Earmuffs, Alexa! Amazon to let users opt out of human review of voice recordings, amid scrutiny

Earmuffs, Alexa! Amazon to let users opt out of human review of voice recordings, amid scrutiny

10:44pm, 2nd August, 2019
(GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy) Amazon became the latest tech giant to let users of its voice assistant opt out of human review of their voice recordings, after similar announcements from Apple and Google. The move Friday afternoon about an Amazon team consisting of thousands of people who listen to Alexa voice recordings as part of a program designed to improve the company’s voice assistant. It’s the latest sign of growing public awareness of the listening and recording capabilities of Amazon Echo speakers and smart home devices from other tech companies. Amazon rolled out the change Friday in the settings of the Alexa app. Previously, users were able to change a privacy setting to prevent the company from using voice recordings to help develop new Alexa features. Now, that same opt-out also lets users prevent humans from listening to the recordings to improve existing Alexa features. Here’s the company’s statement on the issue. “We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures. For Alexa, we already offer customers the ability to opt-out of having their voice recordings used to help develop new Alexa features. The voice recordings from customers who use this opt-out are also excluded from our supervised learning workflows that involve manual review of an extremely small sample of Alexa requests. We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.” The opt-out is accessible by going to the privacy settings under the menu in the Alexa app, then selecting “Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa.” Here’s what the setting looks like, including the new language about opting out of “manual review,” aka people listening to what you say. Amazon didn’t address a question about whether it has been contacted by regulators regarding human review of voice recordings. The changes come amid heightened government scrutiny of tech giants, by the U.S. Justice Department and others, over issues including privacy and competition. Apple after the Guardian reported that contractors reviewing Siri recordings for quality control “regularly hear confidential medical information, drug deals, and recordings of couples having sex.” Apple says it’s working on a feature to let Siri users opt out of the human review, and says it has . Along the same lines, Google said it “paused” human review of Google Assistant recordings after
Earmuffs, Alexa! Amazon to let users opt out of human review of voice recordings, amid scrutiny

Earmuffs, Alexa! Amazon to let users opt out of human review of voice recordings, amid scrutiny

10:44pm, 2nd August, 2019
(GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy) Amazon became the latest tech giant to let users of its voice assistant opt out of human review of their voice recordings, after similar announcements from Apple and Google. The move Friday afternoon about an Amazon team consisting of thousands of people who listen to Alexa voice recordings as part of a program designed to improve the company’s voice assistant. It’s the latest sign of growing public awareness of the listening and recording capabilities of Amazon Echo speakers and smart home devices from other tech companies. Amazon rolled out the change Friday in the settings of the Alexa app. Previously, users were able to change a privacy setting to prevent the company from using voice recordings to help develop new Alexa features. Now, that same opt-out also lets users prevent humans from listening to the recordings to improve existing Alexa features. Here’s the company’s statement on the issue. “We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures. For Alexa, we already offer customers the ability to opt-out of having their voice recordings used to help develop new Alexa features. The voice recordings from customers who use this opt-out are also excluded from our supervised learning workflows that involve manual review of an extremely small sample of Alexa requests. We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.” The opt-out is accessible by going to the privacy settings under the menu in the Alexa app, then selecting “Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa.” Here’s what the setting looks like, including the new language about opting out of “manual review,” aka people listening to what you say. Amazon didn’t address a question about whether it has been contacted by regulators regarding human review of voice recordings. The changes come amid heightened government scrutiny of tech giants, by the U.S. Justice Department and others, over issues including privacy and competition. Apple after the Guardian reported that contractors reviewing Siri recordings for quality control “regularly hear confidential medical information, drug deals, and recordings of couples having sex.” Apple says it’s working on a feature to let Siri users opt out of the human review, and says it has . Along the same lines, Google said it “paused” human review of Google Assistant recordings after
Review: Paint a fantasy landscape with indie game ‘Eastshade,’ developed by Seattle-area studio

Review: Paint a fantasy landscape with indie game ‘Eastshade,’ developed by Seattle-area studio

3:08pm, 12th May, 2019
Eastshade feels like somebody made an entire game out of a launch trailer. About five minutes after you start a new game, it turns into an endless series of interactive landscape paintings, as a colorful guided tour through someone’s imaginary island. There are a lot of incidental scenes in Eastshade — weird buildings, distant cities, a picturesque eclipse every day at noon that turns the sky red — that look like other games’ concept art, or which they’d use as big, triumphant moments. It’s ridiculously pretty. It’s the result of five years of work by , an indie developer founded in Bellevue, Wash. by Danny Weinbaum, who left a job as an environment artist at Sucker Punch to start the project. , Eastshade didn’t begin with a planned story or game mechanic, but instead, is an attempt to create a world that had a real sense of place. Everything else came after that, including its central gameplay loop. The game is set on an island of the same name, with you playing the part of a traveling painter who arrives one night by ship. (You never leave a first-person perspective or see your character, so in all the ways that matter, your character in Eastshade is you, reimagined.) Your character’s mother has recently passed away, and you’re here to fulfill her last request: travel to Eastshade, a place that she loved, and paint four specific landscapes that were important to her. Your ship sinks right before it was supposed to dock, which initially strands you in the one-horse village of Lyndow. Broke and alone in a strange town, you’re forced to rely on your wits to figure out how to reach the far side of the island and complete your mother’s request. Notably, you’re an artist, not an adventurer, and Eastshade is not the kind of fantasy world that has an apocalypse breathing down its neck. There are no evils brewing on the horizon; no bandits are randomly harassing people in the countryside; there aren’t a lot of suspiciously hostile wild animals out in the forest; and so far, the most violent encounter I’ve found is when an angry villager punched me out. (Frankly, I had it coming.) There are problems on Eastshade, but they aren’t the kind of problems that have to be solved with murder, and even if they were, you’re not the kind of protagonist who’s equipped to do so. Instead, you get around obstacles and complete quests by solving puzzles, gathering information, collecting resources from the wilderness, and exploring the area. Your central goal is to paint your mother’s four memorial paintings, which requires you to get all the way across Eastshade, into its capital, and up into the mountains. That turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds, thanks to short funds, local bureaucracy, and your lack of supplies. You end up having to do odd jobs, befriend the locals, and intervene in a couple of local disputes, but the stakes stay low and nobody ever tries to start a fight. It’s actually sort of weird. Eastshade is set in a big, open world, played from a first-person perspective, with a lot of animal-people around, so I kept thinking it’s an Elder Scrolls game. In Elder Scrolls games, you have to fight half a dozen monsters and cutpurses every time you leave a town. Being able to just walk outside a village in Eastshade and meander around for hours without being repeatedly attacked by skeletons or something makes me feel like I’m cheating somehow. Your character’s skill at painting comes in handy occasionally to make money and finish quests, usually by bribing people with a portrait or landscape piece. You’re limited in how many paintings you can make, however, by your supply of canvas and a stat called Inspiration. The latter is generated by completing tasks, finding new places, and reading new books; the former has to be built on the cheap by scavenging scrap wood and discarded rags from anywhere you can find them. You may never get into a fight in Eastshade, but you will walk into every house you can find to steal all their candles, laundry, and spare boards. There are some fantasy-game tropes that you simply cannot escape. Eventually, you open up repeatable ways to generate Inspiration, as well as a merchant who’ll just sell you spare canvases, but neither are located anywhere convenient. You’re encouraged to be careful and precise about what you paint and when, as well as to constantly explore, read, and scavenge for fresh materials. The whole game is thus built around making you check every stray corner of the map for whatever might be hiding there, whether it’s a new place, a few materials, or maybe an obscure solution to a puzzle that’s been bothering you for the last hour. Eastshade actually reminds me of old adventure games from the 1980s. The user interface is deliberately stripped down to the quick, without a lot of the typical hand-holding features you find in a lot of modern games. It’s about an hour in before you find a map, for example, and while you get a quest log, its instructions are typically vague. This is the kind of game where you’ll get a quest from someone, and in order to finish it, you have to go halfway across the map to an unrelated area, solve two strange puzzles, and get an item that doesn’t seem immediately relevant. You’re just supposed to check everywhere and do everything until you figure out what works. Sometimes, that’s relaxing, especially since there’s no time limit or real urgency. You can calm down, unwind, and go do something else for a while, like fishing. Other times, though, Eastshade’s deliberately languorous pace gets on my nerves, especially when it hits me with a particularly obnoxious quest or two. Sometimes, you just want to play a game where you get something done, and at that point, you’d do better to play something else entirely. I’d also be a little happier if it was easier to make money. There are a lot of quests that can’t be finished without equipment you can buy in the capital city, all of which is surprisingly expensive. There are ways to come up with the cash, like working in the local farmers’ fields, but it’s a bit of a grind, which feels at odds with the easygoing nature of the rest of the game. (There’s actually a whole feedback loop the fans have worked out here, which feels like it’s got to be an unintended exploit. You can turn Inspiration into money working in the fields, then go below the city to the local hippie hangout and repeatedly drink cups of hallucinogenic tea to regain all that Inspiration.) Those amount to nitpicks, though. Eastshade is 100 percent worth your time, if only for its visuals. I’m legitimately impressed that a small team was able to pull a game like this off, to produce landscapes like this that you can explore from every angle, and I’ll be really surprised if Eastshade doesn’t pick up a handful of art-direction awards nominations at the end of the year. It’s a beautiful sort of fantasy world to spend some time in, and while I have to be in the right mood to enjoy Eastshade’s slow-going atmosphere, it’s a great game to fire up just to walk around and see what it’s got to show you.
Review: Seattle-area company debuts sleek alternative to Nintendo’s Switch Pro Controller

Review: Seattle-area company debuts sleek alternative to Nintendo’s Switch Pro Controller

10:30am, 30th April, 2019
The Princess Zelda PowerA Enhanced Wireless Controller, by PowerA. (PowerA Photo) Back in the day, you didn’t want to be the player stuck with the janky third-party controller. As recently as the days of the PS2 and original Xbox, third-party hardware manufacturers eked out a living making slightly off-brand, less expensive versions of trademark console game pads. A few were successful upgrades, such as a couple of, but most were unresponsive, poorly-designed, or just flat-out didn’t work. You can’t really get away with that anymore, however, and modern third-party controllers are a much safer proposition for the consumer. Even , which made a few nightmares in the 2000s (I still have an old Madcatz Xbox controller that feels like it was designed as a tool for aversion therapy), has mostly managed to rebrand and offer a few quality products. , based in Woodinville, Wash., is a small third-party hardware manufacturer, owned by , that makes a variety of controllers, batteries, and recharging docks for the video game console market. It first got on the national radar in 2012 with the controller, an adaptive controller for mobile gaming that’s since been spun off into its own company. PowerA sent over its newest product, a Princess Zelda-branded Enhanced Wireless Controller for the Switch (US$49.99), for us to test out. It’s the latest in PowerA’s line of branded controllers for the Switch, which offer a less expensive option to Nintendo’s Pro controller (about $20 less than a Pro or JoyCon’s standard retail price) and offer a couple of extra features, in addition to a variety of colorful designs. The PowerA Enhanced Controller in action. (GeekWire Photo / Thomas Wilde) The Princess Zelda controller, available today, doesn’t have the built-in rumble capability of the Pro, which makes it considerably lighter. It shares the Pro’s Bluetooth connection and motion controls, and takes a pair of AA batteries with a possible 20 hours of operational life. What it does offer, aside from the design of Zelda across its face, is a pair of programmable buttons on the handles, around where a typical player’s ring fingers would be. In play, it feels light, but isn’t fragile. There’s a certain weight to a Pro controller, mostly due to the rumble pack, which the PowerA controller doesn’t have. That makes it surprisingly light, which is comfortable for longer play sessions. The sticks and buttons are nice and responsive, and even the D-pad has a nice snap to it. After a few evenings of heated Smash Brothers Ultimate play, I felt like the controller was well-suited to what I was asking from it. The programmable buttons let you re-assign the standard buttons one at a time, which you can clear and re-assign easily. It’s useful both as a customization and an accessibility option, so you can set a command that would otherwise be awkward to a finger and that you ordinarily wouldn’t be using at all. (Looking at you, any game ever that binds “crouch” to pushing in the left stick.) It does take some getting used to, as I found it was easy to hit the extra buttons during frantic moments (read: flailing at my buttons during Classic Smash), but once your muscle memory adapts, I could see them as an asset. It does feel backwards in 2019 to have any video game peripheral without built-in rechargeable batteries. The Xbox One’s standard controller does the same thing, which feels just as goofy there. While some of PowerA’s literature tries to spin the battery port as a positive — after all, it means you don’t have to pitch the whole unit if the battery pack fails — it still means you have to go buy AAs at a store, like some kind of medieval peasant. (Or, more likely, look for one of several recharging options like the ones that PowerA just so happens to offer. How convenient.) You do have to figure that additional expense for batteries into the PowerA Enhanced Wireless Controller, but it doesn’t handle like a shovelware alternative product. Head to head, it’s about as responsive and ergonomic as the original Pro, with a lighter feel. The extra buttons don’t feel like a must-have to me, but I could see them coming in handy for certain games or players. If you’re looking to kit out your living room with a couple of extra actual controllers, so your Smash party doesn’t have to fight over who’s stuck with a JoyCon, PowerA’s lineup is an affordable wireless local option.
Review: Sony’s new ‘Days Gone’ PS4 game brings a zombie apocalypse to the Pacific Northwest

Review: Sony’s new ‘Days Gone’ PS4 game brings a zombie apocalypse to the Pacific Northwest

12:04pm, 25th April, 2019
(Sony Screenshots) The best moments in are also its most intense. The game’s not-zombies, “Freakers,” aren’t much of a threat at all if you can fight them one at a time. By pairs, they’re a little more dangerous. If three or four show up, it’s time to get clever or maybe throw a bomb. When Freakers show up in groups of 50, screaming and running headlong at you in a weirdly fluid human wave, your heart jumps into your throat and you immediately have to start improvising. That’s when you can appreciate the game’s craftsmanship. Every environment in Days Gone is a quiet maze of hiding places, back doors, crawlspaces, blind corners, and potential escape routes. The first time I explored a town, it was weird when I saw how many buildings had seemingly random open windows, broken fences, and rooftop exits. Then I had to revisit the same town a couple of hours later with 100 Freakers in hot pursuit, and it all made sense. Days Gone is an exclusive for the PlayStation 4, made by Sony’s SIE Bend Studio in Bend, Ore. known for its Syphon Filter series. The game has been in development since 2015. Playing it feels like a deliberate distillation of a lot of zombie games, shows, and movies from back then, all thrown together into a deliberately grimy post-apocalyptic version of the studio’s backyard. Whenever you’re on the run from a horde, everything you can do to slow them down or split them up becomes crucial, no matter how simple it is. Even if you just buy a second, that’s one extra second in which to slap together a bomb, reload a gun, or throw a distraction. You end up leading several hundred screeching monsters on this “Tom & Jerry” chase scene through half a zip code, diving through windows, setting up traps, ducking through gaps in fences, and whittling them down however you can with whatever you can find. There’s nothing else quite like it in current video games, which makes it a shame that it takes such a low proportion of Days Gone’s running time. For most of it, you play the part of a motorcycle-riding bounty hunter, moving between isolated settlements of survivors in search of odd jobs, supplies, and a frankly insane number of collectibles. The standard 2019 sandbox-game formula is in full effect here, where you spend most of your free time cleaning out enemy camps and capturing bunkers, in order to take over the world map piece by piece. Every time it started feeling a little too routine, though, I ended up running for my life from another hundreds-strong zombie lynch mob, and it got my attention all over again. It also feels like one of those games where they didn’t finish it so much as they finally had to stop developing it. Days Gone is decidedly rough around the edges, especially when compared to a lot of Sony’s recent first-party exclusives. I never ran into any serious crashes, but did have to deal with the occasional worrying framerate drop, the audio cutting out without warning, and rock-stupid enemy AI. Some of the missions end abruptly, or feel as if they’re not quite done, and every so often, the physics engine glitches out and some zombie’s body goes flying into low orbit. Days Gone does have solid fundamentals, though. It’s poised on the same borderline between stealth, action, and survival horror as something like The Last of Us, but successfully transplants those systems into a small, detailed open world. You’ve got a solid toolkit for shooting, driving, and stealth, along with one of the better-feeling motorcycles I’ve ever driven in a sandbox game. It’s decidedly unpolished in some areas, but what it does well, it does very well. The game is set in backwoods Oregon, in a small area of tiny towns, rest stops, and tourist traps, a little over two years since the fall of civilization. A disease broke out that turned most of the human population into cannibalistic, violent Freakers, which drove the survivors out of the cities and into the countryside. Now, the survivors have mostly banded together into a handful of reinforced encampments, built out of vacation homes and roadside attractions, where they try to survive off of what resources and supplies are left in the area. You play as Deacon St. John, an Army veteran and biker who lost his wife in the initial outbreak. These days, he’s a drifter, doing odd jobs for the local camps alongside his buddy Boozer. The game begins when, over the course of a surprisingly short period of time, Deacon’s bike gets stolen, Boozer gets badly injured, and Deacon learns that there was more to the story of his wife’s death than he initially realized. That sends Deacon off on a series of new jobs, in order to save Boozer and finally come to terms with his loss. One of the things I like here is that Days Gone is mostly a story about humans caught in a bad situation, who are dealing with it as best they can. Everyone in it is half-nuts from PTSD, but this isn’t about how humans are the real monsters. It’s just about people, messy and broken and trying to put their lives back together. It’s especially obvious when you run into one of the flashback levels, where the whole game’s color palette instantly expands into a Romantic landscape painting. The main game is so heavily tinged by survivors’ guilt that it’s downshifting the color spectrum. The actual gameplay is fairly standard stuff, albeit executed well. You use stealth and distraction tactics to set up ambushes or avoid conflict, while you scrounge up materials from the environment to turn into gadgets and weapons. You can learn new crafting recipes by knocking over bases and cleaning out ambush camps, which also unlocks new fast-travel points on your map. If a fight does go loud, you can get an early update which activates “Focus Mode,” giving you the ability to slow down time for short periods, allowing you to line up an easy headshot or two. This is utterly crucial early in the game, when you’re stuck with whatever broken-down weapons you can scrounge up, and is just a nice quality-of-life increase later on. What’s impressive is that Days Gone, as noted above, does do both action and stealth reasonably well, if not remarkably. This is actually a rare thing; usually, a game that tries to thread this particular needle ends up favoring one or the other approach. In something like Watch Dogs 2, which is ostensibly trying for the same balance, the stealth is so blatantly the “right” way to play the game that getting into a gunfight feels like it’s a failure condition. Days Gone actually makes both approaches worthwhile and useful. As noted above, though, it does play like it’s a distillation of several previously successful games, and there’s a lot here that’s strictly formula. I groaned out loud the first time the game asked me to take out an enemy stronghold, particularly since you can mark enemies from a distance with Deacon’s binoculars. It felt like I was right back in one of the recent Far Cry games, right down to the chance that random animals will wander into the ambush camp and do most of my work for me. Side note: I’m not even sure why Days Gone has bandit camps at all, since the wilderness outside the settlements is supposed to be so dangerous that Deacon is one of the only people dumb enough to go out there. Who are these people robbing? The big gimmick here, though, which sets it apart, is the Freakers, and the chance that if you aren’t careful, you’ll end up drawing a couple of hundred of them down on your location. In its best, most memorable moments, Days Gone is always one random explosion away from turning into Zombie Mardi Gras, and that constant element of risk is what makes it worth the price of admission. To be fair, I’m an easy mark for zombie games, so take my recommendation with a grain of salt. I’d be happier with Days Gone if it focused more on the Freakers, rather than time-killing map activities like fighting bandits, and it’s decidedly unpolished. I still had a lot of fun with it, and I stayed interested all the way through because I wanted to know what would happen to Deacon. It’s well worth your time. Editor’s note: Sony provided an early digital copy of Days Gone for the purpose of this review.
Boeing cuts back temporarily on 737 MAX production and plans to review design process

Boeing cuts back temporarily on 737 MAX production and plans to review design process

3:40pm, 5th April, 2019
The first 737 MAX 8 plane undergoes final assembly at Boeing’s Renton plant in 2015. (Boeing Photo) Boeing will reduce its monthly production rate for its single-aisle 737 jets from 52 to 42, starting in mid-April, CEO Dennis Muilenburg said today. In a statement, Muilenburg said he’s also asked the company’s board of directors to establish an internal committee to review Boeing’s policies and processes for airplane design and development. The moves come in the wake of this week’s preliminary findings from an investigation into the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 plane that killed all 157 people on board. Less than five months earlier, a similar Lion Air 737 MAX crash in Indonesia killed 189 people. Those two incidents led to a worldwide suspension in 737 MAX flights. Both crashes were traced to the improper activation of an automated flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. The system, which was added to the 737 MAX to safeguard against stalls, relied on data inputs from a single angle-of-attack sensor — and in both cases, there were indications that the sensor was providing spurious data. The MCAS problems have in turn raised questions about the process by which the 737 MAX, the latest incarnation of a 51-year-old narrowbody design, was . The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Justice Department are conducting separate investigations into that process, which has also been the subject of congressional hearings. Boeing manufactures its 737 MAX 8 and 9 planes — as well as an earlier model known as the 737NG — at its plant in Renton, Wash. Muilenburg said the temporary reduction in the production rate would not affect employment levels. At one time, Boeing had planned to by the end of this year. Here’s : “As we work closely with customers and global regulators to return the 737 MAX to service, we continue to be driven by our enduring values, with a focus on safety, integrity and quality in all we do. “We now know that the recent Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 accidents were caused by a chain of events, with a common chain link being erroneous activation of the aircraft’s MCAS function. We have the responsibility to eliminate this risk, and we know how to do it. As part of this effort, we’re making progress on the 737 MAX software update that will prevent accidents like these from ever happening again. Teams are working tirelessly, advancing and testing the software, conducting non-advocate reviews, and engaging regulators and customers worldwide as we proceed to final certification. I recently had the opportunity to experience the software update performing safely in action during a 737 MAX 7 demo flight. We’re also finalizing new pilot training courses and supplementary educational material for our global MAX customers. This progress is the result of our comprehensive, disciplined approach and taking the time necessary to get it right. “As we continue to work through these steps, we’re adjusting the 737 production system temporarily to accommodate the pause in MAX deliveries, allowing us to prioritize additional resources to focus on software certification and returning the MAX to flight. We have decided to temporarily move from a production rate of 52 airplanes per month to 42 airplanes per month starting in mid-April. “At a production rate of 42 airplanes per month, the 737 program and related production teams will maintain their current employment levels while we continue to invest in the broader health and quality of our production system and supply chain. “We are coordinating closely with our customers as we work through plans to mitigate the impact of this adjustment. We will also work directly with our suppliers on their production plans to minimize operational disruption and financial impact of the production rate change. “In light of our commitment to continuous improvement and our determination to always make a safe industry even safer, I’ve asked the Boeing Board of Directors to establish a committee to review our company-wide policies and processes for the design and development of the airplanes we build. The committee will confirm the effectiveness of our policies and processes for assuring the highest level of safety on the 737-MAX program, as well as our other airplane programs, and recommend improvements to our policies and procedures. “The committee members will be Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani, Jr., (Ret.), former vice chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who will serve as the committee’s chair; Robert A. Bradway, chairman and CEO of Amgen, Inc.; Lynn J. Good, chairman, president and CEO of the Duke Energy Corporation; and Edward M. Liddy, former chairman and CEO of the Allstate Corporation, all members of the company’s board. These individuals have been selected to serve on this committee because of their collective and extensive experiences that include leadership roles in corporate, regulated industries and government entities where safety and the safety of lives is paramount. “Safety is our responsibility, and we own it. When the MAX returns to the skies, we’ve promised our airline customers and their passengers and crews that it will be as safe as any airplane ever to fly. Our continued disciplined approach is the right decision for our employees, customers, supplier partners and other stakeholders as we work with global regulators and customers to return the 737 MAX fleet to service and deliver on our commitments to all of our stakeholders.”
Decision on the $10B JEDI cloud contract likely delayed after Pentagon agrees to review bias charges against Amazon employee

Decision on the $10B JEDI cloud contract likely delayed after Pentagon agrees to review bias charges against Amazon employee

3:36pm, 25th February, 2019
The Pentagon. (Photo courtesy ) Those closely watching the battle for a ten-year $10-billion cloud computing contract on offer from the Department of Defense were expecting a decision this spring, and that now looks like wishful thinking. that the Pentagon has agreed to review charges of bias against Deap Ubhi, who worked for the military in between stints at Amazon Web Services. Enterprise tech gadfly Oracle alleging that Ubhi unfairly influenced the military’s review of potential cloud vendors, and the new review comes months after , according to the report. The lawsuit alleges that Ubhi played an outsized role in convincing the Pentagon to go with a single-vendor strategy when building a much-needed update to the Defense Department’s computing infrastructure, which basically means that only AWS and Microsoft are realistic players after Google announced last year that it would not pursue the contract. Ubhi left AWS to join the military in 2016, and rejoined the company a year later . The new review means that the Defense Department will have to redo a “competitive range determination” assessment after completing the review, which sets the whole process back by another three months, according to a government filing cited in the report. And if the review finds the charges of bias have merit, we’re probably back to square one. The final version of the requirements for the JEDI contract was published in July 2018, almost a year after Ubhi left the Department of Defense. Oracle and other tech companies that don’t have a chance of fulfilling the Pentaon’s cloud infrastructure requirements have been pushing the government to award the contract to multiple vendors in hopes of winning business in other aspects of cloud computing. That’s because aside from the revenue, all companies involved in the process think the marketing value of a Department of Defense contract will be a boon to future sales. The cloud contract AWS signed with the Central Intelligence Agency in 2013 is in general inside the federal government, which spends an awful lot of money every year.
Game review: Explore and colonize other worlds in ‘Astroneer’ … if you can get past the learning curve

Game review: Explore and colonize other worlds in ‘Astroneer’ … if you can get past the learning curve

8:07pm, 12th February, 2019
Even after spending the better part of 12 hours exploring it, I still don’t quite feel like I have a handle on It’s got a decent tutorial mission, which explains the most basic details of its gameplay, but after that, you are decidedly on your own. You’re dropped onto a randomly generated planet with a few starter modules and a crude shelter, then left alone to sink or swim. The in-game “Astropedia” offers a number of more useful tips, but for every piece of information I pulled from it, there were two or three more that I had to figure out on my own, or look up using tools provided by the game’s Early Access community. The obvious comparison here is to Minecraft, or any of a handful of similarly open-ended crafting and survival games. You start in Astroneer with next to nothing, but you’ve got all the time in the world and all the resources you can wring out of your environment. Gradually, over the course of hours, and possibly with the help of friends, you build an empty planet up into a humming, glowing research colony. Astroneer is the maiden project by the Seattle-based studio , and has been in development since 2015. It was initially released on Steam Early Access in December of 2016, and officially graduated to version 1.0 as of Feb. 6, appearing both on Steam and Xbox Play Anywhere. The game is set during the 25th century, in an Age of Discovery, out on the ragged edges of explored space. You’re one of a handful of Astroneers, each one of whom is anonymous inside a bulky spacesuit, out to find your fortune on newly-discovered worlds. It’s just you, a bunch of 3D printers, and the resources of an empty planetoid, to be strip-mined, researched, and turned into tools, habitats, and vehicles. At first, Astroneer looks like a light-hearted, open-ended adventure, but it’s out to build a specific sort of mood. The music is calm and strangely melancholy, like a soundtrack, and every world I’ve ever visited is littered with the debris left over from previous, presumably failed expeditions. You’re utterly dependent on the oxygen supply from your base, and securing your continued access to it is always your top priority, by building a tether network that connects you to your home. The moment your O2 runs out, your character instantly drops. Even when you’re in good shape, you’re never more than a couple of minutes away from sudden death. The penalty for dying in this is relatively slight, as you simply respawn at your landing site minus whatever items you had on you when you died, and have to do a to get them back. However, it’s also not a game that’s afraid to be unfair. Fall down a hole too far from your closest tether, trip over a cliff, or get a little too close to the wrong piece of fauna, and you’re just plain out of luck. It makes for an interesting balance. It’s a cheerful, colorful game that also delivers a real sense of isolation. Death doesn’t mean much, but your survival is always balanced on a razor’s edge. This is always going to be an alien environment, and unless you’re careful, it’s going to find exciting new ways to kill you. The opening moves of a new game of Astroneer are simple. You get a small shelter, a save point with an attached generator, and a landing pad right off the bat. You can deploy a “starting package” to get an oxygenator, which fuels power and air for your tether network and lets you explore in a greater radius around your landing site; a small printer, which you can use to build a few new machines; and a platform, which you can mount devices on in order to hook them up to the shelter’s generator. You’ve also got a small 3D printer in your backpack, which can be used to make a few simple devices like a backup oxygen tank. To do any of it, however, you need compounds and resins, which are usually easy enough to find somewhere near your landing site. You’ve got a device that digs out giant chunks of the landscape wherever you point it and slings any useful resources it finds into your backpack. You can also use it to dig through walls or create earth ramps. It’s really easy to use — maybe a little too easy. On one of my save files, there were a ton of useful compounds right next to my initial landing site, but by the time I dug them all out, I had a giant crevasse next to my base, which limited my ability to expand. I wasn’t totally out of options — you can build a canister that turns your mining device into a big caulking gun, so you can make ramps and fill ditches back in — but it put me at an early disadvantage. Once you’ve got enough compounds to build some tethers, you can start exploring the planet in earnest, which is where Astroneer starts to get opaque. You start finding resources you can’t use, devices with no obvious purpose, plans you can’t build yet, and debris you can’t salvage. You’re supposed to take samples of the local flora and fauna to turn them into “bytes,” with your backpack or by building a Research Module to break down larger items, and use those bytes to buy new plans from the catalog built into your backpack. Those new plans, in turn, offer you new options, like land rovers and recyclers, but none of them come with a manual. It took me some experimentation and a tutorial on YouTube to figure out most of the machines, and there are a few I still haven’t been able to use. Astroneer is definitely a water-cooler sort of game. It feels like it’s designed with co-op in mind, or at least a big online community, so you’ve got someone else around to help you figure it all out, or at least to cart raw materials back to base while you sit there puzzling over a new machine. When I played it alone, I often felt like I was trying to put together a complicated model kit without its instructions. This is all by way of saying that Astroneer has a significant learning curve, particularly by comparison to most of the other games like it on the market, and the ways of providing information that are actually built into the game are barely enough to get you started. Most of my time with Astroneer was spent with its open on my second monitor, with a couple of tabs devoted to video tutorials and the Astroneer subreddit. If something like Minecraft is a bucket of LEGO blocks, Astroneer is a particularly complicated erector set. As I write this, Astroneer has already built up an audience of enthusiasts over the course of its time in Early Access, and System Era is in the process of updating its official wiki to account for all the changes that have been made to the game in its progression to the retail version. It’s got a lot of love put into it, and a lot of love’s already been shown to it in return, but even more so than your average addictive building game, Astroneer is a lifestyle choice. This isn’t something you install to dink around with while you listen to podcasts. You’re going to want to keep notes and bring friends. None of this is to say that it’s a bad game. On the contrary, I can see it being appealing to everyone from little kids to hardcore aerospace nerds, and the focus on co-op means you can spend hours tweaking your base alongside a few friends. What primarily characterizes it in my mind, however, is the learning curve and its cheerful, matter-of-fact lethality. You won’t regret the time you spend with Astroneer, but you really ought to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Game review: Archiacts Evasion is a challenging but rewarding VR trip through bullet hell

Game review: Archiacts Evasion is a challenging but rewarding VR trip through bullet hell

12:58pm, 15th November, 2018
, or danmaku (Japanese; lit. bullet curtain), is a sub-genre of shoot-em-up games thats all about dodging constant streams of enemy fire. The archetypical bullet hell shooter many of which never officially make it out of Japan is ferociously difficult and represents a pure test of the players reflexes and pattern recognition, as you spend your time scrambling for that fleeting half-inch of screen estate that isnt currently occupied by at least two different things that will kill you. From the moment I first saw it at PAX, Evasion was described to me as a bullet hell shooter in VR. It was developed by , a studio based in Vancouver, B.C., which hopes to use it as a big flagship franchise going forward. When I got the chance to play it on my own, my first impression was that it was one of those games that was designed and balanced around team play, which meant anyone trying to play it solo was working with a severe handicap from the start. I was getting absolutely murdered by enemies that could hit me from any direction at any time, with mission objectives that further limited my ability to fight back. When the game is built around constant movement in order to evade enemy fire, it feels doubly restrictive when youre forced to stand still for a while. But of course, its a bullet hell game. They arent supposed to be fair. The more experience I got, the more I was able to adapt and overcome each challenge, even as the next one queued up to take a swing at me. Evasion is challenging in an old-school way, where each time you reach a new area, youll get through it by the skin of your teeth if you make it at all, but the next trip will be a little easier, and the trip after that will feel almost easy. Enemies show up in vast packs from all around you, but they do so in predictable patterns, and you have a lot of tools at your disposal with which to deal with them. Its a game about forcing fairness onto a fundamentally unfair situation, and doing so with style. Evasion is set in the nondescript space future, where you play as a member of a Vanguard, a team of troubleshooters from a rapid-response unit, which features a snarky AI handler and, to go by what shes saying, a low survival rate. The issue at the start of the game is that a mining colony has been invaded and seemingly depopulated by the Ophera, a race of robot insects, for no reason you can determine from orbit. Youre dropped into the fray to figure out whats happened to the colonists, and while youre there, to murder any alien bug that so much as glances in your general direction. You can play as one of four specialized units, each of which has a different arsenal. In each case, however, youve got a main gun in one hand and a portable energy shield in the other. Any enemy fire that strikes the shield gets reflected backward, letting you provide your own hard cover on the fly. The same hand that bears the shield also contains an energy lash the game calls a tether, which is used to interact with objects, yank power-ups over to you, heal fallen co-op partners, and finish off weakened targets. It probably also makes toast. The tether does it all. The trick with Evasion is that while youre surprisingly durable healing items dont simply restore a set value, but drop a healing field at your feet that rapidly restores lost health for as long as you stand in the area the game is also set up to encourage you to avoid incoming fire. You can get power-ups that gradually improve your guns standard mode of fire, but the guns power level gets lowered dramatically when you take damage. Its a lot like the old Gradius games, or Life Force on the NES: you can sort of stumble through Evasion by relying heavily on health, but as the name of the game suggests, you get further more efficiently by dodging and reflecting as much as you can. Youre rewarded for your ability to skate through enemy fire with a better, more destructive offense. There are a lot of shooters in virtual reality in 2018. A lot of them arent far removed from the old light-gun games youd play in an arcade 15 years ago. The only real difference is in the controls, and hopefully in the degree to which youre immersed in the experience. Evasion, conversely, feels like its own thing. It took me a while to get used to it, and I have to figure its going to be brutal on people who dont have my experience with the genre. If youre fine with a game thats more than a little sadistic, and you dont mind wrestling with Evasions particular learning curve, its a challenging, occasionally funny shoot-em-up that feels immediately rewarding as you learn its ins and outs. A challenge thats crushing you on one run will suddenly feel like a stroll in the park next time, and thats how it sucks you in.