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Friday, 30 March 2012

Free game Friday: Age of Empires Online & Alter Ego

It's been a while since we last saw an Age of Empires game. The developer, Ensemble Studios, suffered from Microsoft disease: Microsoft spotted an independent company with a product that they wish they could have made, bought them, stuck the Microsoft brand all over everything and then inexplicably shut them down when they got over their initial excitement. And that very much looked like the end for the Age of Empires series.

But despite everything a new AoE (as all the cool kids are calling it) has popped out. And this time it's online and free.

AoE remains an RTS (Real Time Strategy) game. It's always had quite a strong single player story mode and AoE Online retains that approach. You've got a bunch of missions to complete and they will all involve you constructing buildings, gathering resources and training new personnel. Oh and you'll need to kill stuff too, obviously. So far, so familiar. At the start of the game you're invited to choose a race and straight away you hit the pay-wall; one of the races can't be played unless you pay up. You can play the entire game without paying a penny, but players who invest are able to gain access to advisor units and other advantages and you've got to wonder how that would work in a player versus player match, though I haven't tried PvP yet.

The graphics are jolly and cute and really add to the feel of the game. The missions are a bit samey and repetitive. You'll chug through the starter missions waiting for the main game to get going and it never really does. The game will constantly bug you to pay for stuff (one of the very first missions gives you a reward that you can't use unless you pay) and paying is ridiculously expensive: £3.25 for each thing (the price for races will be double that after a promotional period) even when they're useless shit like bushes to decorate your home screen. And you're forced to use that fucking awful Games for Windows crap too. It's a good game, but when it used to be a great one, you have to wonder what went wrong. Yep, this is what happens when you catch Microsoft disease.

Get it free on Steam:

A lot of games like to use the 8-bit aesthetic at the moment, but Alter Ego isn't messing around. Available for the PC, NES, MSX and ZX Spectrum, this really is a proper 8-bit game and no mistake. Essentially the free forerunner to the recently released 8-Bit Night, Alter Ego is a simple platform game with an extra game mechanic.

You jump around on the platforms as usual, but you have a shadow self... an alter ego, if you will... whom you don't control directly but with whom you can swap places at any time, thus allowing you access to otherwise unreachable parts of the screen. It reminds me a fair bit of VVVVVV and is just as satisfying to play.

Go here to get it for PC, NES, MSX or indeed the ZX Spectrum:

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Counting on your fingers

1, 3, 7... ha ha ha
You know how to count on your fingers, don't you? Of course you do. Everyone knows how and we all do it the same way, don't we? Nope, it turns out that we don't.

This came up when the wife was counting some stuff with one hand using an odd method involving touching knuckles and stuff. Weird. Yeah well it turns out that Professor Yutaka Nishiyama of Osaka University has researched the entire topic and published a paper on the various methods of counting on your fingers which saves me a hell of a lot of bother.

When looking up the prof on his university's website, I couldn't help but notice an excellently Japanese spelling error in the URL.

Ha ha ha. Casual racism's great isn't it?

Okay, so luckily enough Professor Nishiyama's research paper is available online and in English. It turns out that French people start with the thumb, ancient Romans went the other way round, the Japanese count with their fingers bent, Indians count finger segments and the Chinese are just mental (which is hardly news). He's even got some interesting thoughts on how the different methods evolved. Click the link and be surprisingly fascinated. You can even learn a different method just to be annoying at parties.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

10 incredibly skilful tiny weapons

I was browsing through some Russian sites the other day and came across one dedicated to crafting miniature edged weapons. There's not much to say - just enjoy the incredible skill that has gone into making these tiny replicas. The crasftmen say that it takes more time and effort to making the smaller version than the real thing.

Shamelessly stolen from

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Do Formula 1 drivers piss in the car?

According to several sources: Yes they do.

It's incredibly difficult to find any detail on this as it's an understandably delicate subject at best. Races are a few hours long, so it's not inconceivable that a driver can resist the urge to pee for the duration, but you'd imagine that at least one driver has needed to go during a race.

Nick Heidfeld shed some light on it in an interview with German newspaper Bild when asked what he does when he needs to go to the toilet:
"What should I do? Head for the pits and ask for a bathroom break?"
I can't find the original German article, but here's one in Italian:

The cockpit of an F1 car is a hot and uncomfortable place at best and drivers sweat profusely, sometimes losing as much as two litres of water through sweating. They do have a drink pipe feeding up into their helmets, although it doesn't actually contain water, it's a thicker drink made with glucose, vitamins and minerals. So drivers aren't likely to take on enough liquid during a race to cause them to need to take a wizz.

Okay, so when they do take a piss whilst driving, do they have some sort of colostomy bag or nappy/diaper arrangement? Oddly enough, no. You'd have thought with the weigh-in at the end of the race they'd want to keep it uh... onboard. Nick Heidfeld again:

"You know what? The liquid evaporates pretty quickly!"
Yep, they just piss themselves.

An Indian TV station asked Narain Karthikeyan about it and he had this to say (skip to 1:45 for that bit):

Just yesterday, the always excellent Craig Scarborough wrote an article for Gizmodo dealing with the subject. According to him, there's at least one current driver who happily pees in the car:

Surprisingly, no one wants to be quoted on saying driver “X” does this habitually. I can only assure you there is one driver currently in the grid who is well known for doing this and he is not alone. I’ve heard this from different mechanic\technicians.
The joke is a young mechanic is asked to check the ‘unexplained’ fluid leak on the grid, with ‘taste’ being the best of our sense to identify the nature of the fluid! yuk

Head on over to Gizmodo to read his full take on the situation

Monday, 26 March 2012

What's in a font? Trajan

Okay, so there's one thing that I need to say before we get started. Fonts aren't fonts; they're typefaces. Times New Roman is a typeface. Times New Roman at a 12 point size is a font. A font is a typeface at a specific size. The distinction has become blurred as you no longer need separate files for different sizes of typeface.

Ever heard of the Roman emperor, Trajan? He was emperor for about twenty years at the turn of the second century and he's one of the few that we know much about. After he killed a whole bunch of people, Trajan was adopted by the Emperor Nerva. When Nerva died, Trajan took over and decided to kill a whole bunch of other people. Ever heard of the Dacians? Of course not: Trajan wiped out their civilisation, turned the survivors into slaves and gave their land to his troops (which is why the region is is now called Romania).

Trajan's Column
In classical times, mass murder on such a scale was totally cool and usually resulted in masonry. So now there's a big column in the middle of Rome that's decorated with 59 pictures of Trajan slaughtering proto-Transylvanians and nicking all their shit. But the really cool bit is the inscription, not for what it says, but for the typeface. If it looks familiar, it's because it's been the inspiration for many typefaces over the years.

In 1989, Carol Twombly (no relation to Cy, despite the calligraphic style and name) designed the Trajan typeface for Adobe. As the column only used capital letters, the font did the same. In 2001, an updated version (Trajan Pro) was release which included lower case letters. It has become one of the most commonly used typefaces in film and television.

From slaughtering Transylvanians to drawing me like one of your French girls, it's amazing that one typeface has remained suitable for so many occasions. Keep an eye out and you'll see the Trajan font everywhere.

If you'd like to see Trajan's Column, don't bother going to Rome. The Italians haven't exactly done the best job of looking after it and also the buildings that used to stand beside it (affording you a better view of the top) are long gone. Instead go to the Victoria & Albert Museum where they've got a plaster replica based on casts taken before pollution eroded the detail. It's also split into two sections and there's an upper gallery so you can get a good view of the whole thing. 

Friday, 23 March 2012

Free Game Friday: William and Sly 2 & Russian Subway Dogs

Gosh, is it Friday already? Well here's two more delightful free games to play.

William and Sly 2 is a lovely game you can play in your web browser. It's a platform game with lots of jumping round, but it's a very pleasant and soothing experience. The music is perfectly suited and there's no real danger. The game doesn't make it terribly clear what it expects of you, but the joy is in simply exploring at a relaxed pace.

I didn't play the first game and I've no idea of the back-story. You're a fox and there's some guy on a deckchair. Now you might imagine that you can guess who's who, but I decided to confound the vulpine stereotyping and let the fox be William. Seeing as the bloke just sits on his arse the whole time, I reckon he's the one being sly.

And don't you even start with the whole 'cunning' thing, you lazy shit

The animation is beautiful and fluid and the puzzles genuinely fun to try to solve. You play it in your browser and it's even smart enough to remember where you left off without you having to save or anything, which is a nice touch.

Play it here:

It's not often you can show the entirety of a game in one image, but you can with Russian Subway Dogs. Part of the Piratekart project (I'll write more about them at a later date I think), it's a very simple game:

You're a dog. A Russian dog. You live in the subway. People get off trains. Some of them eat food, other drink vodka. Bark behind someone and they'll throw whatever they're carrying into the air. Food is yummy and keeps your health up and vodka explodes. There are rival dogs and you'll want to jump into the air to grab the food before they do. Exploding vodka kills other dogs. That's all there is to it.

Apparently in Russia there are indeed dogs living in the subways and it's getting to be quite a problem. But I don't care because they're delightful.

Download it from here (it's tiny):

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Do mobile phones cause cancer?


That was a short article. But I suppose I have some kind of responsibility to actually write a bit more than that. I probably also ought to examine the reason I feel any kind of responsibility for writing this stuff, but that can wait.

Mobile phones don't cause cancer because they can't. 

In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper on the photoelectric effect. He described light as being composed of quanta (what we now call photons) and theorised that the energy in each photon was equal to their frequency multiplied by Planck's constant. This theory predicted that a photon above a certain threshold frequency would have sufficient energy to eject a single electron.

It doesn't matter if you don't quite understand what that all means. By 1921, enough scientists had been able to prove Einstein's theory through experimentation that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for this very theory.

Did you ever have to do a high school experiment with one of these? It's a gold leaf electroscope. Pretty much every school student has to do a basic physics experiment with one of these and static electricity. You rub some plastic rods or something to build up a static charge and then touch them to the metal disc on top and the little gold leaf deflects away from its metal mount. This is because you have built up a negative charge in the electroscope. If you then shine an ultraviolet light on the disc, the gold leaf falls. This is because UV light is above the threshold frequency so the photons have enough energy to liberate electrons from the disc. Normal visible light is below this threshold so it's unable to dissipate the charge.

See? The shit you learned in high school is actually useful.

So what does this have to do with mobile phones? Well, it's this very Einsteinian theory that governs mobile phone radiation; the very theory that you proved that with the gold leaf electroscope.

See that little graph there? That's the electromagnetic spectrum. See where ultraviolet light lies on that spectrum? Now d'you see where microwave radiation is? Yeah, that's it down there, well below the threshold at which electrons can be liberated.

So, uh there's no way that mobile phones can cause cancer. There simply isn't enough energy in mobile phone microwave radiation to push electrons around give you cancer.

So why the fuck are we spending so much money on studies to find out whether mobile phones cause cancer?

Yeah, exactly. On the one side, we have the entire physics community and the Nobel Prize committee. Oh and Einstein. On the other we have wilful ignorance, stupidity, fear, lawyers and journalists.

Everyone in authority is scared to say that mobile phones are safe just in case it turns out they're not and the biggest class action lawsuit in human history washes over them like a tasteless analogy involving tsunami.

Seeing as there's no possible mechanism by which mobile phone microwave radiation can cause brain cancer, all the pointless studies have used epidemiology to try and find a link. Epidemiology uses statistics to try to identify trends in populations. For instance, one can map the incidence of a disease and compare it to maps of other factors in order to try to discover possible causes.

Okay, so this mobile phone actually does cause cancer. Thanks, China
The problem with epidemiology is that much of the work comes after the identification of possible causes. Whilst we've all heard the phrase "correlation does not imply causation", it seems that journalists haven't. So when an epidemiological study reveals a correlation between datasets, it indicates further avenues for research, not definitive answers.

In the United States, the incidence of brain cancer has steadily fallen over the last two decades at the same time as mobile phone use has massively risen. Shit, if I was some lazy journalist, I could bang out 2,000 words on how mobile phones prevent brain cancer (and I'd earn a lot more for doing so than the twenty pence this article is likely to earn me in ad clicks).

Now this isn't to disparage epidemiology. It's a highly useful science which informs public health research and evidence-based medicine. Dr John Snow famously used epidemiology to identify a water pump in Soho that was the cause of a cholera outbreak and saved goodness knows how many lives. But in the hands of a lazy journalist in search of a sensational headline, epidemiological studies can be a horribly blunt tool that misleads millions.

The excellent Snapshot Science website has a Powerpoint presentation that illustrates the danger of inexpert journalists getting hold of data they don't understand in order to create populist headlines. The second slide shows the data from the study. Note how if you pick any one group from the list you can come up with whatever headline you like.

People love to say "science doesn't have all the answers" and of course they're right, but generally anyone who invokes that phrase is actually trying to suggest that the bullshit they're pushing is somehow on a par with the painstaking research and experimentation of peer-reviewed science. There's a remarkable modern tendency to denigrate the vast achievements in all fields of science in favour of appealing bullshit or beguiling nonsense.

Mobiles phones don't cause cancer because they can't. There is no mechanism by which this can happen. So the interesting question isn't whether mobile phones cause cancer, but why we can't accept the overwhelming evidence and truth that they don't and can't. Entertaining the fearmongers and the frightened by carrying out endless expensive epidemiological studies is to the detriment of us all because it undermines already well-established scientific principles in favour of weak horseshit. Allowing crap the same same consideration as Nobel Prize-winning science isn't being fair or rational; it's being dangerously ignorant. Giving this rubbish equal airtime isn't even harmless.

The always excellent Bob Park (emeritus professor of physics at Maryland University) wrote the following about the dangers of wilful stupidity:


Bullshit is dangerous. In 1998 in London, Andrew Wakefield a British gastroenterologist, warned that the MMR vaccine causes autism. In the following months the papers daily carried stories of the tragedy of autism and the heroic doctor who had found the cause. In the months following, MMR vaccinations of children dropped from 90% to 70%. In 2006, the first child in more than a decade died of measles in London. In the first four months of 2011, the HPA reported 334 cases of measles, a 10 fold increase over the same period a year earlier. In France, 7000 cases have been reported this year. Autism was unaffected.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

GP Week - a free Formula 1 magazine every Monday

Did you watch the F1 on Sunday? Did you laugh at Lewis Hamilton sulking for "only coming third"? Are you pleased to see Kimi back (even though he stuffed up qualifying)? Were you impressed by Roman Grosjean's qualifying pace? Are you nervous about the performance of the Ferrari? Is Massa a waste of space? Is Maldonado much better than he was last year? Do you wonder why the hell they let the wives and girlfriends in the pit lane?

Yeah? Well you ought to buy me several beers and listen to me rant on for hours about how Massa and Hamilton should be killed. Or you should just read GP Week. It's a free magazine that's published online every Monday morning. You can read it through your browser or download it as a PDF if you'd prefer.

The magazine primarily covers Formula 1, but there's sections on MotoGP motorbike racing and WRC rally too. They've got some pretty experienced writers like (my favourite) Peter Windsor, Adam Hay-Nichols, Michael Scott and Martin Holmes.

Go to their site and shove your email address in the box and you'll get an email every Monday morning letting you know that the new issue is ready. They don't spam you with other mail and they're not selling anything, so it's hassle-free.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Hello Kitty guide to UK postal regulations

I was reading an article about the age-old chicken and egg problem which the author sought to solve by posting them and seeing which one turned up first. I was quite intrigued to note that it was perfectly legal to post live chickens in the US. So I began to wonder, just what one could mail in the UK. And it turns out that I've broken those regulations quite a few times without even trying. So what aren't you allowed to post? Take it away Hello Kitty...

No aerosols except inhalers less than 50ml.

Fair enough, but I've bought paint and mounting spray from ebay. Oops.

No alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content of 70% or more.

So I can't buy decent absinthe online?  I broke this rule by sending a Christmas present to a gothy friend.

Not only was this a real product, it
wasn't even uncommon

Asbestos can be carried but only when fixed in a resin, plastic or glass matrix.

I'm pretty sure I haven't posted any asbestos on purpose. Damn.

I'll bet I could find Hello Kitty
absinthe and asbestos if I tried too.
Inflated balloons can only be posted if they contain non-flammable gas and this must be marked on the outside of the packaging for them to travel by air.

I'm slightly annoyed that I haven't breached this regulation, especially as they've no way of telling the difference between flammable and non-flammable gases until that becomes evident in an explodey manner.

Batteries can only be sent in their original packaging and lithium batteries can only be sent it they're rated at less than 100 watts per hour. Car batteries are prohibited.

Oops, broke that one several times without even realising just buying up battery packs for my many Tapwave Zodiacs.

I own this lighter. It's windproof and it
makes a continual meowing noise when
you open it. It will also survive a surprising
number of blows from a hammer.
No filled butane lighters or refills.

My addiction to shoddy Chinese knockoff Hello Kitty lighters ensures that this little postal regulation is going to get busted more times than an appropriate analogy.

Christmas crackers can only be sent in their complete made-up form and in their original retail packaging.

Really? Good grief. My father always used to make his own Christmas crackers and got me into doing it too.

Yup, I own these too (thank you, Ally)
No clinical and medical waste. For example used dressings, bandages, needles, cotton wool.

I haven't posted used bandages... yet.

No Counterfeit currency and stamps. Restricted to examples of currency no longer in circulation or pre decimalisation postage stamps that are of value only as collectors' items.


What? Everyone's got a jar of
Hello Kitty hyaluronic acid
No corrosive substances. Substances which can cause severe damage to living tissue, other freight or transport by its chemical action are prohibited. E.g. aluminium chloride, caustic soda, corrosive cleaning fluid, corrosive rust remover/preventative, corrosive paint remover, electric storage batteries; hydrochloric acid, nitric acid and sulphuric acid.

Pfft. Challenge accepted.

I didn't even have to fake this picture
No prescription drugs except in an emergency where they can't be sourced locally.

What kind of emergency? The kind where you've got time to wait for the postman?

Yeah, so the Hello Kitty cocaine might
not exactly be licensed by Sanrio,
but y'know...
Narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, as defined by the International Narcotics Control, and drugs which are banned in the country of destination, are not permitted for either import or export.

I imagine that people involved in transporting quantities of illegal drugs are very concerned about abiding by postal statutes.

Dry ice is prohibited.

I can't believe I've actually broken this one. Or that the Post Office accepted and delivered a heavily-insulated package that proclaimed that it contained nothing but dry ice.

Environmental waste E.g. used engine oil or batteries.

So you can't return your Hello Kitty engine oil if it has been used. That little quip would work better if it weren't for this list being in alphabetical order.

Any chemical compound, mixture or device capable of producing an explosive or pyrotechnic effect with substantial instantaneous release of heat and gas is prohibited. E.g. ammunition, blasting caps, fireworks, flares, fuses, igniters and nitroglycerine. Items that appear to be prohibited explosive ordnance are prohibited.

Damn, that's a comprehensive list.

There were so many images I could
have used for this. So many, many
images. Never ever do a search
for "Hello Kitty filth"

Filth E.g. dirt, waste or refuse.

No comment.

Yup this is a genuine Hello Kitty
product. Hello Kitty motor oil
Flammable liquids This includes mixtures of liquids or liquids containing solids in solution or suspension which give off a flammable vapour. Any liquid with a closed cup flash point below 60.5° C is prohibited. E.g. acetone, benzene, cleaning compounds, gasoline, lighter fuel, paint thinners and removers, petroleum and solvents.

See? Damn you alphabetical order.

Pretty much everything's
flammable if you try hard
Flammable solids. Solid materials which are liable to cause fire by friction, absorption of water, spontaneous chemical changes or retained heat from manufacturing or processing, or which can be readily ignited and burn vigorously. E.g. adhesives, calcium carbide, cellulose nitrate products, matches, metallic magnesium, nitro-cellulose based film, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, sodium hydride, zinc powder, zirconium hydride etc.

Calcium carbide's a flammable liquid? This shit's educational.

Don't worry, it's just a
portable speaker... shaped
like a gas cannister
with a Hello Kitty theme.
Okay, so maybe you
should worry
Gases that are compressed, liquefied or dissolved under pressure, permanent gases which cannot be liquefied at ambient temperatures, liquefied gases which become liquid under pressure at ambient temperatures, dissolved gases which are dissolved under pressure in a solvent.

Tch, pussies...

Indecent, obscene or offensive material E.g. pornographic material.

All that "plain, brown wrapper" stuff is bullshit? Damn

No Living creatures except certain insects. You must use boxes that protect both the creatures and Royal Mail staff from harm. Use First Class as the minimum service and clearly label the package as "URGENT - LIVING CREATURES".

Okay, so that's chickens ruled out. What about eggs?

How could you even think there wouldn't
be Hello Kitty lottery tickets? 
Lottery tickets. Except UK lottery tickets.

Uh... so lottery tickets are bad, except for certain lottery tickets? Maybe there's a special ink in British lottery tickets that renders them inert?

Nail varnish Some nail varnish may be sent via our Royal Mail Tracked service – restrictions apply.

And yet ten zillion bottles of nail varnish are available on ebay. What?

Magnetised materials except those that are prohibited, should be wrapped in soft packaging at least 20mm thick. Prohibited magnetic materials are those with a field strength of over 0.159A/m or more at a distance of 2.1m from the outside of the package.

I'm not sure how I'm supposed to measure the strength of magnetic fields, but I'm guessing/hoping that I would if I needed to.

Oxidising substances and organic peroxide  These are substances such as disinfectants that may cause or contribute to combustion of other substances. They may also be liable to explosive decomposition, react dangerously with other substances and injure health. For example: bromides, chlorates, components of fibreglass repair kits, disinfectants, nitrates, perchlorates, permanganates and peroxides.

Fibre glass repair kits can cause explosive decomposition? Man, I have to experiment.

Perfumes and aftershaves Any perfumes or aftershaves that are non-flammable are permitted.

Hmm, I'd better test out all that Elizabeth Arden Green Tea eau de parfum I've been buying.

Perishable items Fresh fruit, meat, fish and other perishable articles should be able to withstand a journey of up to 48 hours and must be sent preferably by Special Delivery™ or by First Class as the minimum service. Packages must be clearly labelled ‘PERISHABLE’.

My mother broke this one sending me smoked salmon. Ha ha.

Pesticides: any chemical that is used to kill pests and insects. 

Except water and hammers.

Radioactive materials  Radioactive materials and samples that are classified as radioactive using Table 2-12 of the latest edition of the International Civil Aviation Organisations' (ICAO) Technical Instructions. For example: fissile material, (uranium 235, etc), radioactive waste material, thorium or uranium ores, etc.

I'm pretty sure that postal regulations are the least concern of people posting nuclear devices.

Sharp objects Sharp objects like knives, kitchen utensils and gardening tools may only be posted if they are packaged appropriately so that they are no risk to employees, other postal items or recipients.

Spoilsports. I love sending badly-wrapped kitchen knives. It's a little game I like called Postman's Fingers Roulette.

Solvent-based paints and inks. These are varnishes (including nail varnish), enamels and similar substances. However, some nail varnish is allowed via our Royal Mail Tracked service – restrictions apply.

For goodness sakes. Paint?

UN2814 or UN2900 Infectious substances (Catergory A)  Category A infectious substances are prohibited e.g. Ebola, Anthrax, Foot and Mouth Disease.

Ah, it's good to know that the guy who posted that anthrax would be in trouble for putting it in a postbox.

Weapons and ammunition. Sporting firearms and most ammunition can be admitted into the United Kingdom conditionally as imported goods.

The fuck? I can't send batteries, but I can post bullets? Okay...

Well there we go. Thanks to Hello Kitty we all know what we can and can't shove in one of those delightful red post boxes that we're famous for.

Oh and according to the chicken-and-egg-posting guy, the chicken showed up first.