There are some things that, at first glance, seem so absurd that you have to wonder why it was being done. Many are quick to point out even if something looks stupid, but it works, then it isn’t stupid. Indeed that’s what I first thought when I heard that Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was filling up their water reservoirs with millions upon millions of plastic balls as it sounded like some form of a joke. As it turns out it’s anything but and compared to other solutions to the problem it’s actually quite an ingenious project (not to mention how soothing dumping that many balls out of a truck sounds):
The first thing that comes to mind is why use millions of plastic balls instead of say, a giant shade structure to cover the resevoir? As it turns out constructing something like that would be an order of magnitude more expensive, on the order of $300 million compared to the total project cost of the shade balls of approximately $34 million. The balls themselves will last approximately 10 years before they start degrading at which point they’ll likely start splitting in half. Putting that in perspective you’d need the shade structure to last almost 100 years before it would be a better option than the balls, a pretty staggering statistic.
The balls provide numerous benefits, the largest of which is the reduction of water lost to evaporation in the reservoirs. The current reservoirs, which stretch over some 175 acres, hold about 3.3 billion gallons of water and about 10% of that is lost every year to evaporation. These little balls will then save some 300 million gallons of water a year from being lost. Additionally chemicals such as chlorine and bromide can combine into bromate (a potential carcinogen) under sunlight, something which these little plastic balls will help prevent.
In all honesty when I first saw this I thought it was a joke, a viral video that was advertising a plastic company or something equally as banal. However digging further into it the science of it is sound, the cost is far cheaper than the alternatives and the benefits of doing it outweigh the costs.
Colour me impressed.
Exploration games fit into two major categories: those that guide you along a pre-determined path, allowing you to wander off to your heart’s content, and those who simply drop you in a world and let you have at it. For the purists the latter is more desireable as you’re free to uncover the world as you see fit. However for those looking to tell a story the former is a much better approach as it gives you control over what parts of the story are revealed when. Cradle, though indicating that it was a more of a unguided adventure, fits into the latter category, guiding you along a predetermined path whilst revealing its story to you.
The year is 2076 and the advances in science have been numerous. Age and death have been conquered as people can now transfer their consciousness from their physical form into synthetic bodies, granting them immortality. However this technological marvel brought with it a terrible plague as some people rejected the technology at a fundamental level, causing them to violently explode. You, however, have no knowledge of this, waking up in a yurt in rural Mongolia without any memories of who you are. So begins your journey to rediscover who you are, why you found yourself in this place and what part you have to play in its future.
Cradle is a decidedly pretty game, especially from a game studio whose entire team consists of four people. It has a muted aesthetic which helps with the kind of post-apocalyptic feel that permeates most aspects of the game. On first look it reminded me of the numerous games that have been built on the Unreal engine but in fact it’s built on Unigine, a relatively unknown platform. Suffice to say it’s definitely capable of producing some top quality visuals although there were a couple unexplained slowdowns from time to time.
As I alluded to earlier Cradle is a guided exploration game, plonking you in a seemingly huge world to explore and discover. The world is littered with remnants of its past like articles, brochures and books, all of which will help you in understanding the world you now find yourself in. Interestingly Cradle wants to make you think it’s an unguided adventure however, should you play it as one, you’ll likely run up against numerous obstacles as many things have to be done in a very specific order. Additionally there’s a rather peculiar mini-game which you either need to complete, or fail at least once and then skip, several times over in order to progress the story further. Overall once you get past the idea that this is supposed to be an unguided adventure Cradle starts to come into its own, despite some of its more glaring faults.
You’ll spend the vast majority of the game travelling between two main points in the game: your yurt and what appears to be a nearby amusement park. Whilst the core of the story will be revealed to you by following the path that the “hint” system (which it really isn’t, it’s really an objective tracker) sets out for you there’s quite a lot more that’s revealed in all the various artefacts that are scattered around the place. Thankfully most of these things aren’t giant walls of text that have become common in games like this, making it a little easier to digest the wealth of information at your disposal.
The mini-game, which you’ll have to play several times over, is honestly quite confusing when you first play it. The rules are simple enough to understand but their implementation is just a little confusing. It’s not entirely clear on whether using the blocks you need to reach the goal for other things, like making bombs or platforms, will actually consume that block. After a couple tries though it’s easy enough to get the hang of it and, thankfully, should you fail once you can simply skip the game entirely. I can see why the developers included this minigame, it’s good to have a break from all the reading/talking/walking from time to time, however it wasn’t what I’d call one of Cradle’s standout features.
Whilst the whole “I’ve lost my memories and need to figure out who I am” trope might’ve been done to death the backstory of Cradle was interesting enough that I was able to let it slide. Your relationship with the woman you find, whilst feeling a little stilted thanks to the rather flat voice acting by the main character, develops rather well as both your backstories are fleshed out together. The game does feel like it ends somewhat abruptly as the main character seems to know something the player doesn’t but it does at least wrap up most of the loose ends. There is some rather lively discussion going on in Cradle’s community forum about the various aspects of the ending and, honestly, it was actually kind of nice to trawl through it and figure out what I thought the ending really meant.
Cradle is a beautiful game, both in aesthetic terms and the story it crafts. Whilst you’ll spend your time in a small area you’ll quickly find it brimming with details, building up the world which your small slice of post-apocalyptic paradise resides. The mini-games and the flat voice acting are Cradle’s two major failings however they’re both quickly forgotten as you dive deeper into the narrative that developers has crafted. For lovers of the exploration game genre there’s plenty to love in Cradle and for a first game from an indie studio it does credit to the talent at Flying Cafe.
Cradle is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was approximately 4 hours with 44% of the achievements unlocked.
There are many things that we trust implicitly, often by the simple idea that since it’s everywhere or that many people use it then it must be safe. It’s hard not to do this as few of us possess the knowledge and understanding of all the systems we use in order to establish explicit trust. Indeed it’s often the case that these systems are considered safe until a flaw is exposed in them, then leading to a break in trust which then must be reestablished. One such system, the keyless entry fobs many of us have with our cars, has just proven itself to be vulnerable to attack but it all could have been avoided with an incredibly simple change to the underlying code.
Keyless entry on your car relies on a fairly simple system for its operation. What happens when you press the unlock button is that a code is wirelessly transmitted from your fob to your car, unlocking the doors. Back in the early days the code that these fobs sent was unique and fixed which, whilst preventing one person’s fob from opening your car, meant it was incredibly simple to copy the code. This was then changed to the current standard of a “rolling code” which changes every time you press the key. This made straight up duplication impossible, as the same code is never used twice, however it opened it up to another, more subtle, attack.
Whilst the codes changed every time the one thing that the manufacturers of these systems didn’t do was invalidate codes that had already been used. This was primarily due to convenience as there’s every chance your fob got pressed when you weren’t in range of the car, burning a code. However the problem with this system is that should someone capture that code they could then use it to unlock your car at a later date. Indeed there had been many proof of concept systems developed to do this however the latest one, a $30 gadget called RollJam, takes the process to a whole new level.
The device consists of a receiver, transmitter and signal jammer. When the device is activated it will actively jam any wireless key entry signal, stopping it from reaching the car. Then, when a user presses their key fob to unlock their doors, it captures the code that was sent. This stops the doors from unlocking however nearly all users will simply press it again, sending another code. RollJam then transmits the first code to the car, unlocking the doors, whilst capturing the other code. The user can now enter their car and RollJam now has a code stored which it can use to gain access at a later date. The device appears to work on most major brands of vehicles with only a few of the more recent models being immune to the attack.
What amazes me is that such an attack could’ve easily been prevented by including an incremental counter in the key fob. Then when transmitting a code the fob also sends with it the current count, meaning that any code sent with a previous number is void. This can also be defeated by making the codes expire after some time which, I admit, is a little more difficult to implement but surely not beyond the capability of companies with billions of dollars in annual revenue. To their credit some companies have made headway in preventing such an attack however that won’t mean a lot for all the cars that are currently out there with systems that are susceptible to such an attack.
In the end it comes down to a combination of convenience and bottom dollar programming that led such a pervasive system being as broken as it is. Unfortunately unlike IT systems, which can be patched against such vulnerabilities, these keyless entry systems will likely remain vulnerable as long as they’re in use. Hopefully current car manufacturers take note of this issue and work to address it in future models as, honestly, it seems like one of the most rookie mistakes ever.
You’d think that long duration space travel was something of a solved problem, given the numerous astronauts who’ve spent multiple months aboard the International Space Station. For some aspects of space travel this is correct but there are still many challenges that face astronauts who’d venture deeper into space. One of the biggest challenges is radiation shielding as whilst we’ve been able to keep people alive in-orbit they’re still under the protective shield of the Earth’s magnetic field. For those who go outside that realm the dangers of radiation are very real and currently we don’t have a good solution for dealing with it. The solution to this problem could come out of research being done at CERN using a new type of superconducting material.
The material is called Magnesium diboride (MgB₂) and is currently being used as part of the LHC High Luminosity Cold Powering project. MgB₂ has the desirable property of having the highest critical temperature (the point at which it becomes superconducting) of any conventional superconducting materials, some −234°C, about 40°C above absolute zero. Compared to other conventional superconductors this is a much easier temperature to work with as others usually only become superconducting at around 11°C above absolute zero. At the same time creating the material is relatively easy and inexpensive making it an ideal substance to investigate for use in other applications. In terms of applications in space the Superconductors team at CERN are working with the European Space Radiation Superconducting Shield (SR2S) project which is looking at MgB₂ as a potential basis for a superconducting magnetic shield.
Of the numerous solutions that have been proposed to protect astronauts from cosmic radiation during long duration space flight a magnetic shield is one of the few solutions that has shown promise. Essentially it would look to recreate the kind of magnetic field that’s present on earth which would deflect harmful cosmic rays away from the spacecraft. In order to generate a field large and strong enough to do this however we’d have to rely on superconductors which does introduce a lot of complexity. A MgB₂ based shield, with its lower superconducting temperature, could achieve the required field with far less requirements on cooling and power, both of which are at a premium on spacecraft.
There’s still a lot of research to go between now and a working prototype however the research team at S2RS have a good roadmap to taking the technology from the lab to the real world. The coming months will focus on quantifying what kind of field they can produce with a prototype coil, demonstrating the kinds of results they can expect. From there it will be a matter of scaling it up and working out all the parameters required for operation in space like power draw and cooling requirements.
It’s looking good for a first generation shield of this nature to be ready in time for when the first long duration flights are scheduled to occur in the future, something which is a necessity for those kinds of missions. Indeed I believe this research is certain to pave the way for the numerous private space companies and space faring nations who have set their sights beyond earth orbit.
There are some technological ideas that captivate the public consciousness, our want for them to exist outstripping any ideas of practicality or usability. Chief among such ideas is the flying car, the seemingly amazing idea which, should it ever become mainstream, poses far more issues than it could ever solve. Still there have been numerous companies who have worked towards making that idea a reality with nearly all of them meeting the same fate. A close second (or third, if you’re more a jetpack fan) is the hoverboard, a device that replicates the functionality of a skateboard without the wheels. Our collective desire for something like that is what results in videos like the following and, honestly, they give me the shits:
Anyone who’s followed technology like this knows that a hoverboard, one that can glide over any surface, simply isn’t possible with our current understanding of physics and level of technological advancement. However if you grab a couple powerful electromagnets and put them over a metallic surface you can make yourself a decent simulacrum of what a hoverboard might be, it just can’t leave that surface. Indeed there’s been a few of these kinds of prototypes in the past and, whilst they’re cool and everything, they’re not much more than a demonstration of what a magnet can do.
This is where Lexus comes in with their utterly deceptive bullshit.
Just over a month ago Lexus put out this site showing a sleek looking board that was billowing smoke out its sides, serenely hovering a few inches above the ground. The media went ballistic, seemingly forgetting about what would be required to make something of this nature and the several implementations that came before it. Worst still the demonstration videos appeared to show the hoverboard working on regular surfaces, just like the ones in the movies that captured everyone’s imaginations. Like all good publicity stunts however the reality is far from what the pictures might tell and I lay the blame squarely at Lexus for being coy about the details.
You see the Lexus hoverboard is no different to the others that came before it, it still uses magnets and requires a special surface in order to work. Lexus built that entire set just to demonstrate the hoverboard and was mum about the details because they knew no one would care if they knew the truth. Instead they kept everything secret, making many people believe that they had created something new when in reality they hadn’t, all they did was put a larger marketing budget behind it.
Maybe I’ve just become an old cynic who hates fun but, honestly, I really got the shits with Lexus and the wider public’s reaction to this malarkey. Sure it looks cool, what with the slick design and mist cascading over the sides, but that’s about where it ends. Everything past that is Lexus engaging in deceptive marketing tactics to make us think it’s more than it is rather than being straight up about what they did. Of course they likely don’t care about what a ranty blogger on a dark corner of the Internet thinks, especially since he’s mentioned their brand name 10 times in one post, but I felt the need to say my peace, even if it wouldn’t change anything.
Graphene has proven to be a fruitful area of scientific research, showing that atom thick layers of elements exhibit behaviours that are wildly different from their thicker counterparts. This has then spurred on research into how other elements behave when slimmed down to atom thick layers producing such materials as silicene (made from silicon) and phosphorene (made from phosphorous). Another material in the same class as these, stanene which is made from an atom thick layer of tin, has been an active area of research due to the potential properties that it might have. Researchers have announced that they have, for the first time, created stanene in the lab and have begun to probe its theoretical properties.
Not all elements have the ability to form these 2D structures however researchers at Stanford University in California predicted a couple years ago that tin should be able to form a stable structure. This structure then lent itself to numerous novel characteristics, chief among them being the ability for an electric current to pass through it without producing waste heat. Of course without a real world example to test against such properties aren’t of much use and so the researchers have spent the last couple years developing a method to create a stanene sheet. That research has proved fruitful as they managed to create a stanene layer on top a supporting substrate of bismuth telluride.
The process that they used to create the stanene sheet is pretty interesting. First they create a chamber that has a base of bismuth telluride. Then they vaporize tin and introduce it into the chamber, allowing it to deposit itself onto the bismuth telluride base. It’s a similar process to what some companies use to create synthetic diamonds, called chemical vapor deposition. For something like stanene it ensures that the resulting sheet is created uniformly, ensuring that the underlying structure is consistent. The researchers have then used this resulting stanene sheet to test the theoretical properties that were modelled previously.
Unfortunately the stanene sheet produced by this method does not appear to have the theoretical properties that the theoretical models would indicate. The problem seems to stem from the bismuth telluride base that they used for the vapor deposition process as it’s not completely inert. This means that it interacts with the stanene sheet, contaminating it and potentially disrupting the topological insulator properties which it should exhibit. The researchers are investigating different surfaces to mitigate this effect so it’s likely that we’ll have a pure stanene sheet in the not too distant future.
Should this research prove fruitful it could open up many new avenues of research for materials development. Stanene has properties that would make it extremely ideal for use in electronics, being able to dramatically increase the efficiency of interconnects. Large scale implementations would likely still be a while off but if they could make the vapor deposition process work then there’s immediate applications for it in the world of microelectronics. Hopefully the substrate issue is sorted out soon and we’ll see consumerization of the technology begin in earnest.
Sometimes a game is responsible for the creation of a new genre. The most often reference example of this is the MOBA genre, one that was spawned out of the DOTA mod for Warcraft III, but there have been numerous other examples before and after it. One often less talked about example is Limbo as it spurred on so many titles in a similar vein that I think they bear classification under the same banner. Feist is one such game, using the same silhouetted aesthetic and platform mechanics to produce a short but eminently sweet title that’s been a long time coming.
You are a small little ball of fuzz in a giant forest, one that’s filled with many other fuzzy creatures. Many of these creatures are much bigger than you and, unfortunately, this has led to you and your mate’s capture. You are left to rot in a cage hanging from a tree, the big fuzzies wandering off into the distance with your mate in tow. They’ve underestimated you however as you quickly manage to escape from your prison and begin your pursuit, hunting the big fuzzies down one by one. It’s not going to be easy though as this forest is riddled with traps and creatures that are out to make a meal of you…or worse.
Drawing the comparison to Limbo is easy because, well, compared side by side you’d be forgiven for thinking they were made by the same developer (or at least, the same artist). The minimalistic visuals, mostly done in silhouettes, with the white pinpoints for eyes piercing through the darkness are a trademark of these kinds of atmospheric platformers. Since platformers live and die by you being able to distinguish what you can and can’t jump on this visual style can be a little frustrating however after a while you get good at figuring out what you will and won’t collide with. This visual style is accompanied by some quite incredible music, something which I’ve really come to appreciate in titles like this.
Feist is a 2D platformer with the main gameplay mechanic being your never ending quest to get from the left of the screen to the right. Whilst there’s only a few minor hints to guide you along at the start the controls will likely be familiar to you, allowing you to run, jump and interact with various objects that are scattered around. Unlike previous titles however Feist relies more on emergent gameplay than scripted events, meaning that it’s quite likely that your solution to the problem isn’t the only one available.Indeed many of the achievements encourage you to engage in behaviour that’s born out of this style of gameplay, something which you don’t usually see in games of this type. Overall whilst it’s not revolutionary in terms of mechanics or style Feist does manage to carve out its own little niche, one that it’s quite comfortable in.
One of the more interesting things Feist does that others don’t is combat. Much of the emergent gameplay comes from you doing battle with the various enemies that you’ll come across and how they interact with each other. Many of the enemies can’t be fought head on instead you have to lure them into traps, use the environment to crush them or, and this is great, use other enemies to fight them for you.This leads to all sorts of interesting behaviours with enemies sometimes running amok amongst each other whilst you just quietly go about your business. Other times it’s a fierce battle between you and a single enemy, testing your rock throwing prowess and stick weilding skills.
As with any physics based game though there are quirks that make themselves known from time to time, usually in the form of your character dying or getting flung off screen because of some strange interaction. Most of the time this comes in the form of getting crushed by something even though you weren’t fully under it, like when you’re next to a boulder and you get crushed even though you weren’t fully under it. For the most part this seems like a design decision, erring more towards the unforgiving side, however it can be frustrating when you get crushed by a log that only one of your little spines seemed to be touching. Apart from that Feist, which uses the Unity engine, runs absolutely brilliantly without nary a hiccup or crash to be seen.
Feist’s story comes without a hint of dialogue, told entirely through small cutscenes that happen between levels. As such there’s really not a whole lot of depth to it, in fact unless you read the achievements you wouldn’t really know what your ultimate goal was. Still since this is a game that is priding itself more on the atmosphere and physics based gameplay it’s hard to fault it for a lack of story development. This is also why its short play time, on the order of 2 hours or so, isn’t so much of a negative either as the story really didn’t need much more time to develop.
Feist may take inspiration from from other games in its genre but it manages to define it’s own space; one that’s filled with emergent gameplay, gorgeous visuals and a superb soundtrack. The combat mechanics and platforming combine together to make for a game that’s challenging enough for gamers like me but approachable enough that a wider audience won’t be turned away. It’s short timeframe and rudimentary story might be a turn off for some but it helps to make Feist a short and succinct experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Whilst Feist might not spawn a genre of its own like its predecessors did it does manage to create a great experience none the less.
Feist is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 2 hours with 30% of the achievements unlocked.
The unequivocal effectiveness of vaccinations has seen many of the world’s worst and most debilitating diseases relegated to the history books. Gone are the days when millions of people were afflicted with diseases that could leave them permanently disabled, enabling many more to live long and healthy lives. Before their invention however developing an immunity to a disease often meant enduring it, something ranged from a mild inconvenience to a life threatening prospect. Our biology takes care of part of that, with some immunity passing down from mother to child, however we’d never witnessed that outside our branch on the biology tree of life. New research shows though that bees in fact have their own form of natural immunity that queens pass onto their workers.
The research, conducted by scientists at Stanford University and published in PLOS Pathogens a couple days ago, shows that queen bees immunize their worker bees against certain types of pathogens that would otherwise devastate the colony. The mechanism by which this works is actually very similar to the way many vaccines work today. Essentially the queen bee, who rarely leaves the hive, is fed on a combination of pollen and nectar called royal jelly. This food actually contains a variety of pathogens which typically would be deadly to the bees.
However the queen bee has what’s called a fat body, an organ which functions similarly to our liver. Once the pathogen has been broken down in the queen bee’s gut it’s then transferred to the fat body where parts of the pathogen are wrapped up in a protein called vitellogenin. This is then passed onto her offspring who, when they hatch, now have immunity to pathogens that would otherwise kill them. What’s interesting about this process is that it has the potential for aiding current bee populations which have been collapsing around the world over the past decade.
Whilst the root cause of the widespread colony collapse is still under intense debate there are several potential causes which could be mitigated by using this mechanism. Essentially we could devise vaccines for some of the potential problems that bee colonies face and introduce them via spraying flowers with them. Then, when the pollen is brought back to the queen, all the subsequent bees would get the immunity, protecting them from the disease. This could also aid in making the end product better for humans, potentially eradicating problems like botulism toxin which sometimes makes its way into honey.
It’s always interesting to see common attributes like this pop up across species as it gives us an idea of how much of our evolutionary lineage is shared. Whilst we don’t share a lot in common with bees there are a lot of similar mechanisms at play, suggesting our evolutionary paths deviated at a common ancestor a long time ago. Something like this, whilst not exactly a revolution, does have the potential to benefit both us and our buzzing companions. Hopefully this leads to positive progress in combating colony collapse which is beneficial for far more than just lovers of honey.