Elite Dangerous: Going to “The View” and NSV 1056

I’ve been able to get a little more time in Elite Dangerous, the space exploration/trading/combat game that I’ve written about before. The latest update (2.3) was released a couple of weeks ago. There are now megaships and asteroid bases in the game, which are little more than rehashed stations. There is another passenger liner ship called the Dolphin, which is great fun to fly. Players can now join other players ships with the multicrew feature.

While very exciting in principle, multicrew has been very poorly implemented, with a combat focus. There is an exploration mode, but there is nothing for crew players to do but watch, e.g. they can’t use SRVs. The lack of things for crew to do stems from the lack of things for pilots to do while exploring apart from scanning systems, scanning objects and stumbling across points of interest on barren planetary surfaces. One can hope that the developers will get around to adding more gameplay sooner rather than later. I had a go with multicrew and my computer crashed after a minute of sitting in someone else’s ship. As with the rest of the game, Frontier needs to spend more time fixing the cause of these problems.

There is also a avatar creator, which is a bit of a lark. I tried to make a version of myself, but it looks like a fuzzy memory of myself in a mirror. Still handsome enough to pass muster. Other players have complained about the lack of body types (with a focus on certain areas in particular). The developers would do well to ignore these strange demands and focus on actual gameplay.

The avatar creator does highlight one of my biggest qualms about Elite Dangerous and modern gaming in general: microtransactions, where users have to pay for additional content. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy, who remembers when you could pay for a game once and that was it. Sometimes there was free downloadable content (DLC), sometimes there wasn’t. Some of my favourite examples were:

  • BMW M Roadster and M Coupe additions to Need for Speed: High Stakes.
  • Porsche 928GTS, 959 and 911 GT2 and GT3 additions to Need for Speed: Porsche 2000.
  • The Classic2, Delta  and Gamma packs for WipEout Pure (the best game in all of human history), which nearly doubled the amount of tracks and craft available in game. There was also the Omega pack, but I found it so disturbing that I removed it from my Memorystick.

Things started to go downhill afterwards, some examples of paid DLC that I stumped up for were: the megapack for Test Drive Unlimited, which added ~45 cars to drive around Oahu; and the add-ons to WipEout Pulse*, which weren’t as plentiful as those in Pure. Elite Dangerous takes this to an obscene level, your ship is available in one colour, unless you pay for more skins for your ship. You have to pay to change the colour of the ship laser beams. You have to pay for avatar flight suits and tattoos.

Update 2.3 (which is DLC in itself) then took this to an even more ludicrous level with ship naming. Sure, you can name your ship. But if you to display it on the exterior, you have to purchase a name plate with real money! This is pathetic, they advertise features coming to paid DLC which are only fully available as a further microtransaction. Disgusting!**

In my last Elite Dangerous post,  I travelled ~12 kLY to a pair of binary Earth-likes orbiting a neutron star. Following that, I decided to take a shorter passenger mission, this time to “The View”. Now this has nothing to do with the homonymous daytime television show The View. From the mission description it was not very clear what “The View” is. It was only 1000 LY away; after about 25 hyperspace jumps, I was there.

It turns out that “The View” is just an area of extreme natural beauty. An O-class star and a neutron star nearby each other. There is a tourist installation below (or above?) the neutron star, where I took the animation below using what is probably one of the best parts of 2.3: the camera suite.


My ship isn’t actually in the ejection cone of the neutron star. The camera can now be easily moved to the right place. Think of it as one of those “holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa” photographs that annoying tourists take.

To finish the mission, I had to scan the appropriate tourist beacon. Unfortunately, it was on a 3.3g planet! I had to face my high gravity world fears to get to the beacon. I took it steady and came in to land like an aeroplane. I managed to land successfully, although I overshot the beacon by 65 km! I can see why they call it “The View”, there’s an O-Class star, a neutron star and a planetary ring all in one image.

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 26_04_2017 10_44_22 PM

Once I had spent enough time looking at “The View” and taking jumps in the SRV (the boosters don’t get you very high obviously), it was time to leave. This isn’t as easy as one would expect. Pointing away from the planet and boosting would probably cause a crash at high g. I targeted a system just above the horizon, lifted off with vertical thrusters and slowly gained altitude. I yawed towards the target and then charged up the hyperdrive, which generated a lot of heat close to the planetary surface and set off all kinds of alarms, but I made it and jumped into the safety of hyperspace. To make it less stressful, I could have picked a system at a lower elevation angle before I launched.

It was then an uneventful series of jumps back to Conway dock, where I got to pocket a mission reward of several million credits.  Another tantalising mission was already available on the list. This time the trip would take me to a planetary nebula, NSV 1056. The tourist beacon was orbiting a volcanic moon. Once I had travelled further away from the system, I could get a better view of the planetary nebula. A pleasing radial iris of orange and blue.

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 19_05_2017 11_27_59 PM

Want to know what it looks like on the inside? There’s a Wolf-Rayet star at the centre which I can jump to. Here’s the view from inside: It reminds me of the ripple patterns you can see looking at an outdoor swimming pool on a bright sunny day.

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 19_05_2017 11_32_58 PM

And that’s just two places, there’s a whole Milky Way of wonders to travel to. These trips illustrate why I like the passenger missions, they are not combat focused, show off the best looking parts of the galaxy and they pay well. For all of the faults with update 2.3, passenger missions are well served by the new Dolphin ship and the improved camera suite. Frontier is annoyingly vague about what update 2.4 will bring. Atmospheric planets and bug fixes would be nice, but I know that is wishful thinking.

*In Pulse, you could even design ship liveries online and download them to your system. For free!
**As a protest, I have given my ships names such as No Microtransactions!, Not Paying for Extras and I Like Free Stuff. There’s also a 22 character limit, which is simply not enough for fans of Iain M. Banks.

Why does the Maxim Institute Hate Democracy?

Earlier this month, the Maxim Institute, a far-right think tank based in Auckland published an article about the urban/rural divide in New Zealand.The institute has done some “research” that indicates that there are differences in lifestyles and attitudes between regions in New Zealand. They forecast that a greater proportion of the population will live in urban centres (70% in 30 years time). Strangely the institute chooses to frame this as a problem:

That’s a lot of urban voters, and it’s going to be very tempting for politicians to focus more and more on urban interests in order to win those votes, possibly at the expense of the rest of the country.

It could also make it easier for urban voters to ignore or mock the interests of voters living in very different communities.

I don’t see the problem. If the vast majority of the population lives in urban areas, then it is only right that politicians focus on urban interests. That’s democracy in action. It’s also assuming that policy development is a zero-sum game. This is not strictly true, a policy designed to help urban dwellers does not necessarily harm rural dwellers.

Let’s also keep in mind that the opposite situation exists at present. Politicians already prioritise property owners and corporations at the expense of ordinary people. Policies such as irrigation schemes and the dilution of water quality standards are designed to benefit rural voters while harming the interests of the wider public. Why doesn’t the Maxim Institute write about these issues instead of this one that they made up?

It’s worth mentioning that the urban-rural divide is a cornerstone of political analysis in USA, where it plays a massive factor in elections. Donald Trump can credit the urban/rural divide with handing him the presidency that he didn’t deserve. The electorate is divided into a series of winner-take-all states where the number of electors is not proportional to the state populations. Narrow victories in swing states and the over-representation of small rural states turned a 2.7 million vote deficit into a 77 vote surplus in the electoral college. By preserving and accentuating a bias in favour of rural areas, the American right-wing have been able to engineer electoral victories in the face of popular defeats.

When we keep this in mind, the motives behind the Maxim Institute’s article become much more sinister. They don’t say it, but it is implicit that they think that the electoral system should be redesigned. I imagine they would want something less proportional, like FPP that favours rural constituencies. Never mind that FPP has been rejected by the public twice during the past two and a half decades.  While they may cry crocodile tears about their contrived decline in rural areas, this is all about securing right-wing power over New Zealand for years to come.

As things stand NZ has a very proportional voting system. There is no reason for this to ever change. If the increase in the numbers of urban voters is a problem for the political right, the problem is with them, not with the voters and not with the electoral system. If this is typical of the standard of work that the Maxim Institute is producing, urbanisation should be the least of their worries.

Blasphemy in New Zealand: Scrap the Law Now!

Like many the world over, I have enjoyed the wit of Stephen Fry in great shows such as Blackadder and QI to name just two. Moreover, I enjoy much of Fry’s socio-political commentary, such as his famous interview with RTÈ in 2015. Here, he raised a concept that many atheists have considered: the idea that if God were real, then he/she/they are irredeemably cruel for either enabling or failing to prevent the misery experienced by people throughout space and time (see problem of evil). Christian apologetics such as “blessings in disguise” , “free will”, “original sin”, or “punishment for things” are unconvincing and churlish.

In the 2015 RTÈ interview, Fry described God as “capricious, mean-minded and stupid” and “a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish”. Well put. It turns out that Fry was reported to the police for blasphemy and an investigation is to be conducted. Much outrage has ensued, including in the Guardian comment section, where my alter ego earned 299 upvotes (a new record, beating my last record where I called for a coup d’etat in Turkey). In an era where free-speech whingers are becoming louder and louder, such an uproar was to be expected. Blasphemy is an absurd concept. It assumes that there is a universal standard for what is acceptable speech and that deviation from this standard warrants punishment. Neither of those things are true. Blasphemy laws serve no purpose other than to suppress the opponents of state power and the leaders of the majority religion, entrenching the privileges that the rich and powerful enjoy.

The constitution of the Irish Republic (1937) mandates that blasphemy must be a criminal offence (pg 160 of the convenient online PDF version). The Defamation Act of 2009 gave a statutory definition for blasphemy. In order to strike the law from the constitution, a referendum must be held. You may remember that a successful referendum to amend constitution was held in May 2015 to introduce same-sex marriage. The same needs to be done to remove the blasphemy law.

While many are still worried about faux-populist retrogrades derailing the removal of blasphemy (e.g. like voting for Brexit or Trump), a law which allows the religious to claim offence on the basis of hurt feelings should be even less controversial than same-sex marriage. Luckily the Fine Gael minority government has plans to introduce such a referendum. I’m confident the Irish voters will get this one right too.

Meanwhile in New Zealand: The corporate media and some ignorant politicians were shocked to discover that NZ has its own blasphemy law. All they had to do was look it up on Wikipedia! It originated from English common law (thanks British colonialism!) and was then added to the Crimes Act of 1961, where only the Attorney General may push for a prosecution. Only one prosecution has ever taken place, which failed. Since free speech is protected in the Bill of Rights Act 1990, Attorneys General decline to engage in blasphemy prosecutions.

One might wonder what’s the harm? That’s not good enough. We should not assume that Attorneys General will always act with decency and pragmatism. The BORA would be one of the first targets that a hypothetical far-right government would seek to remove (my guess would be that the BORA would be framed as “PC gone mad”). Then there is scope to tie opposing voices up in blasphemy cases, allowing for the government to cement it’s grip on power. In the same way that we do not leave matches lying around for children and arsonists to set things in fire, we should not leave bad laws around for those with ill intent to terrorise us.

To his credit, Prime Minister Bill English (the Valtteri Bottas of NZ politics*) does not think we should have a blasphemy law. That’s pretty good coming from someone who is generally addled by Catholic doctrine. The Herald ran an article where English was disappointingly lax about the repeal, saying it would be part of an omnibus bill getting rid of lots of nonsense laws in one go. The perpetual contrarian Winston Peters played the “I’ll focus on things that matter” card. Labour leader Andrew Little called himslef a “free speech extremist” (rather understandably). Libertarian welfare recipient David Seymour did his best to get a repeal ASAP. The end of the article was interesting, suggesting that the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 could be misused as a blasphemy law. It’s already been used to harass left wing blogs, so I guess we’ll have to watch this space.

Blasphemy has no place in a secular, civilised society (sorry about the tautology). Even having a currently toothless law puts us at risk should a band of fanatical zealots ever take office. Now is the time to strike while public attention is at its peak. Remove the law so that we may continue without fear to expose conservative religion for the dangerous, hateful fraud that it is.

*Following on from my John Key/Nico Rosberg analogy. I wish to extend my apologies to Bottas for comparing him with English. We know that Bottas can win, while English hasn’t.

Let’s Make Magic Water Again!

Previously, I wrote about Te Kiri Gold, an extortionately priced product whose desperate users were told could cure cancer and suchlike. The product in question is no more than electrolysed salt water. I sardonically mused that such a product could be made from the reject stream of the reverse osmosis brine electrodialysis process, such as the one used in a chlor-alkali process designed by a team that I was involved with for an undergraduate project. Because of the low production cost and the attractive pricing, our generic Te Kiri Gold would generate a tremendous amount of revenue!

Recently Stuff.co.nz shared an article about another type of magic water, sold here in good ol’ New Zealand under the label of NZ Water Purifier Ltd. This magic water is different; while TKG was a solution of sodium hypochorite, NZ Water Purifier Ltd is a solution of dissolved chlorine dioxide. Chlorine dioxide should not be consumed by humans, let alone anything living. Funnily enough, it can also be produced by the chlor-alkali process!

During my undergrad project, another team also designed a chlor-alkali plant. They targeted it for use in the pulp and paper industry. A Kraft pulping plant is the perfect companion for a chlor-alkali plant since both the chlorine and NaOH are consumed on-site. Sodium hydroxide is used during the cooking and bleaching operations, while the chlorine is reacted with NaOH to produce sodium chlorate (famous for causing trousers to explode), which is reacted with hydrochloric acid to produce chlorine dioxide, which is the bleaching agent used.  Judging from the leading photo in the article (higher res at the original article at Newsroom.co.nz), sodium chlorite and HCl are sold in separate bottles* to mix together at home, or you can buy it pre-mixed for convenience.

Economically, how does this compare to TKG? We can’t use electrodialysis dilutate to produce NZ Water Purifier Ltd because the membrane cell requires highly concentrated brine (250 g/L as opposed to 32 g/L). So instead, lets just dump it back into the ocean and re-purpose the plant to make chlorine dioxide.

I’m not exactly sure about the amount of chlorine dixoide that can be produced, but from a crude analysis of the molar ratios in the chemical reaction equations I think there is a 2:1 ratio of sodium chlorate:chlorine. Thus we are limited by the amount of NaOH produced. There is then a 1:1 ratio of Chlorate:chlorine dioxide. Let’s say that from 90,000 t/y of NaOH, we can make 152,000 t/y of chlorine dioxide. (Note that I’ve ignored the production of HCl, which could be achieved from the remaining chlorine that isn’t used to make sodium chlorate. It becomes chlorine again during the reaction to produce chlorine dioxide anyway). Let’s assume we sell the solution at 25 wt%, then we are making 608,000 t/y of solution. Assuming a density of 1 kg/m³, and $190/L, we have a revenue of $116 million/y. Thus, we can conclude that a plant making Te Kiri Gold was a much better investment at $260 million/y in revenue.

Unlike TKG, this is not a kiwi product. In fact, NZ Water Purifier Ltd is already so infamous, that it has it’s own RationalWiki page (under the name, MMS). Consuming chlorine dioxide is a terrible idea, with some very unpleasant health effects. Beyond the usual aspirations of curing cancer, MMS has lately been marketed to parents of autistic children as a way to “detoxify” them. This is no doubt connected to the anti-vaccination movement, which has demonised autistic people as being “damaged” by vaccines. The level of ableist prejudice among the anti-vaccination and alternative medicine communities is outrageous. It only serves to increase the contempt that I have for them.

Fortunately, Medsafe has issued a warning over the product. Even better, the government has introduced the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill, which regulates the manufacture, sale, and export of “natural” health products and creates new offences for deceptive behaviour and harming human health. It’s currently at the committee stage prior to the third reading. Let’s get the bill passed and close NZ Water Purifier Ltd down.

*The concentrations of sodium chlorite and HCl are unclear. Are they weight percent, or per weight of water? Either way, it looks like sodium chlorite is in excess when the solutions are mixed. The pre-mix is given as 3000 ppm, is this weight, volume or molar? What  a bunch of scientifically illiterate bastards.

Children at Protest Marches? No Problem

This weekend saw people all over the world participate in the March for Science. The march was originally created in response to the alarming anti-science attitudes of US President, Donald Trump and his cabinet of billionaire brigands. In an act of solidarity with scientists in the USA, marches have been organised in many places, including main centres in NZ. There are supplementary issues specific to NZ such as the dismissal of scientific evidence, or the backlash that scientists experience when they speak out in an area that is perceived to be too politicial (see Mike Joy for an example).

I wasn’t able to make it to the march since the nearest one was a few dozen kilometers away and car travel would expose me to criticisms of hypocrisy given the closeness of the march to climate change issues. While reading the Stuff.co.nz report of the march, I was annoyed by some of the commenters who expressed outrage at parents taking their children to the march. Apparently, it’s disgusting to politicise children like that.

Let’s consider a different issue: parents letting children attend religious education in schools. The common line opponents to religion in schools make is: “keep it out of schools. If parents want to raise their children into a religion, then they can do it at home”. One way or another, it is a widely held view that parents are free to raise their children into their religion*, one that I suspect that the commenters would hold.

Given that one accepts that viewpoint, then it is only logically consistent then that parents should also be free to take their children along to participate in a protest march as well. If anything, a protest march is better since it is a one-off event that the children will likely forget about when they are older, while religious indoctrination is persistent.

So ignorant Stuff.co.nz  commenters, do you take you children to church? Or have you not removed them from RE in school? If you have said yes to either of those questions, then according to your own reasoning, you are just as bad, if not worse than the protest marchers that you were so quick to criticise. Good on the people who attended the March for Science, future generations will appreciate that you gave a damn about their future.

*I don’t actually agree that parents are free to raise children into a religion, but that’s for another blog post.

France 2017: Le Pen’s Strange Definition of Secularism

I’ve written about the upcoming French presidential election in the past. Since then, free-market lunatic Francois Fillon has tanked following the revelations that he gave fake jobs to his family members. Benoit Hamon and the PS have slipped off the radar as a resurgent Jean-Luc Melenchon has just about drawn level with Fillon in polling in the high teens. Centrist Emmanuel Macron and extreme right-winger Marine Le Pen are level in the lead, both polling in the low to mid twenties. The trend as of mid-April shows Macron, Hamon and Le Pen losing support with big gains to Melenchon and a slight rise for Fillon.

Given the large number of undecided/abstaining voters and the rapidly changing trends, any two of the top four could succeed in the first round of voting on Sunday (French time). The situation in French politics is such that it was covered by British-American comedian John Oliver in Last Week Tonight. In general the segment was light on policy and highlighted the deep unpopularity of figures such as Valls, Fillon and Macron who were caught on camera getting hit with food items. Interestingly, there was no mention of Hamon which should be a signal to his voters to switch to Melenchon in order to see their interests represented.

Most of the segment covered Le Pen, who draws obvious parallels with Brexit, Trump, and now the outrageous Turkish constitutional referendum (although I can’t imagine she would like to be compared with the latter event).  Oliver pointed out that even though she has polished the FN from when her father was in charge, she still lets some unpleasant ideas slip through. One example of this was when interviewed, Le Pen stated that she would ban all religious clothing. Le Pen has also stated that she is attached to secularism. Her ban on religious clothing is no doubt inspired by her staunch secularism.

As the title alludes to, I think that a ban on religious clothing has nothing to do with secularism and in fact goes against secular principles. Firstly, let’s look at a definition of secularism from the National Secular Society (UK):

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

One of the misunderstandings about secularism (normally by religious fanatics) is that it is akin to compulsory atheism or involves preferential treatment for atheists. Not true, if anything the above definition is a statement of neutrality. This position of neutrality is beneficial to the most people as should be obvious to anyone capable of empathy. While a powerful group may be upset that it can’t do whatever it likes, less powerful groups do not experience oppression.

In terms of the second part of the NSS definition, I think that bans on clothing represent a deviation from neutrality and indicate a bias in favour of irreligion. While I think an irreligious society is generally better than a religious society, turning everyone into an atheist will not solve all the world’s problems (just read PZ Myers’ blog and consider some of the examples of asshole atheism that he has confronted). Bans on clothing push the widespread understanding of secularism towards the cartoon definition that religionists use to claim that secularism is persecuting them. Let’s avoid that and acknowledge that individuals should be free to wear the clothing of their choice.

It’s also interesting that in the West, non-religious and Christian people wear clothing which is generally not explicitly associated with religion. That’s probably due to privilege bias and thinking that their “normal” is the only “normal”. I can’t help but think secularism is being misappropriated by Le Pen as a tool to bash religious minorities in France. Bashing religious minorities is a godsend to terrorist organisations who will happily recruit those who have been persecuted. Terrorist organisations will find things a lot harder when the mainstream of their religion have secure comfortable lifestyles, individual rights and freedoms to participate in society and a sense of belonging. True secularism offers us all of those things. Le Pen’s policies only serve to enrage and endanger us.

My preference is Melenchon, whose concerns about economic insecurity are more credible than Le Pen’s. He recognises that neoliberal economics has underlined the noble vision of the European Union. Hamon also has some interesting policies such as a UBI, and investment in infrastructure and the environment. However he is a long shot on current polling. I was wrong to characterise Macron as a Bernie Sanders type figure in my last French post (well spotted Old Deuteronomy), it is clear now that Melenchon is deserving of this sobriquet. It’s now up to France to do what the US couldn’t: put a socialist voice in charge for constructive change.

*You may notice that I haven’t used any of the accented letters in the candidate names. That’s because I have a US English keyboard and I can’t be arsed remembering the ALT codes. This is Zeitung f­ür Katzen, not Journal pour les chats!

My Opinion on the Andrew Little Defamation Trial

On Monday, news broke that the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Little has been partially cleared of defaming the owners of a hotel chain. This verdict makes writing the post easier as I know that some of Little’s statements were not defamatory and can report on them with less fear of negative consequences. Having read up on online defamation, I should be OK if I stick to verifiable facts and genuine statements of opinion. Of course that’s no guarantee. As Little has found out, you can be sued for defamation even when what you said wasn’t defamatory. The comments about the case on social media and other blogs were probably more defamatory than anything Little ever said. But I guess suing an internet random doesn’t have the same gravitas does it?

How did this all begin? The founder of the Scenic Hotel Group hotel chain donated $101,000 to the governing National Party prior to the last election. One month later, Scenic Hotel Group was awarded a government contract to run the Matavai Resort in Niue. That these two events occurred is beyond doubt, the issue is a matter of optics as to whether there is any connection between the events.

I think the timing could be described as “interesting”, or “unfortunate” as a cynical mind can’t help but wander, especially since there is history with National Party donors and unfortunately timed government contracts such as Beemer-gate. In that case, the dealer saw sense and didn’t sue anyone. With the hotel incident, Little made some comments where he alleged corruption. The Hagamans sued him for defamation prior to an investigation by the Auditor-General. Once the Auditor-General got involved and gave the process the all-clear,  Little apologised to the Hagamans.

From the reports of proceedings in the trial, Lani Hagaman said that she wanted a suitable public apology. I think that the statement on the Labour Party website was sufficient. They should not have expected an apology before the AG investigation when they sued him, why should Little apologise when the facts are yet to be determined? I found that Little was being sued for $2.3 million inconsistent with the claim that Hagaman just wanted an apology. I am unconvinced by the excuse that it is to restore Earl Hagaman’s reputation. Ironically, my opinion of Hagaman is diminished by the fact that Lani Hagaman thinks that his reputation can be restored by an amount of money that would bankrupt Little. If they didn’t want me to think poorly of them, then they shouldn’t have donated money to the National Party in the first place.

I am also concerned about the political motivations that could have been involved. National Party donors and presumably supporters suing a Labour Party politician unsettles me. Will suing for defamation under unconvincing circumstances become a tactic for the wealthy and powerful to censor dissenting voices? The integrity of our democracy is more important than the feelings of greedy multi-millionaires whose own actions do more to harm their reputation than anything Andrew Little could say. Fortunately, one of the findings of this case was that Little has qualified privilege as Leader of the Opposition to draw attention to potentially murky dealings. As noted by Antony Robins, this is good for democracy.

Unfortunately, it may not be over yet. Lani Hagaman looks to be seeking a retrial over the inability of the jury to decide whether Little had defamed Earl Hagaman. She also does not believe that Little is not protected by qualified privilege. Little has washed his hands of the issue as has the corporate media, who have moved on to other things.  By donating to the National party, companies are making a statement that they view their customers and New Zealand with contempt. However, contempt goes both ways so I will not be purchasing goods and services from Scenic Hotel Group in the forseeable future.