Friday, 16 April 2021

PlayStation 4: Promised Greatness

I pride myself on staying up-to-the-minute, so in honour of President Carter's recent negotiation of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel let's have a look at the PlayStation 4. Let's taste the oil, the freckle-founds, tongue-born of tomorrowland.

Back in 2018 I bought a PlayStation 3 on a whim; it gave me a chance to play Blu-Rays and catch up with some games I had missed. Furthermore I wanted to see what all the fuss had been about, because the PS3 led an interesting life.

The PlayStation 3 was launched in 2006 and remained in production until 2017, although technically it was replaced in 2012 by the PlayStation 4. As of 2021 almost all the PS3's online services have been discontinued and in July this year the store will be deactivated, at which point the only way to buy games will be on the used market, as physical discs. It remains to be seen what impact this will have on patches and digital downloads.

I've written at great length about the PS3 before. It had a disastrous launch. In 2006 Sony was high on the success of the PlayStation 2, which had crushed the Sega Dreamcast, crushed the Nintendo GameCube, crushed the original Microsoft Xbox. With sales of 150m+ it remains the best-selling games console of all time, even including portable units.

The decision to build the PS2 around a fully-functional DVD player was a masterstroke, joint-first with the decision to give the console backwards-compatibility with the original PlayStation. The PS2 also benefited from weak competition and considerable goodwill from the original PlayStation, which had a terrific range of games. It looked cool as well. At around $299/£299 the launch price wasn't onerous and after the next generation of consoles was released it had a second life as a budget console stroke cheap DVD player.

The PS3 on the other hand had a much tougher ride.

A PS3 Super-Slim and a PS4 Slim. The PS3 Super-Slim was "full Kriegsmodell panic-mode", intended to pare the hardware down to a point where each unit made a profit. The PS4 Slim wasn't nearly as drastic.

Sony was extremely bullish in 2006. Sony Japan CEO Ken Kutaragi pooh-poohed complaints about the high launch price by suggesting that consumers would be happy to work overtime to afford it, while his European counterpart believed that five million people would buy the console even if it had no games, purely because it was the new PlayStation. But initial sales were tepid, not helped by a global financial crisis that took hold a couple of years after launch; the PlayStation 2 continued to outsell the PS3 right up until 2010.

What went wrong? The launch price of $599/£425 was very high. Infamously so; the company's E3 2006 press conference became an early YouTube gag. The original video is long-gone but I still remember "five hundred and ninety-nine US dollars" and "gimmicks" and "giant enemy crab" as the presenters tried to get the audience worked up about a bunch of dull-looking prototypes plus the umpteenth update of Ridge Racer.

The press conference showcased some of the console's features, but none of them felt substantial, and the range of launch titles consisted mostly of sports games. Furthermore it was released an an awkward time, just after the final major franchise entries for the PS2 had come out, so it was three-four years until the likes of Resident Evil, Gran Turismo, God of War etc made their way to the new console.

On the other hand Gran Turismo 6 was worth the wait - it still looks good today.

In 2006 everybody had six credit cards, but $599 was a lot of money. The PS3 was intended to showcase Sony's new Blu-Ray format and sell a lot of high-definition Sony TVs in the process, but Blu-Ray's reception was muted. On the positive side it killed off Toshiba's HD-DVD, but my personal recollection is that most people were still getting used to 32-inch 720p LCD televisions in 2006, and were not interested in upgrading yet again to take advantage of 1080p.

As it turned out the market share of Blu-Ray discs never came close to beating DVD. In the UK Blu-Ray peaked at around 15% of DVD sales in 2013, after which optical media as a whole was displaced by internet streaming.

I've never liked the design of the PlayStation 3. All three models had the same basic idea - an oval embedded in a rectangle - but it's not an interesting idea. The slim model of 2009-2012 was the best-looking, but the oval just made the console look fat and the shiny plastic of the super-slim looks cheap.

Sony hoped that the PS3's multi-core Cell processor would become the heart of its next generation of consumer electronics. Ken Kutaragi was convinced that you would be able to network your PS3 with your DVD player, which makes me wonder if he had misunderstood one of the engineers' briefing slides. In the end the Cell was overkill in televisions and set-top boxes, and in the PS3 it was hobbled by a weak GPU and a lack of system memory.

Eventually Toshiba released a couple of Cell-powered televisions, but only in Japan, and I can't find any reviews of them on the internet, only press releases. My hunch is that they were contractual obligations or loss-leaders. They couldn't play PS3 games, so what was the point? The PS3 saw some use in cluster supercomputing and there were Cell CPU cards for the PC, but outside the world of academia the Cell failed to catch on.

People still debate whether the Cell was a hidden gem or a boondoggle, but the general consensus today is that advances in other architectures have eliminated whatever advantages it had.

Gran Turismo Sport finally adds a high-quality model of the Mini...

...and actual Porsche-made Porsches, instead of custom-made RUF Porsches.

Furthermore the PlayStation 3's competition was a lot stronger. The Xbox 360 was technically simpler than the PS3 and bedevilled by hardware failures, but it had a year's head start and was $100 cheaper. Despite being released a year earlier it had a more powerful GPU than the PS3 - Sony lost time when their original GPU deal fell through - and so cross-platform games looked much the same on the 360 even though it was in theory less advanced than the PS3.

Meanwhile both companies were blindsided by the huge success of the Nintendo Wii, which combined family-friendly games with a novel new motion-sensing controller at a price that made increasing sense as the world's economy ground to a halt. They countered with their own motion controllers - the Microsoft Kinect and the PlayStation Move, both 2010 - but they were late and had nowhere near the same market impact as the Wii.

Sony and Microsoft were also unprepared for the enormous inflation in development budgets that took place in the HD era, which meant that the expected flood of exclusive games for their consoles became a trickle, because developers concentrated on cross-platform releases. Publishers were desperate to recoup their costs and were no longer prepared to limit their market to just one console, which did the PS3 no favours, especially because developers were unwilling to wrestle with the Cell. If the game had to run on the Xbox 360 as well why bother optimising it for the PlayStation 3?

The PS3 had an online store, but the PS4 was part of the first generation of consoles for which physical releases became an afterthought. 43gb doesn't seem so bad. GT5 and GT6 required a whole afternoon's worth of patches before they worked properly, so downloading masses of content is a series tradition by now.

Oh. It's not 43gb. It's 97gb. And that's not counting the extra 8gb of optional photographic backdrops, which bumps it up to 110gb because even 97gb is a lie.

The PS3 had been designed during a time of plenty and Sony sold each unit at a loss. The company expected to make a profit from sales of games and Blu-Rays, but the late-2000s financial crash upset Sony's plans and the company posted hefty losses in 2009 and 2010.

And yet, in a turn of events both surprising and heartwarming, things did eventually turn around. The PS3 had legs, and by 2010 or so all of the PlayStation's major franchises had finally made the leap into HD. The resulting games - a mixture of exclusives such as Gran Turismo 5 and God of War III and multiplatform titles such as Metal Gear Solid V and Grand Theft Auto IV - were generally worth the wait. The PS3's games library even had a late-period renaissance with Journey (2012) and The Last of Us (2013), widely acclaimed as two of the best games of their generation on any platform.

A small stash of PS4 games on old-fashioned discs. The PS4 copies the entire contents of the disc to the hard drive and runs it from there, with the disc as a licence key, so sadly you can't save disc space with physical media.

Along the way there was the Ico / Shadow of the Colossus remaster, solid ports of the Bioshock and Batman: Arkham games, the overlooked-at-the-time Red Dead Redemption, at-least-it-runs ports of Skyrim and Fallout 3 / New Vegas, plus Sleeping Dogs, Mirror's Edge, the Uncharted games, the new Deus Ex and XCOM titles, etc. The PS3's first four years were a bleak wasteland, after which it had the good fortune to coincide with a miniature golden age of video games.

And of course there were the endless FIFA and Call of Duty games, which were pooh-poohed by the press but sold loads. There's a generation of kids who grew up with those games; my natural instinct is to mock them because they didn't grow up with Japanese RPGs in the original Japanese, but I can't do that because it would make me an asshole. They had dreams too.

Some electronic gadgets look great long after their time. The original Apple Macintosh, for example, or the first ever Sony Walkman. And on the other hand there's the super-slim PlayStation 3.

By the late 2000s Sony managed to reduce the manufacturing cost of the PS3's hardware to a point where they made a small profit on each unit. The very last model, the Super-Slim (pictured above) felt toy-like in comparison to the original, and several features had been stripped out - gone was native PS2 compatibility and the option to run Linux - but it did make a profit. Ultimately the PS3 went on to equal or slightly surpass sales of the Xbox 360, depending on whose figures you believe, but it was a close-run thing and Sony never again took anything for granted.

Subnautica is a bit like Durell's Scuba Dive for the ZX Spectrum, and I'm only half-joking - Scuba Dive's combination of freedom of movement and creeping terror was years ahead of its time. As you can see I've only played Subnautica for half an hour or so.

And where are the salt deposits? What do they look like? Why have I written so much about the PlayStation 3? Firstly because it's an epic tale of failure and triumph. Secondly because it's hard to write about the PlayStation 4. It was launched in 2013 to positive reviews and good sales. Nothing went wrong, and today it's the second-best-selling-non-portable console of all time, behind the PlayStation 2.

There were no infamous disasters, no massive hardware recalls, no hugely-hyped flops. In general the PS4 was perceived as return to form, and today it has a great range of games albeit that Gran Turismo Sport is puzzlingly spartan, but I'll talk about that later. Meanwhile the competition was weaker than it had been in the days of the PS3. Nintendo's Wii U was technically unrefined, and after a strong start Xbox One sales faded badly.

The Last Guardian was originally developed for the PlayStation 3, but development took so long it was eventually held back for the PS4 instead.

In particular the Xbox One was hit by a controversy of Microsoft's own making - the company announced that disc-based games would be forever locked to the player's account, which meant that there was no way to lend disc-based games to a friend or sell them on the used market. Furthermore Microsoft declared that the Xbox would only work if it was connected to the internet; one executive unwisely stated that if people were unhappy with that they could always buy an Xbox 360 instead, and another executive was asked to leave the company after implying that the only people without internet access were poor rural folk of no consequence.

Abzu, from some of the people who brought you Journey.

The issue of ownership when it comes to physical media is a touchy one. In contrast PS4 games can be sold on and shared freely. Sony made hay with this in their 2013 E3 presentation, and came up with a YouTube skit that skewered Microsoft's policy in a little under thirty seconds:

Microsoft eventually backpedalled, but as of 2021 the Xbox One in all its confusing variants has been outsold 2:1 by the PS4. Technically it still remains in production but my hunch is that the few units available new are really old-new stock.

As of April 2021 the PS4 Slim also remains on sale brand-new, and a few A-list games are still planned for it. I bought my PlayStation 3 long after it had died, but right now the PS4 is still in theory "a thing", especially given that sales of the PlayStation 5 have been hit by component shortages. There are over a hundred million PS4s out there, making it a substantial market even if the console is yesterday's news.

The PlayStation 5 is more powerful and has a much faster storage system, but it's not a conceptual leap over the PS4. It has native 4K support and can do real-time raytracing, but those two things strike me as nice bonuses rather than compelling arguments in favour of the PS5. I have nothing against the PS5, it just doesn't grab me.

The Witness is a simple puzzle game with lovely graphics that have pre-baked raytracing.

It's interesting to compare the PS4 with my desktop PC. I built my PC from parts in 2011. Back then it was a 64-bit, four-core Intel i5-2500k clocked at 3.3ghz, with 8gb of memory, a 1TB hard drive, and a built-in Intel HD 3000 graphics chip. I didn't play a lot of games at the time because I was too busy. I quickly replaced the GPU with a Geforce 750 TI, which ran at around 1.3tflops.

I still have the same machine today, albeit that the only original components are the motherboard and case. My PC is a big, noisy, heat-spewing monster that can just about run modern games at 1080p albeit not all that well. It's not a million miles removed from the PS4 Pro in that respect. Even with newer components it will always be limited by its slow system bus.

Indie platformer Gris doesn't stretch the hardware, but even if you can't stand the twee presentation it's a surprisingly decent albeit short platform game.

For the PS4 Sony decided to give up on the Cell in favour of the same x86 architecture used by my PC. The PS4 is built around a 64-bit, eight-core AMD Jaguar chip clocked at 1.6ghz, with an on-chip GPU that runs at around 1.7tflops. Therefore the PS4 has twice as many cores as my old desktop PC, running at half the speed, but with a slightly better graphics card. The PS4's Jaguar CPU has around a quarter the performance of an i5-2500k, albeit that it also consumes around a quarter the power. The machine also has 8gb of memory, a huge advance on the PlayStation 3's 512mb. Compared to my PC the PS4 slim is tiny, it generates less heat, and it only makes a noise when unusually taxed.

Croteam's The Talos Principle - another puzzle game - looks nice, but even though the scenery is very bare and polygonal the frame rate is stuttery.

What can I conclude from this? Not a lot. I don't have any cross-platform games or any means of running tests. The decision to give the PS4 eight slow cores rather than a smaller number of fast cores is puzzling, but on the other hand the PS4 continually records gameplay video in the background - by default it stores the last fifteen minutes on a rolling basis - and it can upload screenshots to Twitter etc while you play, so perhaps Sony had a good reason for all those cores.

A sedate lap of the Nurburgring in a Mini. See how I botch the karussell! The PS4 records continuously in the background for up to thirty minutes, albeit at 1280x720@29.97fps rather than full HD.

My hunch is that hardware-wise the PS4 is roughly equivalent to a budget-priced mid-2010s PC laptop in performance terms albeit with a much better graphics card, and of course it runs a games-optimised operating system (apparently a stripped-down form of BSD) that doesn't have to worry about printer drivers or antivirus scans. The launch price was $399 / £350, vs £700 or so for a decent-but-not-spectacular laptop or gaming PC back then, so it was good value, and I suspect that if I had bought one in 2013 I would still be using it today.

One thing that strikes me as sad however is the relative lack of ambition. Sony sold the PlayStation 3 as a games console that could double as a home computer stroke multimedia entertainment hub. In contrast the PS4 plays games and films. It could in theory have been sold as a productivity machine, with Google Drive and a spreadsheet and word processor - or at least some kind of app market - but it's strictly a games-and-movies playback device.

That controller is filthy, isn't it? Sadly you can't use PS3 controllers with a PS4. Having said that I prefer the shape of the PS4 controller and find the sticks easier to use. The PS4 controller connects with a mini-micro USB cable. It has a touchpad and a 3.5" headphone socket.
The touchpad was hyped up at launch and then almost completely forgotten about. Very few games use it. As a touchpad it's not very good; the few games that recognise it merely use it as an extra button.

There were three models of PS4. They all share a Blu-Ray drive, ethernet, an aux port for the PlayStation camera, and two USB 3.0 ports. I have a pair of USB speakers and the controller plugged into my PS4, but the console also supports USB memory sticks, external hard drives, USB hubs, and a keyboard/mouse, although inevitably only a tiny minority of games support keyboard/mouse control. The original PS3 had four USB ports, which felt OTT at the time, but now that USB is more useful with consoles it's a shame the PS4 doesn't have more.

Physically the original 2013 PS4 is a black rectangle that resembles a brutalist-era public building. It has a peculiar quadrant-style design that makes the machine look as if it has an expansion module built into the side. It was replaced in 2016 by the slim model (pictured passim), which has exactly the same hardware in a smaller case, minus the original console's optical S/PDIF output. The slim is smaller and runs cooler and is also available in white.

Later in 2016 Sony released the PS4 Pro, which has a faster CPU and GPU in a case that resembles the slim, but with an extra slice on top. It was aimed at people who owned 4K televisions; the original PS4 models can only output video at up to 1080p. On the used market all three models are roughly the same price, so I opted for a slim model simply because it's smaller and uses less power than the others. The Pro strikes me was a waste of time given that only a few games exploit its strengths and no games absolutely require it.

If you already own a PC, what's the point of a PlayStation 4? At heart it's a PC with different firmware that runs many of the same games but slower and at a lower resolution, but it has a good games library. Even as a PC person I remember being impressed by videos of some of the PS4's exclusive titles, specifically the big open-world Spiderman and make-your-own-game Dreams, but also God of War and The Last Guardian, in which you are a little boy who has to persuade a giant cat-dog-bird thing to not be afraid of mirrors.

Of the other consoles the Xbox doesn't have the same range of exclusive titles, and although Breath of the Wild on the Switch is very impressive it seems a waste to buy a Switch just for that game. That is why I bought a PlayStation 4.

Services? Play at Home is a temporary arrangement whereby games are released for free so that people have something to do during the COVID lockdown. As I write these words the range includes Subnautica and Abzu. There's also PlayStation Plus, which is a subscription service that offers free games and discounts.

In theory it sounds great, but there are two flaws. The first is that if you cancel your subscription you can no longer play the games, so it's really a kind of games rental. The second is that you need a PS Plus subscription in order to play online, which feels unfair. As a PC person the idea of paying money to play online feels wrong. In contrast the Xbox One has no such limitation.

Post-apocalyptic stealth action survival game Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of a small number of former PlayStation exclusives ported to other systems.

Does the PS4 have any oddities or quirks? There's no backwards compatibility. The PS3's hardware was awkward enough that emulation on the PS4 would be difficult, but the PS2 and original PlayStation should be a doddle. Instead Sony has PlayStation Now, a streaming service that consists of warehouses full of rackmounted PlayStation 3 motherboards running Killzone 2. It sounds like an expensive kludge.

Incidentally Killzone 2 could do with a remaster. It's an unusually good-looking first-person sci-fi shooter for the PlayStation 3, released in 2009. It was designed to show off the PS3 and hopefully give the system an exclusive FPS to rival Halo and the Battlefield / Call of Duty games; it succeeded in showing what the PS3 could do, but had disappointing sales figures. Nowadays I think most people remember the design of the baddies (they looked like WW1 German Sturmtruppen with glowing red eyes) and nothing else, but it has aged well on a visual level.

Back to the PS4. One thing in particular surprised me. If you want to play music on a PS3 you have the option of inserting a CD and ripping it to the hard drive, but the PlayStation 4 doesn't support audio CD at all. There's no technical reason, it just isn't programmed to read compact discs. Even worse, there's no way to copy media files onto the machine's built-in hard drive.

You can play music from a USB stick, but you can't copy anything onto the machine itself. At launch the PS4 couldn't even play MP3 files, although a later OS update fixed that. It feels like another admission that the PS4 is solely a games machine and not a multimedia hub (albeit that it does have Netflix etc).

The Dino 206/246 and Lancia Stratos use the same engine, a Ferrari V6. They are otherwise very different cars, although equally good-looking.

That's about the only quirk that stands out. On the positive side it's trivially easy to take screenshots with a PlayStation 4. It was hard to take screenshots with a PlayStation 3. The PS3 doesn't have a system-wide screenshot key and very few games could take screenshots. In contrast the PS4 has a dedicated Share button that takes screenshots and short videoclips, which works seamlessly.

The PS4 supports standard 2.5" hard drives. There's nothing to stop you from buying your own drive and fitting it in the PS4. Sadly it only supports SATA II speeds, so modern SSDs are hobbled. The PS4 also supports external hard drives up to a capacity of 8tb, but they have to be USB 3 in order to store applications; USB 2 drives can only back things up.

There's a special low-power mode that will download games in the background while the machine goes to sleep, so it's perfectly practical to download games overnight. Even in rest mode my PS4 tends to turn itself off after a while - perhaps it's an internet connection thing. The rest mode is apparently handled by a separate ARM chip with 256mb of memory, so I wonder if there are internet arguments about how the PS4 is actually a nine-core machine. Presumably Sony looked at ARM and decided against it, but it'll be interesting to see if the next PlayStation goes down that route instead.

Built-quality-wise my slim PS4 feels much less creaky than my super-slim PS3, albeit that the super-slim PS3 was really cheap. My Ps4 cracks and creaks as it heats up, but the overheating problems and duff capacitors that affected the seventh generation of consoles seem to be much less prevalent with the PS4. As of early 2021 all PS4 models seem to hover around £160-200 on the used market, depressed by a glut of sales in the wake of the launch of the PS5, elevated by the difficulty involved in sourcing a PS5. New PS4s are available for £235 or so. My hunch is that there won't be a super-ultra-budget PS4, as per earlier PlayStations.

Will the PS4 ever be a valuable antique? Some models of PS3 are sought after for their backwards compatibility, and early Linux-enabled machines are staggeringly rare, but the PS4 didn't have any notable technical changes throughout its life, and there are millions of them, so no. The Pro had a couple of tweaks but no features were eliminated. There are a handful of specially-painted special editions, albeit to my eye the plain black and white models are better-looking (the rest are fussy).

And that's the PS4 itself. What about the games? Read on.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

A Trip Along the Suez Canal in Microsoft Flight Simulator

I pride myself on staying up-to-the-minute, so in honour of President Carter's recent negotiation of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel let's fly along the Suez Canal in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020.

Port Said

The white square on the right is unmarked in both Bing and Google Maps, but it looks to be some kind of military installation - perhaps an anti-aircraft battery.

I took off from Port Said Airport at the north end of the canal. Port Said's international airport code is HEPS; HE is the international airport code for Egypt and presumably PS stands for Port Said. I landed at Ras Sudr, a small airstrip that just has a number. Judging by Google Maps it's just a strip of sand and might not even exist any more. In MSFS2020 it doesn't have an air traffic controller or even a parking area, so I just drove off the runway and parked in the dirt and tried not to worry about the effect of wind-blown sand on the aircraft's paintwork.

There are no scheduled international flights to Port Said Airport, which is surprising given that Port Said is Egypt's largest container port. Presumably people who have business there fly to Cairo and drive or take the train.

Heading south from Port Said

One of MSFS 2020's best features is the weather / time slider, which changes the weather and time of day in real time. Without it these screenshots would be mighty dark, because in the real world it was night-time when I took off.

Egypt and the Suez Canal loom large in the history of the British Empire. They were our gateways to India and the Far East. After the Second World War our strategic need for the canal gradually diminished, but it was still important as a source of ready cash. That lasted until 1956, when the Egyptian government abruptly nationalised the canal, so we conspired with France and Israel to stage an invasion and take it back.

On a military level our attack on Port Said was a roaring success. We bombed the city so hard that it has never threatened British lives ever since. On a political level however there were quibbles from lefty nay-sayers that Egypt had not attacked us; that our plans for the Middle East were fanciful dreams that we didn't have the resources to implement; that by ostensibly trying to ward off Soviet influence we were only encouraging the USSR to intervene in the region; that we had killed several thousand innocent Egyptian civilians for essentially a bit of cash; that we were throwing around weight we no longer had; that the world had changed etc.

Ultimately the United States told us to knock off the invasion and call a cease-fire, which we did, and the canal has been under Egyptian control ever since. Britain and the other European powers withdrew from the Middle East, leaving the region in a state of blissful peace that persists to this day.

Nowadays the Suez Canal is managed by the Suez Canal Authority, which earns over $5bn a year from tariffs. I learn from the internet that it costs $250,000 to sail a ship through the canal, so I ever find myself in a Brewster's Millions situation where I need to squander huge amounts of money, the Suez Canal is a good start.

Can you fly over the Suez Canal in real life? It's a major strategic waterway so my hunch is no, not in a million years, unless you're pally with the Egyptian government, and even then I'd be wary of being accidentally shot down.

This is the Al-Salam Bridge, which is near the northern end of the canal. It's a joint Japanese-Egyptian project built as part of an attempt by Egypt to drum up investment in the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai Peninsula is bigger than Milton Keynes and also has a population bigger than Milton Keynes.

The Suez Crisis is fascinating if you're interested in conspiracy theories. On the one hand it was real. An actual multi-national conspiracy. It actually happened. On the other hand the conspiracy was uncovered almost immediately, and it failed, which is awkward because conspiracy theorists are convinced that conspiracies never unravel. They would probably argue that an even larger and more hidden conspiracy drove Britain and France to ruin in order to strengthen the United States' hegemony, but that way madness lies.

To complicate matters the United States' objection to the invasion was at least partially on moral grounds, which goes against the general view held by conspiracy theorists that the United States is evil, or that the hidden government that runs the United States is evil, or that the ancient hidden conspiracy behind the hidden government that runs the United States is evil etc.

And that bit about Milton Keynes came out wrong. The Sinai Peninsula is huge but has a very small population of only 600,000 or so. The central section has a road and some mountains but nothing else. It would be an awesome filming location if you could get there. Israel occupied the peninsula during the 1970s but failed to make anything of it. Egypt has spent a lot of money since then trying to make the coastal parts tourist destinations. The middle section is inhabited by Bedouin, who are probably sick of Instagram travel bloggers - the woman is a marketing executive, the man a former hedge fund manager - using them as photographic backdrops.

Imagine if Egypt found oil in the Sinai! Actually, no, that would be terrible. For the Bedouin, anyway. They would be forcibly moved away and replaced by imported workers, so they wouldn't benefit at all.

I really need to clean the window.

MSFS2020 seems to be slightly flummoxed by the flat, almost monochrome textures of the local area; some parts of the eastern bank in particular look very rough.

For the trip I flew a Diamond DA-62, a light twin that has become one of my favourite aircraft in MSFS2020. It has enough range to go on long trips, the autopilot is easy to use, the cockpit is laid out sensibly and it looks neat.

The game draws its imagery from Bing Maps. It's interesting to compare it with Google's aerial footage. The three circular fields in the image above are just sand on Google maps, perhaps because the photographs were taken in a different part of the year.

Why are the fields circular? It's a thing called centre-pivot irrigation. In the middle of the field there's a water pipe that connects to a big long hose held up on a metal framework that goes round and around, irrigating the field. You learn something every day.

I flew over Ismailia, which is on the north bank of Lake Timsah, one of the small salty lakes along the Suez Canal that are used as passing places for ships. Modern-day Ismailia exists because of the canal; it was essentially a big dormitory for the workers who built it. It's the terminus of a smaller canal that runs from Cairo and was built in the early 1860s to provide the workers with fresh water. The Ismailia canal is easily visible on Google Maps as a strip of green heading east from Cairo. Perhaps one day, when the world has got better, I might stroll along its banks.

This airport is south of the city. As you might expect from the compartmentalised aircraft bunkers it's a military airbase. MSFS2020 identifies it as Ismailia Airport, but it's actually called Deversoir, formerly RAF Deversoir. I learn from this Pathé news bulletin that it was pronounced dev-ah-swoir, and in the 1950s it had Vampires (the aircraft, not the supernatural beings):

The rest of the clip paints a surprisingly bleak view of Britain's time in Egypt. The canal is said to be in a state of siege from terrorists, with a £100 reward for the killing of a British officer, and "intimidation has forced most of the Egyptian workers to leave British work in the zone".

We originally ran the whole country, but by the 1950s we had withdrawn to the canal zone. We left in 1956, and to the surprise of no-one Egypt seized the canal, hence the unpleasantness described above. Part of our justification for military action was the fear that Egypt would run the canal into the ground, but we obviously underestimated them because it continues to function to this day.

Immediately south of Deversoir is the Great Bitter Lake, which goes well with vodka is very salty:

The lake is almost entirely dead, on account of the salt - twice the level of the open sea - and also pollution from the constant ship traffic. Furthermore there's a power station on the north-west bank.

Can you swim in it? Apparently not, or at least not without being arrested. Before the canal existed the lake was just a big sandy basin, which raises the question of whether any Victorian-era photographers captured the moment that water flooded into it. If they did I am not aware of them.

In the 1960s Israel and Egypt had a falling-out, and as a result the canal was closed from 1967 to 1975. The fourteen ships passing through the canal ended up stuck in the Bitter Lake. Luckily the crews were allowed to leave, and over the next eight years replacement skeleton crews were flown in on a rota system, staffing the ships for months at a time as they baked in the sun. Apart from the risk of being bombed or sunk by commandos or having unused ordnance dumped on their heads from aircraft returning to base I imagine it was a relatively cushy post.

And that's the Bitter Lake. As mentioned in the link above it's a major piece of strategic infrastructure, but there do appear to be a bunch of beach resorts on the western bank. On the one hand Great Bitter Lake doesn't sound an inviting name, but loads of people flock to the Dead Sea, so who am I?

Visible in the distance is Jebel Ataqah, the only mountain range for miles around. 

The Bitter Lake is two-thirds of the way down the canal, so we're on the final stretch. Port Suez itself was badly damaged during the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s and was one of the flashpoints for the 2011 Egyptian revolution, but it looks pleasant enough on Google Street View. It's three hours from Cairo by train, so you could take a day-trip just to say you've seen the Gulf of Suez.

The southern end of the canal

And that's the Suez Canal. An awkward tourist destination in real life, but easily-navigable by air on account of the fact that the terrain is flat and it's only 120 miles long. It connects the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean and is the fastest way to transport national resources from Malaysia to Britain, which is one of the reasons it was built in the first place.

Sometimes MSFS2020 goes odd. This blocky little fort doesn't appear on Bing Maps, and there's nothing that looks like a fort in that location, or indeed anything - the bay appears to be deserted.

As mentioned up the page Ras Sudr is just a strip of sand that doesn't appear to exist any more. Bing and Google Maps both show the runway, but it's surrounded by beach resorts, so perhaps it's only an emergency landing strip.

As a British person I find it hard not to pronounce Suez as "Syue-wezzz", and it immediately puts me in mind of Madness' "Night Boat to Cairo". Will I ever go there in real life? Who knows. The entire continent of Africa is bigger than Milton Keynes and has had more COVID-related deaths than Milton Keynes has had one-third as many COVID deaths as Britain, despite having a population twenty-two times greater and a land area unfathomably larger, so props to Africa. But will they want me?