Ex-Theme Hospital Developers Making New Theme Hospital

If I said “Two Point Hospital” out-loud you might think I was discussing some asinine venture-funded startup designed to revolutionize the medical experience for anyone wealthy enough to afford it. Thank goodness, Sega and Two Point Studios are just making a new hospital management game using developers who have worked on Theme Hospital before. EA still owns the Theme Hospital name, so that’s why it’s called Two Point Hospital instead. It’s supposed to be out late this year, and there’s a Steam page for it.

Waking Up to An Incoming Ballistic Missile

A digital road sign from a few hours after the first alert//Jack Slater

Saturday, yesterday, my wife ran into the house a few minutes after 8 AM  and shook me awake with the news that a ballistic missile was incoming towards our home. She had received the alert via the emergency system on every smartphone. We didn’t know why my phone hadn’t sounded the alarm (my wife says I am a “very sound sleeper”) as far as I can tell, it was set to do so.

Here was the text of the actual alert:

BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Anyone who was watching TV also got this message:

My wife sheltered with our son, who was still sleeping, in the bathtub at the center of the house. I shut the windows and the doors, knocked on our neighbors door to try and make sure they knew, wished I had bought more supplies before the incoming attack, and then joined my family in the bathroom, hoping for the best. That it was a false alarm, that it would miss or be deflected, that we would at least survive the initial blast and then find some way to survive whatever payload the missile delivered. We weren’t really prepared for either nuclear or biological possibilities.

The alert didn’t specify which island was destined to receive the missile. We’re on Oahu, which you would assume would be the target because it has military installations.

We were lucky to find out via our senators, and the emergency management agency that it was a false alarm:

Even after finding out that it was a false alarm, I was terrified. What if this had been a sensor malfunction, and the same malfunctioning message had reached our national embarrassment of a president and convinced him that it warranted an immediate nuclear response? There was no way to tell what he would do, he’s been antagonizing other nuclear powers and  bragging about the size of his “Nuclear Button” like a five-year-old.

About 45 minutes after I woke up, the emergency management agency finally got a message out via the original alert mechanism and confirmed the false alarm:

Adam Nagourney, David E. Sanger, and Johanna Barr for The New York Times:

The false alert was a stark reminder of what happens when the old realities of the nuclear age collide with the speed — and the potential for error — inherent in the internet age. The alert came at one of the worst possible moments — when tension with North Korea has been at one of the highest points in decades, and when Mr. Kim’s government has promised more missile tests and threatened an atmospheric nuclear test.

During the Cold War there were many false alarms. William J. Perry, the defense secretary during the Clinton administration, recalled in his memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” a moment in 1979 when, as an under secretary of defense, he was awakened by a watch officer who reported that his computer system was showing 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles headed to the United States. “For one heart-stopping second I thought my worst nuclear nightmare had come true,” Mr. Perry wrote.

It turned out that a training tape had been mistakenly inserted into an early-warning system computer. No one woke up the president. But Mr. Perry went on to speculate what might have happened if such a warning had come “during the Cuban Missile Crisis or a Mideast war?”

The governor has apologized for the mistake, which turned out to be caused by bad UX in a drop-down menu. The best response our president had was to take a break, hours later, from golfing and go off the rails about a book that exposed his administration’s incompetence and internal distrust of his judgement. The rest of his administration was completely unprepared according to this article from Eliana Johnson:

A false warning of a missile threat in Hawaii sent White House aides scrambling Saturday, frantically phoning agencies to determine a response and triggering worries about their preparedness almost a year into the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump’s Cabinet has yet to test formal plans for how to respond to a domestic missile attack, according to a senior administration official. John Kelly, while serving as secretary of Homeland Security through last July, planned to conduct the exercise. But he left his post to become White House chief of staff before it was conducted, and acting Secretary Elaine Duke never carried it out.

Philip Bump for The Washington Post:

Consider his responses. First that statement, which has one obvious aim: To assure the American people that it wasn’t his fault that the false alert went out — it was Hawaii’s. Then, that tweet, which shows what was preoccupying the president at the moment. Not that one of the 50 states had been briefly wracked with terror after a mistake was made by the people whose job it is to keep them safe. Instead, an insistence to the American people that the media is “fake news,” which was probably a response to the reports that trickled out bolstering a story from the Wall Street Journal that Trump had allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he’d had an affair.

That was the thing that Trump urgently wanted to clear up: The media couldn’t be trusted when it reported on him.

Trump could have tweeted as soon as possible that the alert was a false alarm, sharing that information with millions of Americans immediately. He could have additionally shared information about what went wrong, and assured people that he would work to make sure that no such error happened again in the future. He could, at the very least, have sought to offer some emotional support to the people of Hawaii. He did none of these. He has, as of writing, done none of these.

[…]

It’s also hard to imagine that Trump didn’t make the situation more stressful in another way. His constant prodding of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has dramatically increased the sense that a missile might actually be launched at Hawaii from that nation. During the past 12 months, we’ve learned a lot more about what North Korea can do, and we’ve heard experts describe Trump’s response as exacerbating, not lessening, the possibility of conflict.

The result is that there was actually one message Trump sent to Hawaiians on Saturday.

You’re on your own.

Vive Pro Announced at CES Without a Price & A Disgraceful Anniversary for Valve

HTC announced a Vive Pro with higher resolution goggles than their original SteamVR virtual reality headset, built-in headphones (they were previously available separately), a more comfortable strap, a second camera and microphone are now built into the headset, and an official wireless module that is sold separately.

The resolution is the biggest thing here. The first Vive was only 1080×1200 pixels for the display going to each eye. The Pro is 1440×1600 per-eye. This should help to eliminate some of the issues the original had with text and other details. HTC also promises that it’ll be easier to adjust the headset to suit your eyes.

I still feel like it’s wrong to announce a thing without a price or any dates for when it’ll be available, but there you go. Maybe they’re trying to get out ahead of an upcoming Oculus announcement. I’m glad that the Vive is still a going concern because I don’t want anything to do with Oculus after the Palmer Luckey debacle. It would be even better if this means that HTC will lower the price of the original Vive but they might just put the Pro at a higher one and be done with it for now.

HTC also has their own store for software called Viveport available with or without a subscription. It’s available inside the headset now, and the gimmick is that there may be previews available of the different experiences it offers.

I kind of get why HTC might want a separate storefront from Steam, developers aren’t always going to be eager to go through Valve’s process for every kind of software and Valve might not want a billion short VR experiences crapping up their money hog. As it is, HTC claims over 1000 pieces of software in their store. I don’t think anybody wants to visit it, but maybe the interactive demos in VR will be useful.

It’d be better if Valve lowered the barrier for software to get onto Steam while increasing the level of moderation for absolutely disgraceful shit like Dating Lessons, the VR software from some MRA shitbags who want to turn normal men into people who “won’t take no for an answer.” That garbage is still available for sale a year after I wrote about it.

Bruce Dawson’s Xbox 360 Prefetch Bug

Bruce Dawson once worked for Microsoft where he found a bug in the Xbox 360 that he was reminded of by the Spectre and Meltdown exploits:

A game developer who was using this function reported weird crashes – heap corruption crashes, but the heap structures in the memory dumps looked normal. After staring at the crash dumps for awhile I realized what a mistake I had made.

Keep reading.

Meltdown & Spectre: Update Everything

There are two big computer vulnerabilities that were announced recently, Spectre and Meltdown attacks. These are significant because they affect almost every desktop, laptop, smartphone, tablet, and game console. Almost anything with a processor can be exploited to give attackers passwords and whatever other private information is on a device.

The attacks work because of the way that computer processors attempt to speculatively work ahead of their current point in executing a computer program. My understanding is that even code executed in your web browser could execute these attacks.

There are already patches available through Apple operating systems, Microsoft’s Windows, some Android devices, and many Linux operating systems.

The workarounds that operating systems are implementing may slow these devices down because the attacks utilize performance features of the processors, but the performance effects of the mitigation might not be noticeable outside of specific workloads.

Bruce Schneier:

These aren’t normal software vulnerabilities, where a patch fixes the problem and everyone can move on. These vulnerabilities are in the fundamentals of how the microprocessor operates.

It shouldn’t be surprising that microprocessor designers have been building insecure hardware for 20 years. What’s surprising is that it took 20 years to discover it. In their rush to make computers faster, they weren’t thinking about security. They didn’t have the expertise to find these vulnerabilities. And those who did were too busy finding normal software vulnerabilities to examine microprocessors. Security researchers are starting to look more closely at these systems, so expect to hear about more vulnerabilities along these lines.

$1.60, A License Plate From Your Home State, And An Essay

This documentary, The Barkley Marathons, on the most bizarre race in the US is very good. To sign up you have to give the race organizer with that $1.60, a license plate from your home state, and an essay about why you should be allowed to join the race. That essay helps the organizer pick one person he is sure will lose. The whole situation just keeps getting stranger and more brutally demanding of the people who compete in this rally for over a hundred miles through dense woods as they climb the equivalent of Mt. Everest’s elevation twice. Highly recommended. It’s streaming on Netflix right now, or you can buy it through a bunch of other services.

George Pendle has a fantastic article about it for Esquire:

The race can begin any time between midnight and noon on the closest Saturday to April Fools’ Day, always exactly one hour after a conch is blown. Runners are not given a map of the course, which is unmarked and largely off-trail, until the afternoon before. They must rely on compasses and the race’s obscure official directions to find their way. GPS is forbidden.

Runners must locate thirteen books in each loop and tear out a page corresponding to their race number. This year’s batch includes Unravelled, Lost and Found, and There Is Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self-Hate. After each loop, the pages are counted and each runner is given a new number. There are no aid stations, just two unmanned water drops that are often frozen solid. Those unable to finish are serenaded by the Barkley’s official bugler playing a discordant rendition of “Taps.”

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch) Review

Odyssey

1996’s Super Mario 64 was the first, and the last, 3D Mario game I completed before playing Super Mario Odyssey. 21 years separate these games but they are inexorably linked. I will never forget the first time I saw Mario 64 in motion on a Nintendo 64 kiosk at a major league baseball fan appreciation day. It was an unbelievable triumph of translating the 2D Mario games into a 3D world, even for someone who was in the process of turning into a jaded teenager,

Super Mario Odyssey is a complete continuation, and improvement, on that same exuberant, fun, platforming that impressed everyone, even that horrible teenager, in 1996.

It isn’t perfect, but there are very few meaningful caveats in recommending Odyssey.

The first issue is that while the story is told in fun cutscenes that don’t wear out their welcome, it is just a slight variation on the same tired plot that Bowser has captured Princess Peach, again.

This time Bowser wants to force Peach to marry him, and he has a crew of unlikable rabbits (the Broodals) working as his wedding planners. They’re the mini-bosses scouring every kingdom on the planet for flowers and everything else Bowser wants at the wedding with Peach. Mario has to stop the wedding with his new friend in Cappy, your living hat guy from a kingdom of living hat people. Cappy ends up replacing Mario’s iconic hat, and most of the ranged attacks that Mario would otherwise acquire via pick-ups. When Mario launches Cappy he’ll possess any enemies that aren’t wearing hats (and the occasional bystander frog) in the kingdoms that they travel to.

Mario and Cappy travel onboard a cap-shaped flying machine, the titular Odyssey. It acts like a flying RV on their journey to each kingdom where they will try and cut off Bowser’s minions before they can get everything ready for the wedding.

The Odyssey is powered by collectibles, moons, they’re hidden in each kingdom just like the stars were in Mario 64, except there are hundreds of the moons scattered everywhere. Just like in Mario 64 It’s still a delight to find each moon. My almost-2-year-old son absolutely loves the music and animation that plays each time Mario collects one. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about it, but that reaction epitomizes the Super Mario Odyssey experience. It’s almost all fun, mostly all of the time. You’ll only need a very few per-kingdom to move on but I constantly found myself collecting “just one more,” and before I knew it I had collected dozens to hand in to the Odyssey.

Mario is still on the hunt for coins, of course. Each kingdom that Mario and Cappy visit also has a purple currency specific to it. The inverted pyramid desert level has inverted purple pyramid tokens, for example. You can spend these at the shop in each kingdom and get new costumes, gear to decorate the Odyssey inside and out, and some power-ups. All of the costumes are charming and wonderful like the old Doctor Mario outfit, or more appropriate for the kingdom you’re in like the sombrero and poncho outfit pieces. In each world one of the costumes will unlock a special area with at least one moon, but you can also skip the stores if you’re not interested in Mario Teaches Capitalism Jr. It’s 2017 so I should say there are no loot boxes, premium currencies, DLC, or anything with real money besides purchasing the game.

The worst problem for Odyssey is that the motion controls are abysmal. You have to wiggle the controllers in a circle to get your cap to spin in a circle and slam into every enemy around Mario when he’s surrounded, or just aggressively shake them to get Cappy to home-in on a slightly distant target after launching it.

It’d be different if the controllers that come with the system, the Joy-Cons, weren’t attached to the sides of the Switch while you’re playing in handheld mode. But they  are, and it definitely doesn’t feel like you should be shaking the entire system. There is a work-around for the motion controls most of the time. You can spin the left analog stick in a circle, before launching Cappy, to get that spin attack without shaking your system. This takes a bit longer to perform the action but it still gets it done and is more reliable than the motion controls. Although the homing action is only necessary for some of the more advanced platforming areas, there isn’t any work-around for it that I’ve found.

This is one of the few games that also rewards exploration to the extreme. Launching Cappy enables Mario to perform a series of dives and jumps that can be used to ascend to places he wouldn’t normally be able to get to. I’m not that great at doing this, but if you are then you will find that Nintendo stocks all of these off-the-beaten-path areas with coins. The harder it is to get somewhere the more coins you’ll find, and it’s absolutely great that they do this.

More minor explorational feats are rewarded with moons, but you always feel smart just for finding one by instinct, even if it is really just good game design that lead you there.

Most of the kingdoms Mario and Cappy visit are terrifically designed, a few are bizarrely unexpected in a Mario game, and New Donk City ended up being my favorite. It’s very strange seeing Mario interact with a city of humans that look very different from his bizarro adult toddler form, but that level also goes places that I absolutely didn’t expect. There are things in many of these kingdoms that I wish I hadn’t known about going into them, because they’re so incredible and unexpected that I felt like the surprise was spoiled. I’ll say that even after rescuing Peach there is still more to do in the game, and I definitely have spent more time with it, and leave it at that.

I don’t feel like anyone else could have made Odyssey, there just hasn’t been another 3D platforming game that achieves half of what Odyssey does in the 21 years since Super Mario 64 was released. Almost every kingdom has unique enemies to possess and delightful puzzles to complete. I’m not the first person to say it, but, each kingdom feels like it could be the basis for an entire game that another developer would make and drive the mechanic into the ground before the game is finished. Super Mario Odyssey is a wonderful adventure that really made me happy to have the Switch. As a parent it was a fun game I could share with my son around. As an adult human in 2017 Odyssey is some fantastic sunlight brightening up a terrible year.

5 out of 5 musical Marios for Super Mario Odyssey

Campo Santo’s Next Game: In the Valley of Gods

Campo Santo, the developers of Firewatch, announced their next game, In the Valley of Gods. Here is how they describe it:

In the Valley of Gods is a single-player first-person adventure. Explore a remote and ancient valley in the Egyptian desert, uncovering treasure and treachery in pursuit of a discovery that could bring you fame and fortune—or leave you for dead, buried beneath the sands.

I loved Firewatch, I’m looking forward to playing In the Valley of Gods in 2019.

The 2017 iMac Pro

Lost during my recent travel was Apple’s release of the iMac Pro, the “pro” version of the iMac that was announced at WWDC. The iMac Pro gets you higher performance and what may be many features of the promised-but-yet-to-be-updated-since-2013 Mac Pro, but with a glued-on high-resolution (5120×2880 P3 color gamut) screen and absolutely zero upgradability of internal components.

For an iPad or iPhone, that’s fine, glue whatever you need together to make the device as thin and light as it can get. It’d be great if you could upgrade the storage in those, and if sometimes they would optimize for battery life over thinness, but here we are looking at a different beast. Despite the Xeon-based workstation hardware you get inside an iMac Pro, with modern desktops you really must be able to, at a minimum, upgrade the graphics processor in order to maintain performance for the lifespan of these devices

I don’t doubt that there are some people or businesses that would appreciate this design of high-performance in a completely sealed design computer, but I find some serious flaws in one of Apple’s proposed use-cases: the idea that this is for virtual reality developers.

Why would anyone deploy a VR app on a platform where the $5,000 iMac Pro is the only device that can support the final product? Sure you could do your work on the iMac Pro and cross-compile for Windows, but that seems like a bad idea if your main development computer isn’t also a device you can test for your primary distribution platform. This is the worst example of the inaccessibility of virtual reality today. Here’s a $5,000 computer and then you have to buy a $600 VR HMD to get started with using or playing VR. When a future VR headset is released any iMac Pro VR developers and users will either have to buy an external GPU or replace the entire computer. Anyone on a desktop tower using Windows can just upgrade their graphics card.

Of course if you’re working in video or audio production, or another field that requires high-end computation, this could be a good workstation for that. However, you have to also believe that Apple will continue to support the “pro” desktop platform that they have neglected for almost a decade with infrequent (Mac Pro) or half-assed (Mac Mini) updates.

This computer has so many caveats and despite the fact that the starting price is actually competitive with other similarly outfitted workstation computers that price is chief among the reasons why I don’t find it very appealing. Maybe the Mac Pro will actually ship next year and be truly modular to replace the Mac Mini as well as the 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro. 

I still dream of a modular desktop Mac that can do all these things and span a wider range of prices to include regular desktop parts (and prices) in addition to scaling up to workstation performance and price, without the glued-on screen. It’ll never happen, and that’s why even though I’m still writing this on my late 2013 MacBook Pro, I built a Windows desktop machine last year.