All posts by James Fenner

James is an avid news researcher, collector and junkie for all things science, health and technology. As a long-time creative and technical writer, his articles detail the facts missed.

Microsoft PC Gaming Strategy – Will It Ever Improve?

Microsoft has a long and storied history with PC gaming. During the ’90s, the tech giant churned out a vast array of genre-defining games. From the RTS classic Age of Empires to Motocross Madness, Microsoft demonstrated a serious commitment to PC gaming.

However, as the old adage goes, all good things must come to an end. Microsoft’s fall from grace started around the time the Xbox console was ushered in, and the company’s PC-centric outlook slowly receded. Over the ensuing years, the publishing monolith made a series of damaging mistakes, compromising its dominance over PC gaming.

Turning games into OS exclusives; keeping popular franchises from the mitts PC gamers; the inauguration of the broken, DRM-addled mess that was Games for Windows Live (GFWL); the breakdown of studios geared towards PC gaming; and an all-consuming focus on its Xbox consoles; these were just some of Microsoft’s many sins.

Continue reading Microsoft PC Gaming Strategy – Will It Ever Improve?

P.A.M.E.L.A. Trailer Reveals a Beautiful Environmental Horror, Reminiscent of BioShock

A six-man team at NVYVE Studios in Mississauga, Ontario, has recently showcased an ambitious, BioShock-esque horror game called P.A.M.E.L.A. Built using the Unity 5 engine, the game is slated for a 2016 release on PC.

Following the release of the game’s second trailer, the team said they had had a “crazy week.” After being inundated with positive feedback, the game hit the number one spot on Steam’s community voting system within a mere 48 hours.

The trailer for P.A.M.E.L.A., which was first showcased by PCGamesN, hit YouTube on Sept. 21. Entitled “Rebirth,” the trailer opens by introducing us to one of the many gorgeous vistas of Eden – an island city, with a modern landscape steeped in high-rise buildings and lush vegetation.

From the outside, things looks peaceful and idyllic. But, when we venture into one of Eden’s interiors, we quickly discover that the city is plagued by sickness. A contagious infection has transformed the inhabitants into husks of what they once were. Their appearance twisted and their minds broken, these deranged people have become the “Afflicted.”

The game’s primary protagonist is then introduced, along with your AI companion. According to PCGamesN, the AI was once tasked with overseeing Eden. After the AI pulls you out of cryosleep, it works to keep you out of harm’s way as you set about exploring the failed utopia that surrounds you.

First impressions: the game has the feel of BioShock’s collapsing civilization, the futuristic vibe of Mass Effect, and the frugal combat of Mirror’s Edge. Not a bad list of games to be compared to, if you ask me; this, perhaps, explains why there’s so much excitement over P.A.M.E.L.A.’s emergence.

For the trailer’s score, the guys at NVYVE said they collaborated with Jeff van Dyck, who is best known for his incredible work on Alien: Isolation and the Total War franchise. Personally, I loved the soundtrack for Alien: Isolation, and felt it captured the essence of the original Alien film perfectly. The same quality work, undoubtedly, bleeds through into P.A.M.E.L.A.’s trailer.

Looking ahead to the future, Lead Developer Christian McDonald said the team would be gearing up for PAX South. By January of next year, the team aim to have a playable demo to show their new legion of fans.

P.A.M.E.L.A. is currently in alpha for Windows, and is getting the Greenlight treatment by Valve.

Certainly one to keep an eye on.

Hair Ice Phenomenon Finally Understood (Video)

A team of European researchers has recently uncovered the mysteries surrounding the formation of “hair ice.” Also known as “ice wool” or “frost beard,” hair ice typically amasses on dead wood, adopting the appearance of a piece of white candy floss.

In the early 1900s, meteorologist Alfred Wegener conjectured that the spectacular growth originated from some type of fungus – a hypothesis that was later supported by the work of researchers Gerhart Wagner and Christian Mätzler.

Wagner, who is now a retired professor, confirmed the relationship between the ice and fungus. After dipping rotten wood samples in fungicide or high temperature water, he found that the hair ice’s growth was retarded.

Now, researchers from Germany and Switzerland say they have discovered the exact fungus responsible for triggering these peculiar blooms – exidiopsis effusa. Struck by the beauty of hair ice, Mätzler, of the University of Bern’s Institute of Applied Physics, said the team started out conducting simple tests, like letting the structures melt away in their hands.

Working alongside chemist Diana Hofmann and biologist Gisela Preuß, Mätzler set about trying to understand the conditions necessary for cultivating hair ice.

In doing so, the group used microscopy to study samples collected from the forest regions of Brachbach, Germany. While Preuß identified a total of 11 species of fungi, only exidiopsis effusa colonized every sample. However, half of all samples contained e. effusa, exclusively.

Meanwhile, turning his attention to samples obtained from the Moosseedorf forest in Switzerland, Mätzler sought to understand the physics behind the phenomenon. His findings suggest that “ice separation” plays a fundamental role in the development of hair ice.

When liquid water makes contact with cold air, a frozen “crystallization nucleus” forms along the wood’s surface. These structures draw water out from the pores of the wood, eventually leading to the formation of 0.01 millimeter-thick strands of ice.

Parts of lignin and tannin – constituents that play a structural and protective role in vascular plants – were discovered in melted samples of hair ice. It’s believed the fungus may possess an arsenal of enzymes that are capable of eroding lignin. The fungus also stabilized the ice hair structures by secreting recrystallization inhibitors.

The study, entitled Evidence for biological shaping of hair ice, was published in a recent issue of the open access journal Biogeosciences.

Troy Baker Retweets Joke: Twitter Erupts In Anger

Critically acclaimed voice actor Troy Baker has been in the wars recently, after retweeting a joke on Twitter.

As far as the video game scene goes, Baker is about as ubiquitous as air.

He’s leant his diverse voice-acting talents to a slew of blockbuster hits, starring as Booker Dewitt in Bioshock Infinite, Joel from The Last Of Us, the Joker from Batman: Arkham Origins, Pagan Min from Far Cry 4, and Talion from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The list goes on and on.

Baker’s IMDB actor profile reveals a rather impressive resumé that showcases the work of a truly gifted artist. It’s hard to imagine most gamers not being able to find at least one title from their repertoire of games that features Troy Baker.

That being said, many gamers would, perhaps, not even realize that Baker has been responsible for bringing so many memorable video game characters to life; few of Baker’s character creations sound alike, and he consistently delivers awe-inspiring performances.

So, what set Twitter’s “angry juices” a-flowing? Well, the pitchforks were hurriedly sharpened, and the torches set ablaze, because Baker retweeted the following funny about Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner):

Brett Michaels looks like Mickey Rourke tried to become Caitlyn Jenner.

It’s worth pointing out that the above quote was originally penned by writer Brian W. Foster.

After being lampooned by the PC police force of Twitter, the 39-year-old offered the following rebuttal:

It’s a shame when there are people who would much rather choose to be offended than laugh.

With the derision continuing, Baker decided to call it quits, concluding his Twitter days with the following simple message: “I quit Twitter.”

And, with that, a single tweet was enough to condemn a man and his entire career. A hard-working and humble man – if you’ve seen any interview featuring Troy, you’d know this to be true – was chased from Twitter’s virtual world.

The name-calling commenced, and so did the all-too-predictable accusations of transphobia.

Troy Baker joke criticisms
Image source

Firstly, it strikes me as being somewhat ironic that some individuals tackle incidents of perceived abuse by being abusive themselves. For example, calling an individual a “PIECE OF S–T,” or a “F–king A–hole,” doesn’t serve to help anybody, and certainly doesn’t fall within the bounds of constructive criticism. We get it, you’re frustrated. But there are far better ways to articulate your opinions.

Secondly, we need to appreciate there are different styles of comedy that aren’t for everyone. People mock one another all the time, quite often in playful fashion. As an example, let’s take that Family Guy episode, where Seth McFarlane and co. take a jab at Steve Buscemi’s teeth.

Here’s Buscemi’s response to that scene:

And what about his response to the “Buscemi eyes” memes that have been circulating the Internet?

Think about that Justin Bieber Roast on Comedy Central. Bieber was overwhelmed by a torrent of biting jokes. He was ridiculed, called names and laughed at. What did Bieber do? He laughed throughout the whole thing, and – when the time came to address his critics – he served up a surprise apology. You can call into question the sincerity of his apology, but you cannot deny the guy’s bravery.

Frankly, in the realm of comedy, very little is off limits. If we take everything too literally and too seriously, we run the risk of turning this world into an incredibly boring place. Comedy is supposed to be about providing people with laughter and happiness.

While some comedians don’t necessarily always get it right, it’s not a wrongdoing that mandates self-flagellation and electroconvulsive therapy. In many ways, this newfound culture of “offense” can be seen as stifling and oppressive. If people become too afraid to even retweet a simple joke, what other basic freedoms is the Twitter-fearing public destined to lose?

And because of this unforgiving crowd, now, Baker’s 137,000+ Twitter followers are set to suffer. With the voice-actor no longer frequenting the social platform, fans miss out on updates and don’t get the opportunity to interact on a more intimate basis.

Should he apologize? In my opinion, no, he shouldn’t. If Troy meant to cause offense, we would be looking at an entirely different matter. He’s already stated that he was merely trying to make people “laugh.”

As for the charges of transphobia, I think Forbes’ Erik Kain says it best:

Humor is the great leveler, after all. It’s part of what makes us human, regardless of gender or race. If you can’t joke about a particular demographic, you’re basically saying that demographic isn’t equal. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty terrible.

Let’s face it, though, what joke doesn’t “offend” somebody, somewhere? Just because a person happens to offend someone, it doesn’t immediately turn them into some sort of hideous monster.

Jack Thompson Talks Video Game Violence, Censorship & Anita Sarkeesian

Video game activist Jack Thompson is a well-known figure among the gaming community. He’s taken aim at a slew of violent video game titles, as well as Howard Stern, the Florida Bar and Facebook.

Now, the BBC has officially announced Game Changer – an upcoming drama that takes a look at the development of Rockstar’s mega-hit franchise Grand Theft Auto. The 90-minute film will also provide a glimpse of Thompson’s role in campaigning against the NYC-based video game developer.

“At the vanguard of this crusade is the formidable campaigning lawyer Jack Thompson, a man determined to do whatever he can to stop the relentless rise of Grand Theft Auto,” states a BBC press release. “Game Changer (w/t) tells the story of an extraordinary chapter in the history of this iconic game, and reveals the major impact it has had on our cultural landscape.”

Bill Paxton is set to play former attorney Jack Thompson, while Daniel Radcliffe will fill the boots of Rockstar CEO Sam Houser.

After we penned a previous article about Thompson, he sent us an email to clarify a few points. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions, on topics ranging from video game violence and censorship to his opinion of Anita Sarkeesian.

So, without further ado…

VGN: Do you play video games? If so, any favorites?

Jack Thompson: No.

VGN: In your own opinion, what censorship restrictions would be suitable for the U.S.?

Jack Thompson: I’m opposed to censorship, which is prior restraint, which is unconstitutional in our country. All I have ever tried to do regarding GTA or any other age-rated game is get the industry to abide by the age ratings. That is the way it works in the UK. That is all I have tried to do here.

VGN: Do you think violent TV and movies contribute towards real world violence? What about violent imagery presented in the news and broadcast on social networks (e.g. ISIS beheadings)?

Jack Thompson: I believe consumption of violent entertainment numbs one to it and thus desensitizes and thus makes it more acceptable. The first time you drink Scotch, it takes horrible, then you get used to it, and like the high as well. The problem with violence in entertainment these days is that it is promoted as normal and in fact desirable. Thus, there is a school of thought to which the entertainment industry subscribes that violence sells, and it does. Just ask Tarantino. His violence is often violence for violence’s sake. That I object to. Video games are not just consumption of violence. The player is the virtual reality perpetrator of it, which breaks down the inhibition to do it in real life much more quickly than passive consumption of a movie. This is why so many of the school shooters are gamers.

VGN: Video games, in general, are becoming more accessible. Games can be purchased in-store, digitally downloaded (legally or otherwise) and streamed; they can also be purchased from big e-commerce sites like Amazon; free-to-play games are readily available from a variety of sources; and there’s an uptick in mobile gaming.

With information so readily available, and communication technologies becoming increasingly advanced, is it even possible to stop individuals from accessing violent video games?

Jack Thompson: If the industry wanted to abide by the age ratings it could, even as to games bought via the Internet, just as e-commerce in alcohol and tobacco and firearms is regulated as to the age of buyers. But the industry does not want to, and so it does not. Maybe it will take Strauss Zelnick’s grandchildren being gunned down by a gamer to get something done. Talk about somebody who has blood on his hands for the sake of financial gain. Shameful.

VGN: What role should parents play in policing the forms of media their children consume?

Jack Thompson: Parents are the most important line of defense, but what I showed when my war with this industry began is that Best Buy, and all other big box stores, were not age verifying. The US government confirmed I was right. It is better now because of my efforts, but it is still woeful, especially as to the utter refusal of BestBuy, Target, etc., to verify the age of Internet buyers. They ask the age, but don’t verify. Ridiculous.

VGN: Do you think children have the upper hand over their parents when it comes to sidestepping censorship measures? If there exists a generational divide in society’s understanding of technology, how do parents combat this?

Jack Thompson: They tell their kids that they want to see everything they are consuming. Everything. If the kid gets caught not showing them, he loses his digital entertainment privileges.

VGN: You’ve previously stated the following:

In every school shooting, we find that kids who pull the trigger are video gamers.

Couldn’t similar logic be used to frame movies in the same light (i.e. every school shooting, we find that kids who pull the trigger watch movies)?

Jack Thompson: Every kid who kills in schools also wears socks. Socks don’t cause the shootings. Movies in this country are age-rated like games. Why? Because our democracy has decided that adult entertainment is harmful to kids. I didn’t come up with this. This has been the settled societal conclusion for about 400 years.

VGN: As previously reported, there appears to be no overwhelming consensus in support of a “cause-and-effect” relationship between video game violence and the real world violence of kids who play them. Looking specifically at juveniles, some studies show this link, while other studies do not.

In your view, what is the most compelling piece of evidence that proves this relationship?

Jack Thompson: The brain scan studies at Indiana University and Harvard that show violent entertainment is consumed in a different part of the brain in young people than in adults–the party that leads to copycatting. It’s simple neuroscience. Nobody has refuted that. Nobody. It is the same brain scan science that led the US Supreme Court to strike down the juvenile death penalty. They’re a bunch of rightwing morons, right? The gay marriage decision would indicate not.

VGN: The methodologies of some of the afore-mentioned studies have come under fire. This is especially true of laboratory-based experiments.

To paraphrase Al Gore, do you think the “science is settled,” or do we need to consider different research models before drawing conclusions?

Jack Thompson: The science is settled. See above.

VGN: What do you think to the contention that already violent people are attracted to violent video games? If violent video games didn’t exist, is it possible that something else would inspire this type of person (e.g. books, TV, movies)?

Jack Thompson: Violent entertainment is one of many causes. When they combine in one person, you get a massacre. Those who are at risk are out there, and the game industry knows it, knows that copycatting is occurring, especially in young people, and they couldn’t care less.

VGN: There have been reports that suggest video game violence might actually reduce the incidence of real world crime. What do you think to the hypothesis that some violent video games provide a primitive outlet for “blowing off steam” – a catharsis of sorts?

Jack Thompson: Bull crap.

VGN: Back in 2006, a Florida judge ruled against banning Rockstar video game Bully – a game you once described as a “Columbine simulator.” In a separate interview with 1UP , you said the military was using games to make “killing simulators,” and al Qaeda was training troops using Full Spectrum Warrior.

What are the primary similarities and differences between violent video games and military training sims?

Jack Thompson: Not much. The Institute for Creative Technologies at USC is a collaboration between the DOD and the game industry to design military simulators and commercial games. Frightening. The games a) suppress the inhibition to kill, and b) make the killing in real reality more efficient. You can leave the “appetite to kill” issue aside and focus only on how games make one a more efficient killer, and that is reason enough to do something about their availability, especially to kids. Forget the incitement to violence issue altogether if you like. Is anyone seriously willing to say that the military is using virtual reality training video games because it had no effect on their skills in a real life killing setting?

VGN: In 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors was unconstitutional. How do you feel about this form of entertainment being protected by the First Amendment?

Jack Thompson: Justice Scalia, who wrote the opinion, has been a libertarian whacko. He said there is no evidence that games have any harmful effects on young people. I think he must have consumed the evidence in a medical marijuana case before he wrote that opinion. He is out of his mind on that issue.

VGN: Some people argue that violent video games have led to an “epidemic” in youth violence, despite juvenile violent crime in the U.S. being at a 30-year low. How do you interpret this trend?

Jack Thompson: Youth violence is up. Look at the most recent statistics. If you don’t believe them, then here is a question: How much lower would it be without games? There are multiple factors at work here.  Society is not static as to all of those factors. And by the way, ask the parents of those killed at Columbine if they particularly care what the macro-statistics are on youth crime. All they know is that Klebold and Harris trained on Doom. Their kids are dead because of that, and the crime stats are not particularly interesting to them.

VGN: In 2001, after blocking Indianapolis laws that sought to regulate public arcade games, Federal Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner offered the following appraisal:

To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.

What do you think of the notion that kids need violent depictions to “cope” with society when they grow up?

Jack Thompson: I think I need a stiff drink to cope with idiot judges like Posner, that’s what I think. Let’s show kids video of bestiality, so they can better “cope” with it. What a jerk. What is he doing now, writing Donald Trump’s speeches?

VGN: I previously penned an article comparing you to Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian. In an email, you told me you “couldn’t possibly disagree with her more about certain things.” What are those disagreements?

Jack Thompson: She’s liberal politically. I am a conservative. She also is all bent out of shape about female stereotyping. Not a big problem when it comes to the more grotesque consequences of kids consuming games. She also tries to curry favor from the industry, as if she were some kind of flirt, speaking of stereotypes. If you are fighting with an industry, you don’t accept their awards and try to be some sort of heroine to that industry. Pathetic, really.

She’s not a warrior on the issue. She’s a self-promoter, and I think everyone has pretty much figured that out.

Also, she needs to stop whining about how badly treated she has been by the industry. I got disbarred and my life threatened repeatedly. When she gets the front window of her house shot at like I did, then I’ll listen to her whining a bit more. The pioneers take the arrows, honey. Deal with it.

VGN: What is the one misconception you frequently see about yourself in the media that you want clearing up?

Jack Thompson: I am not for censorship. I am not for banning games. I am for enforcing the age restrictions. That’s it. Because teen brains are neurobiologically different than adult games. It explains the copycatting.

This reasonable stance is why Bill Paxton recently told the Wall Street Journal about his portrayal of me that “Thompson has a point.”  By the way, finally, when I address games, many wind up agreeing with me. That’s why they loved me at the Screw Attack convention in Dallas a number of years ago. Once gamers understand what I really want, they get it.

Marine Plankton Illuminate Clouds and Shield Earth From Radiation

While cloudy skies aid in controlling Earth’s climate, researchers have yet to fully understand the principles behind cloud formation. However, the scientific community has now moved one step closer to correcting this.

Researchers from the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have discovered that tiny organisms inhabiting large stretches of the ocean’s water column, called plankton, play a crucial role in illuminating clouds and shielding the planet from radiation.

The team found that plankton produces organic matter and airborne gases that “seed cloud droplets.” In turn, this leads to much brighter clouds that more readily reflect the sun’s rays.

The researchers explained the phenomenon in their latest paper: “Atmospheric aerosols, suspended solid and liquid particles, act as nucleation sites for cloud drop formation, affecting clouds and cloud properties—ultimately influencing the cloud dynamics, lifetime, water path, and areal extent that determine the reflectivity (albedo) of clouds.”

According to Daniel McCoy, a University of Washington student of atmospheric sciences, during the summer months, the cloud formations over the Southern Ocean help to reflect more sunlight. McCoy and colleagues claim there would be halve the concentration of cloud droplets, in the event we had a “biologically dead ocean.”

In collaboration with study co-author Daniel Grosvenor, McCoy first embarked upon his research in 2014. The pair investigated the cloud formation over ice-free stretches of the Southern Ocean, using round-the-clock information from NASA satellites.

Ocean life contributes towards cloud production
Dimethyl sulfide and organic matter from phytoplankton contributes towards formation of cloud droplets. Image ciredit: Daniel McCoy / University of Washington.

Using said data, the researchers were surprised to find that the clouds in these regions of water were primarily composed of tiny droplets in the summertime. According to existing theories, the droplets should be relatively large in the summer, because the calmer seas should cast off less salt from sea spray.

This is where co-lead author Susannah Burrows, of the Pacific Northwest National Lab, came into the picture. Burrows used a new ocean model to determine the role of biological matter in cloud formation.

She found that Sulfitobacter and phytoplankton emit sulfide gases that seed cloud droplets, while organic matter on the water’s surface forms a scummy layer that gets blasted into the atmosphere by the choppy oceans. Representing tiny pieces of dead plants and animals, these droplets are wafted into the air.

Burrows took the opportunity to explain the ensuing chemical processes that take place in the Earth’s atmosphere:

“The dimethyl sulfide produced by the phytoplankton gets transported up into higher levels of the atmosphere and then gets chemically transformed and produces aerosols further downwind, and that tends to happen more in the northern part of the domain we studied. In the southern part of the domain there is more effect from the organics, because that’s where the big phytoplankton blooms happen.”

The study, entitled Natural aerosols explain seasonal and spatial patterns of Southern Ocean cloud albedo, was published in the July 17 issue of the journal Science Advances.

Top image credit: Stewart Baird / Flickr