27 April 2015

Elite Dangerous: realising childhood sci-fi dreams

Hunting pirates in my Sidewinder in the Ho Hsi system
As I enter the mid-game of Elite Dangerous, with a ship valued in the (admittedly low) millions, I wonder if the money-making potential at the start of the game should be reduced a little - but only because the early game is so much fun. I really enjoyed ferry missions in my starter Sidewinder, lugging a measly few tons of cargo between closely-packed stars and building up the courage to fight a few space pirates in Sidewinders or Haulers. I know it only costs 32,000Cr but the Sidewinder is so much fun to fly it shouldn't be restricted to basically a learner role. I quickly made enough money to upgrade to an Eagle light fighter and a Hauler, but was sad to leave the little Sidewinder runabout behind. Neither of the next two spacecraft really grabbed me, but probably this was because I was also learning the roles they play as I flew them. I quickly learned that without gimbals on the Eagle's weapons I would have no chance finishing off my weaving and bobbing targets. Turns out I wasn't even trading with the Hauler 'properly'; the Transit van of the spacelanes should be used for rares trading rather than the basic short-range commodity speculation that I used it for. And my amateurish early forays into extracting minerals and metals from gas giant rings returned feeble profits. (But they were still great fun, drilling and scooping fragments to refine into saleable precious and not-so-precious chunks).

Skipping the Adder trader for the time being, once I had improved my dogfighting skills I moved on to a Viper interceptor, and enjoyed hunting for bounties at the Nav Beacons near the bursting radiance of a dozen nameless suns. Then it was time for the favourite ship of many pilots, the classic Cobra Mk.III multi-role vessel, otherwise known as Elite Dangerous' equivalent of the Millennium Falcon. No doubt it could also do the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. With this and a bit of help from the Elite Rare Trader website I was able to do my first rare goods trading routes, reliving the brand awareness from the original game - a spot of Leestian Evil Juice with your bar snacks, sir? It's a great feeling to be able to fling the Cobra into a spot of bounty hunting en route to a trading port, and then carry straight on to pick up the next rares cargo. And once I sorted out how to do Federal Navy rank progression missions, a rank of Midshipman earned me a Sol permit and the chance to visit the home of humanity on Terra and the capital of the Federation on Old Mars.

Visiting Terra in my Cobra Mk.III

Transporting the rare goods of far-flung systems like Ochoeng, Vanayequi and Aegaeon built my bank balance to a level where I could investigate one further aspect of gameplay - exploring the wide, trackless realms of the galaxy to chart new systems and worlds. Once I could afford the Advanced System Scanner I kitted out an Adder for what I thought was a short foray - as close to the 1000 light year course plotting range as possible. I've no idea whether I was heading spinwards or trailing, and the Adder could only manage a jump range of 24 light years, so it was a lengthy outward journey of more than 40 jumps. My destination was the prominent type-A0 star HD 17723, which was sure to have been visited before by other explorers. As I ventured further from inhabited space I began to encounter more and more systems that had never been scanned by other (human) pilots. It's a thrill to be able to tag your commander's name to a star or planet for ever more - not to mention the money from Universal Cartographics if you manage to bring the data back to civilisation. My trusty explorer Adder, Eravate 7781, sniffed out three impressive new water worlds en route, and dozens of high metal content planets, gas giants and icy moons. Taking a different route back to avoid traversing old ground, the Adder pointed its nose towards HIP 117746 and then onwards to the first Federation station that cropped up on the fringes of inhabited space: Jones Colony in the Privir system. How good it felt to be back amongst the activity and busyness of civilised space! And the 2.1MCr reward for my scanning data didn't hurt, either.

The Adder 'Eravate 7781' explores another gas giant's rings

Now I've sold both the Adder and the Cobra to outfit a mean fighting machine: a Vulture heavy fighter. Its massive twin pulse lasers have been plied in service hunting bounties in the Carener system, and last night moved to a new base at Zhen Dock in the Xihe system. From there the Vulture tested the waters in the cryptically-named nearby system of Huh, fighting in the civil war for corporate forces against a dictator faction. Maybe the next stop will be purchasing an Asp Explorer and heading back out into the galaxy on a voyage of discovery. Or maybe an adventure into Imperial space is called for. Either way, there's 400 billion stars out there to visit and only one lifetime to do it in. Fly safe, Commanders - and be happy that the game you always wanted to play when you were a kid has finally been made.

Lurking amongst the rocks, the Vulture awaits its prey

26 April 2015

Big, biggest, colossalest

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) from the BBC sitcom W1A: 'So what we're talking about here is major brand surgery ... so listen up - we're sitting on three letters here guys, that's like, duh, the raccoon is already in the trash can here guys, and all you gotta do is nail that lid shut. And how we do that is from like June 2015 whatever, we seed the hashtag 'BBC', but it's gonna stand for Big, Biggest, Colossalest. So it's like the biggest name you can have for anything. In the world, ever. M'kay?'


25 April 2015

AFL: St Kilda v Carlton

A crowd of just over 12,000 enjoyed the Anzac Day AFL fixture at the stadium in Wellington today, witnessing a come-from-behind victory by Carlton over St Kilda. Having been exhorted to support St Kilda as 'the home team' through some sort of trans-Tasman deal, the crowd witnessed Carlton storming back from 25 points down after the first quarter, to taking the lead midway through the third quarter, and finally stretching out to victory over St Kilda by 40 points. The final score: Carlton 121 - 81 St Kilda. For a novice like me, who has only been to a single match before and that approximately 10 years ago, it was an ideal way to spend Anzac Day afternoon, and for the uninitiated the game is much easier to follow live than it is on TV.   

24 April 2015

Anzac Day eve street parade

Video of this afternoon's lunchtime parade from Parliament to the new Pukeahu Memorial Park, with plenty of WW1 vehicles - most of which are from Peter Jackson's personal collection. It was perfect capital weather for it!

23 April 2015

The glory of Venetian democracy

[A]n insight can be gained into the labyrinthine Venetian mind by describing the process by which a doge was elected. On the morning of the election the youngest member of the Signoria, one branch of the administration, fell on his knees to pray in the basilica; then he went out into Saint Mark's Square, and stopped the first boy whom he met. This child then became the ballotino, who drew the nomination slips from the urn in the ducal palace. In the first ballot the great council chose thirty of its members. In a second vote nine were chosen out of this original thirty. In turn the nine chose forty, each of whom had to receive seven nominations. A new ballot would then reduce this forty to twelve, who voted for twenty, who voted for nine, who voted for forty-five, who voted for eleven. These eleven then voted for forty-one. The final forty-one voters would then elect the doge. No more cumbersome and intricate procedure could have been devised. Its only purpose was to eliminate individual chicanery and special interests, but it suggests an almost obsessive preoccupation with communal solidarity.

- Peter Ackroyd, Venice: Pure City, London, 2009, p.140.

See also:
Blog: 96 hours in the Eternal City, 16 October 2010
Blog: Three fair ladies of Italy, 30 September 2010
Blog: Napoli, 3 April 2008

16 April 2015

Decent exposure in Montana

Rep. David Moore on Tuesday introduced House Bill 365 in the House Judiciary Committee in response to a group of naked bicyclists who rolled through Missoula in August.

The proposal would expand indecent exposure law to include any nipple exposure, including men’s, and any garment that “gives the appearance or simulates” a person’s buttocks, genitals, pelvic area or female nipple.

The Republican from Missoula said tight-fitting beige clothing could be considered indecent exposure under his proposal.

“Yoga pants should be illegal in public anyway,” Moore said after the hearing [...]

Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings, said she is concerned that the provision prohibiting garments showing the outline or appearance of a woman’s nipple unfairly targets women. “I think you are kind of being a little prejudiced against women,” Court said.

- Billings Gazette (Montana), 10 February 2015, spotted by Brendan O’Byrne & quoted in Private Eye no. 1388, 20 March-2 April 2015

[Moore later claimed it was all a joke, but the AP reporter disputes that. Here's the original bill, which goes into quite a lot of anatomical detail about the bits Mr Moore isn't keen on seeing in public. The bill was quickly voted down by legislators.]

06 April 2015

Air New Zealand: 75 years of international travel

On Friday I went with some family visitors from out of town to see the Air New Zealand exhibit at Te Papa, which runs until 7 June, and is free to enter. I particularly enjoyed the advertising posters from previous decades, and a not-entirely-related slice of New Zealand aviation history that I didn't even know existed. We didn't bother with the long queue for the interactive video or the design-your-own-plane installation, but they both looked interesting.

Below is the prop and part of the engine from Richard Pearse's world-famous-in-New-Zealand prototype flyer that scudded over cow paddocks inland from Temuka near Timaru. Pearse himself said that the attempt on c.31 March 1903 could not be described as the first controlled heavier than air flight in the world, which is what the Wright Brothers achieved at Kill Devil Hills just under nine months later. But his endeavours show that around the world a generation of inventors had been infected by the great flying bug, and that a New Zealand farmer very nearly beat the Wrights. A great exhibit, although what it has to do with Air New Zealand, founded 37 years later, is another matter.

The art design of the wide range of Air New Zealand posters was particularly enjoyable. These three immediately below advertise South Pacific destinations, always popular for sun-seekers, while the set below depict New Zealand destinations for domestic and international travellers. The international airline was first known as Tasman Empire Airways Ltd - TEAL - from 1940 to 1965, and the National Airways Corporation - NAC - served domestic routes from 1947 to 1978. When the Government became sole owner of TEAL in 1965 its name was changed to Air New Zealand, and the NAC joined in 1978 to create an airline serving both international and national destinations. Despite 20 years of the 'Pacific Wave' design, I still think this is the best Air New Zealand livery, from just before NAC joined the fold.

See also:
Aviation: Seattle Museum of Flight, 25 April 2013
AviationMOTAT 2, 3 April 2013
Aviation: Le Bourget Air & Space Museum, 18 March 2011

02 April 2015

The occasional jaw-dropping beauty of Elite: Dangerous

I was flying the Hauler when I had my first realisation that Elite: Dangerous might be something special. I was pulling in to land at a space station, and I couldn’t find my designated landing pad. When you ask for docking permission, you get assigned a pad to land on in the cavernous interior of the station and it could be anywhere around you, zero gravity being what it is. As I looked around I suddenly understood - this is a spectacularly beautiful game.

This sounds like a superficial appraisal and something of a statement of the obvious, but visuals matter - not merely in the sense of who can boast the most polygons, or the highest-resolution textures, but rather it is the ability to create the world of the game and give it a sense of reality. Elite: Dangerous delivers this sense of a coherent visual world more than almost any other game I have played, and certainly on a far greater scale.

I hadn’t really seen it at first because for everything Elite: Dangerous has in terms of graphical clout it plays things very low key in its design. There are plenty of pictures and videos of Elite: Dangerous looking pretty on the Internet, but when you play it those moments are rare. The universe of the game is displayed in a naturalistic style and there is little embellishment of the wonders of the cosmos, it doesn’t bombard you with lens flare or cinematic flourishes. The spacecraft are mostly brutish and functional and your point of view is by default limited to the first person view in a usually austere cockpit. As such you can play Elite: Dangerous for quite some time before you see something that really causes your jaw to drop. You can get used to the way everything looks and start taking it for granted but then suddenly everything lines up just right and pow.

For me, it was seeing this bustling cylindrical space dock - the little trucks whizzing around on the roads between pads, the different ships lifting off and settling down, the landing lights and holographic projections indicating who should park where - while I was peering through of the windows of the Hauler cockpit, surrounded by it all. It was everything I’d imagined such a place to look like when I was a child, and more. I would have been more moved but I still couldn’t find my damn parking spot. I swear they change them around.

- Phil Hartup, 'Elite: Dangerous shows there's a lot of fun to be had in being an interstellar delivery driver', New Statesman, 30 March 2015