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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - A Book Review

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="312"]Ready Player One by Ernest Cline Ready Player One by Ernest Cline[/caption]

"Want to play a game?" If you know not only the movie from which that line came, but also the pacing and pitch variations of its delivery, and can say it just that way, this book is absolutely for you. If you love Star Castle and Battlezone, this book is for you. If you remember Hawk the Slayer with fondness, or even at all, this book is for you. I knew I was going to love this book when that movie figured prominently in one of the protagonist's conversations. Here is the publishers synopsis of the story:

It's the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune -- and remarkable power -- to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday's riddles are based in the pop culture he loved -- that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday's icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes's oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt -- among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life -- and love -- in the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.

This summary doesn't do the book justice. It looks like it was written by a PR wonk, and a non-gamer at that. Here's a gamer oriented summary from me.

In the year 2044, society has become a landscape of the haves, comprising a few small percentage of the population, and the have nots, whose only break from the drudgery of a life without enough energy, food or jobs is the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, known simply as the OASIS. It is the one place where they are on equal footing with everyone else, and can succeed or fail based on their own merits. It is the ultimate virtual reality evolution of the social Internet. If World of Warcraft, Second Life and Minecraft are single celled organisms, the OASIS would be the Bengal tiger, blue whale or human being into which they evolve. It is into this world Wade Watts is born in Oklahoma City, orphaned by the time he enters school, and struggles to simply exist. It is a world that cares nothing for the average person. Where human life is the cheapest commodity on the market.

When Wade is about to enter high school the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies. He has no heirs. He has never even had a girl friend. So in his will, a virtual recording played to the entire OASIS via Halliday's avatar Anorak, he promises to bestow all his wealth and power, as well as responsibility for Gregarious Simulations Incorporated, the company he founded to run the OASIS, on the one person who can locate the computer easter egg he has hidden within the OASIS during the last decade of his life. To attain the prize, the winner has to decipher three riddles, find three keys to three different gates, and defeat the challenges within each gate to obtain the next clue - until at last they can obtain the prize. Millions immediately take to the task of finding Halliday's Egg. These egg hunters quickly become known as simply gunters, and their obsession becomes a new way of life around the world, changing the very culture they live in into the jeans and t-shirt wearing geeks of Halliday's teenage years during the 1980s.

But the haves will not have any of it. The largest corporation in America, Innovative Online Industries, or IOI for short, has tried to pwn the OASIS for years. But Halliday and OASIS co-founder and childhood friend Ogden "Og" Morrow made certain the OASIS is free to access and has ironclad privacy protections. If you do not want your real identity revealed, it will not be revealed. You can even register under an assumed identity when you creat your avatar if you wish, and many do to IOI's ire. In IOI's world, the OASIS is too big an asset to be free, and people have no right to privacy. So when the contest is announced by Anorak after Halliday's death, IOI creates its Oology division to obtain the egg at any cost. The ultimate hostile takeover. Those who work for IOI have six digit employee numbers by which they are referred, so the world soon begins referring to them as sixers. Chief of the sixers is Nolan Sorrento, and he commands the sixer army with an iron fist and hobnail boots.

Five years go by without anyone deciphering the first clue, and finding the first key, a key of copper. Then one day, while sitting in class, gunter Wade Watts has an epiphany. This leads him to discover the location of the first key. He conquers the challenges laid before him and obtains the key, which places him at the top of the scoreboard Halliday created on his OASIS account to track the contest. The entire world knows the moment it happens, and from that point on Wade's life will never be the same. To all the gunters of the world he becomes an instant celebrity. To the sixers and Nolan Sorrento he becomes the biggest threat to their plans for OASIS domination.

And thus it begins. With other gunters hot on his tail, and the sixers using hacked immersion rigs and every cheat they can manage with their vast resources, Wade must use his wits, knowledge of 80's culture and understanding of James Halliday's life to decipher the remaining clues and get to Halliday's Egg first. It seems a straightforward quest, but nothing in life is as straightforward as the games he loves, and extra lives don't come with birth. In the biggest game of all, Wade is as clueless as the sixer drones he holds in contempt. But it's never over until the fat lady sings, and Wade didn't get to the first gate by not knowing how to adapt his gameplay to new challenges. With little to lose and everything to gain, he shows everyone what it really means to be l33t.

As a read that summary, I realize that it doesn't do justice to Ready Player One either. But I doubt any summary really can. It's a book you have to read in order to appreciate. The level of detail Ernest Cline uses in order to bring the culture of my youth to life is incredible. What appeals to me most about this book is not the character development or the plot. Those are good, but to be honest I've read better. What really appeals to me is the fact Ernest Cline nails the essence of early gamer-geek culture so well. His characters could be my best gaming friends Terry, Chuck and Brad. Just the way he describes this culture informs me he lived it - just like I did. With younger generations, the Internet and gaming consoles have come to epitomize the essence of gaming. But in the beginning, computer games were only a part of being a gamer geek. The best computer games were arcade games that cost a quarter to play and you had to walk down to the bowling alley to play them. The best free to play games were the weekly Dungeons and Dragons sessions we held in our basements. Our inspiration came from Star Trek, Tolkien and Heavy Metal - the movie, not the music genre. In that age, girl gamers were revered, not sexualized and treated like property. And trolls were monsters you battled for loot. No one ever wanted to become a troll - a fate only handed out as the worst of curses. Ernest Cline knows this intimately. He proved it by writing Ready Player One.

If you are like me and want (crave?) a reminder of what the "good old days" were like, you'll really enjoy Ready Player One. If you are a millennial and want to understand your gamer dad better, you should read this book. Heck, if you're married to an 80s gamer you may want to read this book. It could explain so much. It's fun no matter if you don't get the references, and it might just help you to understand why we are compelled to learn and repeat Princes Bride verbatim. If reading really isn't your thing, you can buy the audiobook or wait for the movie. Warner Brothers bought the film rights in 2010. The screenplay is written and production is under way. I can't wait to see it on the big screen. Perhaps by then Oculus VR will have gotten their act together and I might even be able to watch it Wade Watts style. That would be so cool. What else can I say? Oh yeah. High five!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Price of Becoming Elite

There is a point beyond known space where even the pirates dare not go. The maps of explored systems end and it's as if "Here There Be Monsters" is recorded in navigation databases. The pirates huddle within a few hundred light years of known space, and even when you carry no cargo they insist on trying to murder you. Though you show no ill will toward them, their sociopathic intent is quickly visited upon you simply for being in the same system as they are.

I don't remember which system it happened in, but during one such interdiction my canopy cracked as I was forced out of super cruise. If I'd have purchased an automated field-maintenance unit it would not have been such a big deal. But when you are hundreds of light years from the nearest station, flying with canopy cracks is unnerving. Even though beyond a certain point the pirates do not follow, there are other monsters - and they are just as deadly.

These monsters are completely unaware of our presence, or the effect they have upon us. They simply exist as they have since birth and will continue to do into deep time, long after we are recycled back into them. One such monster is the close binary COL 285 Sector PJ-Q D5-76. It dances to its own music; oblivious to the small, damaged fleck of metal that suddenly appears between it's two halves. You know, the canopy of a Cobra Mark III does not afford a broad field of view, but when the field of view you do have is filled with a Class G and a Class M star, it really reminds one of how insignificant we are flitting among these nearly eternal giants. These giants are as dangerous as any pirate, though not out of malice. The danger came simply because I was curious, and curiosity sometimes kills.

But not this time. This time I blurted an explicative, and through sheer luck piloted my stricken craft into a safe trajectory between the two behemoths: though they cooked me well done. Now with a cracked canopy and 81% hull damage, and a computer full of valuable survey data, I decided to head back into known space, some 200 light years behind me, by the fastest route possible.

[gallery columns="2" size="large" ids="4417,4418"]

I arrived at Stokes Camp, a civilian outpost, on February 19, 3301 at 03:24 hours. There I was able to sell my 190,930 CR worth of survey data. Within that data I discovered a few planets other explorers had missed, but not many. With only an intermediate discovery scanner it's easy to miss distant worlds. However, that did not prevent me from exploring three new systems that no one had ever surveyed before. And boy howdy, was COL 285 Sector PJ-Q D5-53 valuable. It brought in the most of the 50 or so systems I surveyed: a whopping 38,255 CR!

[gallery size="large" ids="4421,4420,4419"]

And that was before I got my discovery bonus for being the first person to survey the system. PJ-Q D5-53 6 alone - a high metal content world with a carbon dioxide atmosphere suitable for terraforming - earned me a 9486 CR bonus. All total, my bonus credits came to just over 28 thousand, raising the gross profit for my little foray into the unknown to approximately 220k credits, not including the data I'd previously sold. Shiny.

Of course, I could have made more money with a lucrative trade run. That 220k credits would have taken me about 10 round trips between Jenner Hub and Gidzenko Ring. Time-wise that would have been about three hours game play. But, it wouldn't have been nearly as thrilling as charting a course into the unknown. :)

Nevertheless, before I head back I will be doing the grind. It would be more profitable and less dangerous to have a ship that could get through the pirate halo around known space much more quickly. An Asp with a 50 light year jump range would be just the thing needed. It would also get you to unexplored areas much more quickly, thus maximizing your return on investment. Also, any really serious explorer should have not only a surface scanner, but also an advanced discovery scanner, high-end fuel scoop and an automated field-maintenance unit for those binary cases where both options are potentially lethal. All totaled, a premium exploration ship is going to cost in the neighborhood of 10 million credits. My current net worth isn't even a third that amount. There is much hard work in my future, but that's okay. I understand the importance of hard work.

[gallery columns="2" size="large" ids="4424,4423"]

Perhaps with the imminent release of patch 1.2 as reported by PC Gamer, the grind will become less time-consuming. I especially like the idea of being able to accomplish large missions with multiple runs. I am again impressed with Frontier's understanding that some of us really would prefer to succeed on our own merits, without the assistance of others.

Sammarco assures that solo players aren't being cut out of the game's development plans. "Lone wolves will have to be able take on those dangerous encounters at great risk, and deliver those massive amounts of cargo using multiple trips. Elite: Dangerous is playable alone, and we always have those lone players in mind when designing new features."

Emphasis mine. You see, it isn't that Elite: Dangerous is boring. It's that it takes a lot of hard work to earn the credits and rankings necessary to move beyond the mundane. If you think it should be easy to jump right into an Anaconda, or even an Asp, then you really don't understand what it means to be Elite. Understanding the correlation between hard work and accomplishment is what Elite has always been about. It was like that 30 years ago, and I am happy to see it is still like that today. If you can't accept the premise, perhaps you should consider moving on to a less challenging game. I will think less of you, but what does that really matter in the great scheme of having fun? ;)

Fly Careful

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What If? - A Serious Book Review of Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="260"]What If? by Randall Munroe What If? by Randall Munroe[/caption]

What If?, by Randall Munroe (ISBN-10: 0544272994, ISBN-13: 978-0544272996,) the creator of the hugely popular xkcd web comic, is one of those books you shouldn't take too seriously - except for the answers. In this book there are 63 scientific answers to some of the wackiest questions readers of xkcd could think up. In pure Randall Munroe style, he delves into not only the direct answers to these questions, but also the other 'what if?' scenarios the questions imply. Anyone familiar with Randall Munroe's work on xkcd will understand intuitively what I mean by that comment. If you don't, let's just say that Randall can be absurdly thorough in his answers. The more absurd the question, the more likelihood the answer will go to absurd lengths.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="250"]What If? the Blog What If? the Blog[/caption]

This book is not all completely new questions and answers. It is a compilation of answers already made on Randall's What If? blog consolidated here for easy perusal (49% of the book's content,) and new questions never before seen (the remaining 51%.) That 51% alone should make this book a winning choice for anyone who is looking to give a xkcd fan an excellent gift. As enticement, at the bottom of this review I have listed the section headings for each question - with an asterisk beside my personal favorites.

Gifting is, in fact, how I came into possession of my hardback copy. The book is also available in paperback and electronic formats, but you will be missing out on the full effect should you go those routes (seriously, hardback books have covers - hint, hint.) For one thing, I'm not certain the electronic versions come with Randall's accompanying drawings, which are half the humor in many of the answers. They are also quite necessary to some of his explanations because to see a thing is to understand a thing. That alone would lead me to believe they must be included in electronic copies, but I've never seen an electronic book include illustrations. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? His depictions of the scientific conclusions in classic xkcd stick-figure graphics serve to bring them into sharper focus than the explanations alone. And I know for a fact the audio version can not contain these gems, though Wil Wheaton is the narrator and that counts for something.

And as always, Randall Munroe does a superb job of researching his answers to give the best, most logically consistent answers these patently illogical questions do not deserve. At the back of the book is his acknowledgements section. After that is his reference section. Together they are six (6) pages long, with five (5) of those pages the references he utilized in his answers broken down by question. That alone gives me hours upon hours of reading up on my favorite answers. And if you are scientifically inclined as I am, you owe it to yourself to look at these references. Some of them are as thought-provoking as Randall's answers. Others are audio-visual joys like the YouTube video that goes with Glass Half Empty.

But wait, there's more. Interspersed among the questions with answers, are what Randall calls "Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox." There is an even dozen of these sections, and the questions are often bizarre and definitely cringe worthy. And as with all his answers, when provided he gives full credit to the asker. For example, the first question in the first of these sections is, "Would it be possible to get your teeth to such a cold temperature that they would shatter upon drinking a hot cup of coffee?" by Shelby Hebert. Thanks Shelby. I'm with Randall on this one. GAH!

This book is best enjoyed as a nightstand book IMO. At the end of a long day running the rat race, I would lay down in bed, turn on the nightstand lamp, turn off the overhead light, and spend 20 or 30 minutes reading two or three of the answers at a time. Whatever my troubles from the day, I'd quickly be chuckling, and sleep would find me with a smile on my face each night I did this. It was easy to rest peacefully, even contemplating what would happen of all the DNA disappeared from my body.

What If? by Randall Munroe is well written, well edited, humorous and even insightful. It explains the effect of a cause in ways that anyone can understand. It is science without being scientifically stilted. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone. It is a must have for any true fan of xkcd. And, don't be a miser. Buy the hardback edition and put it in your library collection. For certain you'll find out what's in a cover (hint, hint.) If nothing else, it'll be a great conversation piece the next time you have company over.

As promised, here are the 56 answer section headings:

  1. Global Windstorm

  2. Relativistic Baseball*

  3. Spent Fuel Pool

  4. New York-Style Time Machine

  5. Soul Mates

  6. Laser Pointer

  7. Periodic Wall of the Elements*

  8. Everybody Jump

  9. A Mole of Moles

  10. Hair Dryer

  11. The Last Human Light

  12. Machine-gun Jetpack

  13. Rising Steadily

  14. Orbital Submarine

  15. Short-Answer Section (contains 7 one or two or four-very-short paragraph answers)

  16. Lightning

  17. Human Computer

  18. Little Planet

  19. Steak Drop

  20. Hockey Puck

  21. Common Cold

  22. Glass Half Empty*

  23. Alien Astronomers

  24. No More DNA*

  25. Interplanetary Cessna

  26. Yoda

  27. Flyover States

  28. Falling with Helium

  29. Everybody Out

  30. Self-Fertilization*

  31. High Throw

  32. Lethal Neutrinos*

  33. Speed Bump

  34. Lost Immortals

  35. Orbital Speed

  36. FedEx Bandwidth

  37. Free Fall

  38. Sparta

  39. Drain the Oceans*

  40. Drain the Oceans: Part II

  41. Twitter

  42. Lego Bridge

  43. Longest Sunset

  44. Random Sneeze Call

  45. Expanding Earth

  46. Weightless Arrow

  47. Sunless Earth

  48. Updating the Printed Wikipedia

  49. Facebook of the Dead

  50. Sunset on the British Empire

  51. Stirring Tea

  52. All the Lightning

  53. Raindrop

  54. SAT Guessing*

  55. Neutron Bullet*

  56. Richter 15*

PS: If you've got an absurd but non-worrying question you can submit it to the What If? blog using the link at the bottom of the blog page. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

All Your Mysteries are now Mine

Since committing my gross complacency failure last week, I've managed to make up the lost credits and finish outfitting my Cobra Mark III for exploration. I have crossed 113.52 light years with it, exploring systems as I went. I only have 901.2 light years to go to reach my first objective system. Here is the load out of my Cobra.

[gallery columns="2" size="large" ids="4384,4385"]

As I'm an explorer, not a fighter, my armaments are for defense and last resorts. They do, however, get the job done. I've been interdicted plenty over the last 100 or so light years, and most I've been able to avoid. I've had to blow up a couple of fools. I ran like a scalded dog from a Viper that had my name written on every shot. I didn't take any significant damage - 96% hull - but he was the only pirate who's ever dropped my shields and he did it in two passes. There is no profit for me in combat, and I'd already scanned enough of the system to pay for my fuel, so I left him to rule the vacuum.

As for my internals, I'm running mostly C rated components. I could have gone with D rated components, which are lighter and increase jump range. But my Cobra will never be an Asp and I'd rather have the increased durability than the jump range. The B rated sensors I bought when I was a new pilot and didn't know any better. I thought they might give me better resolution, and I suppose they do, but not that I'd notice. My real splurge here is my power coupling. I went top of the line because power is life in deep space, everything else is just insurance. One module I haven't upgraded yet is my life support, and I'll be doing that before I leave my current station.

One reason for the upgrade is that I'm just about to the edge of named space. What I mean is there are two more named systems on my route, and after that there is zero information on any of the systems: they are just sector designations and numbers. That means I won't know where or when I'll be able to dock again. Up until now there has been a named system about every three or four jumps. I could land, repair if necessary and refuel. On the initial leg of my journey I just bought fuel. Yesterday I purchased a C rated class 3 fuel scoop to replace one of my cargo bays. The module housing is rated class 4, but the class 3 was affordable and fills my tanks after each jump in a matter of seconds, keeping me topped off at all times. That is, providing the star I've just jumped to is suitable for scooping. Otherwise, I have enough fuel in my tanks to cover about 200 light years without refueling. It's enough to get me to an appropriate star.

So how's it been working out money wise you want to know? Well, it isn't as lucrative as trading. It's also a lot more dangerous. I've scanned 56 systems and been interdicted in at least a third of them. In one system I was interdicted three times by three different pirates. It's frustrating to be mostly done with a surface scan only to have it interrupted by an idiot who can't see I have NO CARGO, but it's never boring, unlike trading. So making money by exploration is a slow process, and don't even think about trying to make it work without a surface scanner. That is required equipment if you're in it to at least cover your costs. I also only have an intermediate discovery scanner. That limits me to 1000 light seconds range. It's omnidirectional, which helps, but if I don't get any planets on my first scan it's just not worth the time to go try to find them. It's easy to lose 30 minutes looking for a gas giant that just isn't going to pay all that much. It's better to jump into a system, skim the corona to top off your tanks, and while that's running activate the d-scan. If it comes back blank, move on to the next system. There are plenty of stars in the galaxy. When you find a good one, then you invest the time to scan it all, or at least as much as the pirates will let you. Over the last dozen or so hours of game play, here are the two systems where I've earned the most credits.

[gallery columns="2" size="large" ids="4388,4387"]

The first is a T Tauri star; very young with a lot of metal rich and high metal content planets. I actually did not scan the two closets planets as this was the system were the Viper interdicted me. Did I mention I ran like a scalded dog? I could have gotten another 6000 credits in all likelihood, but loosing my ship would have been a high price to pay. Not to mention I wouldn't have gotten the nearly 46k credits I did get.

The second system is a standard Class M star. What makes it valuable is the one world in the system that is suitable for terraforming. What makes this system fascinating is the sixth planet. It is a gas giant with ammonia-based life in its atmosphere! I didn't even know that had been written into the game. I'd never payed much attention to gas giants. When I saw the survey results, I did a little command chair dance. Yes, I was happy for the credits, but discovering non-human life was a thrill I hadn't expected. :D

So far I've not discovered anything that someone else hasn't already scouted. That's okay, there are plenty of stars in the galaxy. I just need to keep heading further away. I am making my way up our spiral arm, as my Cobra lacks the jump distance to travel between arms. That's okay too. That means I'll be jumping into more systems and making more money whether anyone has been there previously or not. And I'm doing fine. I've attained the rank of Scout and by the time I get to my first objective I'm sure it'll be considerable higher. For the record, here's where I stand after my first week of exploration.

[gallery size="large" ids="4390,4392,4391"]

Fly careful.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Of HOTAS Boards and Lessons Learned

Have you ever been flying along, singing a song and suddenly space around you goes all crackly blue as an interdiction vortex tries to scramble your frame drive? Sure you have. The next thing you know your ship shutters into non-relativistic space and someone is taking pot shots at you. It happens to all of us at some point. So you transfer energy from your engines to your weapons and get to work. You work your throttle back, you work throttle forward, feeling out the maneuverability sweet spot to give you just the edge you need. All the while you're putting the stick through gyrations that'd make a whirling dervish green with envy. Everything is just starting to go your way when it happens. POP! POP! Just as you get your reticle on your nemesis the damn suction cups come loose and your stick suddenly tips, or skitters sideways on your desk. This on top of the fact that every time you push or pull the throttle, it too threatens to slide forwards and backwards; undoing your ability to turn inside your adversary. It's almost impossible to make the fine adjustments necessary for assured victory as you find yourself pulling down so hard on both the throttle and the stick assembly to keep them from dancing around that your muscles threaten to cramp. Okay, that last was perhaps a bit of hyperbole but you know what I'm on about.

It's a well-known fact the lightweight plastic housing of most reasonably priced Hands On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) accessories don't have enough mass to remain in position during evasive maneuvers. Most such devices come with suction cups you can use, but they are almost as bad as just using the rubber pads on the bottom of the HOTAS. HOTAS manufactures understand the issue. The Thrustmaster Warthog is made metal, providing a resting mass equal to the force you have to place on a less weighty HOTAS to keep them in their place. The Warthog stick alone weighs nearly 7.5 pounds. The throttle assembly is nine! But let's face it, most of us are not going to drop $500 on a HOTAS just because it's heavy enough to stay in place. I know I have no desire to spend that sort of moolah on a HOTAS. I love Elite: Dangerous, but not that much. Less costly HOTAS are all made of plastic; that's why they don't cost $500. The manufacturers of these less expensive models understand you are making a sacrifice to save money, so they have made sure to mold mounting holes through the body of the HOTAS. All you need to do is buy some screws, put them through the holes and screw the HOTAS into your desktop.

What? You say you're not going to ruin your desktop just to hold a HOTAS in place? I don't blame you. My brother-in-law is a cabinet-maker and many years ago made me a custom computer desk with lovely routered edges, a cherry finish and a premium long-lasting Formica surface. There is no way I'm putting holes in that! Fortunately that is not necessary. What you need is a HOTAS board. This is an appropriately sized piece of wood on which to mount your HOTAS. The board simply lies on top of your desk and provides the mass and friction necessary to render your HOTAS practically immovable. It's something I've been meaning to do since buying myself a HOTAS for my birthday, and Superbowl Sunday I finally got around to doing it.

I created my HOTAS board from a 34.5" by 12 " piece of 3/4" plywood I had lying around the shop. The dimensions are not happenstance though. When you place the two sections of my HOTAS on either side of my Mad Catz v.7 keyboard, they are precisely 34" wide. I wanted my board to be not much longer than that. I just lucked out to have a piece that length available. The 12" depth ensures the keyboard can rest between the throttle and stick easily without threatening to drop off the front or back edge.

But dimensions alone do not make a great HOTAS board. The board needs to be thick enough for mounting screws to bite deeply into without going through. That is why I recommend no less than a 3/4" board. With a half-inch board, you run the risk of the screw tips penetrating all the way out the bottom or, if you elect to use shorter screws, pulling right out of your board. At this point we need to talk about the screws themselves. I used 2.5" #8 wood screws. I've a Saitek X52 Pro and the bases are 2 inches thick. The board is of course three quarters inches thick. The X52 Pro has inset mounting holes designed so the flat top of the cone-shaped head of a wood screw is flush with the top of the assembly housing when fully screwed down. This makes the actual screw depth of the housing a smidgen less than 2". When you do the math, that leaves my wood screws a smidgen more than a half-inch of bite through several layers of good plywood. Between that bite depth and the 5.5 lb weight of my Douglas fir plywood, my X52 Pro probably isn't going anywhere.

However, there are two more things you need to take into consideration. The first is that most desk tops are smooth and slick. Even a five and a half pound piece of plywood can, and will, slide on most desktops. And though this is not as catastrophic for Internet spaceship combat as having your stick suddenly tilt 45 degrees, it will be catastrophic to the finish of your desktop in just a few weeks. The second thing you need to consider is wood splinters. Through the course of general wear and tear, uncovered plywood will splinter. Most boards will, given enough time. You don't want your unprotected skin riding the edges of an unprotected board.

To stop the board from sliding, the solution is to treat it like a rug. Rugs on hardwood floors slide. Anyone who's ever floor surfed to their mother's chagrin understands the principle. So civilization has invented grip padding. You can buy it everywhere: home improvement stores, hardware stores, department stores, Amazon. I even saw a bolt of it at JoAnn Fabrics yesterday when I was out with the misses! This grid-pattern rubberized matting causes so much friction between the carpet and the floor, it has eliminated any hope of rug surfing ever becoming an Olympic sport. If you put this on the bottom of your HOTAS board, it will not move. I guarantee it. 1

As for the inevitable problem of splinters, I recommend you wrap your board in duct tape. It's cheap. It's available everywhere grip padding is sold. And it comes in the most delightful colors and designer patterns these days. You won't need much, because you only have to cover the top and edges of the board, wrapping the duct tape around to the bottom just enough to hold the grip pad in place. Be creative. Make your board a statement about you. It won't cost any more than a custom skin for your internet spaceship, and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you did it. It's fun!

So that's how you build a HOTAS board. And since a picture is worth a thousand words (or 1200 words in my case :o ,) here is what my finished HOTAS board looks like:

[gallery size="large" ids="4378,4379,4377"]

So yeah, I've been enjoying the hell out of my new setup. I no longer worry about keeping the HOTAS in place. Dogfights in my Cobra Mark III have become a real pleasure, and I've not lost a fight yet. But I can no longer say I have not lost a ship. Last night I was feeling pretty cocky. I got a really, really nice delivery mission off the Bulletin Board. It was going to give me enough credits to finish outfitting my ship for exploration and leave me several hundred thousand credits in the black. Finally my hard work was paying off!

[caption id="attachment_4380" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Simple Delivery Simple Delivery[/caption]

Boltzmann Gateway was a short jump away. It's a peaceful High Tech system, and the station is only about 600 light seconds from the NAV point. It was a cake walk. I boosted out of  mass lock range of Gidzenko Ring, charged my Hyperdrive and jumped into LTT 7548. I lost no time getting to Boltzmann Gateway. The only ships in system were Federation Security. I game in on the Coriolis station from the side. The docking face was pointing slightly away from me. I requested docking permission and hit boost. I flew along the station at 400 m/s. I hit boost a second time and arced around the edge that would lead me to the docking slot. I was a cool two kilometers from the station; travelling laterally at about 350 m/s.  The slot was to my right and I had the docking computer green light. I slid the throttle back to zero and let the computer take over. But I forgot what an unforgiving mistress momentum is. The stupid computer immediately turned my ship toward the station and attempted to align on the slot. The ship was still moving laterally at just over 300 m/s. In a split second all I could see was superstructure. I grabbed the controls, hit the override button and tried to pull up. I was not Luke Skywalker. I lost the ship, the gold and my pride in less than a second. So much for being cocky. It was an expensive lesson to learn. I not only paid over 65k credits in insurance fees because of the bonehead maneuver, I violated the contract terms and had to pay a substantial fine. My standing with Gidzenko Ring dropped back to neutral, and I've been set back several days in my efforts to outfit my Cobra Mark III for exploration. Space is a dangerous and unforgiving place - always. Never forget that. Complacency is expensive.

Fly Careful

  1. Only under normal use while flying an Internet spaceship in combat when you'll be too worried about saving your ship than trying to prove Mabrick wrong by yanking the board around in unnatural ways ;) . 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Life of a Trader

I decided to move to a new system: Zaragas. It is 23.74 light years from Eravate. In the end there were two desires that won out over all the rest in the decision to move or not move. The first was I wanted more profit per trade run than I was getting within Eravate. Eravate was good to me, but there was a limit to how much I could make because all commodities are kept within a range of prices. More on this in a bit. The second desire was better ship upgrades. In Eravate the best ship tech was centered around rating D. Also, the classes tended to be for smaller ships. As the Cobra Mark III has seven class 4 internal bays, Eravate wasn't going to work long-term.  It really requires a high-tech system to get the really good stuff.

Zaragas wasn't the first High Tech system I tried though. Initially I went to GD 219, also known as Gliese 755.1. An Eravate mission had sent me there once so I was familiar with the system. There is but a single station: McKee Ring.

In fact, the white dwarf primary of that system cooked me good - to the tune of nearly 6000 credits in repairs. Ouch! It really drove home the need to pay attention to the star type when I'm traveling to a new system. Though white dwarf stars are small, they are extremely hot. The nav beacon is set relative to the star's surface, so they are not necessarily further away just because the star is a small stellar remnant like GD 219 A. GD 219 A burns at 24,703 kelvin. Compare that to an average G type star like Sol which burns at 5,778 kelvin at the surface. Or the Eravate class K star which has a surface temperature of 4,077 kelvin. To say your ship will cook five times faster after dropping out of Hyperdrive in front of a white dwarf is committing an understatement. Just don't get complacent about turning away from the large glowing ball of super hot plasma when you come out of Hyperdrive. It could be an expensive moment of wonder. To aid you in knowing what you're about to jump into, I present the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram:

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="720"]Hertzsprung–Russell diagram Hertzsprung–Russell diagram with 22,000 stars plotted from the Hipparcos Catalogue and 1,000 from the Gliese Catalogue of nearby stars.[/caption]

Even an unexplored system will give you the stellar class of its star(s.) You can cross reference that with the top of this diagram to know how hot it is if the system is unexplored. You can also find web sites that will give you exact characteristics for all the subcategories, but I'll leave that up to you to discover.

Now back to trading. The routes into and out of GD 219 just aren't that great. There are good candidate trading systems in Ross and Ekuru, but the margins are for shinola. Besides, it turns out GD 219 was closer to Sol and I don't want to be closer to Sol. I'll visit humanity's birth place after I'm rich and famous. So I went the other way, toward the great unknown. That suits me better. So I ended up staying a spell in Zaragas.

This system has a really good Consumer Technology run from Jenner Hub to Gidzenko Ring in LTT 7453 at an average of 780 credits a ton. The return run of produce isn't all that great, though you'll still make around 280 credits a ton. Still, the 2.05 light year jump between the systems makes it a fast run that doesn't consume a lot of fuel. Just taking it easy I can get in six runs an hour easily. That's ((780 credits x 36) + (280 credits x 36)) x 6 runs/hour = 228, 960 credits/hour. I've watched many YouTube video guides for how to make money in Elite: Dangerous, and that's close to what I've been seeing as the average earnings of 300,000 credits per hour regardless of what low risk endeavor you pursue. It I squeeze in just one more run that ups my take to a comparable 267,120 credits an hour.

But you don't want to just fly back and forth. You need to pay attention to the Bulletin Board, and that's going to slow you down some. But there is an excellent reason for this. Rare goods are not the only way to double your money on any particular run. You don't need to go live in a rare goods system with every other Tom, Dick and Harry to reap big payouts. You just need to wait for the right job.

[gallery size="large" columns="2" ids="4351,4353"]

Here is one such job. You can see the buy price on the left, and the completion reward on the right (click to embiggen.) That's more than doubling your money, and it left me with 27 tons of space for Consumer Technology at 780 credits profit a ton. On the return run I got a similar deal, though the overall prices and rewards involved were smaller because Coffee just isn't as expensive as Robotics.

[gallery columns="2" size="large" ids="4355,4354"]

This is, again, substantially more than doubling your money, though the overall profit is less due to the lower commodity price. Nevertheless, a quick perusal of a rare commodities list tells me they may be highly profitable, but their cost - and therefore the profit per ton - is no different from standard commodities when these sorts of jobs come up on the Bulletin Board. Here's a representative sample: Lavian Brandy (Max:7, Supply: 4t-7t, 3,543 Cr); Orrerian Vicious Brew (Max:16, Supply: 6t-10t, 533 Cr); Leestian Evil Juice (Max:14, Supply: 1t-9t, 462 Cr); Azure Milk (Max:7, Supply: 2t-7t, 4,164 Cr); Uszaian Tree Grub (Max:14, Supply: 3t-11t, 965 Cr); Diso Ma Corn (Max:15, Supply: 1t-10t, 340 Cr.) As you can see, they have set prices and limited quantities - just like the jobs above.

The one question remaining for me to answer is how often these sorts of jobs come up. The Bulletin Board updates every five minutes. But that doesn't mean the Bulletin Board is faster. Just because the board updates doesn't mean you'll get one of these high profit jobs. I've yet to puzzle out their frequency and if there are any other parameters, like a high and unfulfilled demand, which triggers them. On the other side of the equation, I've read that rare items can take up to 15 minutes to reappear. Some in the forums say it's longer. Some say it can be less. I'll say there is an algorithm for everything and I'll just go with the 15 minute consensus. One thing that may get in the way of my research is the supply and demand equation. If you look at the Gidzenko Ring commodity list above, you'll see the supplies of the most profit producing commodities are dismally low. This may force me to move on in search of better routes.

To that end, I continue to upgrade my Cobra Mark III. I've dropped in an A rated Power Distribution system and upgraded my Frame Shift Drive to a C rated system. My current laden jump range is 12.84 light years... and that makes a big difference. There are more upgrades I want to purchase before I move on. I'm still running the E rated Shield Generator. I've a bit over a megawatt of power left to distribute, so upgrading the Shield Generator won't be an issue when I have the credits.

And as a final note, I present a comparison between last week and this week's balance sheet. It shows an overall increase in net value of about a third across the board in one-third of my previous play time (I am not including my 10 vacation days.) I can assure you my weekly play time hasn't increased. I'm just starting to find my stride is all. Cheers!

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