feel instantly at home with Warlords of Draenor and be incredibly thankful for the improvements that Blizzard has made.
Unlike previous expansions, where upon logging in I was greeted with action bars missing numerous skills and dozens of alerts on what I should be doing, Warlords of Draenor kept the character classes largely the same. I’m speaking from the point of view of my paladin, of course, although my cursory look at other classes seems to show they underwent about the same amount of changes as use paladins did. This meant that I was able to get into the game much quicker than I have been able to previously, my muscle memory (and keybinds) still carrying over from my last stint in WoW early last year. It’s both a good and a bad thing as whilst I’d lament having to figure out how to play my character again it is kind of satisfying when I feel like I’ve mastered it again. Still, I’ll take quality of life over many other things these days.
The Garrison is by far my favourite improvement in Warlords of Draenor as it takes away so many of the things that made playing World of Warcraft feel like a chore rather than a game. You have your very own mine, herb garden and fishing pond which you can plunder on a daily basis for resources. You get to select a handful of buildings which do various things, some of which enable you to do things like craft items without having the profession. It also serves as an alternative route to gearing up your character as there are several different buildings which can provide raid quality gear. It also comes with its own currency, Garrison Resources, which whilst primarily aimed at buying buildings and sending followers on missions, can serve as an alternative means to acquiring resources and other things. For the semi-casual players like myself who can’t dedicate a good portion of their lives to the game anymore the Garrison serves as a way of levelling the playing field, although the hard core still have ways of getting ahead.
The flip side of this though means that, should you have the resources to power yourself ahead, you likely won’t be able to. Nearly all of the resources required to craft high end gear or grant you access to epic gear avenues are on strict timers that can’t be rushed. Thus the time your account is active is a far bigger player in how far you’ll progress your character than time you spend in the game, at least for us filthy casuals. For someone like me who sometimes finds himself with a decent chunk of time on his hands to thrash things out like this it’s a little frustrating, but at least it means that I don’t feel compelled to spend that amount of time every day trying to advance my character.
I deliberately avoided playing the game at launch as I was sure that, even 10 years down the line, Blizzard would still be unable to deal with the onslaught that is an expansion release. For the most part my experience has been extremely pleasant with nary a queue to speak of unless I try to login between 8pm and 9pm. Even then the queue, which I’ve seen reach 1000, is usually done and dusted within 15 minutes so no issue there. There are still some quests which bug out or have incorrect minimap icons, which can be highly frustrating at the time, however out of the hundreds I completed I could probably count the number of broken ones on both hands. By this point though it’s somewhat cliche to praise Blizzard for their ability to deliver a polished product as that’s their MO for every single title they’ve released in the last 2 decades.
The story of Warlords of Draenor is an interesting one, although as someone who skipped the later parts of Mists of Pandaria I did have to do a little reading to catch up on just what the hell was going on. Like most Blizzard games the world has an exceptional amount of detail however it peters out quite quickly once you’re not talking to any of the main characters. The main story is quite interesting however although there just wasn’t quite enough to draw me into it. Then again this isn’t exactly a story-first kind of game so I wasn’t exactly looking for it either. Overall I’d say the story was serviceable, just lacking in an emotional hook to draw me in.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor demonstrates how well Blizzard knows their subscribers, vastly improving your quality of life when playing through their signature MMORPG. Players returning from a long time break will find the game familiar enough to get a running start but different enough that they don’t feel like they’re playing the same game from a couple years ago. The Garrison is the stand out improvement of this expansion, introducing dozens of new game elements whilst removing much of the grind that is common to MMORPGs. I have yet to set foot in a heroic or the recently opened up LFR for Highmaul however, something which I’m sure will keep me going over the next few months. In closing I feel that Warlords of Draenor is a solid improvement on the World of Warcraft title, one that even decade long players like myself can readily enjoy.
World of Warcarft: Warlords of Draenor is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total game time was approximately 33 hours reaching level 100 and iLvl 617.
Looking at the ingredients labels on food can be both an insightful and frightening affair. I’ve long been in a habit of doing it and I always find it fun to research some of the more esoteric ingredients, well that is right up until I find out where some of them come from. It’s the old adage of not finding out how the sausage is made, although in reality you should probably consider that with all things that you put in your body. Still when I watched the following video I was honestly surprised to see the outcome, as I didn’t think the effect of extracting iron from cereal would be so dramatic:
The first half of the video explores the idea that there’s elemental iron within cereal which can then be attracted by a magnet. Whilst this is true to some degree, the iron within the cereal will feel an attraction to a magnet, you can actually perform the exact same experiment with cereal that is bereft of any elemental iron content. This is because water is a diamagnetic material which is a fancy way of saying that in response to a magnetic field it will create its own inverse field in response. For the cereal and magnet experiment this means the water actually divots around the magnetic field which the piece of cereal then falls into. The iron in the cereal helps this process along of course, but it’s not the only force at play here.
However the extraction of the iron from the cereal was pretty astonishing, especially considering just how simple it was to do. Trying to extract other elements from the cereal would prove a much harder endeavour which is why I think an experiment like this is such a powerful visual aid. You’re literally seeing the iron being pulled from the food you eat which, in turn, makes you think about all the other things that are listed on the ingredients label. It might not be a particularly pretty picture that you end up with, but at least you’ll be far more aware.
I wish I knew about these kinds of science experiments when I was a kid!
Roll back the clock a decade or so and the competition for what kind of processor ended up in your PC was at a fever pitch with industry heavyweights Intel and AMD going blow for blow. The choice of CPU, at least for me and my enthusiast brethren, almost always came down to what was fastest but the lines were often blurry enough that brand loyalty was worth more than a few FPS here or there. For the longest time I was an AMD fan, sticking stalwartly to their CPUs which provided me with the same amount of grunt as their Intel brethren for a fraction of the cost. However over time the gap between what an AMD CPU could provide and what Intel offered was too wide to ignore, and it’s only been getting wider since then.
The rift is seen in adoption rates across all products that make use of modern CPUs with Intel dominating nearly any sector that you find them in. When Intel first retook the crown all those years ago the reasons were clear, Intel just performed well enough to justify the cost, however as time went on it seemed like AMD was willing to let that gap continue to grow. Indeed if you look at them from a pure technology basis they’re stuck about 2 generations behind where Intel is today with the vast majority of their products being produced on a 28nm process, with Intel’s latest release coming out on 14nm. Whilst they pulled a major coup in winning over all of the 3 major consoles that success has had much onflow to the rest of the business. Indeed since they’ll be producing the exact same chips for the next 5+ years for those consoles they can’t really do much with them anyway and I doubt they’d invest in a new foundry process unless Microsoft or Sony asked them nicely.
What this has translated into is a monopoly by default, one where Intel maintains it’s massive market share without having to worry about any upstarts rocking their boat. Thankfully the demands of the industry are pressure enough to keep them innovating at the rapid pace they set way back when AMD was still biting at their heels but there’s a dangerously real chance that they could just end up doing the opposite. It’s a little unfair to put the burden on AMD to keep Intel honest however it’s hard to think of another company who has the required pedigree and experience to be the major competition to their platform.
The industry is looking towards ARM as being the big competition for Intel’s x86 platform although, honestly, they’re really not in the same market. Sure nearly every phone under the sun is now powered by some variant of the ARM architecture however when it comes to consumer or enterprise compute you’d be struggling to find anything that runs on it. There is going to have to be an extremely compelling reason for everyone to want to translate to that platform and, as it stands right now, mobile and low power are the only places where it really fits. For ARM to really start eating Intel’s lunch it’d need to make some serious inroads into those spaces, something which I don’t see happening for decades at least.
There is some light in the form of Kaveri however it’s less than stellar performance when compared to Intel’s less tightly coupled solution does leave a lot to be desired. At a high level the architecture does feel like the future of all computing, well excluding radical paradigm shifts like HP’s The Machine (which is still vaporware at this point), but until it equals the performance of discreet components it’s not going anywhere fast. I get the feeling that if AMD had kept up with Intel’s die shrinks Kaveri would be looking a lot more attractive than it is currently, but who knows what it might have cost them to get to that stage.
In any other industry you’d see this kind of situation as one that was ripe for disruption however the capital intensive nature, plus an industry leader who isn’t resting on their laurels, means that there are few who can hold a candle to Intel. The net positive out of all of this is that we as consumers aren’t suffering however we’ve all seen what happens when a company remains at the top for far too long. Hopefully the numerous different sectors which Intel is currently competing in will be enough to offset their monopolistic nature in the CPU market but that doesn’t mean more competition in that space isn’t welcome.
As I hope is blatantly obvious by now I’m very much a fan of the sci-fi genre. It started out as a fascination with the future, with all the tech wizardry that it promises us, however it’s long since grown into a full fascination with the world of science and what plausible futures could arise from it. Thus, whilst I enjoy a good story in its own right, sci-fi movies and other media are a great opportunity to explore scientific principles and I love to see how they’re used as plot devices. Of course the narrative will often take precedence over the laws of the universe and whilst I can appreciate a departure for the sake of plot I have my limits, like Gravity’s take on how orbital mechanics work. However there’s been quite the hubbub around the science behind Interstellar and I finally managed to catch it over the weekend.
In terms of basic science Interstellar gets top marks for getting so many things right. Things like travel time between planets in the solar system, gravitational lensing of light around objects that have heavy gravity or spacetime warping properties and the handling of relativity all line up with my (admittedly limited but I’d hazard a guess better than average) understanding of how those principles work. The black hole itself was absolutely stunning with the interaction of the accretion disc with the strong gravitational lensing, something which now seems so obvious, giving us a new perspective on what these monsters would actually look like out in space.
The robots are also one of my favourite aspects of Interstellar as they go from being what appears to be some kind of clunky, cumbersome relic of the pre-blight era they’re in fact highly capable machines. The designs are incredibly interesting too as whilst many movies would’ve gone for the stereotypical humanoid Interstellar instead opts for a HAL-9000esque monolith. It’s hard to discount that their personalities play a big part in this too, especially with all the humour around their programmable emotional settings.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
There are numerous liberties taken with certain mechanics however, all which are somewhat forgivable since they’re in aid of the plot. The small craft which are quite capable of achieving orbital velocities would have to have some kind of advanced engine that doesn’t rely on propellant and has the required thrust and specific impulse to achieve such feats. This is somewhat hinted at the start when the craft they use to get to Saturn makes it there in 2 years (I’d assume without any gravitational assists) however it’s still something that bears mentioning. It’s mostly only because if they had technology like that then it’d be quite easy to get a lot of people into space, potentially making that habitat they were working on viable without needing the secret “gravity” source.
As with all movies that like to play around with the notion of time things start to get a little hand-wavy once you start mucking with the timelines. Once Cooper’s character is stuck in the tesseract he’s essentially creating a paradox since he wouldn’t be there without the manipulations he caused, yet he is already aware of them when he’s making them. The one way to rationalize this away is to eliminate the prospect of free will within that world and so Cooper was compelled to do that no matter what happened. Otherwise he could, say, send the quantum data to someone else through another method, rendering the whole mission moot (but then introducing yet another) paradox to contend with. Indeed whilst this later part of the movie is a great piece of cinema it’s riddled with scientific problems, one that likely needs a novel to explain them away.
One thing that does irritate me about films of this nature is that they usually follow the format of “everythings going ok for a bit until things go all Event Horizon on you”. I get that this is playing into the fragility of the human condition, where our survival instinct makes us do things we otherwise wouldn’t, however it does feel like the trope has been done to death. There’s multitudes of other avenues to pursue to provide that kind of tension without relying on humans going postal, but it seems human fallibility is still the route of choice. Then again hard sci-fi is a hard sell without a relatable human element, which I guess is the reason we keep seeing it.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar despite the last sections wandering into extreme hand-waving territory. The scientific basis which it begins from flows through the entire movie, providing a great backdrop for the rest of the movie to build on. I’m looking forward to seeing a breakdown of how all of the strictly-not-scientific elements were developed as there’s a lot of questions I’d like to see answers to. In the same vein though I’m also completely ok not knowing as the discussion my wife and I had afterwards were just as interesting as watching the movie itself. Definitely a must see for all sci-fi fans out there.