The Other N-word

Nuclear.

The US public is split nearly 50/50 between those who favor nuclear power and those who don’t. Because of this, nuclear is often a dirty word in the political arena. Nobody wants to lose half their constituency over a marginal issue like nuclear power. Before 1979, the political climate was ripe for the rapid expansion of nuclear power. However, the Three Mile Island accident resulted in the cancellation of most new nuclear plant projects. 30 years later, the public was just starting to warm up to the idea of nuclear as part of the so-called “nuclear renaissance.” Then, in a case of incredibly poor timing, the Fukushima disaster struck.

There is a lot of weird cultural weight attached to the “N-word”, not the least due to an entire generation being psychologically scarred by the perceived overhanging threat of nuclear war. Unfortunately, this snubs one of humanity’s greatest hopes for survival.

Nuclear might not be cost-effective as geothermal, wind, or hydro power. It also isn’t as clean as solar. However, I would argue that neither cost-effectiveness nor cleanliness displaces nuclear from being the best “clean” energy source available. And not only would widespread adoption of nuclear energy entirely solve the climate crisis, it would save humanity from eventual extinction by hastening our spread through the universe.

As I see it, the only other power source that is as scalable as nuclear is solar. Solar, however, loses out on two counts. First, it is really expensive compared to, like, any other power source. Second, the energy density of solar is really, really low. We would need to cover 496,805 square kilometers of area with solar panels to satisfy the world’s projected energy consumption in 2030. While the price of solar power has really come down, that’s also in part due to subsidized research. On the other hand, nuclear has a much higher power density, and despite years of marginalization, is still competitive with current cutting-edge solar power. It is also extremely reliable, with fluctuations in power output virtually non-existent. This is something other forms of renewable energy lack.

If we started investing in nuclear research, we could dramatically lower the costs of nuclear power and satisfy a huge portion of the world’s energy demands. Cheap electricity would hasten the wide-spread use of electric cars (okay, this would probably happen anyways). With combustion cars and both natural gas and coal plants replaced, the influx of greenhouse gases into the environment would be greatly reduced. Cheap, portable reactors would allow developing countries to get on their feet in terms of manufacturing capability. Cheap energy would allow us to implement energy-intensive climate engineering schemes. Advanced nuclear technology would lead to the development of closed-core nuclear rockets, allowing safe, clean, and cheap access to space. Portable reactors would jump-start unmanned planetary exploration, interstellar exploration, human colonization, and asteroid mining.

Of course, none of this will happen. Nuclear is still a dirty word, burdened by the historical and cultural baggage it must drag around. The first step to a better, cleaner future is to get the public to accept nuclear power. As long as we are afraid to say the word, we are holding ourselves back from achieving our full potential.

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Crysis 3: First Impressions

I put my beefy new graphics card up to the test. I’ve always been a fan of Crysis. The first Crysis game was such a brilliant creation. From the spine-singling intro scenes, to the best mix of cutscenes and free-roam arenas. The vehicles, guns, and explosions all felt right. But the game kept getting better. The tank battle was a nice departure from the jungle stealth of the start. Then the zero gravity sequence just totally blew my mind. That turned Crysis into delicious cake. The ice level, the VTOL sequence, and the entire last level (with that epic end sequence) were all just frosting.

Crysis Screenshot

I know every level of that game by heart. So when Crysis 2 came out, I was excited. The multiplayer beta gave me some idea of how the controls would differ. But I reserved judgement (since the singleplayer campaign is the heart of any game). So imagine my surprise and disappointment when the game came out, and it sucked. Gameplay was boring and linear, enemies were samey and uninteresting, vehicle sections were highly linear, and the graphics were somehow worse than the first game. Despite all the hype over the “CryEngine 3”, the graphics were plasticy and bloomy. Crytek took everything interesting out of the series, and removed all the main characters to boot – Nomad was replaced by a silent, unimpressive protagonist. The game was cut and dried; there was no boisterous spirit left in the IP.

Since Crysis 3 came out, and I got a new graphics card, I figured I would buy the game. Maybe Crytek had taken the lessons they learned in making Crysis 2 to heart. Nyeeeh. The enemies and weapons are the same, and the interface is still dumbed down. I’ll admit, the graphics look a bit better, and the choice of environment is sounder. But since when was a bow and arrows cool? The bow and arrow concept seems like a feature tacked on to justify the game; without it, Crysis 3 would just be a short story add-on to Crysis 2.

My biggest issue is that the game is still highly linear. There are such excellent, expansive sets in Crysis 3, but each area is bounded by myriad invisible walls. The crudest element, which really insults me, is that you can see into the void in some places, where they forgot to put geometry. CryEngine has a default feature that puts a terrain layer across the entire map. The fact that they eschewed that, which was designed for creating large free-roam environments, means that Crytek has truly forsaken the idea of open gameplay. This makes me sad. There was great opportunity for this urban grassland idea. Imagine being able to fight through semi-collapsed buildings, then onto a grass plain, then climb onto a freeway and drive a tank down it, scaring deer out of the way and shooting down helicopters, which crash into skyscrapers.

There were good things about Crysis 2 and 3. The idea that the nano-suit is alien technology, the idea of Prophet’s conscious switching bodies. The stalkers in high grass were cool. But they screwed up the aliens, didn’t bring back ice levels or zero gravity, and took away speed and strength mode, tactical nuke launchers, and in-game freedom. I will continue to tout the demise of the Crysis franchise as a definitive argument against EA and consoles.

< / rant >

A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

Power Down Day

Today was a lot of fun; I got to antagonize environmentalists! In coordination with student groups, my school sponsored a Power Down Day. The school turned off most of the lights in the school and encouraged people to cut back on use of electrical devices. As you can imagine, I immediately began trying to find a flaw with the idea. This is when I recalled a nifty economic theory (widely acceptable although hotly debated) called Jevons Paradox.

In economics, the Jevons paradox is the proposition that a technological advance which increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.
Wikipedia

It was postulated by William Jevons in the 1800s after he observed that increased efficiency in coal-burning technology resulted in more coal usage, rather that less. This can be applied to any current technology, however. Take cars for instance. Although there are a lot of factors I am not taking into account, these are fairly indicative numbers. These graphs represent the Efficiency and the Consumption of fuel by passenger cars since 1960. Please note the scales of the horizontal axises.

Average MPG (image link broken)
Average fuel consumption (image link broken)
Data from infoplease.com.

This is a great illustration of the Jevons Effect. Even though fuel efficiency has been increasing, fuel consumption has increased as well (after the initial leap in car technology). This goes against the first intuition. The same goes for lightbulbs. Lightbulbs used to be rather rare. In the current day, we have numerous lights not only in every room of every building, but also in cars, on pens, even on shoes. Because lights are cheaper, we use them for more things; or everything.

Now, Power Down Day was not flawed in itself. Although you can use Jevons Paradox to argue that initiatives to increase efficiency are actually hurting the environment more than helping, it doesn’t apply to situation where you are just not using power. Using less power doesn’t necessarily decrease energy prices like more efficient electronics would. However, the whole conservationist effort stems from the same force that pushes for more fuel efficient cars and bans on incandescent lightbulbs. For instance, someone thought it would be a good idea to get a bunch of those useless rubber bracelets made with “Power Down Day” on them. It probably took more energy to make 500 of those wristbands than was saved by “powering down”.

The energy saving effort doesn’t actually save much money, despite that being a major argument point. That only works if you stick with the scheme in the long run. In a gymnasium, for example, there are 3 fluorescent bulbs per panel and the panels might be arranged in a 6 by 6 square. Assuming a wattage of 10 Watts per bulb, thats almost a kilowatt. Over the course of a day, that will save somewhere on the order of $2. With a majority of lights extinguished, that number could be brought up to maybe $50 a day. Which is not bad, but if you are going to keep the lights turned out all the time (thus actually making a legitimate amount in energy savings), you could have saved even more money by never installing them in the first place!

Pyrotechnics and the Apocalpyse

Bam. Power cuts out and I hear thunder. Except there aren’t any thunderstorms nearby. I rush outside just in time to hear more crackling and an orange haze on the horizon. The next neighborhood goes dark. Sounds like a transformer station randomly burst into flames. My speculations are confirmed by long lasting sirens. So, due to shortages of electricity, I am posting from my phone. I dont want to write anything extensive, so I’ll just cover some essential points.

First of all, I just learned that Valve will be releasing a Meet the Pyro sometime in 2012. Hooray! Although I do like certain fan-made versions, especially this one.

Secondly, I want to share a pretty cool comic series with you. Its called Romantically Apocalyptic (start from the beginning). I like the style of the apocalypse, and I’m rather inspired.

To make up for the past two days of dud posts, I’ve been coming up with a list of interesting topics to write about. On a good day, I might write up two, so that I’ll have a reserve of good posts to fall back on. Kind of like doing a comic strip for a newspaper.

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