Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Scientists suggest we might be overlooking alien communications

A new theory has been put forward in the astrophysics world suggesting people have assumed too much when looking for alien attempts to communicate with Earth. 
The theory, proposed by James Benford, his son, Dominic Benford, and Jame's twin brother Gregory Benford, published in two papers in June, have generated a great deal of excitement in the science world. The Benfords looked at the issue of communications and concluded that aliens, much like humans, would want to economize their resources where possible, and thus they would not send out communications resembling what scientists have expected would be sent. Instead, the scientists suggest, aliens might be as frugal with expensive resources as humans are. 
The University of California Irvine said extraterrestrials might have been trying to contact Earth all along, but because scientists were looking for something different, the messages were missed. The trio of scientists believe extraterrestrials might send out short messages, or pulses. James explained, saying
“This approach is more like Twitter and less like War and Peace.”
James is a physicist as well as the founder and president of Microwave Sciences Inc. in Lafayette, California. Dominic is a scientist with NASA, and Gregory is an astrophysicist with the University of California Irvine. The new hypothesis is based on an old adage. Gregory explained
“Our grandfather used to say, ‘Talk is cheap, but whiskey costs money.’ Whatever the life form, evolution selects for economy of resources. Broadcasting is expensive, and transmitting signals across light-years would require considerable resources.”
SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been searching for extraterrestrials for the past fifty years, trolling for signals from space with arrays of satellite dishes. The Benfords hypothesize
"Assuming that an alien civilization would strive to optimize costs, limit waste and make its signaling technology more efficient, ... these signals would not be continuously blasted out in all directions but rather would be pulsed, narrowly directed and broadband in the 1-to-10-gigahertz range."
James summarized their hypotheses and findings during an interview with New Scientist.
"If ET was building cost-effective beacons, would our searches have detected them? The answer turns out to be no. Societies are always constrained by their resources. Why did cathedrals take centuries to build? Partly because they had only so many artisans, but also their capital was limited."
James explained the hypothesis to the New Scientist
"Short pulses rather than a continuous signal would also enable frugal aliens to use small and cheap transmitters. Small transmitters can beam out powerful radiation using high voltages – but only if they broadcast brief pulses that don't give the electric fields time to discharge. They wouldn't want to target individual stars: there are far too many of them. Instead, they'd build a powerful beacon, then swing that beacon around and repeat it. Astronomers have seen some unexplained signals that lasted for tens of seconds then were never seen again. Some of those could have been extraterrestrial beacons but there wasn't enough observing time to wait for any repeats."
The Benfords suggest SETI should point its receiver dishes towards the center of the milky way because the stars are denser there. Gregory said
“The stars there are a billion years older than our sun, which suggests a greater possibility of contact with an advanced civilization than does pointing SETI receivers outward to the newer and less crowded edge of our galaxy."
The short pulse approach to communications has cottoned on quickly, with science writers calling the theory Benford beacons. The hypothesis has also meant that many are speculating that the WOW signal, found in 1977, might actually be an alien tweet. The signal was dismissed as a 'cosmic burp.' Gregory said
“Will searching for distant messages work? Is there intelligent life out there? The SETI effort is worth continuing, but our common-sense beacons approach seems more likely to answer those questions.”
The real answer, of course, will be revealed as scientists test the hypothesis. The Benford's theory has been endorsed by other scientists. The trio's hypotheses were written up in two papers, Searching for Cost-Optimized Interstellar Beaconsand Messaging with Cost-Optimized Interstellar Beacons, both of which were published in Astrobiology in June.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Future of Pokémon

We all should already know what the next Pokémon game is going to be like. There will be another one hundred-ish monsters added to the steadily growing tally, and you will once again be tasked with catching them all. There will be legendary Pokémon, a generic bird, a rat no one cares about, a cute Pikachu stand-in, a badass dragon that isn't legendary that everyone puts in their party, and a whole bunch of locked Pokémon that hackers will have access to while everyone else waits for Nintendo to hold an event to re-invigorate the waning interest in the franchise.

However, we have also seen that Nintendo is starting to spread the Pokémon franchise out into other areas. Pokémon Conquest, for example, was a huge departure from the established formula, and I for one wouldn't mind another epic Samurai/Pokémon crossover. They've made adventure games and strategy games—even photography games with Pokémon Snap. Right now, they are still focusing on the DS, which by all other accounts is dead, so that Black and White and Black and White 2 can interact with each other without major issue. So what will Pokémon be like when it finally catches up to the 3DS and the upcoming Wii U?

Well, Pokémon Snap may make a comeback. Say what you will about that game, but it would be pretty cool to see the Wii U tablet used as a camera in a new generation of Pokémon Snap. Linking the game up to whatever 3DS version of Pokémon that comes out would be a great way to give accomplished photographers bonuses in an actual Pokémon game. Internet functionality would even let you compare your photo albums with your friends'. Unfortunately, Pokémon Snap was one of those games that lived mostly off of its nostalgia factor. It wasn't exactly a blockbuster hit back in the days of the N64, so it most likely won't actually be remade.

Pokémon Stadium, on the other hand, actually does have a chance of being remade, or at least having some sort of analog produced. The Wii U is Nintendo's most graphically accomplished system to date, and the ability to have two Wii U gamepads will allow Poké-trainers to choose their RPG style commands in secret. Seeing Pokémon battle it out on the big screen is almost certain to be a huge hit, and Nintendo would be foolish to not make it happen.
Graphics for traditional handheld Pokémon games are going to be changing quite drastically in the near future. The 3DS has more graphical power than a GameCube, which means the old days of sprite battles are most likely over. We are sure to see a full 3D polygonal Pokémon game soon. However, this may not actually be the next big Pokémon game. Instead, Nintendo may remake an older title like they did with fire red, leaf green, heart gold, and soul silver. Perhaps the third generation will get the HD upgrade this time around.

The Future of Pokémon

The mechanical system of Pokémon is pretty well established by now. Sure, Nintendo will probably add new items and attacks, but the simple turn structure of Poké-battles will likely remain the same. The real variation will come with the new Pokémon, specifically their types. Nintendo probably won't be adding any new Poké-types any time soon. So instead, they have to experiment with the ones they have. Luckily there is still a lot of wiggle room in type combinations. In fact, I just so happen to be obsessive enough to make a list of every combination that hasn't yet been used. Here it is:


  • The Future of Pokémon

  • Several of these type combinations can be very powerful, like Dragon/Grass or Ice/Steel. There are also several combinations of "normal" Pokémon that haven't been explored, mostly because "normal" tends to be overwritten by whatever type the Pokémon has otherwise.
    Pokémon is a series that shouldn't reinvent the wheel. It has two very obvious places it can grow. It can grow in its sub-series games through utilizing the new technologies available, or it can simply refine the system that Poké-fans have known and loved for years. Nintendo is smart. We probably won't see any violation of trust here. At the end of the game, Poké-fans will still have to catch them all. But frankly, it's ok if we get the same game over and over again, as long as that game is fun to play. And Pokémon has always been fun to play.

    SimCity: 10 Minutes of Gameplay Footage

    Life created from eggs made from skin cells

    Stem cells made from skin have become "grandparents" after generations of life were created in experiments by scientists in Japan.
    The cells were used to create eggs, which were fertilised to produce baby mice. These later had their own babies.
    If the technique could be adapted for people, it could help infertile couples have children and even allow women to overcome the menopause.
    But experts say many scientific and ethical hurdles must be overcome.
    Healthy and fertile
    Stem cells are able to become any other type of cell in the body from blood to bone, nerves to skin.
    Last year the team at Kyoto University managed to make viable sperm from stem cells. Now they have performed a similar feat with eggs.
    They used stem cells from two sources: those collected from an embryo and skin-like cells which were reprogrammed into becoming stem cells.

    Start Quote

    I just thought wow! The science is quite brilliant”
    Dr Evelyn TelferUniversity of Edinburgh
    The first step, reported in the journal Science, was to turn the stem cells into early versions of eggs.
    A "reconstituted ovary" was then built by surrounding the early eggs with other types of supporting cells which are normally found in an ovary. This was transplanted into female mice.
    Surrounding the eggs in this environment helped them to mature.
    IVF techniques were used to collect the eggs, fertilise them with sperm from a male mouse and implant the fertilised egg into a surrogate mother.
    Dr Katsuhiko Hayashi, from Kyoto University, told the BBC: "They develop to be healthy and fertile offspring."
    Those babies then had babies of their own, whose "grandmother" was a cell in a laboratory dish.
    Devastating blow
    The ultimate aim of the research is to help infertile couples have children. If the same methods could be used in people then cells in skin could be turned into an egg. Any resulting child would be genetically related to the mother.
    However, Dr Hayashi said that was still a distant prospect: "I must say that it is impossible to adapt immediately this system to human stem cells, due to a number of not only scientific reasons, but also ethical reasons."
    He said that the level of understanding of human egg development was still too limited. There would also be questions about the long-term consequences on the health of any resulting child.
    Dr Evelyn Telfer, from the University of Edinburgh, said: "It's an absolutely brilliant paper - they made oocytes [eggs] from scratch and get live offspring. I just thought wow! The science is quite brilliant."
    However, she warned that this had "no clinical relevance" as there were still too many gaps in understanding about how human eggs developed.
    "If you can show it works in human cells it is like the Holy Grail of reproductive biology," she added.
    Prof Robert Norman, from the University of Adelaide, said: "For many infertile couples, finding they have no sperm or eggs is a devastating blow.
    "This paper offers light to those who want a child, who is genetically related to them, by using personalised stem cells to create eggs that can produce an offspring that appears to be healthy.
    "It also offers the potential for women to have their own children well past menopause raising even more ethical issues.
    "Application to humans is still a long way off, but for the first time the goal appears to be in sight."
    Dr Allan Pacey, from the British Fertility Society and the University of Sheffield, said: "What is remarkable about this work is the fact that, although the process is still quite inefficient, the offspring appeared healthy and were themselves fertile as adults."

    ‘Last year, for the first time, spending by Apple and Google on [patents] exceeded spending on research and development of new products’

    Tonight—a big technology patent deep-dive by The New York Times (non-paginated), with some super-interesting reporting [and I rarely say that about anything with 'Patents' in the title] and lots of Apple sourcing. (Interactive: Three Apple patents that were involved in recent lawsuits and a new version of the patent war map.) Some interesting notes:
    • Vlingo, which is the engine behind Samsung’s S-Voice Siri competitor, almost went bankrupt defending itself from Nuance. Winning one case cost it $3M and forced it to sell itself to Nuance.
    • In 2006, Apple settled with Creative over the original iPod MP3 player design.  Steve Jobs said “Creative is very fortunate to have been granted this early patent.” Jobs immediately gathered execs afterwards and did soemthing different with iPhone. While Apple had long been adept at filing patents, when it came to the new iPhone, “we’re going to patent it all,” he declared, according to a former executive. Apple’s engineers were asked to participate in monthly “invention disclosure sessions.”
    • In the last decade, the number of patent applications submitted by Apple each year has risen almost tenfold.
    • “If we can’t protect our intellectual property, then we won’t spend millions creating products like the iPhone,” a former Apple executive said, noting that some of Apple’s patents, like the “slide to unlock” feature on the iPhone, took years to perfect. The concept “might seem obvious now, but that’s only after we spent millions figuring it out,” the executive said. “Other companies shouldn’t be able to steal that without compensating us. That’s why the patent system exists.”
    • The “Siri Patent” #8,086,604 took 10 attempts to get approved. Today, though the patent was not among those Vlingo and Nuance fought over, it is known as the Siri patent because it is widely viewed as one of the linchpins of Apple’s strategy to protect its smartphone technologies.
    • “When I get an application, I basically have two days to research and write a 10- to 20-page term paper on why I think it should be approved or rejected,” said Robert Budens, a 22-year patent examiner and president of the examiners’ labor union. “I’m not going to pretend like we get it right every time.”
    • Some experts worry that Apple’s broad patents may give the company control of technologies that, over the last seven years, have been independently developed at dozens of companies and have become central to many devices.“Apple could get a chokehold on the smartphone industry,” said Tim O’Reilly, a publisher of computer guides and a software patent critic. “A patent is a government-sanctioned monopoly, and we should be very cautious about handing those out.”
    Apple, for its part, issued the following statement to the NYT:
    “Apple has always stood for innovation,” the company wrote in a statement in response to questions from The New York Times. “To protect our inventions, we have patented many of the new technologies in these groundbreaking and category-defining products. In the rare cases when we take legal action over a patent dispute, it’s only as a last resort.
    “We think companies should dream up their own products rather than willfully copying ours, and in August a jury in California reached the same conclusion,” the statement said.

    Friday, October 5, 2012

    Are Those Spidery Black Things On Mars Dangerous? (Maybe)

    You are 200 miles directly above the Martian surface — looking down. This image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Jan. 27, 2010. (The color was added later.) What do we see? Well, sand, mostly. As you scroll down, there's a ridge crossing through the image, then a plain, then dunes, but keep looking. You will notice, when you get to the dunes, there are little black flecks dotting the ridges, mostly on the sunny side, like sunbathing spiders sitting in rows. Can you see them?

    Martian plain from 200 miles up.
    Michael Benson/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Kinetikon Pictures
    What are those things? They were first seen in 1998; they don't look like anything we have here on Earth. To this day, no one is sure what they are, but we now know this: They come, then they go. Every Martian spring, they appear out of nowhere, showing up — 70 percent of the time — where they were the year before. They pop up suddenly, sometimes overnight. When winter comes, they vanish.

    As the sun gets hotter, they get more spidery. Here's a closer image — like the one above, this gorgeous print was created by the photographer Michael Benson, just published in his new book, Planetfall. It shows two mounds of sand. The spidery thingies, you'll notice, stay on the rises, not on the flat sandy plains.

    Sand ridges, closer in.
    Michael Benson/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Kinetikon Pictures
    What could they be? Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, from Hungary, from the European Space Agency have all proposed explanations; the leading one is so weird, it's transformed my idea of what it's like to be on Mars. For 20 years, I've thought the planet to be magnificently desolate, a dead zone, painted rouge. But imagine this: Every spring, the sun beats down on a southern region of Mars, morning light melts the surface, warms up the ground below, and a thin, underground layer of frozen CO2 turns suddenly into a roaring gas, expands, and carrying rock and ice, rushes up through breaks in the rock, exploding into the Martian air. Geysers shoot up in odd places. It feels random, like being surprise attacked by a monstrous, underground fountain. Here's what it might look like:

    An artist's rendering of Martian geysers.
    Artist rendering by Ron Miller/JPL/Arizona State University
    "If you were there," says Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, "you'd be standing on a slab of carbon dioxide ice. All around you, roaring jets of carbon dioxide gas are throwing sand and dust a couple hundred feet into the air." The ground below would be rumbling. You'd feel it in your space boots.

    That, anyway, is the leading explanation. The spidery traces that you see in Michael's two prints might be clumps of dark, basaltic sand thrown from the geysers. Or — say a group of Hungarian scientists — they might be colonies of photosynthetic Martian microorganisms, warmed from the sun, now sunbathing in plain view. We still don't know for sure.We've been watching those spider patches come and go for the last decade or so, and for a little while longer, we will have to guess why they're there, or what they're telling us.
    We'll have to keep looking.

    Abstract paths in the sand.
    Michael Benson/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Kinetikon Pictures

    A 2006 letter in Nature described this idea of geysers near the Martian south pole. Some American scientists then proposed a "Mars Geyser Hopper," an instrument built to investigate geysers that could "hop" from site to site. (Avoiding, one presumes, sudden gushers from below). Michael Benson's new collection of prints, taken from the digital printouts transmitted by exploration space telescopes, are works of science and imagination. The images are black and white in origin; the color is added. Michael calls his technique "true" color, meaning, he's choosing a spectrum that represents what a human eye would see if a human eye (and brain) were on the scene. His newest is called "Planetfall: New Solar System Visions."

    This New Fusion Engine Will Cut The Travel Time To Mars Down To Six Weeks

    Brace yourselves: Researchers at University of Huntsville in Alabama say they are using "Dilithium Crystals" in a new fusion impulse engine that could cut the travel time to Mars down to as little as six weeks, not the six months it takes now.

    Txchnologist, an online magazine sponsored by General Electric, talked to team member and aerospace engineering PH.D. candidate Ross Cortez, he said "The fusion fuel we're focusing on is deuterium [a stable isotope of hydrogen] and Li6 [a stable isotope of the metal lithium] in a crystal structure."  

    "That's basically dilithium crystals we're using," he said.

    Trekkies everywhere shudder in delight.

    The researchers say that this type of engine is what NASA needs to propel human beings outside low-Earth orbit, out to places like Mars and even beyond.

    Not so fast though, the military will probably get first dibs.

    The whole projects is only possible from repurposing military nuclear testing equipment, essentially stuff America used to test nuclear weapons.

    From UHA Public Affairs:
    [The team is] busy putting together a strange looking machine they’re calling the “Charger-1 Pulsed Power Generator. The huge apparatus, known as the Decade Module Two (DM2) in its earlier life, was used on a contract with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) for research into the effects of nuclear weapons explosions.

    Also, the sponsors of the fusion engine project have ties to military funding—the Aerophysics Research Center on Redstone Arsenal, UAHuntsville’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Boeing and Marshall Space Flight Center’s Propulsion Engineering Lab.

    The unit may cut down travel time from Earth to Mars, but it will also cut down travel time of a military payload to any particular spot on the planet.

    There's still a few kinks to work out though, as CNET points out:

    Plenty of obstacles will need to be overcome during the development process. The issue of harnessing fusion is prominent, but there is also the question of turning the power generated by fusion into thrust for an engine. The craft using the impulse drive would also need to be assembled in space, much like the International Space Station.

    Finally, of course, the technology has applications far beyond military or space exploration.

    “This has been the Holy Grail of energy propulsion technology. The massive payoff is that energy gain, where we get more energy out of the reaction than we put in. This is what everyone has pursued since the time we first started thinking about this,” said Cortez.

    He noted, however, that they are far from achieving a "break even" energy propulsion system.

    Wednesday, October 3, 2012

    Medal of Honor: Warfighter on Xbox 360 – Multiplayer Hands On

    The Medal of Honor series was rebooted in 2010 after 12 games, with a new focus on ‘authentic’ real-world situations faced by operators and special forces in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. While the game had an enjoyable single-player element by main developers Danger Close and a decent multiplayer done by Battlefield team DICE, the game ultimately served just as a temporary stopgap between Battlefield titles for publisher EA and doesn’t exist as a populated title today.

    Two years later, developers Danger Close are close to releasing their second title in the reboot: Warfighter. The game looks to address the shortcomings of its predecessor, using the technically strong Frostbite 2 engine employed by DICE in both the singleplayer and multiplayer portions of the game. This time around, both segments are being created by the Danger Close studio, which should give a more cohesive experience upon the game’s launch.

    The game was recently shown off at the Eurogamer Expo in London, where 24 players faced off in an Onslaught or Rush style objective-based battle. One team was the attacking force, picking targets from around the map and trying to destroy them through planting explosives. The other team was the defending force, attempting to defuse planted bombs and reach the four minute time limit for each objective. Regardless of the outcome of each objective, the game continued until all five objectives had been attempted.

    Each team was made up of four two-man groups, who were seated next to each other. I played the game with my good friend Adam. Both of us have a fair amount of experience playing Battlefield and the first Medal of Honor title, but tend to play on PC rather than Xbox 360. I rolled with the Special Ops character class, who was equipped with an MP7 SMG and the ability to see through walls, while Adam chose a Rifleman with an assault rifle and grenade launcher. Each class had different loadouts and abilities, and was represented by a different type of national special forces. Americans were most common, but other classes were also represented by Canadians, Swedes, South Koreans and more.

    The gameplay was on the whole fast and furious, with the option to spawn directly on your partner proving a useful adaptation of the larger four person squad spawn system of Battlefield. As you could only spawn if your partner wasn’t seen by the enemy, it was important to communicate when to hide and when to move ahead. You could also use this to your advantage with the enemy, as you could keep enemies spotted to force their team-mates to spawn back from the action. This means that you don’t tend to get gunned down by someone who spawns in just as you’re taking out an opponent, which is a welcome change. The spawn system wasn’t perfect though, as the dynamic nature of the battlefield meant that I sometimes spawned immediately behind enemies.

    Overall, the gameplay was polished and enjoyable. While I’ve read about some gamers who had a fairly buggy experience, that wasn’t reflected in my play through; I experienced good frame rates and everything proceeded as expected. Call-ins were present but didn’t seem overly powerful, although a Blackhawk helicopter was a powerful presence on the Battlefield and resulted in a lot of kills for its gunner.
    In general, I found the game offered a lot more tactical freedom than the previous Medal of Honor title, which had extremely cramped maps with few potential angles of attack. This meant I could exploit the lack of awareness of most of my competitors and my class’s special ability, appearing behind them to rack up the points. Ultimately, Adam and I ended up as the highest ranking pair in the game, with a combined total of 56 kills. We also picked up that rare attacking victory – the only one I saw out of the five or six matches I spectated beforehand.

    I went into the game generally apathetic about it, and I walked out quite convinced that I would pick it up on PC when it was released. I’d definitely recommend giving it a try when it comes out, which is October 23rd in North America, October 25th in the EU and October 26th in the UK (sigh). It’ll be available on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and even Wii U.

    Now Samsung Is Suing Apple Over the iPhone 5

    The patent brawl between Samsung and Apple marches on. Samsung on Tuesday filed amendment documents requesting to add the iPhone 5 to its existing suit against the Cupertino company.

    Samsung accuses Apple’s latest smartphone of infringing eight of its patents, the same ones it claims Apple’s new iPad, iPad 2, iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, and iPod touch also infringe. In its filing, Samsung states, “The iPhone 5 has the same accused functionality as the previously accused versions of the iPhone, so the proof of infringement of the patents-in-suit by the iPhone 5 is the same as for other Apple devices already accused of infringement in this litigation.”

    To justify adding the iPhone 5 to the previous filing, Samsung states in its amendment that it “could not have known whether the rumored iPhone 5 would practice its patented technologies when it filed its infringement contentions on June 15. The product was not on the market at that time and could not have been included in the contentions.”

    Nonetheless, Samsung had already threatened to sue Apple over the iPhone 5 this month. And earlier reports indicated that Samsung had planned to add the iPhone 5 to its list of infringing Apple devices once it confirmed that the smartphone had 4G LTE capability.

    The news comes just over month after a U.S. jury found Samsung guilty of violating many of Apple’s design patents. The jury decided Samsung owed Apple close to $1.05 billion in damages.

    Engineers plan to upload bee brains to flying robots

    Engineers from the universities of Sheffield and Sussex are planning on scanning the brains of bees and uploading them into autonomous flying robots that will then fly and act like the real thing.

    Bionic bees -- or perhaps that should be "beeonic" -- could, it is hoped, be used for a range of situations where tiny thinking flying machines should be more useful than current technology, which might mean seeking out gas or chemical leaks, or people who are trapped in small spaces. They might even help pollinate plants in places where natural bee populations have fallen due to the still-mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder.

    It's important to note that this won't be an entirely comprehensive model of a bee's brain -- it's only going to be the parts associated with its sense of smell and vision. These modules will be melded with other software to form what the team call a " Green Brain", one that can react to new situations and improvise rapidly just like a "real" animal or insect brain.

    The project has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with a £1m grant, with Nvidia providing some of its top-end graphics processors for the development team to work with. The aim is to get the "cybee" flying by 2015.

    The head of project, Dr John Marshall, said: "Not only will this pave the way for many future advances in autonomous flying robots, but we also believe the computer modelling techniques we will be using will be widely useful to other brain modelling and computational neuroscience projects".

    The prospect of a robotic animal that's as mentally capable as the thing it's trying to mimic might seem exciting, but bear in mind that swatting one of these away might prove a little trickier. That's especially pertinent as recent research has indicated that many insects, including bees, have personalities like vertebrates -- let's hope they upload a relatively laid-back bee's brain, lest it go rogue.

    The Pirate Bay Returns After 2 Days Downtime

    After nearly 48 hours of downtime and a replaced Power Distribution Unit, The Pirate Bay is back in business. The last two days have been one of the longest downtime episodes since the site was raided in 2006, and its effects have been felt elsewhere on the Internet.
    pirate bayOn Monday The Pirate Bay went offline. By itself the downtime isn’t really news as it happens every other week, but this time it took longer than expected to return.
    The Pirate Bay was quick to inform TorrentFreak that they were dealing with a broken Power Distribution Unit (PDU) which had to be replaced on-site.
    The part in question arrived at the datacenter yesterday and has been installed today.
    Considering the nature of the site The Pirate Bay prefers that these issues are handled by people they know rather than a random employee of the hosting facility. That the site was unreachable for a while is unfortunate, but necessary.
    The prolonged downtime didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the Internet.
    This week, hundreds and thousands of people were wondering what had happened to their favorite torrent site and as a result “The Pirate Bay” quickly became one of the hot searches on Google.

    Hot Bay
    Other popular torrent sites also felt the effects of the downtime, and all enjoyed a healthy bump in traffic. This is not really surprising since The Pirate Bay caters to millions of people every day, people who had to satisfy their BitTorrent habit elsewhere.

    Traffic Up
    And then there were the rumors.
    The downtime coincided with a raid at its former hosting company PRQ, but The Pirate Bay stated they they haven’t been using PRQ’s services for quite some time. The downtime was a mere coincidence, they told us, although it was later admitted that the site may have used a PRQ relay.
    The target of the PRQ raid has still not been confirmed but currently our sources believe it may be a smaller Swedish tracker.
    Whether that’s true or not, The Pirate Bay is back up and serving magnets as usual.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2012

    Warning: Gameplay Experience May Differ

    Warning: Gameplay Experience May Differ

    Just about every gamer has a story about being burned by a game that sucked them in with promising trailers, then turned out to be nothing like they thought it would. As game companies become more mainstream and have access to the same CGI tools as the movie industry, we're seeing ever-slicker advertising campaigns that include trailers that give Hollywood blockbusters a run for their money. The temptation to become bewitched by these cinematic trailers is strong, but we need to be careful to remember that unlike movies, games very rarely look just like the trailers used to advertise them. Cinematic trailers have the potential to deceive us into thinking a game is something that it simply is not.

    There's a place for cinematic trailers. Blizzard's cinematic openings for its games are so popular that the company has started using them as part of a game's pre-release promotion. It's well-understood that these pieces are pure movie magic, though, and they're always released alongside plenty of trailers showing what the game actually looks like. Similarly, companies will sometimes make cinematic trailers for a game that's already been released in order to draw more attention to the product. In this case, it's easy for a potential consumer to look up gameplay on Youtube or read reviews, so there's no excuse for being disappointed by the promises of the trailer.
    When out-of-engine trailers become a problem is when they're the focal point for a game's promotional campaign. If a game is showing very little but cinematic or live-action pieces before it's released, that's like putting a huge "Buyer Beware" sign up for consumers. Why won't the game's marketing team show the actual game? Is it ugly? Boring? Or is the marketing team simply completely disconnected from the development team due to corporate bureaucracy?

    Two examples of recent games that overused cinematic trailers during promotion are Dead Island and Star Wars: The Old Republic. The zombie action-RPG Dead Island made a huge splash when it released a dark, deeply-affecting trailer showing people on an island resort being affected by the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. The trailer greatly excited a lot of gamers, who were quickly disappointed when the actual game had very little emotional resonance. Far from being a dark meditation on the survival genre, Dead Island was mostly a game in which the player carved up zombies in gruesome ways while poorly-written characters spouted wisecracks.
    Star Wars: The Old Republic's marketing campaign placed a heavy focus on cinematic trailers, and any that showed actual gameplay were heavily cut, giving the impression that gameplay (and combat in particular) was far more dynamic than it actually was. These trailers did an excellent job capturing the imagination of Star Wars fans, but they also built up anticipation beyond the level that the actual gameplay could sustain. The truth is that Star Wars: The Old Republic has a very conventional hotbar-based MMORPG combat system that was not nearly as exciting or dynamic as the action shown in the cinematic trailers.
    Warning: Gameplay Experience May Differ
    Plenty of people enjoyed playing both Dead Island and Star Wars: The Old Republic: neither game was bad, per se. However, the marketing campaigns for both games led to disappointment on the part of many consumers, when the game turned out to look and play quite differently from how it was portrayed in trailers. These types of marketing campaigns can certainly work against a company in the long run. It's interesting to see that Deep Silver has released a similarly emotional and cinematic trailer for Dead Island's sequel, one that gamers are viewing with a deeply cynical eye due to the issues with the first game.
    As for Star Wars: TOR, the game lost many of its initial subscribers and wasn't able to maintain the kind of subscription base it was expected to maintain. It's hard to tell how many lost subscriptions were due to players being disappointed that the game wasn't enough like its trailers, but that was likely a factor in some gamer disappointment.
    Warning: Gameplay Experience May Differ
    Cinematic trailers can be fun, but gamers need to be more discerning when it comes to making purchase decisions based on trailers that don't show actual gameplay. With the high price of most modern games, we should demand a look at the actual game engine and search for gameplay demonstrations before plunking down our money sight unseen. Likewise, while games need a strong advertising campaign in order to garner strong sales, companies should be careful not to over-promise what a game can do with cinematic trailers, lest gamers feel burned and abandon a game series. After all, shouldn't games look great and be fun to play without needing an extra coat of CGI makeup covering them up?

    Great reef catastrophe

    Australian Institute of Marine Science senior scientist Hugh Sweatman says the reef's health has decreased dramatically. Australian Institute of Marine Science senior scientist Hugh Sweatman says the reef's health has decreased dramatically.
    Half the Great Barrier Reef's coral has disappeared in the past 27 years and less than a quarter could be left within a decade unless action is taken, a landmark study has found.
    A long-term investigation of the reef by scientists at Townsville's Australian Institute of Marine Science found coral had been wiped out by intense tropical cyclones, a native species of starfish and coral bleaching.
    The big concern going forward is that if nothing else changes than within 20 years the reef could be in a perilous state. 
    Researchers warned that while the World Heritage listed reef was a dynamic system — with coral cover rising and falling over time — if the mass die-off continued less than 25 per cent would exist in 2022.
    Reef wipeout.
    "The big concern going forward is that if nothing else changes than within 20 years the reef could be in a perilous state," said institute senior scientist Peter Doherty .
    At 214 reef sites surveyed, the coral cover halved from 28 to 13.8 per cent between 1985 and 2012.
    Two-thirds of the loss occurred since 1998. Only three of the 214 reef sites exhibited no impact.
    Bleaching at Halfway Island. Click for more photos

    Coral damage on the Great Barrier Reef

    Bleaching at Halfway Island. Photo: Ray Berkelmans, AIMS.
    • Bleaching at Halfway Island.
    • Bleaching at North Keppel.
    • Healthy reef at the Low Islands.
    • Healthy reef at the Low Islands.
    • MacDonald reef before cyclone damage.
    • MacDonald reef after cyclone damage.
    • The coral eating starfish Acanthaster planci.
    • Horseshoe reef before crown-of-thorns invasion.
    • Horseshoe reef after crown-of-thorns invasion.
    • Crown-of-thorns and cyclone damage
    • Crown-of-thorns damage on Beaver Reef.
    • Damage to Beaver Reef by Cyclone Hamish.
    "Coral cover is the simplest index of reef health, and the health of the Great Barrier Reef has gone down dramatically," said institute senior scientist Hugh Sweatman.
    "The coral provides shelter and food for thousands of organisms so you don't just lose the corals themselves you lose the species that depend on them."
    The coral damage was most pronounced in the central and southern regions of the 2000-kilometre reef, with the remote northern section remaining largely unaffected.
    Mean coral cover.
    Tropical cyclones accounted for 48 per cent of the coral die-off across the entire reef, followed by outbreaks of the crown of thorns starfish, which was responsible for 42 per cent of the loss. Bleaching contributed to 10 per cent of loss.
    "You can dive on a coral reef one week when all you can see is living coral, each colony overlapping with its neighbours, but after the passage of a cyclone it looks like a cement road," said Dr Doherty.
    Global warming models project increases in water temperatures will lead to more intense cyclones.
    Illustration: Ron Tandberg. Photo: rtanberg
    While crown of thorns starfish were a natural predator of coral — the adult animals feed on tiny polyps inside the coral skeleton — their impact over the past 25 years had been substantial.
    A large outbreak that started around Lizard Island in 1994, spread the length of the reef over 15 years.
    Flood waters carrying fertilisers and other agricultural nutrients into the ocean were thought to increase the survival of crown of thorns larvae because the runoff encouraged the growth of algae eaten by the offspring.
    A crown of thorns starfish. A crown of thorns starfish.
    "The frequency of crown of thorns outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef has likely increased from one in every 50-80 years before European agricultural runoff, to the currently observed frequency of one in about every 15 years," said the authors.
    Warmer waters were also responsible for coral-bleaching events, where the tiny organisms living inside the coral skeleton "bleached" and died with the rising temperatures.
    "The recent frequency and intensity of mass coral bleaching are of major concern, and are directly attributable to rising atmospheric greenhouse gases," wrote the authors, whose study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
    "Bleaching mortality will almost certainly increase in the GBR, given the upward trend in temperatures," they said.
    While the state of the world's longest reef system appeared bleak, it did have the ability to recover.
    "What it needs is a decade or two to do it in," said Dr Sweatman.
    "Right now the cyclones, the crown of thorns and the bleaching events are coming so thick and fast that they're not getting enough time to recover."
    While storms and bleaching events could not be controlled in the short term, direct action on the crown of thorns starfish would offer an immediate remedy for the reef.
    "If we could stop crown of thorn outbreaks tomorrow then we could get the coral cover on the reef back to 1985 condition in less than 20 years," said Dr Doherty.

    The CD is 30 years old today

    Sony ad
    Today’s a significant anniversary in the history of recorded music: the world's first CD players were announced in Japan on October 1st, 1982.  
    And despite the rearguard action fought by some record companies – and some audiophile reviewers who went into full, barricade-manning denial at the time – it’s still with us as a highly successful medium for recorded music, the antecedent of modern DVDs and Blu-rays and the precursor of today’s digital download trend.
    Sony CDP-101
    By Autumn 1982 the CD momentum had been building for a while, but it was on October 1st that Sony launched its first player, the CDP-101, along with the first album available on the new format – Billy Joel's 52nd Street.
    Eight years in the making
    However, the project to store music on an optical disc was founded by Philips as far back as 1974, and the suggestion that a 20cm disc be used. In turn, that was based on an even earlier Philips project, Audio Long Play, using laser technology.
    By 1977 the format for players and discs was beginning to come together, with the Philips engineers taking the 'Compact Disc' name from their last success, the compact cassette, and suggesting a disc with an 11.5cm diameter - the diagonal measurement of a cassette – to give a running time of one hour.
    Philips introduce CDBy now, some original ideas about making the format quadrophonic rather than stereo had been dumped: to do that would have meant going for that 20cm disc, and the 'compact' idea was taking hold.
    Almost a format war
    Meanwhile, in what could have been the makings of a format war, Sony engineers had shown an optical audio format in September 1976, and by 1978 had a disc giving a playing time of 150 minutes using a 44.1kHz - well actually 44.056kHz - sampling rate and 16-bit resolution.
    They presented this at the 1979 Audio Engineering Society convention, which was held in Belgium. And in typical format war style, a week before, Philips held an event called 'Philips Introduce Compact Disc'.
    Driven by Sony exec Norio Ohga, a keen musician, friend of the conductor Herbert von Karajan and head of CBS/Sony Records by the relatively young age of 40 – he'd later go on to become Sony president, CEO and eventually succeed founder Akio Morita as chairman – Sony and Philips (thankfully) joined forces to co-develop the format.
    Karajan with Sony and Philips
    A joint conference, with Karajan (above) taking centre stage between Joop Sinjou of Philips and Sony's Akio Morita, was held to announce the venture, and the brought together the two companies' technologies, and came up with the Red Book standard – despite the colour, the blueprint for the format – in 1980.
    Why 44.1kHz?
    Here comes the science bit, and for the purposes of this blog I'm going to keep it simple – hopefully!
    The choice of audio format for CD was a mixture of available technology and what was possible at the time. CD needed a format capable of covering the audible frequency spectrum – 20Hz-20kHz – and that meant a sampling rate of at least twice 20kHz would be required.
    Sony U-matic tapeFortunately a solution was at hand, in the form of a technology used to store audio, for example for transfer between studios and so on: Sony's U-matic video tape (left).
    Originally made for professional video applications, this could be used with a PCM adaptor to store six audio samples per video line - ie three samples for each stereo channel.
    And given the 245 usable lines per field and just under 60 fields per second of NTSC video, and the 294 lines/60 fields of PAL video, this gave a sampling rate of 44.056 samples per second for each stereo channel on NTSC format, or 44.1kHz on PAL.
    Why 16-bit?
    The system could store 16-bit samples, but needed error correction to do so accurately, or could store 14-bit with no correction, and for a while the Philips engineers proposed 14-bit with a 44kHz sampling rate, while the Sony team pushed for – well actually insisted on – 16-bit with either 44.056kHz or 44.1kHz sampling.
    The difference? Well, the greater the number of bits, the more 'steps' can be used to describe each sample, and more steps means greater resolution.
    16-bit provides 65,536 voltage values (or steps) for each sample, while 14-bit gives 16,384 – or in other words a quarter as many as 16-bit.
    Going into the CD age, Philips already had a 14-bit digital to analogue converter, but the Sony engineers prevailed, and 16-bit/44.1kHz it was.
    For their machines, the Philips team made the 14-bit system deliver the same quality by using four times oversampling – running the converter at four times the 44.1kHz sampling rate – and thus improving resolution while reducing noise.
    And why the 12cm disc? Beethoven's 9th...?
    And no doubt influenced by both the conductor and his friend Ohga, the CD format changed again, growing to 12cm. Why? Simply because Sony insisted that the running time should be sufficient to hold the whole of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
    And given that the longest-running version of the 9th in the Philips-owned Polygram catalogue – Furtwangler's 1951 Bayreuth Festival recording – was 74 minutes, that became the standard. 12cm – rather than the previous 11.5cm, designed to hold an hour of music, or the 10cm disc Sony had been proposing – was what we got.
    ... Or a matter of competitive advantage?
    Well, that's one version of the story: the other is that Philips was already set up to press the 11.5cm discs, and so had an advantage over Sony, which didn't have a plant up and running yet. By forcing the switch to 12cm, it's claimed, Ohga was able to level the playing-field again.
    Whatever the truth, surprisingly the first classical disc pressed on the new format wasn't the 9th, but a Karajan recording with the Berlin Philharmonic of Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie. The first 'pop' disc made was Abba's The Visitors, but it was beaten onto the shelves by that Billy Joel release.
    'The record player is obsolete'
    Though Sony was first to market with hardware, Philips had shown a production player in April 1982, the company's Lou Ottens, technical director of the audio division, announcing that 'From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete.'  Thirty years on, 'the conventional record player' is still selling healthily!
    CDs with jam on
    But for many of a certain age, the first exposure to CD would have come when BBC popular science programme Tomorrow's World previewed the format. Who can forget Kieran Prendiville spreading jam on a test-pressing of a Bee Gees disc?
    Here's a promotional video from Philips launched around the time of the first CDs:

    Philips CD101
    Gramophone coverThe first players were based around the drawer-loading Sony CDP-101 technology, and soon the top-loading wedge-fronted Philips CD100 (above).
    And by the time the format was officially rolled out worldwide, in March 1983, Gramophone magazine was able to publish a special section reviewing not only the discs available, but no fewer than four CD players.
    The original Philips and Sony machines were in there, along with Hitachi's DA-1000, in which the disc was clamped vertically in the manner of a cassette player, and the drawer-loading Marantz CD-73, the company's follow-up to the Philips CD100-derived CD-63.
    The CD-73 had a clear panel in the top-plate, through which the green-illuminated disc could be seen spinning.

    Hitachi DA-1000
    Hitachi's advertising for the DA-1000 (above), while Comet announces the Marantz CD 73, complete with its top-loading mechanism turned into a drawer-loader
    Comet Marantz CD73
    The price for these players? From £450 for the Philips to £549 for the Sony, with the Marantz and Hitachi both around the £500 mark. And it's worth bearing in mind how expensive those players were: £500 in 1983 was the equivalent of around £1400 today.
    The best thing since Harry Lauder
    The Gramophone recording reviewers gave their opinions of their first encounters with CD, William A Chislett saying that the arrival of CD made previous experiences – including first hearing a recording of Harry Lauder singing Roaming in the gloaming when it was released in 1905! – pale into insignificance.
    Lionel Salter commented that 'The pure silence against which the music can unfold is itself startling', while Edward Greenfield noted that, aside from the trickiness of fast-fowarding to find a desired passage of the music, and the need for index points within long pieces – remember them? - , CD brought 'a sense of presence comparable with that of quadrophonic at its best'. He looked forward to one day having a CD system in his car.
    'The silence is deafening'
    Robert Layton, meanwhile, said of the lack of background noise that 'the silence is positively deafening', and while other critics mentioned the focus the new format could throw on any failings in production or recording, Layton concluded 'I am sure there is no turning back'.
    In the audio press, the arrival of CD met a mixed reception.
    CS countdown
    What Hi-Fi? (as it was then) kept its readers abreast of developments as the launch of CD approached and then as more players began to appear.
    The magazine brought us news of the first all-in-one CD-playing system from Hitachi, the move of companies such as Meridian (below) into the format, and the eventual arrival of the in-car player from companies such as Sony, Philips and Pioneer.
    Meridian CD
    Sony portable
    And by the end of 1984, What Hi-Fi?'s Kevin Whitchurch was getting terribly excited about the arrival of the first Sony portable player, the D50, taking the new machine home with him to try – and accidentally leaving it in a pub on the way! Those were the days…
    CD reviews
    By then WHF? also had a monthly CD review section, kicking off in August 1984 with a review of Yes’s 90125, and the view that the CD sounded a bit bright and sibilant beside the LP, a common criticism among the audiophile press at the time.
    But things went further: Even as CD was launching, WHF? ran a story showing how the LP was preparing to fight back against the newcomer with the likes of Direct Metal Mastered pressings, while those magazines catering for the more 'serious' audiophile seemed decidedly detached from the whole CD thing.
    Review CD players? Never! I quit!For many years the 'vinyl is best' mantra was preached. Let's face it, in some quarters it still is, despite three decades in which the CD player has been refined and developed.
    In fact, I gather from a friend working on one of Haymarket’s hi-fi magazines at the time that the resistance to CD was not only deep, but determined. Indeed, such was the intensity of the negative feeling that one staff member actually resigned rather than bow to the pressure to review CD players!
    hitachi explains

    Not all audiophiles dreamed of silver discs...

    However, despite the best efforts of the resistance, CD caught on pretty rapidly, although some companies held firm for as long as they could, in the belief that CD performance couldn't match what was available from vinyl. In contrast with early adopters such as Mission and Meridian, Naim didn't make a CD player until 1991, when it introduced the CDS (below), and Linn held out until 1993, finally launching the Karik that year.
    Naim CDS
    Since the arrival of the CD, which all along had promised the potential for extra content such as lyrics or even pictures, we've also had various spin-offs from the original standard, designed to add functionality.
    There was the Video CD, launched as a more durable alternative to the prerecorded video cassette and still popular in some markets, and CDi (below), an interactive system launched by Philips to deliver both games and movies through modified players but overtaken by the arrival of DVD, which of course also uses that 12cm disc format.
    Philips CDi
    We've also had CD recorders for audio, much loved in the hi-fi community as a means of making sampler discs to carry around for demonstrations or testing, but these days all but displaced by computer storage, USB sticks and hard drives, and iPods and the like, while just about every computer still has a CD/DVD rewriter built-in.
    But coming back to CD players – many of which now use just such a CD/DVD combination drive, simply because such hardware is now more available than dedicated CD-only mechanisms –, I started to wonder how far we've come since 1982?
    Buying early CD players
    As a relatively early adopter of CD – my first player came with a copy of the then-newly-released Brothers in Arms, which went on to give Dire Straits a place in the record books as the first million-selling CD artist – I was interested to find out, so started hunting for an early machine.
    Marantz CD63
    No joy on the really early stuff: the first Philips top-loaders, and derivatives such as the original Marantz CD63 (above) are now sought-after collectibles, not least among mainland European retro-audio enthusiasts, and the best I could find was around €1500 for an original model in working condition.
    Philips CD160 Gramo reviewHowever, while hunting around on the internet I found hi-fi recycling specialists Green Home Electronics, and a Philips CD160 (left) in full working nick on sale for the princely sum of £19.99.
    OK, not the first, but still an early player, released in around 1986, and one of the first truly affordable players Philips made in an attempt to stave off the inrush of aggressively-priced machines from points further East.
    Selling for £230, it was also designed to pull more wavering consumers into CD, and it worked: this was the first CD player I bought, and now I was going back to have another listen.
    Having explained to Green Home's Dave Powell why I was after the player – didn't want the word to go out that I'd fallen on hard times, after all! – he had a rummage in his store-room, which is being turned out prior to the company relocating from Berkshire to Lincolnshire, and came up with two earlier machines.
    When I arrived to pick up the CD160, there was also the machine it replaced, a CD150, and a CD104, dating from 1984 and the first of the company's drawer-loaders. Amazingly the latter was boxed in slightly tatty original cardboard and came complete with its original manual.
    Phlips CD104 ad
    Oh, and this was also the winner of CD player group test in the October 1984 issue of What Hi-Fi?, going on to be our CD player of the Year 1985, announced in the November 1984 magazine (below).
    CD Award 1985
    The earlier players were in various states of disrepair – the display was temperamental on the CD150, and the CD104 needed to be picked up and given a sharp tilt forward to coax the loader open, belying the ‘Motor Powered Loading’ script on the front of the drawer. However, both played discs fine, so having been offered all three for £30, it seemed churlish not had over the crisp folding, and load them all in the boot of the car to take away for a spot of listening.
    CD104, CD150 and CD160
    A bootful of CD history: from top to bottom CD104 (1984), CD150 (1985) and CD160 (1986)
    And after they'd been cleaned up a bit by our expert photographer for the shots you see here, all three got some use at home, just to see how they sounded.
    But first, a look at all three machines, and what was immediately obvious was that the CD104 was substantially heavier than the later machines, the reason for which became clear when I popped the lid to look inside: no plastic! 

    Full metal player

    Anything inside this player that could be made of metal, is made of metal, meaning it has a substantial transport mechanism and an overall feel of solidity somewhat lacking in its featherweight descendants.
    Mission DAD7000There's also a massive heatsink on the back to keep the power supply section regulators cool and performing as they should.
    However, a look under the lid will tell you this design is far from the ‘shortest path’ layout favoured in modern equipment – cables seem to run everywhere!
    However, with that that solidity of build it’s no wonder the CD104, with its novel two-way (up/down/left-right) rocker panel for play/pause and track skip, became the basis for many tuned machines.
    These include Mission's DAD7000 (reviewed in Gramophone, left) – although that model replaced the square rocker panel with four smaller buttons – the Marantz CD-34 (below), and several others including models under the Revox and Schneider names.

    Marantz CD34
    It was also a best-selling machine for Philips – maybe that What Hi-Fi? Award helped a bit!
    Our CD104 had been shipped to a retailer in Swindon somewhere back in the mists of time, according to an address stamped on the box, and aside from obvious signs of wear on the most-used controls – oh, and that recalcitrant drawer, probably fixable if the correct parts, most likely a belt, could be obtained – was very much in working condition.
    Philips CD104 and box
    Earliest player, the Philips CD104, came complete with original box and manual
     By comparison with the hefty CD104, tipping the scales at 7kg, the CD150 was both much lighter, its 3kg all-up weight down to much greater use of plastics in the mechanism and the front panel, and a glass-fibre reinforced chassis instead of the CD104's diecast aluminium.
    As already mentioned, it was built down to a price, too, launching at £229 and falling to £199 before the CD160 appeared to sit above it, again at £229.
    The CD160 wasn't the first Philips machine to make the move from 14-bit conversion to 160bit, using the TDA1541 DAC: the new chipset had already been used in the more upmarket CD450 and CD650. It was, however, the first mass-market Philips machine with this specification, and the marketing department went a bit bonkers with the glitzy trim and very obvious '16 Bit Fourfold Oversampling' badging on the front of the player.
    Philips CD160
    Now when the CD104 was first launched it was £329, or about £875 in modern terms; the CD160, at £229, would be the equivalent of about £550 these days.
    And if ever you needed evidence that hi-fi hasn't just defied inflation, but has actually got ever more affordable, bear this in mind: the entry-level player I chose to pitch against the Philips machines, the £300 Cambridge Audio Azur 351C (below), would have been £125 in 1986 terms, and £100 in 1982 money.

    Cambridge Audio Azur 351C

    In other words, a good entry-level CD player is now less than half the price it would have been 30 years ago: given that the total rate of inflation since 1982 is just over 200%, that's not bad going!
    OK, OK – so how do they sound? Well, anyone hoping to hear that the early machines are almost comically bad compared to today’s digital marvels is going to be disappointed; but then again so will those suffused by a rosy glow of nostalgia and feeling either that little of any progress has been made, or that those players of the past set standards unmatched by modern machines.
    A bit vague in its old age?
    The earliest machine (the CD104) sounds a bit vague by comparison with the very latest hardware, and indeed the most recent of our trio, the CD160 – but then both it and the CD150 are using the original 14-bit DAC technology with which CD was launched. The balance here is smooth, but fairly dynamic, but what’s gone AWOL is the presence and sparkle that makes the best of modern CD players sound so involving.
    If you want, the CD104 sounds a bit like a high-bitrate MP3 file – the music’s all there, but some of the magic and vitality is missing.
    Nonetheless, it’s not hard to hear just what appealed so much to early CD buyers, used to the crackles and pops of poorly-kept LPs or the almost inevitable hiss of cassette: there’s nothing to get in the way of the music here, even if it’s clear with the benefit of hindsight that recordings still have much more to give.
    The CD150 shows that the Philips engineers were able to keep much of that sound quality while bringing prices down – important given that CD players were still three or four times the price of a sensible turntable/cartridge set-up such as the Sansui SR-222 MkII (below) with which I first started listening seriously back at the beginning of the 1980s.
    Sansui SR-222
    Given that and the price of discs, something had to be done to draw more buyers into CD, and faced with the rapid price-cutting being done by the Japanese brands, Philips responded with the CD150, and then the CD160.
    So while the CD150 was, as already noted, obviously less expensive to build than the CD104, the sonic balance remains much the same, only taking an obvious leap forward with the arrival of the 16-bit CD160, which suddenly seems to open up the sound at the top end of the frequency range, as well as giving greatly improved dynamics, By comparison, the 14-bit machines can sound rather cautious with big orchestral works or the kind of hard-hitting electronic bass yet to be refined and used widely when these machines were first sold.
    That said, the CD160 can sound a bit shrill and glassy up in the high treble, not to mention giving cymbals and orchestral tuned percussion a bit more ‘splash’ than we’re used to today, rather than a crisp presentation of the instruments’ sound.
    There’s no doubt that even entry-level CD players of today can deliver high frequencies with greater bite and sting, adding to the sense of excitement, without the rather fatiguing edge apparent in the CD160, while delivering the sense of air and space, especially with atmospheric ‘live’ recordings, that almost entirely eludes the earliest players in our trio.
    We've gained focus, power and flow
    Switch from the CD160 to the Cambridge Audio Azur 351C, for example, and it’s immediately clear that you’re hearing so much more of the recording, from instrumental textures to the speed and attack of the music, while also getting tighter, more solid and convincing bass, a clearer soundstage picture – the old machines can sound a bit ‘left channel, right channel’ – and greatly improved focus.
    In other words, more of an impression of real musicians rather than miniature ones...
    Ferguson ad
    What’s more, switching from old to new shows that the latter is much easier to listen to, having greater smoothness and musical flow, and lacking the sometimes slightly ‘technical’ sound of the old machines.
    For all that, none of these elderly players would actually disappoint when listened to in isolation, and as usable historical artefacts available for bargain money any would make a good choice for those wanting a taste of where CD came from.
    Compare the price of one of these players with what you’d have to pay for a high-quality turntable from the past, and they begin to look like something of a bargain, not to mention a fun way of seeing whether you think your state of the art CD player – or indeed streaming set-up – really shows we've made much progress since digitally-stored music became available to all.
    Me? I think I’ll stick to my thoroughly modern disc playback and music-streaming set-up, appreciating how far digital music playback in the home has come in the past thirty years.
    Mind you, I might hang on to that CD104, just for novelty value, and see whether I can coax that drawer back into life.
    Oh, and I may keep my eye out for an original Philips CD100-based top-loading machine – you know, just in case I stumble across one for silly money in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what they’ve got.
    And then perhaps…