Touchdown on CERN: Planning to Plan

Yesterday I landed in Geneva, ready to participate in the 2016 multipurpose Sprint at CERN.

After a successful touchdown, I somehow dragged myself onto the CERN campus after over 20 hours of riding trains, flying, waiting, and running. Half dead and ready to drop I got my bearings around the campus while keeping an eye out for other Sprint Participants, and I have to say my first impressions of the facility were shock and awe; more amazing than I could have anticipated.

Of course I was too tired to appreciate it, and I kept pestering the hotel staff to see if a crashpad was ready.

All at once everything seemed to come together and I ran into Alex, Riccardo, Kai, Martin G, and Sebas in short order. Today was just my arrival day, so I wasn’t breaking out the laptop and starting intense development or planning sessions with anyone, but even in our casual conversations we all excitedly at one point or another started planning to plan exciting things.

Right now? I’m waking up, looking at the view (pictures later, probably will update this post) and ready to get started.

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Steam’d Controller

I made a promise to myself about a day ago that I would not touch my recently-arrived Steam controller until I finished a few of my projects. After successfully not touching it yesterday, I caved like a wet blanket and set my alarm for two hours of play – maybe I wouldn’t be going into the deep end, but I figured I should at least see how my investment panned out considering the unique aspects of the controller.

I don’t get to play games often, but the odd session once or twice a month is necessary to ensure my head doesn’t pop from overworking myself. The only downside is my increasingly awful wrist which sounds and feels more like a cement grinder from mouse-and-keyboarding all day during work and play; so I use a controller sometimes. This is hard though, since even the “best” controller (Xbox 360 brand) doesn’t do most games I enjoy, and I can’t play first-person games (like Amnesia or SOMA) on a controller – I just hate doing it.

So I ordered a Steam controller, and excitedly unboxed it and plugged it in under Valves promise it was a cure-all for PC games. For the first 20 minutes, I can’t say I was impressed. My first 20 minutes with the Steam controller made me yearn for the Xbox controller again.

The Steam controller did have some immediate and notable aspects; I did not expect the haptic feedback to be so incredible. I was expecting an smartphone-esque situation where you shove your finger onto a flat surface and get no tactile feedback. Somehow they got it to work, how a little rumble could make the matte surface somehow feel tactile and real I can only attribute to black magic. It is also incredibly clicky, with many buttons having a nice mechanical snap. The unit is firm and solid as well, and I feel like I could really wrench at it during an intense moment.

But that wasn’t saving my lackluster ability to play Borderlands with it; I was having a bad time because of awkward controls. At this point I had clocked in about 5 minutes of gameplay and 15 minutes dicking around with the controller – failing because the customisation was nothing short of overwhelming. I decided to move onto the next game: Alien Isolation. I had clocked in a few minutes a couple weeks ago or so, and I decided to see if I could have better luck there. The recommended controls were sluggish, and I found myself getting a bit of a cramp because the controls were insensitive and slow. I was sick, thinking “$60 for this?”.

Then I discovered “Community Profiles”, mentioned as an input tip at the bottom of the screen. If one thing was “make or break” for this device, community controls would make it. Community profiles are complete controller configurations created by other players,¬† listed by popularity. The most popular control scheme described itself as being “ACTUALLY FUCKING USEFUL”. I selected that one. And about 10 seconds later I was completely sold on the Steam controller.

This specific scheme was fast, responsive, accurate, and I can only say it deserved its place as being the control scheme used by nearly 3X the users as the default layout. I stopped thinking about the controller and I’m absolutely impressed to say the least, able to effectively use the trackpad and flick around with mouse-like ease.

Since using a good control scheme, I quickly reversed my previous faltering position on the controller. I had never, ever in my life considered first-person games “playable” on a controller. I’ve never liked it, but on the Steam controller I think I actually *prefer* ditching the mouse.

The main achievement is the speed and accuracy the controller provides compared to a traditional controller. The default game controls set for the Steam controller were unusably slow and almost too conservative… But a more optimal configuration, while not as accurate as using a mouse, in some ways is more responsive as you only move your thumb – not your whole hand as with a mouse – which feels a touch faster and less strenuous. Wonderful for my awful wrist.

Though I haven’t used it yet, you can offset this tradeoff though “Input Modifiers”. You set one input on the controller to be a modifier, and it will change the behaviour of another input. A good use-case is if you are a sniper in a game, and you want your aiming touchpad to be made slower and more precise when using your scope. You make the scope button your modifier, and suddenly you are able to manoeuvre effectively while running and be hyper-accurate while shooting. I’m looking forward to trying Left 4 Dead later with it.

Despite the very positive results with software schemes, I will complain a bit about the feel of the controller. The trackpads are what I worried about the most, and I’m glad to say they delivered – but because of their massive size it forced Valve to move their buttons closer to the centre of the controller. This makes the analog stick and action buttons a bit hard to reach, and I found my left hand had a more awkward grip trying use them. The triggers were well placed, but the shoulder buttons seem specifically designed to be difficult to reach; they stick out compared to the triggers so you have to move your otherwise comfortable index fingers up, over, and out to hit them. Generally speaking the controller doesn’t allow me to have access to all buttons at a given time, and I do need to either stretch my fingers or rotate my hand a but to reach some buttons no matter how I hold the controller. Finally, I feel like portions of the controller should have been rubberised a bit; because your hands are more in-front of the Steam controller compared to contemporary controllers, I do feel like I want a little more grip on the unit.

Overall, I’m now very impressed. Probably the biggest thing is making sure you check the community control schemes if you find yourself bemoaning the generic scheme. From what I understand some games do have specific built-in schemas, but if it doesn’t it’s a safe bet to assume someone has decided to share their ultimate controller layout with the world, and it will probably do the job very well. I have average hands and I’d say the controller makes me consciously reach for some buttons at times, but this isn’t a deal breaker and the controller does what it does so well I can forgive some button-placement fumbles. It’s also the most customisable controller I’ve ever seen and the Steam client allows you to customise everything to a ridiculous degree, which is definitely the secret-sauce to why it can work well with so many different games.

If you play Steam games and have $60 to spare I recommend the Steam Controller, though if you have small hands you may want to find one in the wild and see how it feels first. If you pick one up do try community control layouts as they literally make-or-break your ability to play a game as a poor scheme will make the controller feel useless – but a good scheme will blow other controllers out of the water.

I converted the opening of Wikipedias’ “Hard Disk Drives” article into Thing-Explainer logic

Thing-Explainer is a book being written by XKCD’s Randall Munroe which tries to explain complex concepts and objects – using only the 1000 most common words in English.

He released is writing tool “Simple Writer” today which makes sure he doesn’t use an “uncommon” word, and I *had* to try it. After being disappointed by “Little Red Riding Hood” using common language, I decided to turn up the heat a bit and re-write the Wikipedia entry on Hard Disk Drives

It’s actually really, really hard in spots.

A spinning drive, “hard drive”, hard plate drives or fixed plate is a information keeping thing used for storing and getting computer information using one or more hard fast spinning plates coated with special stuff that keeps information. The plates are paired with special heads put on a moving arm which goes up and down, which read and write information to the plate surfaces. Information is read in a from anywhere it finds it, meaning that single blocks of information can be stored or read in any order rather than one-by-one. Spinning Plates keep stored information even when powered off.

Made by World Business Machines  in 1956, Hard Plates became the most used runner-up information keeping thing for not-different computers by early 1960. Made better over time, Hard Plates have stuck with this position into todays big computers and personal computers. More than 200 companies have made Hard Plate things, though most of them are made by other companies. World wide spinning plate money gatherings were US $32000000000 in 2013, down 3% from 2012.

The main points of interest of plate drives are how much they can hold, and how fast it can read and write. How much it can keep is written in number-letters telling us how many 1000’s it can hold. In most cases, most of what it can hold is not for people because it is used by the map of things in the system and the thing that makes the computer do stuff, and sometimes built in mirrors of the stuff in case things go wrong and it has to be fixed. How fast they can go is kept by the time needed to move the heads reading stuff to a track or plate (usual look time) and the time it takes for the wanted part to move under the head (usual time until it gets where you want it, which is held back by how quick it can spin around each minute), and finally how quickly the stuff is pulled (read time).

The two most usual forms for todays spinning plates are 3.5 fingers wide for tall personal computers, and 2.5 fingers for small flat computers. Hard plates are joined to systems by information sharing lines such with different ways of sharing the information.

As of 2015, the main other way of keeping information is flash memory in the form of drives that do not spin, which are quicker at sharing information, less chance of breaking, and takes less time to find information, but spinning drives remain the main way for keeping stuff because it is less money to keep things on the drives. However, drives that do not spin are taking over spinning drives where being quick, eating power, and less problems are more important.