Category Archives: Shiny!

Planet Commander – Review

As anyone who has spent more than twenty seconds perusing this blog can tell, I like space combat games. I have been a fan of the genre since I discovered Elite, way back in 1981. Since then I have played literally dozens of these games, including StarLancer, Freespace I and II, The Homeworld series, Freelancer, and of course my two current faves, Vega Conflict and Dreadnought.

Planet Commander is the latest in this long line. I’ve been playing this for a couple of months now. You start with one ship, and can unlock and buy more as you progress through the game. Like Dreadnought, this is an online multiplayer game: you participate in online battles up to 4v4. You can only fly one ship at a time. If the ship is killed, you can move on to another of your ships until you win, leave the game, or all of your ships are destroyed. You then get points (which improve your ranking and level) and cash (Coins and Crystals). The ships come in different shapes and sizes, ranging from Frigates through Destroyers, Interdictors, Cruisers, Battleships, all the way up to the Dreadnoughts.

The game is a lot of fun and is well-balanced; my one most glaring criticism is the pricing structure. Things start off well enough; an introductory pack costs about $3, and a follow-up pack which unlocks a ship costs another $8 or so. They are decent enough value, and most players can have a lot of fun for $11. The following pack, which unlocks the Kingsword Cruiser (I find myself wondering whether that is pronounced “King Sword” or King’s Word“) is just under $17, which is a little expensive for me – but the ship alone costs $27 to unlock, so there you go.

Many of the ships automatically unlock when you reach a given level, but some ships – including the top ship in each tier – can only be unlocked with a liberal application of cold, hard cash.

  • Wyrm Frigate $10.49
  • Olympus Destroyer $12.49
  • Reaper Interdictor $16.99
  • Kingsword Cruiser $26.99
  • Soul Catcher Battleship $42.99
  • Nemesis Dreadnought $55.99
  • Tyrant Dreadnought $112.49

That adds up to $278.43, which is way too high for a phone/tablet game.

In my opinion, such a game should not cost a player more than $100 in total… in which case those ships are overpriced by a factor of three.

Who are you calling an “Imperial Star-Destroyer”?

Bottom line: a fun game, especially if you have a tablet (I have three!). Decent value if you buy the first two packs, and you will get months of play out of that modest outlay. But the subsequent ships are overpriced, and if you play it long enough I am pretty sure that you will come up against a pay-to-win barrier.

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Dreadnought!

Anyone who has spent more than a couple of minutes reading my blog can tell, I like games.

That is not to say that I consider myself a “Gamer”, I have never owned a gaming console of any kind. However, I have been playing computer games since the early 1980s, which, I suppose, makes me something of an expert on the subject.

I recently discovered a rather nice game called Dreadnought.

In it, you get to fly and fight in multiplayer battles over land and in space. with a variety of ship types, including:

  • Corvette: Small, quick and fragile, but packs quite a wallop. A lot of fun to fly, once you have mastered the art of stealthy flying.
  • Tactical Cruiser: Provides support and healing to your team. Often the most-appreciated member of your squad.
  • Destroyer: Jack-of-all-trades. Fairly quick, Heavily-armed, but relatively fragile, and the ideal beginner ship.
  • Artillery Cruiser: Long range sniper, which rains down electric death from afar. Easy to kill, hates Corvettes.
  • Dreadnought: The big one. Heavy, slow, and bristling with offensive and defensive weaponry.

Battles take place in various space and planetary scenarios, and take place between two teams with eight players each.

There are several different types of battle, including:

  • Team Deathmatch: You get points for killing enemies. They get points for killing yours. First team to 100 points or a time limit wins.
  • Onslaught: Protect your Command ship from enemies while trying to take out theirs.
  • Proving Grounds: This is basically Team Deathmatch against AI enemies, with seven other AI NPCs backing you up.

A typical game takes 10-20 minutes. Getting killed is a minor inconvenience; you are back in the game in less than thirty seconds, and have the option of changing ships during your short hiatus.

The nice thing about this game is that is free to play, but shelling out some shekels will give you some neat stuff, but won’t make the game too easy to win, which is a problem with certain games I could mention.

Check out the video. If you like what you see, I’ll see you on the battlefield.

Interstellar Pilot

Those of me who have been following my blog for any length of time will know that I am a big fan of Space games. Two of my All-time-favorite games were Elite and Freelancer. Elite was billed (rightly) as the first MegaGame, featured wire frame graphics, and ran on the BBC Model B in only 32k of memory. The second was a Windows PC game. Both of those games allow the player to interact with the universe in various ways instead of just fighting and shooting. You could be a trader, a miner, a bounty hunter, a mercenary.

I recently discovered a new game that is a magnificent addition to this genre. And unlike the previous two, it is available for the Android platform (but not IOS – ha-ha!). A game so surprising and delightful, that I have all but ceased playing two other games (Star Trek: Timelines and Astronest: The Beginning), and, following one bone-headed decision after another, Vega Conflict ison life-support.

The game is called “Interstellar Pilot“. It takes place in a “Universe” that consists of eight “Sectors” linked by wormholes.Each sector has stations (trading stations, shipyards, outposts, factories etc), asteroids (of several different types that can be mined for free resources), and lots of ships zipping about. All ships and stations belong to one of a number of factions; some are friendly, others, not so much.

There are only two in-game purchases currently available: $2.49 to unlock the Capital ships (Destroyers, Cruisers and Battleships) and $1.49 to unlock the Thunder Frigate. This means that you can unlock ever ship in the game for four bucks! I would advise that you purchase at least the first one as soon as possible, as I suspect that the price will go up once word gets out and the game becomes more popular.

This is a beautiful, beautiful game. I will write more on it later.

Brave New World

Or: You can’t keep a good man down

More than two years ago I blogged about one Brendan Eich, the short-lived CEO of Mozilla, who committed the cardinal sin of having a politically incorrect opinion.

Way back in 2008, he made a donation opposing Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment that made same-sex marriage legal in the state of California. Even though the donation was made as a private citizen and even though he never discriminated against gays in any way during his time at Mozilla, his disagreement with the love-and-tolerance mob was such heresy that a witch-hunt was in order and he was figuratively burned at the stake. Following a political firestorm, he stepped down as CEO and resigned from Mozilla, and lived out the remainder of his days in obscurity.

Or so they thought.

What he actually did, as tech entrepreneurs are wont to do, is to start something new. A new initiative. A new vision. A new browser called Brave.

Brave is more than a browser, it is a new way of looking at, experiencing, and financing the web. Instead of the horrendous ad-supported model that we all know and… er… love, it allows users to financially support websites that they frequent, while featuring state-of-the-art ad-blocking.

I’ve been using it for about a month, and while it still has a few rough edges, but it is fast, smooth and stable (hardly surprising, given that Eich invented Javascript), at a time when predecessors like Firefox and Google Chrome are becoming bloated, slow and crash-prone. This blog post was written in Evernote running in a Brave tab.

Most important of all: No gays were persecuted during the making of this browser… though a large number of electrons were seriously inconvenienced.

My previous former life

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My first job out of college was working for a UK-based Defence Contractor, where I was involved in a very small way in the development of Avionics for the Experimental Aircraft Programme (EAP), a technology demonstrator for the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Here is a video of the beautiful beast in flightHere is a more detailed description of the plane and its systems. Here is a rather nice write-up on the plane. Here is another.

“We worked all hours, we could be in until midnight and then back in at 6.30am, it was hard work but it was satisfying. You knew you were at the start of something really special, what we created was the forefather of the next generation of flight

Hyperexotics

Another day, another version of Real Racing 3. This version takes a break from previous versions (1.12, 1.2, 1.3, 1.3.5, 1.4, and 1.5) and kicks it up a whole major version it to 2.0.0. However, the big leap in version numbering is perhaps a little disingenuous, as there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between this and the last version (1.5).

Two new Cars

Screenshot_2014-04-10-03-50-04This version features the debut of two new cars — the McLaren P1 and the Lamborghini Veneno. Both incredibly sexy, incredibly fast — and incredibly expensive — so much so, that if you have to ask “how much?” you can’t afford one:

The McLaren P1 costs $1.15 Million, and there are fewer than six hundred in existence

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The Lamborghini Veneno costs a jaw-dropping $4 million and there are only three in existence.

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Both production runs of both cars are completely sold out, but thanks to the magic of the Firemonkeys, you get to drive both in a brand-new Series — the Vertex — along with the Porsche 911 RSR (2013) (known irreverently as the “Porsche SuperGrip”, due to it’s hamsters-with-gluepots ability to stick to the road) that was introduced way back in the 1.3.5 “Seven Bloody Porsches” update.

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The Death of the Delorean

Since the release of the game early last year, the game has offered a different “deal” every week, including some free or half-price cars. However, those in the know were aware that it was possible to put your device in airplane mode, set your device’s date to back when the discount was available… and purchase.

The not-so-awesome race.

Screenshot_2014-07-13-08-24-55The “Awesome Race” is gone. The ’69 Charger Endurance race that used to go on forever has now been well and truly fixed.

Onward and Upward to V2.1 – Aston Martin

All this and Ferrari II

It’s been a while since I have blogged on my favorite game, Real Racing 3. Time to put that right. Last time round I was less than impressed with the first three Ferraris (yes, that is apparently the correct plural) introduced in version 1.4, but what I didn’t know at the time was that the Men from Modena had another three cars ready to go — the 458 Spider, the 599 GTO, and the legendary Enzo Ferrari.

Screenshot_2014-06-10-02-42-48

Unlike the previous three, these new offerings were a little more what I expected of the Marque; Better performance, better handling.

There was also an unexpected addition to the Real Racing stable, a debut from a new manufacturer, ladies and gentlemen, presenting the mighty name of… Hyundai?

Screenshot_2013-11-27-03-29-35

In the last version of the game, I noted that “Ferrari Faceoff” had been put at the end, after “Zenith”. In this version, it has been moved from it’s ill-deserved ultimate position at the top of the tree to further down.

This is the last version of the game that featured “the Awesome Race”, my name for the everlasting endurance race with the ’69 Dodge Charger that was introduced in Version 1.3. I took advantage of this to run a blistering 1500-mile race over the course of a week.

1500 Miles

The likes of which the world has never seen…

New feature: Weekly Time Trial Tournaments

Screenshot_2014-06-10-02-42-53While this is a new feature, I cannot comment on it, since weekly time trial tournaments require that you have the latest version of the game installed, which this isn’t.

Race Replay

Screenshot_2014-06-10-02-42-58This is a wonderful feature. After completing a race you have the option of watching it again from a series of trackside cameras, or from any of the driving views. Very nice. The only thing that is missing is the ability to save that replay for watching later, or showing to your grandchildren. Assuming that you can take enough time away from the game to actually have any children, that is…

Screenshot_2014-06-10-02-43-04

AWD Attack

AWD AttackThis is one of those events with only one car — the brand-spanking-new Hyundai. I20 WRC Don’t be fooled – the I20 WRC is a little beast of a car, with a beastly price tag to match. It’s a four-wheel-drive rocket-powered roller-skate, although when fully upgraded, it is almost feels too fast, and feels skittish in the corners. It also gets my vote for the coolest product placement I have ever seen in a a computer game.

Screenshot_2014-06-22-20-49-04

Oh, the irony…

Grand Tourer Supremacy Series

Grand Tourer Supremancy SeriesNo new cars to be found here, but a chance to make some extra R$ and Gold from the cars you already have. This series showcases the two Bentleys (Continental Supersports and Continental GT Speed) and two of the three Mercedes-Benzes (SLS AMG and SL 65 AMG Black Series). Sadly they left out the third Benz — the sexy SLS AMG GT3, but it would not have fitted in here.

Spirit of Ferrari

Spirit of FerrariMamma Mia! The Italians are at it again! Race the three new Ferraris. You start off with the 458 Spider working your way up to the 599 GTO before unlocking the legendary Enzo Ferrari.

Enzo Ferrari Triumph

Enzo Ferrari TriumphThe mob at Ferrari must have been mightily impressed with the Enzo Ferrari; they named it after their founder. “Enzo Ferrari Triumph” joins “AWD Attack” and “The Legend Continues” to become the third single-car series — and like the other two, this series is optional.

The name's Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari.

The name’s Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari.

 

The problem with Net Neutrality

Why a good idea will destroy small businesses.

Like most responsible Netizens, I am in favor of Net Neutrality — the principle that ISPs should not discriminate based on content. In principle, it sounds like a good idea: you, the customer, should have access to whatever services you want, without having to pay extra for it, and without the ISP “throttling” internet traffic that competes with services that they may be offering — for an additional fee, naturally.

But there is trouble in paradise, and its name is Netflix.

The Netflix paradox.

Netflix, you see, is the biggest single source of Internet traffic in the world; it is estimated that as much as 40% if the bits flowing through the system come from that one source. And that places a load on ISPs, who have to purchase additional bandwidth and hardware to handle all of those bits wending their way from Netflix’s servers, across the public internet, to the ISP’s customers. Unlike consumers, ISPs have to pay for the “Public Internet” bandwidth they consume. The big ISPs have a solution: they do a deal with Netflix, where Netflix installs a server within the ISP’s Datacenter. This saves on bandwidth, as the movies on that server can be accessed by customers without having to go out on the public internet ad all the way back to Netflix. It saves on costs, as the ISP does not have to pay anyone for the bits that flow around within their networks.It also makes for a better experience for the customer, who is blissfully unaware that all of this is going on.

This is all well and good if you are one of the big boys — Cox, Comcast, Time Warner — as they all have deals in place with Netflix. But what if you are a small ISP? Netflix won’t talk to these little guys — not worth their time. They have to pay full-freight; as their customers sign up for Netflix, they are shifting massively more data, which pushes their bandwidth costs go up accordingly.

Their customers, however, won’t pay more just to watch Netflix. And there, as they say, is the rub.

Network Neutrality says: “Thou shalt not block or throttle Netflix”. Customers say “I want my Netflix!” And the small ISP says: “If it’s all the same to you, I would like to make a little bit of profit here, so I can feed my children? (won’t somebody please think of the children?!). Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The elephant in the room is bandwidth; most residential internet customers in this country are used to paying a flat fee for “all-you-can-eat” service. This means that those customers who are not Netflix subscribers are effectively subsidizing those who are.

The bottom line is that small ISPs are being punished by a perfect storm; on one side we have fixed-price, customers fattened on “all-you-can-eat” unlimited data. On the other is a major bandwidth hog who won’t cut them a deal. And Net neutrality means that they cannot throttle Netflix traffic or charge their customers a surcharge to make up for their real increased costs.

Residential Internet service is the only utility where most customers do not pay for what they actually use.
Water, gas, electricity, these are usually metered. But not Internet.

For them, the only fair solution is to change their pricing model from all-you-can-eat to a-la-carte, where customers pay for the bandwidth they use. And customers who have been spoiled by unlimited data won’t want that — I certainly don’t.

This is not meant to be a screed against Net Neutrality — it is a good idea, and one which I support in the main. My intention here is not to criticize the idea or derail it in any way. My intention is to draw attention to the fact that the law of unintended consequences will always bite you in the… rear.

I’m just Wild about Harry’s

Once in a while, an idea comes along and you wonder why nobody thought of it years before.

Like many men, I use an electric shaver. It does not give as good a shave as a razor, but it hurts less and there is no blood on my collar.

Another reason why I do not use a razor is the expense; the blades for the best razors are, to put it bluntly, bloody expensive. Four or five dollars for one blade is simply too much. So when Steve Gibson waxed eloquent about Harry’s, I decided to give it a try. They have several products on their website, including Shave Sets, blades, creams and refill packs etc.

I decided to purchase a Truman set — A Truman handle, 3 blades and a tube of shave cream, along with a neat little “how-to-shave” booklet. The only difference is in the handle. Cost $15 with a $5 discount code bringing it down to $10 — a very competitive price indeed.  They also have a “Winston Set” which is identical, but with a better handle and a $10 higher price. For fathers’ Day, they also offer a Father & Son Set, which is the coolest thing for men with “small dudes” in their lives who still think shaving is cool.

The product arrived in a very nice box, which , unfortunately, found its way into the trash before I could snap a photo, but here are the contents.

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So, as Eric Idle once said: “whats it like?”. The shave cream is very nice indeed — better than the Gillette Gel I picked up at WalMart. The quality of the shave is best described as “smooth like buttah”; as good as anything from the big boys, or better — so smooth, in fact, that it is still “good-enough-for-government-work” passable 24 hours later.

Not bad considering the blades (which are made in Germany, as Harry’s takes great care to point out) are less than half the price of the local competition.

King Gillette, you’re in trouble.

The Second Factor

Or: How to prevent your online accounts from getting hacked.

Every now and them I get an e-mail from someone know, with no message but a cryptic link. That’s right, someone’s e-mail account has been hacked, hijacked or compromised in some way. It is almost always a Yahoo address.

For those of us who just use e-mail to circulate gossip and cat pictures, this is not a big deal.However, if you do your banking online, a hacked e-mail account is a quick way to have your accounts drained.

The problem is that the standard method for resetting your password is an “e-mail loop”. It works like this: you go your bank’s website, click the “forgot your password” link, and a reset e-mail is sent to… your e-mail address… which has been compromised. Now they have the ability to change your password and lock you out of your account. Next thing you know, your hard-earned money is winging its way off to a parts unknown, never to return.

It’s not just banking. Some years ago, my brother found a bunch of bogus auctions on his eBay account, and he had to get in touch with eBay to have them stopped. A few days earlier, while on a business trip, he had used a hotel’s computer to access his eBay account. Evidently the computer had been compromised with a keylogger, which enabled bad actors (villains, that is – not William Shatner!) to get his username and password, and once in his account they could post bogus auctions on his account. If they can succeed in changing eBay’s email address for his account then they could also make off with the money.

So how to stop this? The banks’ came up with the idea of “secret questions”. We’ve all seen this at some time or other; they ask you to answer questions such as “What was your mother’s maiden name?“, etc. But when you think about it, this is just another “something you know”. In other words, it is effectively another password. And since the “secret questions” and answers are stored in the bank’s databases, they too are vulnerable to the kind of “exfiltration” (a posh word for theft of data) that seems to be happening on a monthly, if not weekly, basis,

The banks love this approach for one simple reason — it’s cheap. With security, as with so many other things, there is “Good” security, and there is “Cheap” security. Guess which one corporations prefer. Guess which one works best.

Remember when Bank of America came up with Credit Cards with your picture on it? Ever wonder why they don’t do that anymore? Because they found out that 1) Putting the pictures on the cards cost more than the losses due to to fraud, and 2) most cashiers don’t look at the picture anyway. Which made it 1) Expensive and 2) Not very effective.

The good news is that many big players on the Internet are finally adopting good security. One approach is to use a code transmitted to a cellphone by voice call or text message. The good news is that this approach requires that you have your phone. The bad news is that… this approach requires that you have your phone. If you lose or misplace it, you are stuck until you have jumped through several hoops. And if your phone is stolen and is not protected by a PIN lock, they may be able to crack a whole bunch of accounts at once – the holy grail of identity theft.

Another approach is to use a code generator; a device that generates a unique code each time it is used. This can be done using a hardware device (like the Paypal “Football ” code generator) or a software-based code generator like Google’s Authenticator, which generates a new code every thirty seconds. The cool thing about this is that if a bad guy steals your password, they still can’t get in. And even if they steal the key as well, and is invalid thirty seconds later. I am not even sure if a key can be re-used, but if you are paranoid about re-use (which I am not), you can just wait until it is just about to expire before you use it. Google uses this to secure their e-mail accounts; I used this. If Mat Honen, senior writer with Wired Magazine, had used this approach, the epic hacking of his Apple account could have been easily avoided.

The best security of all requires the use of a dedicated hardware token, such as a swipe card or a cryptographic key. My weapon of choice is a YubiKey – I’ve been using it for some years and it YubiKey guards access to my PayPal account and my password manager.

So there you have it: If you don’t want to get hacked, Get a YubiKey or some other form of hardware-based second-factor authentication. It’s that simple.