29 December 2012

And so, the Age of the West declines & the Age of the East dawns

Mists of Pandaria character at WoW event
Sorry, indulge me. I'm headlining in portentous MMO gamespeak!

I've been reading the 2013 predictions for the online MMO game industry in 2013 from Massively staff, and it highlights a trend that I've been aware off for some time.

In the 20th century, America was the hub of English language culture through Hollywood, TV and the media, and from its dominant position, it's been the hub for much of the non-English speaking world too, particularly in Europe.

But two things, of varying importance, have changed: China (+ neighbours) is on the rise and Generation Z are upon us.

My son, 17 this month, is Generation Z. As I write, he is sitting on the sofa in a non-stop Skype conversation with his friends while they play FIFA 13 football together on the Xbox and simultaneously share posts & videos on Facebook (on his laptop) and SMS messages (on his iPhone).

The big TV in front of him (I rarely get to use it) is not for TV. He doesn't watch TV.

It has long been argued that online games are overtaking movies (Ars Technica 2007, The Guardian 2009), although maybe not as quickly as predicted (MVC 2012). I don't think traditional TV & movies will be entirely usurped (although trends such as Bollywood & Scandinavian Noir are steadily chipping away at American hegemony), but, quickly or slowly, the online game world is becoming more and more significant to people with a pulse.

... and the online games world appears to be shifting to the East.

Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) may have started in the developer/design studios of California, but the industry quickly spread out. In the early days, Korea in particular, with its fibre-optic network (when in the UK we had woad on our faces and 58k dial-up modems!), created a huge MMO culture with games like Lineage, even though most people in the 'West' think that World of Warcraft (WoW) is the king of MMOs.

WoW subscriptions peaked somewhere over 12 million a couple of years ago, they are now around 10m players and trickling away. The content of its fourth and latest (Sep 2012) expansion is very revealing. The Mists of Pandaria introduces yet another continent and race to the World of Warcraft - Panda bears with martial arts skills.

A little odd for American & European players whose cultural references are Nordic poems, Arthurian legends, Grimm's fairytales and Tolkein's sagas all resulting in a world of wizards & warriors, elves, humans, dwarves and orcs... not kung fu pandas! The reason of course, is that Blizzard (WoW's maker) wants to attract more Chinese and Korean players.

That same re-alignment of MMO gaming focus to the Far East is what struck me in the 2013 predictions from Massively. The one major game title all the predictions mention is ArcheAge, due for release next summer. Its Chinese parentage is unmistakable.

Don't get me wrong. I welcome it. I like the cultural transition. It's exotic and exciting (well, apart from the pandas!), but what I'm noting is that; what before was the whiff of a trend, is now firming up into a clear cultural transition.

Even the mighty World of Tanks with its 40+ million players* (Americans, East Europeans and Russians love it) has just introduced Chinese tanks!

Image: Flickr/andytb

* The business model of MMOs is also changing. Traditionally they charged a subscription to play. Now many/most are free to play (F2P) but charge for in-game equipment, resources, or other premium services/abilities. So the 'number of players' (some may have tried it once) can't easily be compared to current subscribers.

15 December 2012

In Future Your Car Won't Work If Its Paperwork Is Out Of Date

Car keys
I'm just indulging in some blue skies thinking, knowing full well that somebody on an advisory panel at the Dept of Transport will have already been here!

I got my car back from its MOT test at the garage yesterday (it passed), and I was noticing that the Vehicle & Operator Services Agency (VOSA) which operates the annual MOT system now puts the mileage history (last 4 odometer readings) on the test certificate.

In fact there's an awful lot of data about our cars, our licenses, or vehicle tax and our insurance, all centralised at VOSA, DVLA and the Motor Insurers' Bureau (MIB) databases respectively, which is how - as we see each night in the endless fly-on-the-wall TV cop documentaries on the cableshite channels - the police's Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras can spot a car without insurance, tax or MOT instantly.

Here come the forward thinking...

The latest and next generation vehicles are/will be mobile Internet devices in their own right, with their own IP numbers, like the Chevy Volt.

So, sooner or later some bright spark will realise we don't need to tie up Police resources stopping and processing the drivers of cars without valid paperwork. All we need to do is make it a manufacturers regulation that cars must be fitted with remote disablers. Then, when a certificate, license or tax disc runs out, it will be automatically disabled in its 'off' condition. IE The next time you try to start it, it won't run.

OK, drawbacks and dangers...

Such a system would be a blindingly obvious target for cyber warfare. Imagine the effect of disabling every vehicle in the country. So, the disablers would not be fitted to commercial or military vehicles.

Hard to imagine how it might be wrongly applied, but one proviso must be that the system must be immediately restorable. No filling out a form or waiting for office hours nonsense. If a driver walks out of the cinema with her kids on Boxing Day afternoon and finds her car disabled in the car park because her husband forgot to renew the insurance, she MUST be able to get out her credit card, phone the insurance company, pay, and have her car switched back on instantly, 24/365!

We're not trying to penalise honest motorists, just prevent poorly maintained, un-taxed or un-insured cars from getting on the road.

And maybe the police should be able to restore a car's mobility, at least temporarily, so they can move it if necessary. Eg. from a dangerous place, or a red route.

People won't like the idea of  "the authorities" having the power of control over their vehicles but the benefits seem worth it to me. Motoring is no longer the essence of freedom & independence it was in its early years. However the issue of 'mission creep' may have to be firmly guarded against. The police and other agencies would love the powers to remotely disable any vehicle they choose. And how long will it be before local government wants the power to disable the cars of Council Tax dodgers or other miscreants?

What do you think? Will it happen?

(Image: flickr/mynameisharsha)

09 December 2012

"Space Tourism" - Closer, but still no cigar

Golden Spike Moon lander
I've long been irritated by the way thrill rides into space are dressed up as "Space Tourism" and disseminated to the travel media as if it has something to do with the travel & tourism industry.

I know it's sheer pedantry, but I can't help it! (See this rant in 2006 and this in 2008)

It's partly come about through Richard Branson's involvement and the fact that he has an airline (and a rail company). The Virgin brand doesn't send travel journalists press releases about their Virgin Money banking activities or Virgin Active gyms, but does send them news of their Virgin Galactic space activities - go figure!

I did relent a little in 2010 when I realised that with a little further development, Branson's space ships could take-off from one space port and land at another, which would instantly turn Virgin Galactic into a transport company. If/when they announce that prospect, that would bring it firmly into the orbit (sic) of travel journalists.

And I may have to relent at little at this week's news of The Golden Spike Company, the commercial space start-up who is proposing to take paying clients to the moon using off-the-shelf space vehicles & components.

They seemingly address one of my key points back in 2006...

"When Virgin Galactic start taking people for a fortnight on the Moon or Mars, that'll be 'Space Tourism'."

Well, Golden Spike are proposing to do just that. Maybe not for a fortnight - more like 24-48 hours - but their guests will travel somewhere, get out and explore a bit, and then return home.

Technically that hits my semantic golden spike right on the head!

But am I going to write it up as a travel story? Sorry, no. I'll still leave it to the aerospace journalists.

20 September 2012

ebuggy Trailer Concept Allows Electric Cars to Travel Any Distance

This seems like an interesting piece of transitional tech. It's not an 'ideal world' solution but until the science of battery storage goes through some step-changes (probably not that far off; superconductors, nano-tech, man-made materials, Moore's Law, blah blah) this could be a practical way to deal with the issue of long-distance travel for electric vehicles.

A Stuttgart-based startup, ebuggy.com, has finished working on its prototype battery trailer which could give electric cars unrestricted mobility on motorways, with no range limitations. The plan is to build a network of ebuggy relay stations at which drivers of electric cars can hitch up battery trailers.

If required, an ebuggy battery trailer can be hitched up at an ebuggy relay station and the journey continued using the energy from the ebuggy. On arrival in the destination area, the ebuggy is dropped off again at the final service station. ebuggy can be exchanged whenever necessary during longer journeys so that unlimited ranges can be achieved. And all this within two minutes.

The ebuggy prototype was constructed with the support of Germany's Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi) and project partners such as the Fraunhofer Institut IPA and Stuttgart University.

The two obvious, but probably minor, drawbacks I see are:
  1. Whatever the performance of the car, it is always going to be curtailed by the speed restrictions on towing a trailer (which is probably pretty heavy too), which will be frustrating on a motorway.
  2. You'd always have to carry a spare registration plate to go on the trailer, which on multiple swop journey's will run the risk of leaving it behind. Maybe by the time this system arrived, car manufacturers will have established a standard protocol for transmitting a registration id to a digital licence plate display for any trailer via the standard lights hook-up?
What do you think?

28 June 2012

Bang up the Bankers!

prison cell
I really don't agree with BBC Radio 4 Reith Lecturer, Niall Fergusen's laissez faire view of financial market regulation.

In his second lecture (on Monday) he used historical analysis to argue for lightweight, simple and clear regulations - but with tough penalties.

That's the bit I do agree with.

Frankly, an apology from Barclays boss, Bob Diamond, for the LIBOR scam, and turning down this year's multi-million pound bonus, just doesn't really cut it anymore; not in a society where the full weight of the law is brought to bear on the pathetic disposessed who might sieze the opportunity to snatch a pair of trainers or a TV when riots break out.

Only when a few thieving bankers and City gangsters are seen being dragged by Mr Plod from their Hamstead homes and Docklands penthouses, with distraught families clinging to their ankles, to be banged up in Pentonville... only then will behaviour start to change.

These "masters of the universe" (Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities) think they are immortal, and to be honest, they are. They command such wealth and with it, power, they are pretty much untouchable.

NOTHING will change, until that is challenged.

12 June 2012

Good grief! Look at the size of these things!

75m wind turbine blade mould

Siemens send me press photos from time to time because I sometimes write about new trains/rail tracks and other transport tech. They've just sent me these shots of their new 75 metre wind turbine blades (they've just produced the first batch).

They will be installed on the second prototype of Siemens’ 6-MW offshore wind turbine, which will be erected in the second half of the year in Denmark’s Østerild Test Station.

They say:
The 75 meter long B75 Quantum Blade demonstrates tremendous strength at a low weight and, thanks to its unique airfoils, offers superior performance at a wide range of wind speeds. If the B75 Quantum blade were produced using traditional technology, it would be 25-50 percent heavier. Heavy blades are subject to higher loads and require stronger nacelles, towers, and foundations. The combination of intelligent design and low weight has a correspondingly positive effect on the power generation costs for wind energy.
But just look at the size of that mould!

Then it begs the question: How do they get it there??

Well, it seems they've got a special truck...

Their special vehicle, traveling 60 kilometers per hour, transported the giant blades over a distance of 575 kilometers from the blade factory in Aalborg to the Danish town of Nakskov on Lolland Island. By car, the trip is about 330 km, but because of the length of the rotor blade some re-routing was necessary taking bridges and tunnels into consideration. In Nakskov the blades were painted – the painting cabin at the blade factory is currently limited to 58 m blade length.

Fantastic engineering. I wish we were doing stuff like this in the UK. I know we have a well-respected wind turbine industry but I don't believe we're manufacturing on this sort of scale.

19 May 2012

It's not an "aircraft carrier" if you can't fly one of these from it

US Navy E-2 Hawkeye

... it's just a 'Landing Support Ship'.

Since WW2 we've rarely given our armed forces the equipment they needed. Just the duff gear that provided heaps of money for BAE in return for a few, often short-lived, jobs in MPs' constituencies.

Some years ago there was an idea that we should build some proper aircraft carriers for the Navy, to replace the toy ones we used to have. Of course that project failed at the first hurdle.

To design an aircraft carrier you have to start with the aircraft it is going to use, and that DOESN'T mean the fighters. It means first, Airborne Early Warning (AEW) radar aircraft (like the one pictured or its up-to-date version), tankers (for in-flight refueling), Electronic warfare aircraft, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft... and finally, the fighters/bombers.

If you can't fly them, it's not an aircraft carrier. All you have is a Landing Support Ship, good for supporting marines on the beach and a couple of miles inshore.

In order to have an aircraft carrier you need 'Cats & Traps' - a catapult system and arrester wires for 'trapping' aircraft when they land. Back when the project for the next generation of British "carriers" was first conceived they very quickly realised it was a non-starter because the catapults were steam technology, which these days means you need a nuclear power plant for propulsion and to make hot water & steam which you can then feed through the ship to the bow where the catapults are - all horribly expensive.

So the plan was to equip the carriers with the hugely complicated and expensive Short Take-Off & Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the new Joint Strike Fighter, the American Lockheed F-35B... when it finally becomes available.

The big drawback is one third of the fuel capacity of the ordinary version (F-35A) of the F-35 has to be sacrificed to carry all the extra weight space of the vertical lift engines, so it has much reduced capability and, with all those moving parts, needs more maintenance and is more vulnerable to damage. All in all, a very poor likeness of the real thing (F-35A).


More recently, the Americans have made great strides with electro-magnetic catapults, which is why Cameron and his mates, quite rightly, saw a chance to turn our 'faux' carriers into real ones.

Of course there was never any chance that he would do something REALLY sensible, like kit it out with cheap & excellent warplanes like the American Super-Hornet or French Rafale. (Or even some Russian SU-33s or MIG-29Ks like the Indian navy has).

Sadly, once again super-reality-with-knobs-on (double dip recession) has kicked that idea into touch and we are left with a pair of expensive Landing Support Craft with no aircraft to fly from them until the F-35B is finally ready.

If you were a kid at school playing Top Trumps, what is the ONE card you would not want? Probably the F-35B.

Note to Prime Minister: Best avoid any "overseas adventures" that are more than a few miles inland in future.

It's this kind of stuff that should be powering the good ship 'Britain'

Gloriana rowbarge off Greenwich

I love this kind of news about a small manufacturer (I couldn't give a stuff about royal pageants).

It turns out the Gloriana - that £1million, 94ft royal rowbarge built for the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant (3 June) - will have help from a marine drive system supplied by British high performance DC motor company LMC Ltd, based down in Honiton, Devon.

Despite being a "rowbarge", the motors were installed to make it smoother and more efficient to manoeuvre the Gloriana in and out of its moorings, and to help combat strong currents if necessary. They provide over 90% efficiency with zero carbon emissions, are silent and lightweight, and have been designed to re-charge the batteries when they're not driving the boat. In the case of the Gloriana this is done using kinetic energy from the boat's movement through the water.

LMC motors and generators are used in all sorts of applications, including vehicles, aerospace, and industrial, experimental & developmental tech projects, such as the high-speed French sailboat l'Hydroptère or electric motorbikes like the Agility Saietta.

The point is, LMC make stuff. High-tech, efficient, cutting edge stuff. They add value in real life.

This country's government has to ignore its public school chums, their money and their lobby teams, and re-align its focus, support, attention and political priorities away from the City of London casinos to little tech companies like LMC - because they, actually, are what make the wheels go round.